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Revelations: What will your obit say?

By By Jennifer Preyss
May 18, 2012 at 12:18 a.m.
Updated May 20, 2012 at 12:20 a.m.

Jennifer Preyss

If someone wrote your obituary today, what would it say? Unless you are maniacal sociopath, it would likely be a positive review -- a glowing testimony to the life you led and the legacy you're leaving behind.

Mine would read something like this: Jennifer Preyss died on May 19, she worked as a journalist for five years, she graduated with an undergraduate degree in Sociology and journalism from Georgia State University, she is survived by friends and family, including her beloved dog, Sadie Little; mother and father, Robert and Vicky Preyss; sister Alex and her husband, Ben; brother Michael and his wife, Stacey; and their three children, Ethan, Luke and Vivian. Jennifer goes to live with the Lord ...

There's nothing wrong with these types of obituaries. We read them all the time - especially if you work in print journalism.

But what if you had the chance to write your obituary before you died?

What if you had one final chance to leave behind instructions, condolences, advice or wisdom to your family and friends? And you could do it on your own terms, without feeling guilty about it.

That's exactly what John Claus von Dohlen Jr. did.

Von Dohlen, who died May 13 of lung cancer, pre-wrote his obituary last month and the Advocate printed it, all of it, untouched and unedited.

He's candid about his lung cancer, a well-contained secret so as to avoid pity and questions from friends.

He's candid about his frugality and special instructions for an inexpensive funeral.

He's candid about his love of MD Anderson Hospital and the doctors who helped him fight the disease.

He's candid about living, staying healthy, quitting smoking and keeping a journal.

He's not-so-candid about his deep affections for his family, his controlling tendencies or his humor - but his hand-penned obituary did more than enough to illustrate that picture.

The thing about Mr. von Dohlen, and his non-traditional obituary, that truly caught my attention, was his willingness to live outside the social expectations of life - and death.

I'm fascinated always by people who manage to do this - live outside cultural, socioeconomic, gender, racial, even religious expectations in life.

Well, Mr. von Dohlen threw me for a loop. He did so in death.

After reading his obituary, I was amazed at how much he motivated me to consider my own mortality, and what people will (undeniably) say about me when I die.

I will die. You will die. It's a biological certainty.

But I'm not sure I want to be someone who goes with a glowing testimony of who I was. I may have been some of those things, some of the time. But mostly, I will be someone who failed and succeeded, loved and lost, learned and taught, lived and died.

And what better way to reflect on who I was when I die, than to tell you myself, which hopefully won't be anytime soon, Lord.

It was good to meet you, Mr. von Dohlen, even in death. I hope your message carries farther than you ever imagined, and your legacy of full-disclosure shines on for years to come.

Jennifer Preyss is a re porter for the Victoria Advocate. You can reach her at 361-580-6535 or jlpreyss@vicad.com.

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