How to Write a Great Obituary
Published on February 15, 2021
Few people consider themselves to be good writers. The reality is that, outside of work and school, there are few writing tasks that we encounter that require exceptional writing skills. And even in work and school settings, the audience to what we write is typically small, and our work's shelf life is relatively short. Therefore, it is no surprise that, when faced with an important writing task, one that will be read by many people or that has a high degree of importance, we can experience quite a bit of nervous anxiety.
If we are tasked with writing an obituary, the sheer nature of the task will produce anxiety and may seem overwhelming. Obituaries typically need to be written in a short amount of time and during a moment charged with emotions. Effective obituaries are usually written or contributed to by close family and friends – the very ones who will be coping with the pain of the loss.
The loss of a loved one, especially if it was sudden, will in and of itself produce a lot of anguish. There is so much to be done and so many decisions to be made. It is naturally quite difficult to slow down enough to garner the energy and focus required to write an obituary that captures the individual's essence for whom it is written and touches on all the details that one would expect to see in the work. Where to start?
If you are the one faced with the task of writing an obituary, take heart. We are here to help get you through the process with minimal effort. And we are certain that you will be pleased with the outcome.
What is an Obituary?
An obituary, quite simply put, in an announcement regarding someone passing away. It may appear in a local newspaper or the town of the person's birth to young adulthood. Obituaries are also frequently read during funeral or memorial services. They must include sufficient details to tell the story of the individual in a dignified and accurate way.
Obituaries will typically include the person's full name, including their maiden name if they were married at the time of their passing, the date of birth, and the death date. Obituaries also routinely include photographs and some details regarding the person's life and accomplishments.
Since the obituary may be the final written work regarding the individual, it must be comprehensive, telling a concise story and capturing the key highlights of the person's life. Doing this will be a source of encouragement and peace to those who hear the obituary reading.
There are memorial websites, such as OurBeloved.com, that allow obituaries to be posted on virtual Tribute Sites where they can be read by family and friends anywhere in the world. They can be very touching and informative regarding who they were and what they meant to their family, friends, community, and beyond.
Writing an obituary may seem intimidating, but it need not be. We are here to help.
There are great websites, such as OurBeloved.com, that allow you to set up an online Tribute Site featuring an online obituary. In this way, you can write and update the obituary and link to it with a QR Code printed onto the memorial or funeral program. In this way, attendees, all of whom will likely have a smartphone, can easily open the Tribute Site and see the most up-to-date information. You can also email them the link, which will allow them to view the obituary, many photos, and even post their tributes. They are a great way to celebrate a loved one's memory.
How to Write an Obituary
First, do not stress out. With a bit of guidance, you can do this. We will provide the needed steps to get you going, and with a few personal touches, you will be well on your way. So, where to start?
Most Important When Starting
An obituary is about more than facts. It is a means to unbuild, encourage, and strengthen the survivors. Although the moment is filled with sadness, they should be left with a good feeling about their loved one when reading the obituary. They should be helped to see that their loved one was truly loved and cherished for solid reasons.
The obituary is an opportunity to honor that person – to celebrate their memory. Although a eulogy may go into greater detail, do not lose the opportunity to upbuild in the obituary. As you get started, before even getting into the factual information, jot down a few thoughts about what warms your heart when you think about this person. Feel free to ask those that were close to them. What good quality or qualities most stand out. What will loved ones most miss about them. What they were special and how they left a mark.
Now that you have this important objective in mind, you will need a notepad to jot down ideas and notes as you begin. This will be important when you make phone calls to verify details. Start by writing down who you will need to call. Be sure to give them your email address and let them know they can text you with anything additional.
And recognize that these phone calls will go a long way in getting you started. They will put others in a positive frame of mind.
Getting the name right is particularly important. You should start here, ensure that it is spelled correctly, and verify any name details. If everyone knew the person under a different name than their birth name, here are a few suggestions.
- Birth name – Richard Edgar Williams
- Commonly known as – Richie Williams
- Suggested name representation – Richard "Richie" Williams.
Aliases are frequently associated with shady characters, so we recommend avoiding the use of a.k.a. (also known as) in the obituary, but that is a personal decision.
- You may want to include in the actual obituary a detail the clarifies the name and nickname. For example, "Richard Edgar Williams, born on March 1, 1950, came to be affectionately known as Richie," or "Richard Edgar Williams, affectionately known as "Richie," was born on March 1, 1950, in Plano, Texas."
- Many Spanish names present some challenges. Some may be quite long, such as Maria Rodriguez Muñoz de Guzmán. But a good rule of thumb is to use the name that was most commonly used when speaking of this person during formal settings.
It may be necessary to consider that there are common nicknames that close personal friends may use that may not be appropriate in a formal document, such as an obituary, among Hispanic people. A few examples include:
Name / Nickname
Alicia / Licha
Concepción / Concha
Dolores / Lola
Eduardo / Lalo
Francisco / Pancho or Chico
Ignacio / Nacho
Jesús / Chuy
José / Pepe
Rosario / Chayo
That being said, if all knew the person as Pepe, then it would be appropriate to use "José "Pepe" Calderón," for example.
- Regarding names, many other rules and norms apply in various cultures. Our objective is not to establish fixed rules. It is best to be guided by what would be most respected by family and close friends and not use the obituary as a place to set any matters straight. As a rule of thumb, consider that, when reading the obituary, no loved ones should be surprised or insulted.
2. Name Titles and Suffixes
Senior (Sr.) – Use this suffix for a person sharing his living son's exact name. This includes the first and middle names. If the middle name is different, then the suffix would not be appropriately used. If the son should die, the father would now be known as First, Middle, Last Name I.
Junior (Jr.) – Use this suffix for a person sharing his living father's exact name. If the father should die, the son would now be known as First, Middle, Last Name II. With this being said, if the person came to be known as "Junior" by friends and family, go ahead and use it. Now is not the time to haggle over the use of generational suffixes.
Roman Numerals (i.e., I, II, III, etc.) – When there are several people in the same family with the exact same name, it is appropriate to use a Roman numeral suffix after the name. The Roman numerals can continue to be used regardless of whether the relative with the same name is alive or has passed away. If a person is named after an ancestor such as a grandparent or great grandparent, the Roman numeral suffix still applies.
We mentioned, these Roman numerals apply to the same family and may include a grandfather, uncle, cousin, and so on if the name is the same.
There are occasions where females have used suffixes, but this is rare.
Dr. – Dr. is an abbreviation for doctor, which indicates that the individual achieved a doctorate or doctor's degree or doctoral degree from a university.
Esq. - Esq. is an abbreviation for Esquire, which indicates that the individual was a member of a state bar and could practice law. "Esq." or "Esquire" is a title that an attorney receives after passing a state's bar exam and become a licensed attorney.
3. Birthdate and Place
These details should not be difficult to obtain. But do not assume that what is commonly believed is accurate. Many people believed to be born in Los Angeles may have actually been born in a nearby city, such as Culver City, which is in Los Angeles County but is its own incorporated city.
Some communities come to be known by a specific name in many cities but are technically not cities. An example is Hollywood. Hollywood is not an actual city but rather a community within the City of Los Angeles. In such a case it would not be offensive in any way to use the community in which the person was born or lived in the obituary. Some people take great pride in the specific community that they were born or lived in and desire to distinguish it.
4. Marriage and Family Members
When listing surviving family members, try to keep it simple, but be attentive not to overlook anyone close. Note that if you overlook someone in the obituary by some chance, it is perfectly fine to add their name when the obituary is read.
It is generally best to list the spouse, children, brothers and sisters, stepbrothers and stepsisters, and close relatives that were a presence in their life. These could include uncles, aunts, and even cousins. If fewer than five or six, grandchildren's names can be included, but if there are many more, it would be best to summarize with "many grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and other relatives that will miss him/her dearly."
This is not the place for the entire family tree. But do give attention to people's feelings. If you mention one grandchild by name and not another one, there is the possibility of offending them or their family.
5. Life Events
Before you begin writing, it will be important to document a few details about your loved one's life. This could involve making a few phone calls. Consider speaking with siblings, cousins, and long-time close friends. Be sure to document details and dates. Don't worry about the chronological order. Just write down what you know and what you can find out when you speak with relatives. As you make calls, additional questions may come up that you can attempt to clarify with the same group.
As you make these calls, don't stick to simple facts. Be sure to ask what made your loved one special to them and if they know of any humorous stories or other highlights that you might include in the obituary. You won't likely be able to include everything. But this will give you some great ideas to work with.
As you prepare, attempt to gather the following details (as appropriate):
- Life and accomplishments
- Schools attended
- What he or she excelled at (i.e., sports, academics, music, etc.)
- Childhood Nicknames
- Colleges or trade schools attended
- Degrees, Trades, Special Skills
- First job
- Profession, promotions, special projects, and accomplishments
- Military service, branch, deployments
- Where he or she met their spouse
- When and where married
- First home
- Community activities, memberships, contributions
- Other special accomplishments
- Outstanding personality traits
- Likes and dislikes
- Wise sayings
- Good habits
- Special experiences or memories
- What he or she was most passionate about
- What he or she most gave to others
- Funny stories
You won't be able to use everything, but these details will be of tremendous help in putting together the obituary.
6. What not to include, things not to say
As you prepare the obituary, you may come across some details that would not be appropriately shared. A few tips to help you decide are as follows:
- Anything that would embarrass family or friends should be avoided. Bad habits, unless well-known and able to be stated in a manner that will be humorous or endearing, should be avoided.
- Any revelations that the loved one would have preferred to keep private. If he or she was believed to have been the first of anything but really was the second, now is not the time to update everyone.
- It would also be inappropriate to mention financial matters, such as how much the person is leaving to his family, the great pension his wife will enjoy, or anything about a will or debt. Even philanthropic details should be touched on with great caution. They may have given generously to a favorite charity, but there is no value in stating just how generously.
In conclusion, know that an obituary is an extremely personal piece of work. The above guidelines are intended to help. But be guided by what will most help your family and close friends to be strengthened during this difficult time and what will most honor the memory of your love done.
Published on February 15, 2021