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Obituary Writing 101

Tips for creating a meaningful farewell for someone, or for yourself

By Deborah Quilter

Have you ever read a friend’s obituary and had any of these reactions?: You cannot reconcile the person described with what was written about him or her; the events summarized did not constitute what your loved one considered important in life and instead of capturing the essence of the deceased’s colorful personality, it painted a beige picture with tired platitudes that the departed would have loathed.

Credit: Adobe

Or have you ever been charged with writing an obituary for someone and realized with rising panic that you have absolutely no idea where he went to school, when he lived in certain cities or what he would consider important to include? Imagine doing this under deadline and the stress of mourning.

Many boomers decide to spare friends this experience and take matters into their own hands. With a little guidance, you can come up with a summing-up you can be proud of. Even if you don’t want to write a full-fledged obit, you can make that task less onerous for someone else by leaving valuable leads.

Create a Just-the-Facts Obituary

If the mere thought of tackling writing an obituary makes you freeze, Brooklyn funeral director and blogger Amy Cunningham has some comforting advice:

“People shouldn’t be intimidated. It doesn’t have to be beautiful prose, and you don’t have to get it perfect,” she says. You don’t even need to leave a completed document. Instead, control the narrative by leaving a timeline for family and friends. “Anything you sketch out will be useful to your loved ones," Cunningham notes.

If you plan to submit the obituary to a newspaper, find out if the publication has writers’ guidelines. Some charge a fee for printing an obituary, but you could always publish it in the funeral program or post it on a webpage devoted to obituaries such as LifePosts.

Begin with a basic resumé. This does not mean listing the companies where you or the decased worked, but rather important life events: birth, marriages, awards and other talking points. Also include the names of spouses, children and key charities.

If you’re writing someone else’s obituary, check the person’s LinkedIn page or talk to other family members and friends to find out more. Ask for colorful stories and anecdotes as well.

Good Questions to Get Answered

Just answering a few questions can be the basis of a great obituary. Let's say you're writing your own:

Was there a great turning point in your life, or a sudden realization, chance meeting or fluke that made you change your course or career?

Were you inspired by a book or public figure?

Did a national event or catastrophe spur you to action?

What did you spend your free time doing?

What would you most want to be remembered for?

What words would you want associated with you (funny, generous, honest, dynamic, fearless, insightful, kind)?

What makes you happy?

What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?


Are you known for your famous culinary skills or some other talent?

Are you the person who made other people feel important? Or the person who everyone vied to sit next to at Thanksgiving dinner?

Did you start a charity or volunteer at one?

What did you love? Who did you love and how did you meet them?

What obstacle were you proud to have overcome?

Where to Get Help Writing an Obituary

If you need guidance, you can find it on the LifePosts webpage.

You can also join a workshop or group and get advice and support from other people, or use fill-in-the-blank templates online.

There’s also a great documentary about obituary writing that shows how the pros at the New York Times do it.

We All Have a Story

Not everyone is famous enough to get a professional write-up in a newspaper. But everyone’s life has value and meaning.

For example, Cunningham pointed out, after 9/11, The New York Times wrote an obituary for every person who died in the attack.

Cunningham cited one notable example about a woman who had a large collection of shoes. “She came off as such an endearing, quirky person because of the New York Times describing her shoe collection,” Cunningham recalled. “It wasn’t ostentation; she just really loved footwear, and they presented it in a really sweet fashion.”

Deborah Quilter is an ergonomics expert, a certified Feldenkrais practitioner, a yoga therapist and the founder of the Balance Project at the Martha Stewart Center for Living at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. She is also the author of Repetitive Strain Injury: A Computer User's Guide and The Repetitive Strain Injury Recovery Book. Read More
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