How To Write an Obituary

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Composing an obituary can be an intimidating task, especially if you’re not a confident writer. How can you possibly capture your loved one and their life in just a few paragraphs? Heather Lende, author of Find the Good and an obituary writer for the Chilkat Valley News in Haines, Alaska, notes that the best thing about an obituary is that it presents an opportunity for friends and family to remember the deceased—and consider how they want others to remember them.

“There’s the biographical stuff for the historical record,” she says, “but there’s also the part about what made them who they were. What did they love? What were their greatest accomplishments, their greatest regrets?” Here, her tips on how to write an effective—and meaningful—obituary:

Don’t put it off

If you’re planning for the obituary to run in the newspaper and include information about the memorial service or burial, then this should be near the top of your to-do list. You’ll want the obituary to be published at least one day before the event to give people who want to attend enough notice.

Talk to the funeral home

Many funeral homes include the obituary or death notice as part of their services, and in fact your local newspaper may prefer that the funeral home submit the obituary on your behalf. Typically you’ll fill out a form about the deceased and then the funeral home will use that information to create the full obit.

Check your local newspaper guidelines

Some newspapers require the obituary to conform to a very specific format. Other newspapers have a limit on the number of words. Still others will only run obituaries written by newspaper reporters. Check with your local paper ahead of time so you can make sure that your obit complies with their rules.

Think about where else you might place it

Depending on the deceased’s personal history, you may also choose to submit an obituary to a college alumni magazine or a newsletter distributed by their employer, or even publish it on their Facebook page.  

Decide what’s most crucial

“Consider why you’re running the obituary in the paper,” says Lende. Is it to let people know about a wake or burial? A contribution that they can make in the deceased’s memory? “That information may not be the most important from an emotional standpoint, but from a practical standpoint it is important, especially if you’re working with a limited word count,” says Lende.

When sharing news of the funeral, most obituaries now reference a charitable cause that mourners can donate to instead of sending flowers to the service. In fact, 90 percent of obituaries include such a request, up from six percent in 1927. If you or your loved one currently support a particular organization, consider asking others to honor them with a memorial gift.

Include a brief biography

Always provide principal biographical information such as their date and place of birth, who their parents were, where they attended school, any military service, who they worked for, the organizations that they were involved in, and who their spouse(s) and child(ren) were. “A biographical sketch not only helps capture the person—were their parents farmers in Missouri or bankers in Boston?—it also helps the reader determine whether and how they might have known them,” says Lende.

Try not to omit cause of death

“It’s a kindness to the family,” says Lende, “because it avoids them having to answer those inevitable questions at the funeral or afterwards.”

Choose a (relatively) recent photo

“It can be disconcerting to see a wedding portrait from 60 years ago when the person died at the age of 85,” says Lende. Remember that the photograph is meant to help others recognize the deceased as someone that they knew.

Don’t feel stifled by convention

These days, people are breaking away from old-fashioned language and customs, says Lende. “For instance, you might choose to focus on something that was more personal to them—a beloved garden, for example—rather than a list of professional accomplishments.” That said, Lende recommends thinking twice about writing a funny obituary or using it to make a political statement. “Consider whether this will detract from the recognition of their life,” she says. “You only get one obituary—is this the way that you want this person to be remembered?”

Add in details

A basic principle of journalism is “Show, don’t tell.” Rather than saying, “She loved to travel,” show it: Describe the handwritten postcards she sent, or the special trip she spent years saving for. Lende also suggests gathering quotes or anecdotes from others who knew them well. For instance, if the deceased volunteered at a homeless shelter, the manager there might share something like, “Every Christmas for 25 years, Joe would ask local businesses to donate gifts, and deliver them—all beautifully wrapped—on Christmas Eve.” Lende notes, “A detail like that says so much more than just stating, ‘He cared about others.’”

Be careful about including family lore

Lende cautions families against including information that they aren’t completely sure is true. “You may think that Grandpa received a Purple Heart in Vietnam, but unless you have the records or some other confirmation—especially for things like military honors or college degrees—it’s better to leave it out,” she says. If other family members are insistent, you can attribute it to them instead of stating it outright: “His wife said that he graduated with honors from Howard University.”

Search for what’s inspiring

“Everyone’s life has some rocky sections,” says Lende. The deceased may not have been the best parent, or the best humanitarian, or the best at their job, yet there’s probably something in their life that’s redeeming or inspiring. “Think about their best moments as a human. What were the things they overcame? What were the moments of courage?” says Lende. “Obituaries can be a great lesson in how to live, because they’re evidence of the extraordinary in an ordinary life.”

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