Writing an obituary that honors your loved one
Helpful tips for writing an obituary
Most obituaries follow the same basic format, starting with a sentence with your loved one's name, age, the city where they lived, and when and where they passed away.
The next section tells the story of their life. If you are stuck, start from the beginning.
Then give a sense of the person’s personality and qualities.
End by naming surviving family members, giving information about the funeral, and where to send charitable donations in their honor.
If you get stuck, it is helpful to look at obituary examples.
You may write several different obituaries at various lengths for different publications.
In the days immediately after someone close to you dies, one of the first things you may be called on to do is to write an obituary, a tribute that will appear in the newspaper and other publications.
It may be very difficult to turn your thoughts from wordless grief to a practical necessity like composing a text memorial. But unfortunately, this is one of those tasks that cannot be put off. The obituary is how the wider world learns of your loved one’s death, remembers their life, and finds out details of the funeral or where to send charitable donations in their name, and it should be completed as soon as possible.
Even though it will be a challenge, writing the obituary can also be a productive and comforting way of memorializing the life and qualities of the person who has passed, and even of beginning the healing process of mourning. And the more people you include in your circle of remembering and mourning, the more you will realize how loved they truly were, which many find to be a great comfort in this difficult time.
Finding the right person to write the obituary
In these first few days after your loved one passes away, you are going to have a lot on your plate. It is good to keep in mind that not every task has to fall on you. The same person who is planning the funeral does not have to be the one to write the obituary. If you have family members you can assign roles to, or close friends willing to pitch in, this is a great job to hand off, especially since there is a fairly standard template that most obituaries follow.
Even if you just want to task someone with pulling together the relevant info and writing an outline or a draft for you to edit, it will take a lot of the weight off of you in this busy and emotional moment.
If a family member or a close friend is a professional writer or is generally great at putting words on a page, this is the job for them, and they will often be very happy to contribute their expertise. Another option: Ask the person (or one of the people) who will be delivering a eulogy at the funeral or speaking at the memorial. There is often a great deal of overlap between the two, and they will be able to use the same information and themes for both.
How to start an obituary
If you are the person designated to write the obituary, or if there is nobody else to take on the task, do not be daunted. Take a deep breath and start from the beginning. Most people find that once they start writing about their loved one, the memories just start coming, as do the words. Your biggest challenge, in fact, may turn out to be getting it down to an appropriate length—but it’s always easier to write a long piece and then trim it than it is to add more later.
The first paragraph of an obituary is traditionally a single sentence with the person’s name (plus nickname if they had one), age at their death, the last city they lived in, the day and date when they died, and if appropriate, the location and cause of their death.
Be sure to ask yourself: How would my loved one most want to be remembered?
The next section should tell the story of their life, starting from birth and narrating details and important events—where they went to school, marriage, kids, and so on. You may want to zoom in on events of particular significance to your family, or details that speak to the kind of person they were.
Whether in tandem with their life story, or as a new section after it, the obituary should give the reader a good sense of your loved one’s personality and their prominent qualities.
The obituary should end by naming your loved one's surviving family members, then giving information about the funeral or memorial service, if the family is making those details public, as well as information about any memorial funds or charitable organizations that people should send donations to.
Making an obituary sing
If you are having trouble getting started, it may be helpful to imagine that you are telling a friend who had never met your loved one all of the important things about their life, who they were, and what they meant to their friends and family. Just write down what you would tell them; later you can simply replace “my dad,” or “my aunt,” etc. with the person’s name.
Reach out to family and friends to ask for the stories they remember most, whether they’re touching and meaningful events, funny misadventures, or quiet moments that seemed to represent the person well. Ask what everyone loved most about them, what people used to say about them, and how they approached the world. Did they have unique interests or hobbies? What were they most proud of? Any of this information can be used in the central sections of the obituary to provide a complete portrait.
In these paragraphs, it is often helpful to identify one or two central themes or ideas, such as a personality trait, interest, or quality of the person, to build this section from and organize the various stories and descriptions around. If they dedicated their life to helping people, give examples. If they tried to live every moment of life to the fullest, that is bound to have led to some interesting stories. And so on.
Finally, give some thought to the overall tone of the obituary. Most obituaries use a straightforward and respectful approach, as is appropriate for the solemnity of the occasion. But be sure to ask yourself: How would my loved one most want to be remembered? If they were known for their jolly nature, perhaps the obituary should be a bit more lighthearted. An obituary for a jokester should make the reader smile. And someone who delighted in puncturing decorum wouldn’t be properly memorialized by a very formal piece; try to make sure it breaks the rules at least a little.
How long an obituary should be
Share what you have written with others in your immediate circle, both those who knew your loved one and at least one friend whose editorial eye you trust. You are in an emotional place right now, and may have understandably missed important details, or even typos. Everyone, even seasoned writers who aren’t suffering from a recent loss, needs someone else to read their work and make sure everything is clear and well-stated.
Once you have a text you are happy with, start deciding where you might be able to trim it down. You will likely pay by the word to place the obituary in a local newspaper, so consider creating a shorter version that covers the most important elements, balancing the potential cost with your desired level of detail. Some families may want to place the obituary in several newspapers, including ones that serve the areas where their loved one grew up and where they retired, in addition to where they lived most of their life.
A longer version of the obituary should be submitted to alumni organizations of the schools that your loved one graduated from. Most have a publication that runs obituaries; contact them for any length requirements. Likewise, many religious institutions, civic organizations, clubs, and hobbyist or fan communities have newsletters and are happy to publish obituaries of their members for free. When editing the piece for any of these publications, make sure to highlight the person’s connection to the school or organization.
Lastly, there are several sites online where you can publish an obituary, often of any length at no charge. This is where you can place the full-length obituary you have written, so that friends and family may link to it in emails, social media posts, and the like. The internet may seem an informal and strange place to memorialize someone, but it has the benefit of being infinite and eternal, for all intents and purposes. You can create a permanent tribute there that is long enough to fully express the complexity and uniqueness of your loved one’s life.
Writing the obituary is a challenge, and one that comes at a very difficult time. But as you let the world know about your loved one’s passing, you are also giving voice and shape to your memories, and your grief, which is a necessary step on the way to mourning fully. And the tribute that you create for them will stand as a monument to the life they lived, and the legacy they passed on to you and everyone they loved.
You may be eligible for free bereavement support. Empathy can help with everything from funeral planning to estate administration, with step-by-step guidance and real-time expert support. Many people get free premium access to Empathy as a benefit with their life insurance claim. We partner with New York Life, Guardian Life Insurance Company, Bestow, Lemonade, and other leading carriers. When you make your life insurance claim, talk to your representative about whether Empathy is a benefit they offer.
It is common for a funeral home to place the obituary in a local newspaper on behalf of the family, and many funeral homes offer the option to have them write it for you. They will go through a list of biographical questions and take care of the writing. In general, these will be more functional obituaries or death notices, rather than beautiful tributes, but this is a good option if nobody is available to write one, or if you need to get an obituary out quickly to inform people and will write a more poetic version yourself later on. If you choose to have the funeral home write the obituary, make sure to ask about the fee for this service.
If someone was well-known or important enough that their death is a newsworthy event, then newspapers will generally print an obituary for them written by newspaper staff. (Most newspapers prepare these obituaries ahead of time, in fact.) These are written and printed for free. But most newspapers also print obituaries of non-famous people submitted by families or funeral homes, generally for a fee. You will sometimes hear the former referred to as "obituaries" and the latter as "death notices," but in general both are called obituaries, while death notices are much more brief.
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