How to Write an Obituary
Crafting the last word on a life for a loved one or yourself
“People are hungry for stories. It's part of our very being. Storytelling is a form of history, of immortality, too. It goes from one generation to another." —Studs Terkel
In an ideal world, we would all be rich, accomplished and loved. When we died, journalists would scramble to talk to our friends and families in order to write our obituaries. In reality, however, most of us never reach the heights of notoriety or success that would allow for such a grand send-off. Nor do newspapers have the staff to properly cover every death. If we want to have our story told, we may just have to write it ourselves or entrust the task to someone who we know will do a great job.
So how do you go about telling such an important story? As a professional obituary writer, I can tell you that there are a few factors to consider:
Where Will the Story Appear?
Will the obituary or death notice run in the newspaper or appear on a website? Each format has specific requirements.
If you want the obit to run in your local paper, contact the publication for specific guidelines, or the funeral home can do this for you. The cost of simple death notices placed by the funeral homes may be included as part of the services they provide. A longer death notice can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars, depending on the prominence of the publication, its circulation, the length of the obit and whether you want to include a photo.
Publishing a "selfie obit" (on you write about yourself to run after you die) on a website, blog or social media page gives you much more flexibility. Length is no longer an issue. Costs are usually less. Anyone can access it. Plus, you can add photographs, tweets, slideshows, timelines and videos to the story — all of which offer the public an even broader view of the deceased. Online obits also tend to be more sharable, which gives readers the chance to spread the news of the person's death and pen their own thoughts about the loss.
What Should You Include?
Regardless of the format, you'll want to tell readers about the deceased's background:
- Full name
- Date and location of birth and death
- Cause of death
- Age at the time of death
- Schools attended
- Military service
- Work experience
- Information about the service
- Whether contributions should go to a specific cause or charity (optional)
Now Make It Special
"Obituaries weigh someone's life and accomplishments, communicating the significance of a person, a place, an era. The best are not simply portraits of grief. They inspire the living, reminding us what matters most." —Alexander Green
Any obituary can list a few facts about the deceased, but a great obit is one that tells a unique story.
Once you've gathered all the basics, weave these details into a compelling narrative. Try to explain who the person was, and not just what he or she did. What was he like? What hobbies or interests did she have? What image did he like to project? How was she viewed by others? What inspired him? What brought her joy? What were his quirks? Did anything extraordinary happen during her life? These are the details that make a life — and death notice — memorable.
Such information is easy to get if you're writing your own obit. But how do you obtain these details about a friend or family member? If you have the opportunity, query the person before they die. The elderly and infirm are often eager to share memories about their past. Listen to them. Take notes. Record their answers. Ask how they'd like to be remembered.
If you're writing the obit after a person's death, you'll need to do a bit more legwork. Talk to the people who were closest to the deceased. Even in grief, they will often be willing to open up and share their favorite anecdotes.
Writing a selfie obit? Then take this opportunity to share what's important to you. Talk about the things that brought you joy or disappointment. What do you want your legacy to be? How do you want to be known to future generations?
Options to the Written Word
No one says your obituary has to be written, either. In these modern times, you can grab a smartphone or a video camera and record a video obituary. After you die, simply have your survivors upload it to YouTube and social media sites.
You can also create a memorial website that shares photos and includes a farewell message. Just leave the log-in information with your will so your loved ones know to hit the publish button after you're gone.
What to Avoid
The most important thing to remember about obits is that they're the final word on someone's life. As such, you want to write one that accurately captures the person's essence. The tone can be respectful, humorous or revealing, but ultimately, it must be honest.
Keep in mind that the death is really just one line of an obit. The rest of the story focuses on the interesting life that the person lived.
Avoid using cliches. No one wants their life distilled to a string of hackneyed phrases or stereotypes.
Go beyond the biography by quoting friends and family in the story. Let their words and remembrances provide the reader with a fuller picture of the deceased.
Check and Double-Check
Before you submit the obit to the local paper or post it online, proofread the copy. Try reading it out loud and correct anything that sounds confusing or awkward, or have a non-biased third party give it a read.
Alana Baranick, an award-winning obituary writer who died last year, once said, “Summing up a life is an awesome responsibility." If you're still unsure about how to do this, take some time to read obituaries that have been published. The professionally written ones that appear as articles on newspaper obit pages will provide you with an excellent example of good storytelling. But here are some family- and self-written obits that also managed to weave the details of a life into a fascinating story: