An obituary ideally evokes the feeling of a whole life, even though in its essence it is a notice of death. How to capture the uniqueness of a person, how they impacted those around them and their achievements in just a few hundred lines, though? And of course, it should also contain key information like date of birth and death as well as details about the funeral. If you have taken on the task of writing an obituary for a loved one or even decided to pre-write your own, you might have a lot of questions and not know where and how to start. This guide on how to write an obituary not only covers the most important aspects of what makes a great obituary but will also give you a template to follow, answer questions regarding the tone and writing style and give you some examples that will hopefully be inspirational or at least helpful.
What is an Obituary?
An obituary is a written, public announcement of someone’s death. It can be published online or printed in a newspaper – you might need to pay for the latter. The most fundamental purpose of an obituary is to notify the community that a loved one has died and communicate information about when the service and funeral or celebration of life will be held and if there’s a viewing or visitation prior to that. It is also much more than that: It gives the bereaved the chance to create a public record of the person they lost – including their milestones, important events and achievements. It allows those who are left behind to recapture how the person who died impacted their lives and what joy they brought into their world. An obituary is a chance to celebrate the life of the deceased and share the best of their personality with the wider community. It usually also includes one if not two photos of the deceased – a recent one and a throw-back one from younger years.
Obituary Template to Follow
Let’s start with what not to include in an obituary: You do not want to publicly share any information that can potentially be used for fraud or theft. Therefore, you don’t mention the complete date of birth or death nor the maiden name of the loved one who died. Home addresses are not to be mentioned in an obituary either.
An obituary should include the following key information:
- Full name of the deceased
- Age at the time of death
- Month (optional) and year of birth and death – you may or may not want to include how they died
- Place (village, town, city) of birth and place of death
- Mentioning of family members (still living and deceased – the latter are not always mentioned)
- Details about the funeral or memorial service/celebration of life
- General biographical information, special memories, stories that reveal something about their character and an overview of their most important life achievements (aim to include 3-5)
- If applicable: What charities to donate to in memory of the person who died and where to send sympathy gifts and/or flowers
We all become stories in the end. Of course, you want to make it a good one when you are honouring someone you loved and lost. It can feel like a daunting task because we have all read a clinical, cold or dull obituary at some point. And there are few things that have the potential to be as moving and meaningful as one that captures the true spirit of the person who died. A good rule of thumb when aiming to write a great obituary is to start with the facts and then speak from the heart.
It’s the small details that infuse personality. How is the person who died remembered by their loved ones and close friends? Talk to them and ask for help and input. If you have an anecdote that highlights their personality, sense of humour or the values they lived by, don’t be shy to share it. What made the deceased special, unique or quirky (it can be hobbies, traits, foibles, talents or interests)? What are your favourite memories of them? What’s the thing you loved most about them? How did they impact the lives of those around them? And how would they want to be remembered? Focus on praiseworthy attributes. An obituary should always lean on the positive or at least be neutral. It is a chance to look back at the essence of what that person achieved, stood for in their beliefs and their successes, or possibly even failures they endured if appropriate. Anger and pain are left aside. When writing an obituary you should be aiming for 180 to 1000 words – you do not want to strain people’s attention span.
If you want the obituary published in a paper and on a specific date, you should check what their deadline is, if they have a maximum word count and how much it will cost. Don’t write more lines than you can afford to pay for. If you would like to publish it online, there are various websites – some of which are free. There’s usually no limit to the length of an online obituary. A quick Google search will help you find the right platform for your obituary. It is also acceptable to publish an obituary on social media nowadays.
Always make sure to have another family member fact check the key information of the obituary. Have at least one other person proofread it.
Obituary Tone & Writing Style
The tone and style of the obituary should fit the character of the person it is written about. Don’t feel the pressure to write a witty or funny obituary! Use your own judgement to determine if it’s appropriate for the deceased as well as the circumstances of their death and if you can pull it off without it sounding forced. More importantly: Don’t get hung up on your preconceived notion of what an obituary should sound like. Rather focus on what kind of flavour, what tone of voice the deceased brought into the world themselves and try to stay as true to that as you can. Traditional and sombre may suit the loved one you are writing about much better than lighthearted. If they were not a person of many words, maybe short and sweet is perfect.
In addition to the obituaries printed in newspapers every day, there are millions to be found online. We have picked some examples that hopefully inspire you with their uniqueness and help you pick the right tone and style for the one you are about to write.
Some obituaries just stand out – to the point where they are even praised in the New York Times. Monique Heller’s obituary for her late father Joe Heller is such an example. We dare you to read it and not smile.
If you read the obituary of Mary A. “Pink” Mullaney you might feel that your life just has become a little bit richer for benefitting from all the unique life lessons and hacks she taught her loved ones who generously share them with the wider public.
The obituary of Tim Schrandt is a great example as it beautifully, lovingly and humorously captures the spirit of a man without trying to hide or conceal the fact that he wasn’t the easiest contemporary to be around.
An obituary doesn’t have to be long to capture the essence of a person: This one for Ida Beth (McGuire) Mahone is a wonderful example of short and sweet, yet unique and authentic.
You could write an obituary in the style of a letter to the deceased. A beautiful and moving example is that of Abhay for his father Arun Ektare.
Freeman W. Hudson’s obituary introduces yet another approach. It is written like a news story and contains quotes from family members and former co-workers. The obituary also stands out because it respects his wife as much as he did.
If you are thinking about writing your own obituary, you should have a look at Jane Catherine Otter’s – it went viral on Twitter after it was published in the Seattle Times.
Please consider sharing the “Guide on how to Write a Great Obituary” with family and friends or via social media.