How to Write an Obituary
We’ve all read the traditional obituaries packed with the names, places, people, and career highlights that defined a person’s life. And while these examples should make it easy to put pen to paper, when we’re called on to write an obituary, they can often complicate an already emotionally charged situation. Are these the right words to summarize a life? Should those details—the relatives and hometowns and employers—the perfect words to have live on in print and online?
Start Here: Finding the Right Tone
First things first: abandon any of your preconceived notions of what obituaries should be and, instead, think about how the way your loved one lived his or her life. Were they bold and adventurous? Poetic and reserved? The life of the party? Boisterous and funny? A straight shooter and committed traditionalist?
While the majority of obituaries do tend to be more traditional—the who, what, when and where of a person’s life—increasingly these final messages are taking more personal twists, with a focus on humor, points of passion or poignant moments of reflection surrounding life, love, family and, even, death.
Take some time to reflect on your loved one’s life and how they would want to be remembered. If they gave you any direction prior to their death, be sure to integrate those into the obituary. If not, focus on your own memories and time spent together, and work to bring their most authentic self to the forefront.
Next: The Format
If you decide to go the traditional route—which many do—dig into the “highlights reel” of this person’s life, from the spouse, siblings, children, and grandchildren who made it so great to the lifelong passions, career paths and places he or she called “home.” The format is, typically:
Name, date of death, plus hometown and cause of death, if appropriate.
A snapshot of the deceased’s life, including date and place of birth, siblings, and parents, spouse(s), career highlights, military services, and notable achievements.
Immediate family members he/she is survived by (feel free to include pets!) as well as those your loved one was predeceased by.
Information on the wake, funeral service or other memorials, plus any donation requests or directives made by or on behalf of the deceased.
Veering off the traditional path? Anything goes! The average word count is about 180-220 and can include anything from a poem to a short story about the deceased to a lively anecdote that sums up his or her life with the enthusiasm, excitement, and personality with which they lived. Remember, this is a piece of your loved one’s lasting legacy, and they should be commemorated in a truly personal, truly memorable way.
Look for Inspiration
Sites like Legacy.com offer countless obituaries from the traditional to the wildly unexpected. This is a great place to browse if you need inspiration or want to find a format and approach that suits you. And if you think you’ve taken your obituary too far—or think you could push the envelope a bit more?
There are plenty of go-to’s to read to help inspire you from “Pink” Mullaney’s obituary that reminded readers to never throw away old pantyhose (and that keeping a chicken sandwich nearby during church services just makes sense) to Walter Bruhl who called out to his loving wife, saying she could now, “purchase the mink coat which he had always refused her because he believed only minks should wear mink…”
Looking for a more sentimental tie? One of the most beautiful obituaries in recent years came from Musician Lou Reed’s wife, who wrote of his death, “He died on Sunday morning looking at the trees and doing the famous 21 forms of tai chi with just his musician hands moving through the air.”
These clear, simple, and touching words quickly made their way around fan sites, social media, and blogs around the world, offering comfort to his fans, friends, and family who could picture him leaving this life just as he lived it. Only you know the perfect words, tone, and approach to celebrate your loved one’s life—take that knowledge and insight and run with it.
Who Knows You Best?
Write your own! It’s becoming more and more common for people to write their own final messages, ensuring they best reflect the writer’s personality, approach to life, and, even, insights and affirmations for those left behind. What’s more, many who do tackle their own obituaries find great peace of mind in the act itself, while others, still, see it as a way to comfort their loved ones during a very difficult time.
Ninety-one-year-old Joseph Pohhlod simply wrote, “Do not grieve for me. Be happy that after ninety-one years, I have fought the fight, run the race, and reached the finish line. I will be waiting for all of you,” a beautiful message for his friends and family.
Another approach? Humor. In 2006, “Fred” reminded his loved ones that, “He had a life-long love affair with bacon, butter, cigars, and bourbon…” His directive, following his death? “Fred asks that you make a sizable purchase at your local ABC store or Virginia winery (please, nothing French)…” Consider this a final toast to another life well lived.
No matter your approach, tone, and content, obituaries are deeply personal and deeply reflective pieces that live on—and, because of that, they deserve tremendous care and consideration when crafted.
With that in mind, though, there’s no right or wrong when it comes to writing an obituary, whether it’s for a loved one or, even, for yourself. Consider the nature of the person you’re writing about and focus on bringing his or her spirit to life, whether it’s in a more traditional reflection or a poignant, humorous, or touching tribute.
By achieving that you’ve honored them in a truly powerful way—and that’s always the perfect obituary.
by Jenna Bruce, Sunset Contributor