Nora Ephron and her “Exit” File

“Nora Ephron’s Last Love Story”  in July 10’s New York Post about the writer’s star-studded July 9 memorial service reminded me I’d yet to write about this fabulous woman’s legacy and untimely “exit,” as she had labeled the file containing her meticulous instructions about how she wanted things at her death. Wry–and thoughtful–to the end.

Nora Ephron
Nora Ephron, via ABC News

The Huffington Post ran a story as well, with lots of celebrities’ pictures. Read Sara Wilson’s piece here in the HuffPo.

But what I want to talk about is that “Exit” file. We should all have one and we all know it. Not that I’m planning  to go anytime soon; but as a cancer and malaria survivor (no, not at once, silly), I am convinced I will go eventually.

At the risk of bragging, I also recently survived five days at Rancho La Zaca with four teenaged boys.

I have a hearty constitution.

Atlanta friend and fellow journalist Susan Soper deals with issues of grief and condolence on her site LegacyConnect. She wrote a wonderful piece about Nora Ephron and cited the beautifully written obit in The New York Times as an example of the loving tribute an obituary can be when it truly captures the subject’s character. To that end, Susie has penned ObitKit – A Guide to Celebrating Life, which is essentially an Exit File in a book, covering–in an upbeat way–everything from details for your obituary, to your preferences for prayers and music, to who will speak at your service and for how long.

ObitKit, by Susan Soper. Exit File in a book.

I could have killed my mother for being disorganized when she died, but of course it would have been redundant. That was supposed to be a joke but I realize it had a sting. For new readers I was crazy about my mama. (Link to her obit via Susie’s blog here.) The truth is many people are disorganized about their dying, and it doesn’t make it any easier on those they leave behind.

I do not want people wanting to kill me when I die because they will have enough to do. A Southerner loves a good funeral much as she loves a ham biscuit. I want both, and that takes planning. I’m going to order this book right now. Twenty bucks is a small price to pay for peace of mind. The actual funeral is going to cost a little more.



  1. So poignant & on point. Just went to a service last week for a childhood friend’s “Mama” who had scripted the whole thing. Her daughter changed one song as she said “in my final act of rebellion.” Obviously the hellion in the group it was quite funny. Came home & immediately began this conversation with my Mother. We got as far as she wants “When the Saints Go Marching In” sung & plenty of deviled eggs. I figured that was a pretty good start. Nora made folks feel like they knew her which is as real as it gets. Great post!

  2. My “mama” passed away in January at age 97 and left all her affairs in perfect order…so fortunate for we 3 daughters. She was a naval officer and a Berkeley econ alum so organization was her forte! Tidying up the last few details doesn’t feel like a burden to me b/c it gradually allows you to accept the loss. I will definitely order the “kit” so I can exit smoothly(years from now, hopefully) and save my kids alot of grief….As always, many thanks Frances!

  3. Well stated sister! And since we share the same Mama, I want to truly encourage everyone lucky enough to still have theirs, to get their obit kit today and start talking. I can imagine we would have shared wonderful memories and lots of laughs (and certainly some tears too), talking with our fabulous Mama about what she wanted at her funeral…and what she didn’t!

    1. Yes baby sister, thank you. I think we got her service right, but would have been nice to have had her more direct input. And on the hymn and the cake, noted.

  4. Oh and for the record, I want “Lift High the Cross,” and lots of caramel cake (in case I go before you).

  5. Ephron’s death hit hard, and I’m not over it yet. But how like her to exit with the same humor and style as she lived. This is a good reminder, Frances — thank you. I plan to have that conversation with mother soon and then do the same for my only daughter. I’ve already told her that if her father and I die, and I’m not saying we will, to just push the house over the hill. Grief is difficult enough without having to deal with the sentimentality of stuff. Ham biscuits, however, are another thing. xo

  6. Glad to see Susie’s Obitkit — she, like you, is also a Saint Mary’s graduate. Hello to both of you!

  7. Frances….your Mama’s service was perfect…Clark’s remarks were right on target….and I seem to remember that even sweet tea was served along with a lovely open bar and many cousins on hand to enjoy the barbeque….

    1. Oh thank you Annie Gray! It was good. I ket thinking how much fun it all would have been if it weren’t so sad. Love to you, Frances

  8. Dear Frances, I am so ordering this book/kit, what an excellent idea. I’m sitting in my office reading this, laughing and crying at the same time, remembering my parents’ services, they transitioned within two years of each other and both had strict instructions about the handling of things. My Mom’s were cremation, a Mass, scatter her ashes in her favorite spot (oceanside) and then we were all to proceed to breakfast at IHOP and HAVE A GOOD TIME, to remember the laughter and all things good. Her instructions were followed to a “T.” My Dad’s were similar, only his included Chinese food. There was a lot of laughter mixed in with tears at both services, lots of good memories, surrounded by friends, lots of hugs. Both sides of the family were scandalized and flat out refused to attend, but my parents and I were (and I am still) blessed with some truly wonderful, true, close friends who were there for us through thick and thin. They are forever in my heart. And my instructions will most definitely include deviled eggs, grits, fried chicken, peach pie (I really MUST have been Southern in another life) and with a nod to my Cuban heritage, black beans, rice and roast pork … how’s THAT for a menu? I am ever so grateful for your blog, always makes me smile.

    1. And oh, EB, your comments always make me smile. Don’t you love that your parents were so specific – and by implication apparently at peace with their lives and their deaths – that is a huge blessing for the children and loved ones – and a comfort as well, yes? Thank you so much for this.

  9. About the caramel cake…if this is not something my friends can whip up….suggestion: Caroline’s Seven Layer Caramel Cake
    ultra thin cake layers and abundant caramel icing.
    Just may have the cake NOW and list the hymns and eggs.
    Oh Happy Day,

    1. Lynn, agree on having that cake NOW, and I can vouch for Caroline’s Cakes. Never thought I’d see the day, but hers is the real thing. Thank you for writing. xoF

  10. Dearest Frannie, I, too loved all things about Nora Ephron. After her death, I went to the “favorite” section of my bookcase to find, I Feel Bad About My Neck, only to realize that I had given it away. I was always giving that book away~~
    So, I ordered another copy and have loved re-reading her funny and true observations.
    As to the Obit Kit, mine is ready, complete with a good photo, taken a… few…years ago. After my precious sis died, suddenly of an aneurism, my brother and I argued over her obituary and my mother planned the service. Paula’s service was beautiful, albeit, a blur. That kind of planning is difficult~that is why an “EXIT” file is such a good idea. After her service, we went back to mother’s and drank scotch and smoked cigarettes and a had few bites of beef tenderloin. That’s the only thing we could do.
    Thank you, for this post~~
    Love and miss you,
    p.s. your Mama’s service was pitch perfect…

    1. Cynnie thank you so much for this. I can’t believe I never met Paula, but I will never forget being on a boat halfway around the world when she died and hating not being able to be there for you and with you. Love and miss you, too.

  11. I will always cherish and remember your words of encouragement from a million miles away~~Paula would have loved you!!
    And I need to clarify, my brother did not partake in the drinking of scotch and the smoking of cigarettes. He was and is a bit of a straight arrow…
    Mother did have some scotch~~

  12. Frannie–recently when i was with mom, i realized we didn’t even know where she wanted to be buried, cremated, etc.—so we talked about it and I ordered her the ObitKit which has helped a lot…now i realize better order one for myself, too !! Thanks for writing this.
    Oh, and re Nora Ephron: I actually didn’t feel bad about my neck til yesterday when i received a photo of me from an event– and acrtually gasped about my neck– and thinking of Nora at least made me laugh as i quickly discarded the photo…

    1. Annie, good for you on the serious part — and hilarious on the rest. Thank you for writing. Come see us. xox F

  13. Christians sometimes call this “stewardship of final things.” We are called to care for all our gifts, including the final disposition of our bodies, what we own and, importantly, our relationships – not leaving people we care about in a quandary… as much as possible (no expectation of perfection, of course). BTW: It is a good idea to threaten to haunt people who change your hymn choices.

    1. Randall, from the bottom of all our hearts, thank you for this. And I will definitely be putting in my Exit File about the haunting upon changing of hymn choices. Trouble is I have about 72 favorite hymns.

  14. I have remembered your mama’s beautifully written obit ever since. I thought it perfect and am looking forward to re-reading it. If I go abruptly, will you write mine 😉 xxxooo, wbs

  15. Dear Frances,
    THANK YOU for this post! As a hospice nurse I’ve seen way too many people with no exit plan. Leaving family and friends to come up with one is incredibly challenging and often distressing. An Exit plan is one of the greatest gifts that we can give to our loved ones. THANK YOU, again, for this wonderful post. You are so dear!

    1. Thank you dear Hollye. Yes with your hospice experience you understand very well. If there is any silver lining, as you would say, to an illness preceding death–as with Nora Ephron (albeit a rapid one), it is that we do have time to prepare and to say good-bye, which are blessings.

  16. Frances,I am ordering the ObitKit right away.I remember your Mother and loved her.What a wonderful combination of her you and Duvall are.I love your blog so much .xoxoMW

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