Recently I was asked to write an obituary for a woman I’ve never met. Fortunately, it’s not the first obituary I’ve ever written, so I wasn’t terribly intimidated by the task. Yet I know–having been told as much time and again– writing an obituary isn’t something most folks are comfortable with. So, I thought I’d share a few important obituary writing tips with you, which I used in a webinar I conducted back in 2016 for the industry association, Order of the Golden Rule. The organization published an overview post just prior to the event, “How to Write Better Obituaries” which makes a nice supplement to this post.
Four Tips for Writing an Obituary:
1. Stay positive. My mother used to say “if you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all”. That’s good advice in social situations, but not when writing an obituary. (Plug the search phrase “mean-spirited obituaries” to see how not to write an obituary.) Don’t use a loved one’s obituary to detail all the wrongs they’ve committed during their lifetime. Instead, find the good in them (you know there’s a lot, once you start looking for it).
2. Double-check the facts. Make sure names, dates, and place names are correct. And don’t leave any relative’s name out of the obituary, either out of spite or forgetfulness. It hurts people’s feelings.
3. Edit rigorously! Two words which mean: get rid of extra words, and check punctuation (one trick is to read the obituary aloud – you’ll quickly “hear” where the punctuation needs to change). When it comes to spelling – don’t rely on a spell-checker; again, double check you’re using the right word forms in the right place (“two”, “too”, or “to”, for example).
4. Tell a story about the deceased. Author Phillip Pullman summed it up nicely when he wrote “After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.” (Source) In short, I think such stories can teach us how to live better lives.
I realize writing (or storytelling) may not be your ‘cup of tea’. But there are a few questions you can ask yourself (and others: family members, friends) to ‘ferret out’ exactly what made this individual ‘special’. They’re guaranteed to open up the floodgates of memory and set your creativity in motion.
Questions To Get You Started
In writing an obituary, it’s our job to tell the story of what is often described as an “ordinary” life in a way that makes it memorable. Here are a few questions to ask (to ensure accuracy, I suggest recording this “Q & A” session, after asking the family’s permission).
• What is your best memory of (the deceased)?
• What were the biggest obstacles he or she faced?
• How did he or she overcome them?
• What about (the deceased) makes you smile?
• What was your relationship like?
• How do you believe he or she would like to be remembered?
• What three words can we use to sum up the life of the deceased?
Once you’ve got the facts of the deceased’s life (and death), you’ll combine them with the story-information you’ve gleaned from these questions; melding them together into an obituary you can be proud of. There are two ways to present your material.
Use a Two-Tiered Format
Here, the first section details the “who, what, why, when and where” of the obituary: the name of the deceased, age, place/nature of the death, and service details. I think this is also the first place to also state the specific charity or organization the family prefers for memorial donations. This is a very easy section to write; the biggest issue here is factual accuracy, not creativity. This example comes from the obituary of a dear friend’s grandson, written by his parents.
“Peyton Johnson Moore, 9, son of Noah John Robert and Jennifer Leigh Moore of Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, passed away on Tuesday, June 4, 2013. A Celebration of Peyton’s Life will be held Saturday, June 8, 2013 in the Ministry Center of St. Andrews Church – Mt. Pleasant, 440 Whilden Street, at 2:00 pm. Inurnment will follow in Mount Pleasant Memorial Gardens. The family will greet friends in Sams Hall of St. Andrews Church – Mt. Pleasant following the inurnment. Arrangements by J. HENRY STUHR INC. MOUNT PLEASANT CHAPEL.”
Here is where you get creative, using the responses from those questions noted seen earlier. You’ll be “painting” an image of the individual and telling stories which typified the deceased’s character. Turning once again to Peyton’s obituary:
“Not one to sit around, Peyton was also a member of the International Juggler’s Association, the Cub Scouts, and was a strong athlete. He was a member of the Mt. Pleasant Redskins Championship Football Team, qualified and competed in the USA Track & Field 2012 National Junior Olympic Championship, and was the number one Javelin Thrower in the State of South Carolina for nine- and ten-year olds with all of Peyton’s love of sports from kayaking to swimming, boating to football, he also loved school and his teachers, making straight A’s and holding perfect attendance.”
Start with a “Hook”
Often, there’s a nugget of information you can use to pique the interest of readers right off the bat. The obituary of Harry Stamps offers us a great example:
“Harry Weathersby Stamps, ladies’ man, foodie, natty dresser, and accomplished traveler, died on Saturday, March 9, 2013.
“Harry was locally sourcing his food years before chefs in California starting using cilantro and arugula (both of which he hated). For his signature bacon and tomato sandwich, he procured 100% all white Bunny Bread from Georgia, Blue Plate mayonnaise from New Orleans, Sauer’s black pepper from Virginia, home grown tomatoes from outside Oxford, and Tennessee’s Benton bacon from his bacon-of-the-month subscription. As a point of pride, he purported to remember every meal he had eaten in his 80 years of life.”
Good Obituary Writing
What makes an obituary “good”? Here’s what I think: if I read an obituary for someone– let’s say the obituary for Harry Stamps seen above – and my first thought is “I wish I’d known him personally”, then it was worth the time it took to read it. His obituary is good, as it gave me a heart-level connection with the deceased – usually a total stranger. Now that’s good writing! Sadly, learning how to write an obituary takes practice.
Don’t have the heart to write a loved one’s obituary? No problem; your funeral director can assist you – either by tackling the obituary writing project on his or her own, or by referring you to a professional obituary writer, such as those listed in the directory of The Society of Professional Obituary Writers.