How to Write a Great Obituary

Write a Great Obituary

Obituaries are no longer simple newspaper notices announcing funeral dates and time, often they are a way for the family to express the last goodbye, to present a biography of the subject’s life, and to remind us of some of his or her lifetime accomplishments.

The time following the death of a loved one is often one of the most stress filled times a family will ever experience. Do not feel obligated to write an obituary yourself. Funeral homes generally include an obituary as part of the service they provide for a fee, and they are very experienced and competent in obtaining complete and accurate information.

There are limitations when using the “free” obituary. First, the notice is not really “free”, the newspaper’s obituary fee is reduced for this notice, but the fee is generally billed by the newspaper to the funeral home and that charge is subsequently included in the fee for services charged by most funeral homes.

Second, many newspapers will only list within the “free” obituary the names of immediate family, excluding listing of in laws, grandchildren or special friends. Additionally, newspapers employ a particular journalistic style which may or may not reflect the “voice” of the bereaved family.

If a family feels strongly about including the names of non-immediate family, and if the price of the paid obituary is not prohibitive, a paid obituary can be a final tribute to a loved one. It is appropriate to advise the funeral home when planning the funeral that you choose to use a paid obituary in order to reduce duplication of services. Additionally, the funeral director or staff is an excellent resource to ensure your paid obituary announcement covers all required elements.

As the author of the obituary, you will need to gather specific biographical information as well as personal anecdotes and remembrances. You should interview several family members, if possible. Asking non-specific questions will often reveal a wealth of information. “How did you meet your husband?” and “What was his favorite pastime” seem like obvious questions. But even, “Did he ever play practical jokes?” with a sly, mischievous grin, may elicit a story you’ve never heard before.

Open-ended questions can also be revealing, “What did you do for fun when the family was young?” “How did he earn money for dates?” “Where did you spend your honeymoon or vacations” are also good leading questions. “Did she attend special dances or parties?” or “What was her favorite memory, do you think?” Even as a family member, do not assume you have all the information or that all information is accurate. You might be surprised by information volunteered during a family gathering immediately after the death of a loved one.

Sometimes, a long time marriage will end in divorce and the subject will have remarried. It will be up to the children and the surviving spouse if and how they want to include this information. It is appropriate to include the date of the first marriage, the number of children they had followed by a note…”they were divorced in 1983.” You can then add, “…married (insert name of second wife, here) on November 31, 1995, she survives him at the family home.” Do try to be sensitive the wishes of all survivors, and let them be the final arbiters of information to be included in or omitted from the obituary.

It will be necessary, in any case, to speak to as many of the immediate family has possible in order to assure accuracy and completeness of all information obtained. In addition, gathering anecdotes from family members may clue you in to aspects of the deceased about which you have no personal knowledge. Family members may tell you things not appropriate for publication, or even repetition. Do not break a trust nor publish anything that might embarrass the person were they here to read the notice.

Speed is another consideration when writing the obituary notice. Many times, an obituary is the only method the family has to announce the funeral services. To allow for appropriate planning, the more advance notice you can give the attendees, the better. Funerals are usually planned for three to five days following the date of death. To prepare an obituary allowing two days notice for attendees, the ad will often need to be delivered to the newspaper a full day before publication. This can mean that an obituary needs to be prepared and hand delivered to a newspaper within a day following the date of death.

Accuracy and completeness cannot be over-emphasized. Family members are often so overcome with grief, it is difficult or impossible to remember details. Misspelling the name of a loved one or excluding the name of a family member can lead to family rifts that are difficult to repair. Have as many family members as possible review the obituary draft for accuracy and completeness. If need be, telephone at least one other relative and read the obituary over the phone, requesting the accurate spelling of all names.

After all your hard work, do not just drop off the copy at the newspaper. Ask if it will be possible to proofread the copy prior to publication. In case of an error on the part of the newspaper, many newspapers will only reprint the portion of the ad where the error occurred, rather than republish the entire obituary. If you find an error, ask again to see the final proof after correction.

A photo of the deceased can often accompany the obituary. Generally, the newspapers can accept either snapshots or studio photographs for publication. It is easier for a newspaper’s camera department to increase rather than decrease the size of a photo. Therefore, it would be more appropriate to supply a wallet-sized photo, rather than an eight by ten photo for copying. With today’s technology, a photo can be easily “cropped”. A family photo can be cropped to show only the face of the subject. Some snapshots, if blurry, do not duplicate well. Do check with the local newspapers for guidelines on submitting photographs with the obituary.

The cost of a paid advertisement will not be small. Each family will need to decide if that money might be better spent for supporting the survivors or contributing to a favorite charity.

Capturing an entire lifetime in one or two columns is a daunting task, but one that can be made easier if you follow a few simple steps. I have included a checklist below, dividing the list into sections, and followed with a sample obituary for Abraham Lincoln,

which follows this outline.

  1. Details about the deceased AT DEATH
    Full Name and Nickname
    Current residence …city, town, county
    Cause of Death (optional)
    Date of Birth
    Place of Birth
    Date of Death
    Place of Death
    Age at Death
  2. Details about the deceased ORIGINS
    Name of Parents
    Details about the deceased YOUNG LIFE
    Military Service (include specific dates of enlistment and discharge, if available), list medals, if appropriate.
    Marriage Date
    Marriage Place
    Name of Wife
    Number of years of marriage (Divorce? See article for specifics)
    Number of Children
    Personal remembrances
  3. Details about the deceased ADULT LIFE
    Business Affiliation (Chamber of Commerce, Founder’s Committee)
    Club Affiliations (Elks, Moose)
    Church Affiliation (one church)
    Sports enthusiast?
    Names of Children & Spouse
    Work History…can be approximate
  4. Details about the deceased ACCOMPLISHMENTS
    Climbed Mt. Everest, played in a band, attended all grandchildren’s sports events, learned to dance, returned to college, took up golf
    Enjoyments – fishing, dancing, horseback riding, grandchildren
  5. Fifteen minutes of fame (place for personal anecdotes, if desired)
    Ran for office, wrote a poem, loved his wife
  6. Details about the deceased FAMILY
    Names (and residence) of survivors: wife, children (in order of birth), grandchildren (by family, in order of parent’s birth), brothers, sisters, numerous nieces and nephews (generally not named unless particularly close)
    Names of predeceased -parents, brothers, children
  7. Details about the SERVICE
    Names of Pall-bearers, honorary pallbearers
    Place and time of service, including viewing hours, if appropriate
    Name of a religious leader, if appropriate
    Place and time of graveside service
    Place and time of reception
    Names of charity, church or another fund for donations, include address

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