How to Write an Obituary
Tips for writing an unforgettable tribute for your deceased loved one.
Courtesy of Opal Cremation of Southern California
When we leave this world, we leave behind the story of our lives. It can be a daunting task to write an obituary while your head is swimming with grief. How can you possibly sum up a person’s life and death in a few paragraphs? It’s understandable that you may not know where to start. An obituary is so much more than a quick announcement of someone’s death. It’s a written representation of a person’s life. It brings family and friends together to remember the spirit of the departed.
While there are some traditional elements to writing an obituary, the important thing is to capture the essence of your loved one. If the deceased loved to laugh and cause trouble, their obituary might be full of humor and pizzazz. But others may prefer to take a simpler, more elegant approach. Whatever you decide, there are essential points you’ll want to convey.
Here is a step-by-step guide to writing an unforgettable tribute to honor the person in your life who has passed away.
1. Start with the facts
Most obituaries start with a short sentence announcing the death. You’ll want to include the name, a brief description of the person, their age, and the date they passed away. Some people prefer to go the traditional route, keeping the announcement short and simple, such as:
On Tuesday, January 5th, Jane Smith, loving wife and mother of three children and six grandchildren, passed away at the age of 87.
Others have taken full creative license, reflecting their loved-one’s personality in witty jokes and fun stories. Here’s an excerpt from an obituary which was lauded, “The Best Obituary Ever,” by the New York Times:
Joe Heller made his last undignified and largely irreverent gesture on September 8, 2019, signing off on a life, in his words, “generally well-lived and with few regrets.”
2. Add some basic biographical information
In this section, you can talk about when and where the deceased was born. Write about where they went to school, where they worked, their accomplishments, and their family members. A simple approach would look something like this:
Jane was born in Phoenix, Arizona on March 22, 1934, to Mary and Bob Johnson. She received her degree in literature from Arizona State University in 1967, and went on to write two best-selling novels. On April 15th, 1968, Jane married Juan Martinez. They raised two daughters, Anna and Hannah, and one son, Henry. Jane has six grandchildren, Beth, Pierre, George, Sam, Lily, Sophie, and Teddy.
Monique Heller opted for a funnier list of accomplishments while writing about her dad, Joe Heller:
Besides his beloved wife, Irene, and brother, Bobby, Joe was predeceased by his pet fish, Jack, who we found in the freezer last week. Left to squabble over his vast fortune, real estate holdings and “treasures” are his three daughters…
3. Write in the Present Tense
Before you start writing about the personal story of your loved one, here’s a tool to make it easier. Journalist Emma Goss has written obituaries for just about everyone, from celebrities to members of her community. She recommends writing about your loved one in the present tense to help you connect with them. Or, she says you can write it in a letter form, as if you’re writing to their wife, best friend, or sibling. Give them some uplifting information about the deceased. You can change it to past tense later.
4. Personal Stories
This is the part of the obituary in which your loved one’s essence will shine through. Talk about what they loved, their hobbies, interests, and their personality. This is a great place to talk about your uncle’s love for fly fishing, or your grandmother’s zest for martial arts. Share their favorite jokes. Here’s a lighthearted example of a personal touch in an obit about 94 year-old woman, Mary “Pat” Stocks, written by her son, Sandy:
She believed in overcooking everything until it chewed like rubber… If anyone would like a copy of her homemade gravy recipe, we would suggest you don’t. She liked four letter words as much as she loved her rock garden and trust us she LOVED to weed that garden with us as her helpers, when child labour was legal or so we were told.
5. Think about how they would like to be remembered
We know that the obituary is a message to surviving friends and family. But it’s important to consider the way your loved one would like to be remembered. If there is something you know they were proud of, share it with the same level of enthusiasm. If your cousin loved model airplanes, talk about his epic collection. These little details will help friends and family connect with the deceased.
6. Sincerity is Key
Whether your loved one was a serious scholar, or an old prankster, it’s important to tailor their obituary to their unique situation. If a death happens under tragic circumstances, it’s okay to keep it informative and brief. Not every obituary has to be clever or funny. Sometimes, a few sincere lines containing the pertinent information are all that is needed. Ultimately it comes down to what you and your family feel comfortable sharing.
7. Memorial Service Details
If you are having a public funeral or memorial service, you’ll want to include the details so friends and family can join you. This can be straightforward. Something like:
A funeral service will be held on Sunday, May 3rd, 2020, at St. Joe’s Church at 1234 Main St. at 10:00 am. In lieu of flowers, please send donations to St. Joe’s Children’s Fund.
8. Give yourself grace
Organizing services and writing an obituary are not easy things to do while you are grieving. It may help to write in small sections and take breaks. After you feel rested, you can read, edit, revise, and add more. Remember, it doesn’t have to be perfect. If you find yourself stuck, start with the basic information. As you remember stories about your loved one, jot them down. And don’t be afraid to ask for help. Reach out to your friends and family members to see if they have any fond memories they’d like to share. An obituary is just one of the many ways you, your friends, and your family will honor the memory of the deceased. Don’t worry if you can’t find the perfect words. The memories will live on and continue to be shared long after the obituary has been written. So give yourself grace and take good care of yourself during this difficult time.
At Opal Cremation, we simplify the end-of-life process so you can focus on what matters most.
Opal provides consumers with a straightforward and compassionate direct cremation service with specialized resources to aid during a difficult time.