Writing an obituary for a loved one can be a daunting task. Experiencing loss is often overwhelming, especially considering the myriad of decisions family members are forced to make; and unless you are a professional writer hired for the task, it becomes difficult to keep a clear head and craft a careful and thorough obituary while grieving.
Of course, you could hire a professional writer to do the job, but you may not have the financial means at the time or you may want to make the announcement as personal as possible; and so, would like to write it yourself.
So, if you have decided to take on the task of writing an obituary, here is a step-by-step guide that will help you throughout the entire process.
What Is an Obituary?
Often referred to as a funeral notice or a notice of death, an obituary is an announcement that informs acquaintances or those in the community of a person’s death. Usually placed in a local newspaper or online, it can be very matter-of-fact or extremely personalized, depending on the preferences of the family.
In most cases, an obituary communicates to those who knew the individual of their passing and announces vital information concerning visitation, services, burial, and memorials. It also often describes the person who has passed and mentions the significant events that shaped their life.
Although recent obituaries have become longer and more narrative, it is important to remember that an obituary is not a eulogy. Though you can tell one or two very short anecdotes, sharing far too many personal observations and leaving out the important details is not advisable. Make sure to remember that you are writing something that is meant to inform the public about a specific event – the death of your loved one; and therefore, will be made public record.
Who Usually Writes an Obituary?
The task of writing an obituary is usually handled by surviving family or friends; although, in more recent years, some have taken to writing their own obituaries in advance. A person may decide to write their own obituary if they wish not to burden the family members after passing, or if they would like to be remembered in their own words. Though this can be a good strategy, obituaries that are written by the person themselves often miss one of the key components: the impact that person had on those surviving. Often, today’s obituaries turn away from the matter-of-fact approach and read more like a story, celebrating an individual’s well-lived life.
Where Do You Start?
When a loved one passes and you are charged with writing their obituary, it is vital to first gather as much important information about them as possible. Unless you have chosen to write your own obituary in advance, chances are that you will have to do a bit of research to make sure you’re not forgetting any important facts about the person’s life. Having all of the major information readily available will make your writing process easier later on.
There are different resources you can turn to when researching. LinkedIn profiles and online resumes can be useful since they are ready-made records of a person’s major accomplishments. If these are not available or do not give a full picture – which they often may not – then you can turn to family members, friends, and colleagues for more information. They may also be able to share anecdotes about the person or give you a better understanding of the deceased’s personality.
Also, it can be helpful to take the time upfront and verify spellings, names, and other smaller details to ensure accuracy. If necessary, you can even contact local government offices to confirm dates.
For most individuals, the following list of items will be a good guide when doing your research:
- Date and place of birth
- Date and place of death
- Names of parents
- Names of siblings
- Name of spouse(s)
- Names of children
- Names of grandchildren
- Military service
- Key career accomplishments, honors and/or awards
- Volunteer work or charities they supported
- Hobbies and passions
- Church or religious affiliations
- Clubs, civic or fraternal organizations
- Details of funeral or memorial services
- Information about memorial donations
- Information about where to send flowers
What Is the Right Format When Writing an Obituary?
Once you have gathered all of the necessary information, you can begin writing. Standard obituaries contain six key components:
- Announcement of death
- Important details and life events
- Surviving family members
- Funeral, memorial, or visitation times and places
- Flower or memorial donation information
Announcement of Death
Here, you can include the deceased’s full name, age, location of residence, location of death, date of death, and – if you wish to – cause of death. Most obituaries have this information in one sentence, at the very beginning.
General Biographical Information
In this section you should stick to a record of most important events, contributions, qualities, and connections. This section can include things such as date of birth, upbringing, education, marriage information, accomplishments, and work history. When writing this section, remember that you are not forced to include or omit any information. If you feel it necessary to leave out a key experience or vice versa, do so.
You can list events in chronological order or you can decide on what information is more important and list that first. Mentioning every single accomplishment in a person’s life is neither necessary nor interesting to most readers, so stick to the most significant contributions and recognitions. If necessary, try to write about as many as possible in as few words as possible.
Surviving Family Members
You can list family members and loved ones as those who are survivors and those that passed away before the deceased. Most obituaries use the following order: spouse, children and their spouses, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, parents, and siblings. If you wish, you can also list other family members or even pets. If there are several people in one category; for example, if there are three or four grandchildren, you can list them individually or just state the total number of them.
Funeral and Memorial Information
Make sure to provide the date, time, and location of the funeral. Those who wish to pay their respects will need to know whether the visitation and funeral service will be held at the funeral home, at home, or a church. If you have decided to not hold service or make it private, this should also be mentioned.
Flowers or Donation
Whether the family has decided to ask that donations are made to a specific charity or there is a specific address where they would like flowers to be sent, you can put the details here.
Finally, if you would like, you, along with the rest of the deceased’s loved ones, can choose a favorite photo to include.
How Long Should an Obituary Be?
This depends on where you are publishing it. For example, newspapers have a strict word limit, resulting in shorter obituaries. They may also provide you with style and formatting guidelines. If you are publishing the obituary online, you’ll have more leniency when it comes to length.
Though the average length of an obituary is approximately 200-450 words, it may be smart to have two versions, one short and one longer.
Other Tips to Make the Process of Writing an Obituary Easier
When writing, it can be helpful to decide what style of obituary you’d like to produce. It does not have to be solemn unless you want it to be and there are great examples of obituaries out there that use humor in a respectful way. Whether it be humorous or more serious, listing accomplishments or more focused on the family, deciding this early can help shape your obituary better.
You can also write several different options in different styles or directions and let other family members review it. Getting input from other people will assist you in deciding exactly what fits your situation best.
Another tip is to start with a story. If you have space, writing one or two sentences to sum up what sort of person the deceased was can work very well and will make the obituary more memorable. You can reach out to friends and family if you’re struggling to come up with an appropriate anecdote.
If there are people you’d like to thank or individuals who you believe the deceased would have liked mentioned, go right ahead. And of course, make sure to review your writing thoroughly before publishing it.
Writing about death, whether or not it’s for an obituary, is going to be difficult. It does not matter if you are writing your own or writing one for a loved one who passed away recently. It will be an emotional task. So, try to take a step-by-step approach and ask for help if you need to. Reach out to friends, family, neighbors, and other loved ones; they will have stories and advice that will make it much easier for you to write an obituary filled with love and care.