MPR News host Cathy Wurzer reads newspaper obituaries every day. She’s not usually checking for people she knows. She’s curious about how others lived their whole lives, and how others remember them.
There’s also a lot of good advice to be found in obituaries. And according to one Minnesota video producer, that vital source of advice should be spread outside of the newspaper obituary page.
Mary McGreevy is the creator behind the account “Tips from Dead People” on TikTok. She posts advice how to live from obituaries to over 20,000 followers. She talked with host Cathy Wurzer about what makes a good obit.
Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.
We attempt to make transcripts for Minnesota Now available the next business day after a broadcast. When ready they will appear here.
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MARY MCGREEVY: Happy to be here. And happy to find other people who share my weird hobby.
CATHY WURZER: [LAUGHS] Yeah. From one obit aficionado to another, well done. This is an excellent idea of yours. How did you hit on it?
MARY MCGREEVY: Well, I was raised in a storytelling environment. My mother, who lives in South Dakota, was a journalist and wrote obituaries for our local paper, the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, and then had a business as a memoir writer. So life stories have always been in my environment. And I've always been curious about obituaries, not so much what's in the obituaries, but what was between the lines of these tiny obituaries. So over the years, I started collecting the ones that I loved.
And at some point, I had so many collected, both in print and online. And I started to think, what am I getting from this? It seems like the ones that I collect have a little bit of advice for me or have some insight about the choices that I'm making in my own life. And I thought, you know what? Life's short. Let's start sharing these things. So I really did it on a whim and was very surprised to find out how many people are also interested in this very same thing.
CATHY WURZER: Yeah. Yeah, it is surprising, isn't it? What makes for a good obituary?
MARY MCGREEVY: This is my opinion. Not every obituary is going to go viral, of course. But the ones that do go viral have some common themes. They really focus on the little things in life and not the big things. By big things, I mean jobs, material possessions, the traditional milestones. The obituaries that we love to read go deep into the tiny things, catchphrases, jokes, nicknames, foibles, disasters, personal weaknesses, unexpected joys. That's really the good stuff of life, the things that we can all empathize with.
And I think really, that's what makes a good obituary, is when you set aside the templates that you've read, the traditional milestones that people think are important, and really go into the very unique things about that person.
CATHY WURZER: And even if you didn't know the person, after reading the obit, you think you did. Oh, I want to listen to an obit. This is from your account on TikTok. This is about Travis.
MARY MCGREEVY: On Thursday, February 4th, Travis Sistrunk made his last inappropriate comment and exited his rickety old body having lived twice as long as we expected and way longer than he deserved. Cause of death, pure stubbornness. Travis loved to make people laugh, mostly himself, and had a plethora of dirty jokes he would tell at the most awkward times. Most people thought Travis was crazy. And his family is here to confirm that is, in fact, true. This obituary is hilarious. And it is oozing with love for the individual, outrageous life of Travis. So tips from dead people today, be outrageous. Thanks, Travis.
CATHY WURZER: I love that. That was an actual obit? You're kidding me.
MARY MCGREEVY: Absolutely. No, no. And one thing that I've learned through reading thousands of obituaries is that some of the most impactful ones, like that, really are talking about people with flaws, sometimes serious flaws. I read one obituary written by a mom about her son in which she called him a dumb ass. And it was because he died from a drunk driving accident. He was the driver. And she sent this obituary to me. And I said, can I use this? And she said, absolutely if it'll prevent one other accident from happening. So it's really not just the praise that's interesting. It's the complications. It's the diversity of stories that become the most interesting part of this hobby.
CATHY WURZER: Hmm. And obituaries contain the last things, likely the only things people outside of your friends and family will remember about you. They're actually quite important. And I wonder, in this day and age, this digital age, when everyone's lives are online, do you think it's still important to have an obituary written for a loved one?
MARY MCGREEVY: I do because it seems to me more and more with obituaries in the traditional newspapers becoming basically classified ads, which feels very limited-- and I'm a huge newspaper fan, by the way. I say that with love. It feels like people are looking for other venues to tell these stories. And even though we're all online throughout our lives now with pictures and stories, it's not the same as telling that story at the end, like you mentioned.
And so I think people are craving places to tell these stories, whether it's Humans of New York style. Even after 9/11, obituaries started getting better and richer and more in depth. So I don't think it depends on newspaper subscriptions anymore. There are lots of venues to place these obituaries. But I don't think the need to tell this story at the end of someone's life is going to go away.
CATHY WURZER: I did not mention in my intro that you are one of the founders of Epilogg, which is an online obituary site, which is different from those we read in newspapers, obviously. So why did you go in that direction?
MARY MCGREEVY: Well, my mother-in-law passed away in 2015. And she prewrote her own obituary, and it was a very colorful life with a lot of great stories in it. So we dutifully went to place the obituary and it was 1200 bucks. And I couldn't believe that in this day and age of wedding sites, like The Knot and Minted, and things like that, that there wasn't a similar experience at the end of life where you have creative control to tell the story that you want, but you're not having to economize with every comma and every letter. So that's why we went in that direction.
CATHY WURZER: I'm curious about whether you've written your own obituary yet.
MARY MCGREEVY: [CHUCKLES] I haven't written a full obituary. But one time, we went around the table in my family in South Dakota. And my mom asked us if we had to headline our own obituary, what we thought that might be. And I've thought a lot about that little question over the years. And I think it might be punctual to a fault. So I've got the headline. Now I just need to fill in the details.
CATHY WURZER: Punctual to a fault.
MARY MCGREEVY: Right.
CATHY WURZER: It's one are those. [LAUGHS]
MARY MCGREEVY: Yeah, one of those too. Right.
CATHY WURZER: OK, so on TikTok, by the way, when folks go find your account, do you do this every day? Do you read an obit every day and then have a little bit of advice? How does it work for you?
MARY MCGREEVY: It's not every day. Probably a couple of times a week whenever the spirit moves me. I mean, I've done a lot of marketing things in my job. This account is purely for-- I just have gotten so much joy out of it, so I do it whenever I get one. And the neat thing about getting so many followers is that now people are starting to send me obituaries that they've written for their loved ones and that I never would have found otherwise.
So, I mean, I have a backlog now of several dozen really high-quality obituaries that I was immediately able to say, OK, I've got a tip from this that is meaningful to me and impactful to me. And it can be whimsical, like if you're going to cheat, don't get caught. Or it could be poignant, like Cody's Mom, don't be a dumb ass. Or it could be very, very heartfelt, like text your family every day that you love them. I mean, there's just an infinite variety of little bits of advice that you can get from these stories.
CATHY WURZER: Yeah, I agree. Glad I phoned you. I'm glad I found another person like me who reads the obituaries and takes life advice from them. Mary, it's been a real pleasure. Thank you so much.
MARY MCGREEVY: Thank you so much.
CATHY WURZER: Mary McGreevy is the creator behind Tips from Dead People that's on TikTok. And she's a founder of Epilogg, an online obituary site. You can find that at Epilogg.com.
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