Writing an Obituary

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Obituaries serve as a means for the living to commemorate and memorialize the deceased.  Writing an obituary for a loved one may seem like a daunting task, especially as it must be done during a time of mourning.  Often, an obituary may be the last or only thing ever published about an individual, and the text may be available to family members, the community, and researchers far into the future.  If writing an obituary for a loved one, the following may serve as a general guideline on what all a well-written obituary should include.

Obituaries are published celebrations of the lives lived by the now deceased and they provide valuable information that may serve various purposes for years to come.  Obituaries should contain some specific information; additional information shared is up to the writer.   At minimum, an obituary should contain the full name of the deceased, age, and the date and place of death.  In addition, most obituaries contain additional bibliographical information (not a full bibliography) and information on the funerary services to follow.  The heart of a good obituary lies in the bibliographical narrative of the deceased individual’s life. 

First, before writing, you will need to decide where you will publish the obituary.  You may want to write more than one version – obituaries can be published not only in local papers, but also in other forms of publication, such as in journals or online.  Research the publication you will be submitting the obituary to so as to learn the pricing, format, word count, procedure, and deadline for publishing.  Consider reading through other obituaries in order to gain familiarity with the writing style and what all to include.  Obituary templates are also available online. 

Next, it is important to do your research.  Consider what all you will want to include – names, dates, places, events, etc., and double check all the information.  Obituaries should be accurate – not only is the text a form of memorial, but the information contained in an obituary may be used for generations to come.  Genealogists, historians, scholars, researchers, the general public, and family members may utilize the information for various purposes.  Make sure names and places are spelled correctly, and that the information is all true to the best of your knowledge.  Errors can compromise the stories told and may negatively affect research.  Corroborate with others that were also close to the deceased – they may be able to help fill in any missing information and can help check for accuracy.

When writing, there are a few general things to keep in mind.  Though obituaries inform about death, they should not focus only on grief and death, they should focus on the joy for life that the now deceased had – again, they should be celebrations of lives lived.  Well-written obituaries should resemble a news story – facts rather than opinion should be included, the text should be genuine and interesting, and clichés should be avoided.  When writing, use the third person – don’t refer to the deceased as ‘Mom’ or use ‘I’.  Obituaries may reach a large audience, and that audience won’t necessarily know who ‘I’ is, and it is better to focus on the deceased rather than on the family.  Do not only concentrate on the death and period prior to death – focus on the entire life lived and consider how your loved one would wish to be remembered.

Obituaries generally begin with a notice of death.  The full name of the deceased, age, and the location and date of death should be included.  This statement should be at the top of the obituary in the first paragraph and may be easily summed up within one sentence.  When announcing a death, use whatever terminology you deem most fitting and that you are most comfortable with, i.e. ‘passed away,’ ‘left this world,’ ‘died,’ etc.  The cause of death is, ultimately, nobody’s business save for the immediate family – including a cause of death is entirely up to the writers discretion.  If the cause of death is a sensitive subject, feel free to omit it, or, if you wish to be saved later from questions about the cause of death from the community, you may wish to include it – do whatever you feel best. 

Following the announcement of death, the information included is largely determined by the space available – you will have to pack as much meaning as possible into a limited amount of text.  Generally, biographical information is shared in an interesting, lively, and personal way.  Again, think about what the deceased would wish to be remembered for, and write a factual narrative celebrating the life lived.  Usually, universal milestones such as date and place of birth, names of parents, education, marriage, employment, and military service, are included either in order of importance or in chronological order.  Outstanding achievements and accomplishments may also be shared.  Also, include survivors of the deceased such as children, a spouse, or siblings.  Use your best judgement on which family members to mention – if the deceased was a grandmother to many grandchildren, it may be better to state the number of grandchildren rather than to list all the names. 

With the space available, try to convey the special personality of the deceased and share what the deceased found most important in his or her life while alive.  Anecdotes, unique details, passions, or anything that sets the deceased’s life apart from others can enrich your loved one’s obituary and can help reflect the impact the deceased had on his or her family and community.  When describing the life of the deceased, share stories rather than just simply stating facts – try to show instead of tell.  If faced with some sensitive aspects, such as divorce or having been fired, address these with your best judgement.  You can tip toe around such aspects by, for example, saying the individual had left the company, not that he had been fired.  Well written obituaries usually focus on the positive aspects of lives lived.  They look at the bright side and provide inspirational stories through a commemorative text for the living. 

Following the bibliographical details, include information on the upcoming funerary services.  If public, include the time and address for the viewing and memorial services.  If this information is still unknown, refer readers to the funeral home for further information.  You may also wish to include a note about donations to a memorial fund or charity – you can simply state a request for contributions or you may find a more creative way to express your request.

Once you have finished writing, go back through to edit and proofread.  Double check dates, names, and places.  Make sure names and places are spelled correctly.  Remember, an obituary is a published work that may be passed down to family members, the community, and researchers for generations to come – it is important your work be accurate.  Have someone else who was close to the deceased read through the obituary to proofread and help check for accuracy.

As what may be the last or only published words about an individual, obituaries should be well thought out, well written, and accurate.  While factual, obituaries should also be interesting, they should be compelling life stories.  Through an obituary, loved ones are memorialized and celebrated, and their stories may live on for generations to come.

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