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What Will Your Obituary Say About You?

Howard Scott |

PEMBROKE, Mass. — This is not a column from which you are going to learn anything useful and hands-on. But maybe it will be the best column you ever read. “Live for the obituary” — have you ever heard that expression? It is one used particularly by writers. But it also can be applied across the professions. It means to live your life so that your obituary acquits you well.

Let me illustrate using a Boston Globe obituary dated June 16. The headline read, “Mary Chin, 103; operated laundry in Charlestown.” The second sentence says it all: “Widowed more than six decades ago when she was a young mother of nine, Mrs. Chin remained a pillar of strength for four generations of her Charlestown family.”

A few sentences round out the story: “Though 4-foot-10, Mrs. Chin seemed to fear nothing and no one. She shooed away drunks who shuffled from bars that flanked her store and deftly handled disputes that inevitably arose as owner of her late husband’s laundry business. And there wasn’t a wrinkle on a customer’s shirt that stood a chance with her, family and friends said.”

And later: “Mrs. Chin bought a Singer sewing machine to mend clothing, and she was involved in all aspects of the family laundry business. Six days a week, she sorted clothes customers dropped off, then washed, dried, and ironed them.

“She also kept books and ran the schedules of her children, who often came into the shop to help when they weren’t doing homework.”

Her children commented on the lessons she taught them. Don’t waste time. Save your money. Work a little harder. No gossip. Always be polite to even the toughest of customers.

Finally, her son Thomas offers, “She had good rapport with (customers). But the rapport was based on providing good prompt service and being attentive to the customer’s requirements.”

If you are like me, you might be a little teary-eyed after perusing the entire piece. Or you might be saying, “What a sap. To devote yourself to a lousy little business all your life seems like a fool’s path.”

I’m not here to argue the merits of different philosophies of life, but I am here to say that Mary Chin’s qualities as a businesswoman make hers an extraordinary story. Clearly, the Boston Globe recognized it as a life well spent. The publication devoted 28 column inches to the piece, while most of us have to pay several hundred dollars for just 3 inches. Mary Chin got her moment of fame for free.

I like the bit about this 4-foot-10 woman being fearless. I see in front of me her picture: round-faced, mouth open, as if ready to answer any question, eyes looking straight out, facing the world unflinchingly. I can see this little woman standing up to a 6-foot-tall customer, saying she had done everything she could to get the stain out but it was too engrained in the fabric. The angry customer walks out pacified, knowing Mrs. Chin must be right. 

As I read the obituary, the story fleshes itself out. She and her husband owned the laundry, when he suddenly died. She was perhaps 35, with nine children, the youngest being 2 years old. So she rolled up her shirtsleeves, arranged with the children and neighbors to take care of the young ones, and ran the business full-time for more than 40 years.

Isn’t that just incredible? Spending forty-plus years at the helm of a work-intensive business, with nine children at home. Today, many widows would beg support from family, go on welfare, and seek counseling because of the unfairness of the situation. Not Mary Chin. With her feet apart, and her mouth clenched, she said, “I will not buckle under. I will not let life take me down.” 

I do not know her children. But I bet they all respected their mother. And I bet they all have learned her lessons of self-reliance and can-do-ism. And I bet they all are acquitting themselves well, despite the fact that life has thrown them a curve. As they say, hardscrabble circumstances are good for character. 

I like her rules of work: work a little harder, don’t gossip, be polite to even the toughest customer, etc. Such principles are the bedrock of good business practice. Work a little harder—can’t we all do that? Can’t we pay closer attention to the details? Can’t we go the full nine yards to research a problem? Can’t we stay another 15 minutes, or come in 15 minutes early, to fix a garment?

No gossip—how many of us spend an hour a day through conversation, e-mail, texts, on the phone “dissing” others? If that hour were spent on productive matters, consider how much more efficient we could be.

About politeness, these days I see so many attendants who exhibit poor attitudes or are just going through the motions. This makes me not want to patronize their store. If only attendants would have Mary Chin’s sincerity in trying to help the customer, much dissatisfaction and aggravation would be avoided.

Her son succinctly summarized her business philosophy: maintaining a good rapport with customers based on providing good, prompt service and being attentive to the customer’s requirements. What a perfect statement of basic business principles! If only every business had that in mind.

I was at a Laundromat where the attendant was chatting away with a customer while another customer with a problem stood there. I’m sure that going through the waiting customer’s head was, “Why doesn’t she look at me?” Mary Chin would have paused her conversation with the one customer, looked to the waiting customer and asked politely how she could assist her.

What will your obituary say about you? This is not a macabre notion. Rather, it’s food for thought. Perhaps working six days a week over 40 years is not your mantra. But you sure wouldn’t like your obit to read, “He spent as much time away from his business fishing and golfing,” would you?

I salute you, Mary Chin. You’re an inspiration to us all.

About the author

Howard Scott

H&R Block

Industry Writer, Drycleaning Consultant, and H&R Block Tax Preparer

Howard Scott is a longtime industry writer and drycleaning consultant, and an H&R Block tax preparer specializing in small businesses. He welcomes questions and comments, and can be reached by writing Howard Scott, Dancing Hill, Pembroke, MA 02359.

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