Even if you have never written an obituary in your life, you probably have a pretty good idea of proper obituary etiquette. You probably have a gut feeling on whether or not it is appropriate to include the cause of death in the text of the obituary. You probably don’t have to be told that most people avoid writing about negative aspects of the deceased’s life.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Famous Obituaries From Artists, Actors, or Musicians
- Famous Obituaries From Politicians or Leaders
- Famous Obituaries From Other Notable People
Most obituaries stick with the facts. They list birth and death dates, names of survivors and deceased family members, and a few educational, civic, or work achievements. Some comment on the deceased’s personality.
But, there are some notable exceptions. After all, how do you write an obituary for a famous person who has had a long, complicated life? How do you tell the story of a celebrity’s life without including the good and bad reasons for how the person became famous?
Let’s look at how the press has covered the deaths of famous actors, politicians, and other people. We will also mention notable obituaries that were written too soon.
Famous Obituaries From Artists, Actors, or Musicians
It takes skill to sum up the life’s work of a famous artist, actor, or musician. After all, many of them have had long and varied careers, complex relationships, and multiple scandals. How do you show respect for the dead and inform your reader about the many facets of a person’s life?
Here are some examples of famous obituaries of famous people.
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1. Truman Capote
On the surface, one would think that Truman Capote’s obituary would center around his work as an author. Instead, the New York Times obituary went much deeper into the psyche of the In Cold Blood writer.
The Times writer even interviewed Capote’s friends, one who said that Capote “failed to join the ranks of the truly great American writers because he squandered his time, talent and health on the pursuit of celebrity, riches, and pleasure.” Yikes. Even though this may be the truth, most people would hope not to be called out by their friends in their obituary.
2. Michael Jackson
Imagine being given the task of writing the obituary for pop icon Michael Jackson. You would be remiss in not including the myriad scandals that marked his life, but at the same time, he was also one of the most celebrated performers of all time. The New York Times’ headline says it all: “A Star Idolized and Haunted, Michael Jackson Dies at 50.”
3. Robin Williams
One of the problematic aspects of writing the obituary of Robin Williams is describing his comedic style. The obituary writer for the New York Times took on this challenge and remarked how unlikely the “privileged son of a Detroit auto executive who grew up chubby and lonesome” would turn out to be one of the most legendary comedic geniuses of our time. He went on to attempt to describe a typical Williams performance. Even a prestigious writer for the New York Times wasn’t able to put Williams’ talent into words.
4. Ernest Hemmingway
Famous people pay the price for their status in many ways. While a typical person’s obituary may exclude sad details, a famous person’s obituary may shout those details from the headline. When Ernest Hemmingway was found shot with a gun next to his body, the Boston Herald's banner headline read, “Ernest Hemingway Kills Self.” Even though this was a news story and not an obituary, it shows how the death of a celebrity is reported.
5. Marilyn Monroe
The New York Times handled Marilyn Monroe’s death similarly to how the Boston Herald reported Hemmingway’s. The headline read, “Marilyn Monroe Dead; Pills Near.” Again, this was a new story and not the official obituary, but her manner of death received the same focus as the fact of Monroe’s death.
Even though Monroe has been dead for decades, her famous grave continues to receive lots of visitors each year.
6. Lou Reed
Musician Lou Reed’s wife wrote a beautiful obituary for her husband that began, “What a beautiful fall! Everything shimmering and golden and all that incredible soft light. Water surrounding us.
Lou and I have spent a lot of time here in the past few years, and even though we’re city people this is our spiritual home.” His wife went on to write how Reed died “being happy and dazzled by the beauty and power and softness of nature.”
Famous Obituaries of Politicians or Leaders
Politics is polarizing by nature, and writing an obituary for someone who spent their lives arguing his or her position can be a tricky endeavor. Here are some of the obituaries about politicians or world leaders worth noting.
7. General Cassius Clay
General Cassius Clay of Kentucky was famous for being a southern abolitionist (not for being a boxer.) When you search for examples of famous obituaries, you will see several articles published in the New York Times, each with salacious headlines.
The first reads, “Gen. Clay May Be Insane.” The second article reports, “General Clay Declared Insane.” The third article reports Clay’s death.
8. Mohandas Gandhi
The world was shocked by the death of Indian leader Mohandas Gandhi. It was reported in the New York Times as leaving “all India stunned and bewildered as to the direction that this newly independent nation would take without its ‘Mahatma’ (Great Teacher).”
9. Neil Armstrong
The same New York Times reporter who wrote about Neil Armstrong walking on the moon also wrote his obituary decades later. His first paragraph, written in 1969, simply stated, “Men have landed and walked on the moon.”
10. John F. Kennedy, Jr.
Most Americans who heard of the death of John F. Kennedy, Jr. were incredulous that such a tragedy should strike a family again.
The New York Times did not shy away from discussing the abundance of misfortunes that the Kennedy family faced when they opened the obituary with this statement: “John F. Kennedy Jr., a scion of the nation’s most celebrated political dynasty, was reported lost and presumed dead in an accident that resounded this weekend with echoes of the family’s many misfortunes.”
11. Jonas Salk
Jonas Salk’s obituary began with a reminder of why his name seemed familiar.
It read, “Dr. Jonas Salk, who in the 1950s developed the first successful vaccine against poliomyelitis, the viral illness that had gripped a fearful nation with images of children doomed to death or paralysis, died yesterday.”
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Famous Obituaries From Other Notable People
There are interesting obituaries published every day all over the world. Some of the people don’t fit in the previous categories, and others are people that you have never heard of before.
12. Billy the Kid
Most of the time, journalists try to stay impartial when reporting the news, but a reporter who wrote about Billy the Kid’s death described Billy’s time on earth as a “worse than worthless life.”
13. Mark Twain
We’ve listed Mark Twain in the “other notable people” category because his death was once reported prematurely. Twain reacted to the obituary by saying, “The report of my death was an exaggeration.”
14. Pope John Paul II
Along with Mark Twain, Pope John Paul II had his death announced prematurely three times. Although he didn’t have a humorous response like Twain, you would think that reporters would check multiple sources before misreporting the death for the third time.
15. Betty Crocker
Before you start to question whether Betty Crocker was a real person or not, let us reassure you that Betty Crocker was indeed a made-up name. The reason that she appears on this list is because of a humorous book written by Barry Nelson and Tom Schecker.
The book, Mr. Ed: Dead and Other Obituaries of the Most Famous People Who Never Lived, was a collection of fake funny obituaries. We like their Betty Crocker headline best of all. It reads, “Betty Crocker Dead at 88; Rich But No Longer Moist.”
16. Dorothy McElhaney
You’ve probably never heard of Dorothy McElhaney. She wrote her own obituary, which she began, “It pains me to admit it, but apparently, I have passed away. Everyone told me it would happen one day but that’s simply not something I wanted to hear, much less experience.”
Why Not Do It Yourself?
If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. Many people have this philosophy when it comes to writing obituaries. In fact, some people choose to write their own death announcement. Perhaps you should consider doing this as well.
In fact, you may consider taking charge and making all of your end of life plans. Choose your own casket or urn, pick your funeral flowers, and decide what music will be played at your wake.
Not only will you be reassured that things will be done correctly, but you will also make things easier for your survivors. Instead of writing your obituary, your friends and family can instead gather together to share memories of your life.
- “Not Forgotten.” The New York Times. www.nytimes.com/interactive/projects/cp/obituaries/archives