How to Write an Obituary
Writing is intimidating for most people. Even those who write regularly get writer’s block, lose motivation and procrastinate. It can be even harder to write when announcing the death of a loved one.
When someone passes away, an obituary is usually published to announce the death. This can be difficult and emotional for the person tasked with writing the final record of a person’s life. Not only does the obituary need to be factually accurate and sensitive, but it will need to be published shortly after the death and before the funeral.
Despite the feelings of grief that will arise, writing the obituary should be a positive, cathartic experience. Use this guide to address the challenges of writing the obituary, so you can focus on your loved one and the special life they lived.
1. Gather information
In times like this, it’s helpful to discuss the necessary details with close family members or friends. You may not recall all the pertinent details right now—where your loved one was born or when they graduated or received their degree. Remember, when you are grieving, your memory may not be at its best. Consulting others who knew them will help confirm the information you need to craft an accurate life story.
Start by gathering your loved one’s basic information, including:
- Full legal name
- Birthdate and death date
- City and state of residence at death
- Name of significant other
- Full names of parents and siblings
- Names of those that preceded them in death
- Names of those surviving
- Date and time of funeral services being held
- Names of pallbearers
- Name of funeral home and cemetery
If funeral arrangements have not yet been made, you can always include the name of the funeral home and state "arrangements are being made" or “funeral to take place at a later date.” If the ceremony is to be private, note that instead. Those interested can contact the funeral home for more information.
Include information on where the family would like to have memorials sent. When planning for memorials, think of what your loved one would want. If they liked flowers and enjoyed seeing them blossom in spring, don't put "in lieu of flowers." Don't request donations to an animal shelter if your loved one didn't like animals and don't request donations to a cause they didn't support. A photograph can also be included with the obituary. Some newspapers will scale down a larger photograph to fit. Others will request a specific photo size. Check with the newspaper to see what they require and how they want it submitted.
2. Check with the newspaper
Look at obituaries in your local paper. This will give you a guideline to follow.
Some newspapers will provide a template or format to follow. Others will have no guidelines and it will be up to you as to how much or how little you include. If you intend to place the obituary in print, check with the newspaper for any format requirements they may have before you begin to write. There is usually no length limit, leaving the content up to you and your family.
Ask for the newspaper’s obituary pricing structure. Some obituaries are priced per word or per line. If budget is a restraint, consider keeping the obituary short and sweet. Most print obituaries also include an online version. Once finished with the print notice, you can sign in to your account and add to the digital story.
Most obituaries begin with the basic information gathered above, then follow with a summary of the loved one’s life. For this step, don't worry about the length as you begin to put down the information. You can always edit and cut once you have finished. Right now, just concentrate on summarizing your loved one’s life. Start from the beginning and include the important events along the way.
Once you have gathered the basic information and checked with the newspaper, it is time to to write the obituary. As you begin to write about your loved one’s life, go into as much or little detail as you would like. If you’re unsure what to write about, include the following:
- Military background
- Honors and awards
- Extra-curricular activities
- Home life
- Special pets
Traditionally, families do not include cause of death in the obituary notice. However, many modern obituaries contain this information, particularly after a sudden, unexpected death, or when the deceased publicly battled an illness, such as cancer. The decision to include cause of death is personal, and should be made by those who were closest to the deceased person.
4. Make it personal
Your loved one was unique. Think about the things that made them special, and include the touching details that your reader might like to know about your loved one. This is your chance to memorialize your loved one and let others know the whole person.
Include interesting tidbits, something the reader might not have known about your loved one—and don't be afraid to include humor. Sharing little known facts about your loved one with family and friends gives them something to smile about and lasting memories to cherish.
You will need a eulogy for the funeral service and this draft can serve that purpose as well. The longer version can be read at the funeral and a shorter version can be used for the obituary.
5. Proofread and edit
Once the initial draft is written, be sure to proof your work and have someone else check it for spelling and grammatical errors. Make sure you spell names correctly and don't leave out family members or other important details.
At this time, you can decide if you want to shorten what you've written and possibly keep the longer version for a bulletin insert or for the pastor to read at the funeral. Some funeral homes include a basic obituary as part of the package. If so, check with them to see what their word limit is, or if there is one. If the newspaper charges by column inch, you might want to call and find out how many words make up a column inch so you will have an idea of what price you are looking at. Then you can edit accordingly.
If all the above seems overwhelming or you just don't feel up to it—delegate! Writing the obituary shouldn't be a stressful time. If you don't feel up to it or you aren't confident in your writing ability, pass the task on to someone who enjoys writing or that is good at writing letters. You can provide them with the information, make suggestions, and they can take notes. Make this easy on yourself.
Don't feel guilty about passing the task along if you are not up to it. Friends and family are glad to help in times of need.
7. Submit to the newspaper
In order to ensure that the obituary reaches the paper without errors, check with the paper to determine the best way to submit the obituary. Oftentimes, the newspaper will allow you to submit the obituary online or via email.
You can also ask for a proof of the obituary before it is printed so you can ensure there are no errors or omissions. Find out the deadline for the obituary, where to send it, and the date the obituary will be published.
8. Publish in another newspaper
You have the option of printing the obituary in more than one paper. You could print the obituary in the newspaper of the town where your loved one grew up; or if you loved one recently moved, at both the new and the old location.
If you plan to submit to other locations, check with them to see how they suggest you submit the obituary. Check prices and word count, as they will vary depending on the newspaper.
9. Read the story
Once the obituary is printed in the paper, check to make sure names are correct and important information is included. If there are errors, call the newspaper and if time allows, have them print a correction. This is especially important if names of family members or funeral service event details, like date, time or location, are wrong.
10. Keep a copy
Be sure to purchase the newspaper containing the obituary on the day it is published, and keep a copy of the obituary as a keepsake.
Some funeral homes include several laminated copies of the obituary in the package. Check with your funeral home to see if this is included, and then determine how many additional copies you might need.
Purchase several copies for family and friends unable to attend the funeral. Notify others if it will be published in their hometown paper and on what date. For those unable to attend the funeral, it's nice to receive a copy of the funeral bulletin and the obituary.
Avoiding common mistakes
Use this list to avoid common mistakes and to make the task of writing the obituary easier.
- Don't make the obituary about those still living—make it about your loved one.
- Include information about your loved one's life, not just the funeral details.
- Avoid abbreviations or terms that everyone may not understand.
- Write in the third person and refer to your loved one as an individual, not as Mom or Dad or our son or our daughter.
- When considering memorials, consider your loved one's wishes—not your own.
- Proofread and proofread again.
- Double-check the spelling of all names.
- Have a close family member look over the obituary to make sure you are not leaving any family members out.