Obituary Guide

Write a Life Story

A short life story can be an alternative to writing an obituary in advance. When the obituary is needed, all the facts of the life are already at hand.

A life story can be composed for oneself or a relative or friend. It only needs to be a couple of pages long. A life story has the advantage of being able to be reviewed by the person involved. This step is good for checking the accuracy of facts and for the tone as well. A life story also can be a way to trigger and consolidate memories of the older – and the not-so-older – members of the family.

As well, Grandma's or Grandpa's life story (while they are still living) can be presented as a memento to children and grandchildren.

The best way to start is to get started. Get ideas down on paper, and organize them either by timeline, theme, or both. Don't worry about style, it can always be improved later. Many events of any person's life will sound bland and ordinary, but need to be included.

A note here about personal diaries (or journals). A diary is written for the person writing it; a life story or memoir is written for other people. If a diary has been kept, this could be source material in preparing a short life story or a longer memoir. Also, if a diary has been kept: make sure there are instructions for after death to either have it passed down or destroyed.

Because a life story is written while the person is still living (and so of course does not wind up with funeral arrangements), the ending can be happy, and even oriented to the future. Whether the story is written chronologically or thematically, consider finishing the story with a positive theme in any case. Cast the final sentence so it ends with an upbeat or future-oriented word.

Look for a way to end like: "Belonging to the coin collecting club has been a source of many good memories and continues to bring to his life much enjoyment."

Or: "She has participated in numerous running competitions over the years, and is preparing to enter the local senior's event next year."

Or even: "He has been greatly interested in the lives of his grandchildren, and looks forward to seeing them grow and change in the future."

Alternatively, end with three words that sum up the person's life. (Or, think of six words; see the review Six Words To Describe A Life?)

A basic two-page life story also can be a start to a longer memoir. For more on this subject, see the article “Memoir Man” a Born Storyteller.

Of course, having already written the life story, when the time comes for the obituary, the facts, anecdotes, and themes of the life lived are already there.

Life Story Writing Tips

  • Use this website.  Look at the Obituary Template as a guide for necessary information.
  • Get started.  The most important thing is to get started. Get your ideas down on paper. Organize your ideas either by timeline, theme, or a combination. Worry about improving the style later. For on-going and current events, use the present tense.
  • Get all the facts.  While you are collecting ideas, include all the facts, for example the complete birth dates of ancestors as well as children and grandchildren. This is more detailed than an obituary needs to be, but can be very useful for posterity. Ideas for details that are often missed: street addresses where people lived, locations where deceased ancestors are buried.
  • Deal with diaries.  Incorporate any information from them; confirm instructions for them after death.
  • End on a high note.  Conclude with three words that sum up the life, or with an on-going theme or interest in the person's life. Make the ending positive, even inspiring.
  • Read it to others.  Read aloud a draft at a family gathering to check facts, to get feedback on descriptions, and to generate more ideas. This process is a way to not only confirm, but also relive and revive old memories. 
  • Edit.  As with any writing, revising improves the final product. This process not only spots errors, but also improves the style. An excellent way to improve any writing is to set it aside for a few days, then look at it with fresh eyes – your own or someone else's. 
  • Proofread.  Then proofread again.  
  • Send it out.  Distribute the completed life story as a keepsake to family members. It could even prompt the writing of stories for other family members. 
  • Consider a longer memoir.  A short life story can be the basis of a longer work. 
  • Keep it Available.  Use the life story as a handy resource for when the obituary is needed.
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See Also:

Memoir Writing: Ten Tips

Six Words To Describe A Life?

“Memoir Man” a Born Storyteller

A Family History Writing Workshop

Live Well, Do Good

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