Obituary Writing Tips
Here are some tips to writing an obituary that is accurate, lively, and memorable.
An obituary is many things in one: a notice of a death, a story of a life, a record of the extended family, information about a funeral service, a thank you to those who helped out, a request for memorial donations.The basic information must be covered, accurately and completely. As well, an obituary can be a compelling story of a life.
Accurate and Complete
Accuracy and completeness are most important. This sounds obvious, but it is not easy. Errors can slip in, names can be misspelled, dates can be wrong, information can be missed. The best way to ensure accuracy is to proofread, and then to proofread again. A good way to catch errors is to set aside a document, and then look at it another day - another reason to plan ahead so that you have the time to do it right. Use this website's obituary template as a basic guide, but also use your judgment as you go along. The final result is up to you, but it would be a mistake, for example, to omit some relatives simply by accident (in addition to the ones that you wanted to leave out!).
I have collected obituaries with numerous errors, of both omission and commission. Some omit the date of birth. Some even omit the date of death – which one would conclude was of obvious importance. Many do not accurately list relatives. For example, some list the grandparents who survived and predeceased the individual, but they don't add up to four, which again one might think was obvious. I have seen obituaries that have misspellings, including the name of the hometown, or even words like "interment." I was sent an obituary of an older woman by a person who knew her - it omitted the date of birth, as well as the interesting fact that she had lived to be 101!
Otherwise good ideas are compromised by these errors. One obituary of a great-grandmother, for example, referred to a park bench being placed in her memory in a "birth forest." The location of the bench is by the birth tree of her grandson "John." This is a nice idea, except that "John" is referred to earlier as her great-grandson.
A concern about “identity theft” is prompting some to recommend not providing complete information – such as the date of birth – in an obituary. Although we don’t want thieves to steal the identities of the dead, I think this would be a real shame if obituaries were to be greatly abbreviated. The complete details are important, including the date of birth, middle names, and maiden names of married women. These details are also useful for family and community archival and genealogical uses.
Being prudent is obviously in order, and everyone will have to find their own balance between completeness and caution.
Help Prevent Identity Theft
“Summing up a life is an awesome responsibility,” points out newspaper obituary writer Alana Baranick, on her website Death Beat. An obituary can be interesting and compelling - especially if it focuses more on the life lived than on the notice of the death. An obituary can help those in the family and other people know more about one of their own members, themselves, and the community in general.
My files contain obituaries that show how dull some are when there is but the basic list of name, date of death, and funeral arrangements. I have one of a man who lived to 96, yet his obituary only contains 69 words (including the date and time of funeral and donation requests); another who lived to 86 whose obituary is only 82 words. Surely their lives were more than that! If the cost of buying classified space was a concern, I say leave out the donation part and include something about the person who lived their life. Even three carefully chosen words can sum up a life.
I also think that most people would like to thank those around them for helping them in their opportunity to live, work, raise a family, and participate in society. Many would like to thank not only those who cared for them when they were sick, dying, and after death; but also those who helped along the way of life. The obituary is that chance to reach out with a report of a life lived and engaged in a community.
“If we're lucky,” Baranick says, “an obituary will inspire the living to be good to their neighbors, strive for success and keep hope alive.”
For many people, their obituary may be just about the only thing that is ever written about them in their whole life and death. The obituary can be the defining statement about that person for the family, friends, and community. An obituary can be read now, and saved for generations. All the more reason to make it lively and significant.
Obituary Writing Tips
* * *See Also:
Six Words To Describe A Life?
Memoir Writing: Ten Tips
How to Write a Life Story
A Family History Writing Workshop