How to Write an Obituary: A Guide
How to Write an Obituary: A step-by-step guide to honoring a loved one in words
Have you been tasked with writing the obituary of a loved one?
First, I am sorry for your loss.
Second, I want to help.
I understand you may be feeling overwhelmed with the responsibility of your assignment. It’s tough to sum up someone’s life in a few short paragraphs, even harder to do so when clouded with grief. You want to write an eloquent tribute, but aren’t sure you are able, especially within the short time you have to meet a newspaper deadline.
I recently was in your shoes. My mother died the day after Christmas and, as the writer in the family, it fell to me to write her obituary. I created this guide based upon my experience. I hope it helps you create an obituary that conveys the impact of your loved one’s life and loss in a meaningful way.
The purpose of an obituary
The primary purpose of an obituary is to announce a death and provide information about the visitation, funeral, and other services or memorials. By providing this information, the obituary serves in a way to rally the community behind the deceased’s loved ones as they mourn.
An obituary also can be an important genealogical record. It documents familial relationships and important events in the deceased’s life, like dates of birth, death, and marriage. It describes educational and professional achievements. A well-written obituary helps readers understand the impact the deceased had upon the community and his or her family.
Publication of an obituary
In many newspapers, obituaries are a form of paid advertisement for which the newspaper charges by the word or the column inch. Funeral homes often will include a basic obituary as part of the services they provide, which include drafting and submitting the obituary for you.
Before drafting an obituary yourself, check with the funeral home and/or newspaper regarding any style guidelines or word limitations that may apply. Also ask about the costs for photos and extra words. The funeral home should be able to provide you with an obituary template that will meet the guidelines of your local newspaper, which you can modify to add your own words and personal touches.
Make sure to ask about the deadline for obituary submissions. Many newspapers have a mid-afternoon deadline for items to be published the next morning. If you are using an obituary to announce upcoming services for the deceased, make sure the information is published at least one or two days in advance so people have time to arrange their attendance.
When you submit the obituary for publication, do so in an electronic format. If someone has to retype what you have written, you run the risk of errors being introduced into your work.
If you cannot afford more than an abbreviated version of an obituary in the newspaper, you may be able to post a longer, more detailed version on the funeral home’s website or other memorial site. Such postings may be free or require payment of a small annual fee.
Read more: The Top 10 Online Memorial Websites
The elements of an obituary
When you write an obituary, make sure to include certain essential elements. By applying a universal format to what you write, you will aid the reader in finding the information most important to him or her. You also may avoid a rewrite by a newspaper editor or funeral home director.
The typical elements of an obituary include:
- An announcement of death
- Information about the funeral and memorial services
- A biographical sketch of the deceased
- A listing of family members
- Special messages from the family
Obituaries often include photos of the deceased, which add to the cost of the obituary. Enhanced photo options, such as color photographs, multiple photos, or large photo sizes, may be available at additional cost. If submitting a photo, choose a recent one so readers can recognize the deceased as someone they knew.
Writing the obituary
These guidelines will help you draft each section of the obituary.
1. Announce the death.
The first paragraph of the obituary generally provides the following information:
- The full name of the deceased and any nickname by which he or she commonly was known
- The deceased’s age at death
- The deceased’s residence (city and state) at death
- Time and place of death
A typical death announcement reads as follows: [Full name], [age], of [city, state], died at [location] on [date].
The fact of death can be stated in many ways. Some people may consider “died” to be too direct and choose a euphemism like “entered eternal rest” or a religious statement like “was called home to the Lord.” For my mother’s obituary, my father thought “died” sounded too cold, so I chose “passed away” instead.
Some death announcements include cause of death. Listing this information is not required. Some families simply are not comfortable sharing it. Other families may choose to include it to circumvent the inevitable questions from friends and neighbors. Still others may address cause of death in non-specific terms like “after a short illness” or “peacefully.”
You may have seen obituaries that say things like “after a courageous battle with cancer.” This description would have worked for my mother, and my father and I specifically discussed whether to include something like it. In the end, we decided not to. Most people who knew my mom knew she had been undergoing treatment for Stage IV breast cancer for over two years and would assume her death to be cancer-related. More importantly, my mother did not want her life to be defined by cancer. A hackneyed phrase was neither necessary nor appropriate.
However, wanting to provide some reassurance to her extended family and friends that my mother met the best kind of end for which one could hope under the circumstances, I did state that she died at home “with her family at her side.”
2. Provide service times.
The funeral home can assist you with the details that should be included about the funeral and services and the specific order in which they should be listed according to your local traditions. The information provided may include the date and location of the visitation, the date and place of the funeral service, the name of the officiant, and the date and place of the burial, also known as the interment.
If these details are not available at the time the obituary is published, you could say “funeral arrangements are pending at XYZ Funeral Home.” Interested parties may then contact the funeral home for details, or you can republish the obituary later when the information is available.
If the services are private, say something like “the family will hold private services at a later date.”
3. Include biographical information.
With limitations on length, remember that an obituary is not a full biography. Rather, choose some of the important milestones in the person’s life, as well as a few details that convey your loved one’s personality and contributions. Items to consider including are:
- Date and place of birth
- Parents’ names, including mother’s maiden name
- Date and place of marriage
- Spouse’s name and maiden name, if applicable
- Schools attended
- Military service
- Profession and places of employment
- Membership in service and social organizations
- Hobbies and interests
- Honors and awards
To determine what details to include, seek input from family members and friends of the deceased. Don’t simply provide a laundry list of events and accomplishments, provide meaningful examples that convey as much information as you can in as few words as possible. Tell a story that will allow your loved one to live on in the memories of others.
Before drafting my mother’s obituary, I sat down with my father and asked him what details he wanted me to include. My mother had many hobbies, interests and talents, and there were a few in particular my dad wanted to mention: She was a quilter who won many awards for her work, she loved to hike, bike, camp, dance, garden, and travel, and she was a member in several organizations that were important to her.
I also took note of how many people told me in the days before and after her death that they considered my mother to be a second mom to them. She didn’t work outside the home, but provided in-home daycare for many years to a number of children, including her own grandsons. She readily welcomed her children’s friends, the neighbor kids, and her nieces and nephews into the home and created a lot of happy childhood memories for many people.
Finally, there were a few things that held special meaning to me and my siblings that I wanted to convey: My parents’ beautiful love story that began when they were teenagers, my mother’s love of birds that she passed on to all of us, her fun-loving, playful nature and high energy, and her talents in the kitchen.
With all of the above information in mind, I came up with the following biographical sketch:
Janet was born in Dubuque, Iowa, on May 20, 1944, to Michael and Leona (Roling) Herting. She graduated from Wahlert High School in 1962. She met the love of her life, John Neyens, at an ice skating rink when they were sophomores in high school. They were united in marriage on June 27, 1964.
Janet was the mother of four children and a second mom to countless more, who knew her as “Mom Jan.” She made a home filled with love, laughter, and the aroma of her fresh-baked rolls.
Janet moved through life at high speed, producing two generations of fast walkers just trying to keep up with her. She loved playing games with her grandchildren, roasting marshmallows over the campfire, watching birds in the garden, hiking up mountains, biking down trails, exploring the country on long RV trips, and showing off her moves on the dance floor.
A talented seamstress and award-winning quilter, Janet was a member of the American Sewing Guild and Eastern Iowa Heirloom Quilters. She was a member of St. Pius X Parish since 1969.
4. List family members.
Most obituaries list surviving family members, and many also list close relatives who preceded the deceased in death. There are no rules about who may be listed, and some obituaries identify close friends and even pets. Relatives to consider including are:
- Children and step-children
- Grandchildren and great-grandchildren
- Nieces and nephews
For large families, categories like grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and nieces and nephews may be listed by number and not individually named (e.g., “27 grandchildren” or “many nieces and nephews). Categories like cousins or spouse’s family often are not included due to space constraints, except for persons who were especially close to the deceased.
Begin the family listing by stating “[deceased’s name] is survived by …” and starting with the closest surviving relations and their spouses. Use this format: first name (living spouse’s name) last name. For example: “John (Mary) Smith” or “Jane (John Smith) Doe.” Then, if including predeceased relatives, state “[deceased’s name] was preceded in death by” and follow the same format, listing those family members who died first.
5. Offer any special messages from the family.
The final element of many obituaries is a special message from the family of the deceased. A message is optional, but could include such things as a thank you to the deceased’s medical providers or caretakers, instructions for those interested in contributing to a memorial fund, or a short poem or prayer dedicated to the deceased.
In my mother’s obituary, I indicated that in lieu of flowers, memorials may be made to the Anna Purna Ghosh Foundation to help cancer patients in need. I also provided both an address and URL for the convenience of those wishing to make a donation.
Before submitting your obituary, proofread it carefully and ask someone else to read it, too. As you review it, consider the following:
- Are all names spelled correctly?
- Are all of the dates accurate?
- Have you included all family members who should be included?
- What would your loved one think of the obituary? Does it convey the things most important to him or her?
- Is the obituary specific and expressive without relying on generic adjectives or clichés?
- Is the obituary written in clear, simple language that is easy to read?
In the end, an obituary should be quiet celebration of a life well-lived and a way for the deceased to remain alive in our memories. I hope this guide will help you achieve that result for your loved one.
© 2016 Deborah Neyens