Can You Write an Honest Obituary? Here’s How

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Writing an obituary is a daunting task, especially if you’ve never written one before. An obituary, or death notice, is largely practical in nature. It informs the community that your loved one passed away, and it provides some needed information.

For example, an obituary can include details related to the funeral service, as well as your loved one’s age at death and surviving family members. 

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But an obituary can also be deeply personal. It’s a celebration of your loved one’s life, and an opportunity to convey how much they meant to you. And an obituary doesn’t have to be all buttoned-up and formal. 

You can write an honest obituary that tells the truth about your loved one’s life. At the same time, you can remain tasteful and follow the basic rules of obituary etiquette.  

Step 1: Avoid Speaking Ill of the Dead

Some cases of extraordinarily honest obituaries have made headlines in the recent past. For example, a 2017 obituary for a man in Galveston Texas went viral with its brutal honesty. It began: 

"Leslie Ray 'Popeye' Charping was born in Galveston on November 20, 1942, and passed away January 30, 2017, which was 29 years longer than expected and much longer than he deserved." (CNN)

The obituary continued for several paragraphs, describing the man’s many transgressions in meticulous detail. 

This example, as well as others that have gone viral in the past several years, show that deeply personal obituaries can easily reach the eyes of millions. If you don’t want the whole world reading your honest obituary and all it entails, you may want to steer clear of creating a potentially viral obituary.

At the same time, speaking ill of the dead in print is a decision you may want to consider carefully for other reasons. Remember that other family members will probably read the obituary. It’ll impact your relationship with them, as well as their relationship to the deceased. 

ยป MORE: What are the practical steps to take after a loss? We've got you covered with this checklist.

 

Step 2: Unless You’re Sure You Want To

Once you’ve thought through the consequences of writing an obituary that includes some brutal honesty, you might decide you still want to take that plunge. And that’s your decision to make, as long as you follow the rules provided by the publisher. 

For example, some news sites and papers won’t allow you to publish certain things. Most won’t allow profanity, so it’s best to avoid that altogether. 

And even if you’re writing a not-so-nice obituary or one that includes some harsh honesty, it’s important to review your writing and publish something you’re happy with. 

Rather than jotting down everything you think about the person and sending it in right away, take some time out to re-read, edit, and consider your words carefully. 

Step 3: Determine Your Audience

Who do you expect to read the obituary you’re creating? If you’re primarily writing an obituary to inform the public about your loved one’s death, you might write it differently than if you expect your closest family members to read it.

Knowing your audience is one of the biggest steps in writing anything, including an obituary. Once you can imagine your reader sitting down and taking in the obituary you’ve created, you’ll have a better picture of what you want to include in the piece.  

Step 4: Say Anything You Don’t Want to Repeat

In addition to sharing and archiving essential information like someone’s date of death, obituaries let you set in writing anything you don’t want to repeat over and over again. 

For example, people sometimes wonder whether or not they should include the cause of death in an obituary. The primary reason for doing so, and the reason many people choose to do so, is so that they don’t have to tell everyone individually. If you include the cause of death in the obituary, you’re much less likely to have to answer the question, “How did they die?” again and again.

Consider whether there’s any piece of information people might be curious enough to ask about and whether you’d rather just set the record straight within the obituary. 

Step 5: Tell a Story

An obituary can also be a kind of miniature biography if you choose to make it one. They can include things like, “He was a loving father and a dedicated teacher,” or, “She never stopped striving for the best.”  

But people’s lives are rarely picture-perfect, and an obituary that tells a story doesn’t have to be, either. You can tell the story of how your mother overcame hardship or escaped a bad relationship. You can tell the story of how your grandfather became a better man over time. 

The story you tell in an obituary can be honest, and even feature some of the less-perfect parts of the person’s life. At the same time, you can incorporate the person’s strengths or how they managed to live through those difficult times. 

Step 6: Write From the Heart

An obituary is about the person who died, but it’s also about the people who survived that death, including you. You can add touches of your own thoughts and feelings into the obituary by speaking from the heart. 

Consider writing part of the obituary about how the person touched your life and the lives of others. For example, “Lizbeth went through harder times than her children and grandchildren could imagine. She taught them the strength and resiliency that they have to this day.” 

Step 7: Touch On the Positives and Negatives

Most people’s lives are a balance of good and bad. No person is entirely perfect, but no one is completely evil, either. 

When you’re writing an honest obituary, consider the positive and negative impacts the deceased made on the lives of others. In which areas were they just average, and in what skills or capabilities were they outstanding? 

You can incorporate that sense of balance by adding things like, “He did his best as a father, even when we struggled as a family.” 

Step 8: Add a Touch of Humor

An obituary doesn’t have to be all doom-and-gloom. It’s also a celebration of a person’s life. And there’s no better way to celebrate someone’s life than by remembering some of the fun times you had together. 

You can lighten up the mood of an obituary by adding a touch of humor. Reference a joke your loved one made at every family gathering, or recall a silly activity you did together. Here are even more ideas for writing a funny obituary if that’s the route you choose. 

Step 9: Get Input From Family and Friends

You might be tasked with writing your loved one’s obituary, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get help. Ask family members and friends of the deceased whether they want to give input for the obituary.

You can also ask a family member or close friend to read through the obituary and let you know what they think before you submit it. 

Step 10: Don’t Skip the Facts

You can write as honest an obituary as you please, whether it’s a funny one, a heartfelt one, or one with slightly darker tones. But it’s still essential to include some basic information that typically goes in an obituary. 

For example, people reading an obituary like to know the person’s full name. This helps family members and friends understand exactly who died. Seeing the full name in print at the top of an obituary also gives grieving loved ones a sense of closure. 

Here’s a full list of the details you might want to consider adding at the top of the obituary, if applicable: 

  • Full name, including first name, middle name or initial, and last name
  • Maiden name, nickname, or former name
  • Age at death
  • Location and time of death
  • Surviving family members (those who are still alive)
  • Predeceased family members (those who already passed away)
  • Time and location of the funeral or memorial

Step 11: Set It Aside and Come Back Later

When you’re writing something from the heart, it can be easy to lose track of what you’re putting down. Emotions can take over, and suddenly you have a full obituary in front of you with little idea of what you wrote. 

That’s why, when you’re writing an honest obituary, it’s a good idea to set your writing aside and come back with fresh eyes. Before you send the obituary to the news site or newspaper for publishing, give it a few more reads and make edits as you see fit. 

Imagine you’re a family friend or relative, reading the obituary for the first time. Try to picture how they might react to reading the message. Determine whether they’ll get the information they need from it and whether or not your happy with the type of response you may elicit from them. 

Honest Obituary Examples

Here are a few honest obituary examples to help get you started. 

Example one

“Jonas B. Holland passed away on April 4, 2020, doing what he loved most in the world: sleeping. He is survived by his fur-children, Sparkles and Emma, and his human children, Ben and Becka.” 

Example two

“Lionel Nicholas Trip departed this world on February 2, 2019. He won’t be missed by his neighbors, who were never a fan of his music. But his friends and family will miss him dearly. His surviving children, Jessica and Martin, remember him as both the “fun dad” and a loving father. 

Example three

“Kaitlin Picasso died at the age of 84 in her Seattle home on March 22. She’d recently reconnected with her surviving daughter, Anne Picasso-West, who’s grateful to have had the opportunity to know mother, if only for a short time.” 

Writing Your Own Honest Obituary 

If you want to get your own obituary done ahead of time, you might choose to pen an honest obit about yourself. You can do so following all of the steps provided above, and you have the added benefit of self-deprecating humor and your personal perspective.  When your family publishes your obituary, they should be sure to note that you wrote it yourself. 

Writing your own honest obituary takes one task off your family’s plate when you pass away. At the same time, it can add a touch of levity to a difficult situation, and it can help them grieve your loss.


Sources

Willingham, AJ. “This may be the most brutal, honest obituary ever.” 13 February 2017. https://www.cnn.com/2017/02/13/health/obituary-charping-texas-man-trnd/index.html

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