5 things great obituary writers do

4 min read

If you are having trouble writing your loved one’s obituary, you are not alone. Whether you are commemorating your parent, your spouse, a dear friend, or a beloved family member, the shock of their death can leave you exhausted and overwhelmed, and the fog of grief can make it hard to think—much less write.

Yet a lovingly crafted tribute is one of the most important ways to honor a loved one’s memory, since that will be the way that most people learn about their death. Fortunately, there are things you can do to make it easier to get the words out.

To start with, the basic elements of the obituary are generally pretty standard. You likely already have all the facts you need to write the beginning (their name, age, date of birth, date of death, and so on) and the end: information on the funeral or memorial service, surviving family members, and charitable donations in their name.

In between, you will create a portrait of the person that goes beyond the details of their birthplace, career highlights, and life events. But how to do that in a way that is readable, accessible, and concise? How do you get past the ordinary to commemorate their individuality in a truly personal and memorable way? Here are five guidelines that most great obituaries follow.

Involve close friends and family

Nobody said you had to write this all by yourself. Reach out to friends and family and ask them questions. For example: What are the top three adjectives you would use to describe our loved one, and why?

Ask for their most vivid memories, or the ones that they feel best represent who your loved one was. (These conversations, incidentally, can also bring you closer and help you heal as you process your emotions together.) 

Embrace the vivid and the unexpected

Good obituaries are emotional and authentic. The best tributes include specific, poignant stories. These may not be the huge moments in your loved one’s life. Focus on the anecdotes that stand out in your mind because they illustrate something about them.

Many memories are bittersweet, contain elements of adversity, or even highlight some of the person’s foibles. Don’t feel you have to avoid all negative topics. Expressing a range of emotions and qualities is part of being human, and while your loved one shouldn’t come off in a negative light, a complete portrait of them will be honest and true, showing the great alongside the not-so-great.

Take inspiration from their everyday life

What made your loved one unique? What made them stand out? What was their daily routine, or lifelong interests?

Sometimes a person’s quirks are what’s most memorable, so referring to a quotable catchphrase, an often-told story, or even an endearingly odd habit can bring the past rushing back.

Choose the right tone

A traditional death announcement can be dull, but the people we know well rarely are. Would your loved one be best represented by inventiveness? Humor? Piety? Irreverence? How would they want to be remembered? 

Imagine they are reading it aloud to themselves, in their own voice. Ideally, the tone of the piece should match their personality, so you’ll be able to hear them clearly through the words. If there is a mismatch, think about how the tone can be changed to fit their memory more fully.

Help others process their grief

Finding meaning in our loved one’s life and memory is an important way that we process our grief and start to heal.

Once you have written out your loved one’s life story, consider whether you understand their life path more clearly. Think of ways to bring your readers along with you: Read through the obituary again and look for places where you can add more personal details that evoke their true essence.

You can also invite other mourners to remember your loved one in a personal way. For example, ask everyone to wear your loved one’s favorite color to the ceremony, or commit to memory an idea or saying that was close to their heart. This can help family and friends see them in a new light, and process their grief along with you. 

Ultimately, there is no one right way write a good obituary. Though it may seem daunting, the perfect obituary is simply the one that represents the person as they were most fully, in as few words as possible. It’s their life story, preserved in a way that will ensure their memory lives on.

Having trouble writing an obituary is a common problem, but the solution lies within you and within your close friends and family. After all, no one knew them like you did. It’s just a matter of unlocking the beautiful, memorable, and even darkly humorous memories you collectively hold about your loved one and putting them out into the world.

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.