How to Write a (Great) Obituary

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Guest post by Jasmine Tanguay
Legacy Facilitator and Funeral Celebrant

Writing an obituary can be a difficult, sorrowful, and yet inspiring act.  A generic obituary template becomes deeply personal when filled with the details of our loved one’s life (or our own). As much as they are about sharing biographical facts and important funeral information, obituaries are a chance to tell the story of someone’s life and demonstrate their lasting contributions to both family and community.

The difference between an ordinary obituary and a great obituary is often the amount of creativity (and sometimes humor) deployed within its limited text.  However, don’t go overboard with someone else’s story: keep it true to their personality. Here we will walk you through simple steps for how to compose an obituary that captures the essence of your loved one—or of your own journey if you are writing your own in advance. 

Getting started

Obituaries typically begin by announcing the deceased’s passing. Provide their name with a very brief description, their age, and the date of their death. E.g., On Wednesday, October 9, 2019, Jane Smith, loving wife and mother of two children, passed away at the age of 68.

Simple enough.

But from there, you have some stylistic decisions to make. If you are paying per-word for a newspaper obituary, you may wish to leave out some biographical data in favor of creating a compelling and interesting story that captures the essence of their (or your) life. If you want to be thorough about the customary biographical information, you can tackle the list below.

Gathering the facts

The details you will typically gather to include in  the obituary are:

  • Full name, including his or her middle name or initial, maiden name and/or nickname, if applicable  
  • Age at the time of death
  • Where the deceased was living at the time of death (city and state)
  • Day of the week and date of death (month, day, and year)
  • Place and cause of death, if you wish to include this information in the obituary
  • Birthdate (month, day, and year) and place of birth (city and/or state)
  • Full name(s) of parent(s) and/or stepparent(s)
  • Marriage(s), including date (month and/or year), location, and name of spouse(s)
  • Education: school, college, university and/or other, if applicable
  • Achievements, awards, and other forms of recognition
  • Employment history, if desired, and Military service
  • Place(s) of residence (city and/or state)

In addition, you will want to list family members of the deceased.  Begin with those still living (“Survived by”) and their city/state of residence.

  • Spouse, partner, or significant other
  • Children and/or stepchildren in order of date of birth, and their spouses. List spouse’s first name in parenthesis, then surname. If the spouse’s surname is different, or the couple is not married, include the partner’s surname in the parenthesis along with their first name.
  • Grandchildren and/or step-grandchildren (by first name or just the number of)
  • Great-grandchildren and/or step-great-grandchildren (names or just the number of)
  • Great-great-grandchildren and/or great-great step-grandchildren (names or just the number of)
  • Parents and/or stepparent(s)
  • Grandparents
  • Siblings (in order of date of birth)
  • Others, such as nephews, nieces, cousins, in-laws (optional)

Then, if there are family members who have died, list them as “Predeceased by…” (include name and month/year of death, if known):

  • Spouse(s), partner(s), or significant other(s)
  • Children and/or stepchildren (in order of date of birth)
  • Grandchildren and/or step-grandchildren
  • Siblings (in order of date of birth)
  • Parents and/or stepparent(s)
  • Others, such as nephews, nieces, cousins, in-laws (optional)

If you prefer to “fill in the blanks,” this free tool from Legacy.com helps you create and share an obituary online and in your local newspaper.

Capturing a unique life in a few paragraphs

To write a great obituary, it’s important to capture the essence of the person who has passed. Step away from the details and try writing a paragraph that describes what that person was really like. Did they have a common expression? A quirky habit, a favorite recipe, or a creative way of showing love to others? You may wish to mention hobbies, sports, interests, activities, causes supported, and/or other forms of passion, enjoyment, or recreation. Especially important are activities that reflect the values of the deceased, such as charitable, religious, fraternal, political, and/or other affiliations.  Try to weave interests and achievements (as space allows) into stories about the deceased's special qualities, rather than just listing them.

Sharing the scoop on services

Another major function of an obituary has traditionally been to share information about the time and location of funeral services or other commemorative activities. Here are the details that  you'll need to include:

  • Any public funeral, memorial, vigil, or graveside service details, if applicable, including date, time, and location (including the location/business name and physical street address, city and state, and a website address or link, if available)
  • Name(s) of the officiant(s), pallbearers, and/or other information, if applicable and desired
  • Location of interment, if applicable

Special instructions and sayings

At the end of an obituary, messages about special charities (e.g., ‘in lieu of flowers, donations may be made to..’) or other appreciations (e.g., ”Thanks to the staff at hospice for..”) often appear. If you want to direct readers to send flowers and/or contributions to a funeral memorial fund or designated charitable organization, be sure to include details concerning how/where to donate (include a website address or link, if possible).

Sometimes a short prayer or a line from a poem is placed at the end (E.g., We will always carry your memory in our hearts”). Such additions are optional but can communicate an important message at the close of the obituary.

If you are in the position of submitting the obituary of someone who has pre-written their own, you will probably (unless instructed otherwise) want to add a bit about how others (family members, their community) were positively impacted by the deceased. Adding that perspective is something the deceased couldn’t do and makes the obituary more than a simply autobiographical statement.

Choosing an obituary photo

Online obituaries nearly always include a photograph, which is a wonderful way to remind us of the deceased. Some people choose to go with a recent photo. If your loved one was very ill during the last years of their life, it's not uncommon to use an older photo of a person when they were in better health to help people recall a more pleasant deceased’s life story.  In a printed obituary, photos add significantly to the cost yet are a useful way (especially if a recent shot is used) for readers to recognize our loved one among all the other obituaries.

Writing your own obituary

While you may be reading this article to write an obituary for your loved one, consider writing your own obituary in advance. This can be immensely helpful to your loved ones someday. Sure, they'll likely need to make some tweaks and updates, but having a foundation to work off with all the factual information will make the process that much easier at a stressful time. 

If you're young and healthy, consider writing your own aspirational obituary. This can be a powerful activity that lends clarity to what's most important to you in life moving forward. Use your aspirational obituary to get hyperfocused on living a life you want to be remembered for.

If you want to try writing your own obituary, think about these questions (in addition to all the biographical information):

  • How do you want to be remembered?
  • What are some of your greatest accomplishments (family, career, otherwise)?
  • What brings you joy?
  • What have you learned (lessons from childhood, adulthood, later years)?
  • Which adjectives best describe you?
  • Do you have a message for the next generation?

If you go through the process of writing your own obituary, make sure your family knows about it! It's not useful unless they have access to your document. More on that below.

Create an End-of-Life Plan

Anyone who is tasked with tying up the loose ends of a loved one can attest to just how stressful and difficult it can be.  The process is always easier if the deceased has left behind a detailed plan to follow. Consider creating your own free end-of-life plan with Cake (you're on the Cake blog) to express and share your unique wishes with your loved ones. This will make things easier on them someday and better ensure your final wishes are followed.  You'll plan for healthcare, financial, funeral, and legacy decisions. Additionally, you can upload all your important documents for safekeeping, including a pre-written obituary. Create your free Cake plan today!



Author Bio

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Jasmine Tanguay, Legacy Facilitator & Funeral Celebrant

Jasmine is a funeral celebrant and life-cycle sustainability strategist, currently crafting a green legacy blueprint course called Completing My Circle. She is the founder of A Sustainable Legacy, working to help folks align their final outcomes with their deepest values and greatest gifts. She advises clients and conducts workshops on a variety of DIY legacy and deathcare topics. Jasmine also curates the website FullCircleLife.org which examines the connected cycles of life and death, and homesteads with her family and livestock in Southeastern MA.

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