Having the Last Say: Capturing Your Legacy in One Small Story
By: Alan Gelb
Reviewed by Gail Rubin


If you were to capture the legacy of your life in one small story, what would that story be? And how would you write it? Having the Last Say: Capturing Your Legacy in One Small Story by Alan Gelb shows regular people how they can effectively write a moving, short life story that can be shared at a memorial service.

Gelb, a writing coach who also wrote the best-seller Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Steps, helps readers construct brief narratives that can share formative experiences and values – also known as an ethical will.

“The “last say” retains the purpose of an ethical will – to pass ethical values from one generation to the next – but looks to the narrative form to create a more engaging reading and listening experience,” says Gelb.

The book came out of his own experience as a baby boomer growing older. “As I found myself increasingly present at the memorial services of friends and family, I often felt that, amid the eulogies, I would very much like to hear the actual voice of the person being eulogized,” explains Gelb.

As the baby boomer generation ages, its members are looking ahead to the biggest challenge of all: making sense of life in its third act. This segment of close to 40 percent of the U.S. population is feeling the march of time as they see their contemporaries starting to die.

“We are thinking that if our “last says” are good enough, they may be passed down from generation to generation, allowing a little piece of us to live on,” says Gelb in the book. “If they’re good enough, that might actually happen. But, even if they don’t help you achieve immortality, they can go a long way toward helping you gain perspective on the life you’ve lived.”

Make no mistake, this is a how-to book on writing. Gelb directs the reader on how to understand narrative structure, find a topic, establish a point of view, produce the first, second and third drafts, polish the writing, and pull it all together. The book includes techniques for defeating writer’s block, tips for correct grammar, spelling and word usage, and guidance on using dialogue.

Choosing a topic to write about involves asking some serious questions that prompt a life review. When posed by a funeral director, these questions can also elicit good material for an obituary or to help a family open up about the deceased in an arrangement conference.

The book’s 33 questions include: “Where am I most at home and why?” “What makes me laugh?” “What do I regard as my greatest victory?” “What in the world utterly fascinates me?” “What has been the hardest thing in my life?” “What will I miss most when I’m gone?”

The book recommends the “last say” story run about 500 to 1,000 words in length. This is a length that is easy for an ordinary person to read at a memorial service. Also, it’s not too long for an inexperienced writer to tackle, while still producing a story with a meaningful expression.

Each chapter includes a story produced by Gelb’s contemporaries he invited to create and share their “last say.” One woman wrote the steps to create a recipe specific to her father’s family interlaced with the family’s history. Gelb shares his story of a summer train ride out to Long Island with his then-teenage son and reminisces about his own relationship with his father, leading to a lesson about doing the right thing.

Adults who have written these “last say” stories get a great sense of satisfaction, pride and accomplishment when they are done. They also have a keepsake for the important people in their lives that will help them better understand the person who wrote the story.

Having the Last Say can serve as a useful tool to help people with life review, while helping them become better writers. Funeral directors will find it to be a handy reference for their libraries.

Alan Gelb discussed the idea of writing a legacy story and how to do it with Gail Rubin in a 20-minute podcast interview on FuneralRadio.com. Look for A Good Goodbye programs at the website. FBA

Gail Rubin, Certified Thanatologist, is a death educator and author of the award-winning book A Good Goodbye: Funeral Planning for Those Who Don’t Plan to Die. She “knocked ‘em dead” at TEDxABQ with her speech on pre-planning for end-of-life issues. Her newest book is Hail and Farewell: Cremation Ceremonies, Templates and Tips.

Visit Gail’s website, www.AGoodGoodbye.com for news coverage of funeral trends.