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How to Write an Obituary for a Funeral Program: Step-By-Step

This is part of Cake's collection of Legacy Funeral Funeral planning articles. Create a Cake profile for free to discover, document, and share your end-of-life wishes.

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Usually, an obituary published in a local newspaper is a short article. It details the deceased’s birth and death dates, and the names of the survivors. It also shares information about the memorial services. 

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An obituary for a funeral program is longer and more detailed. Since you aren’t working within the confines of print media, it can be as long as you wish. This piece can serve many purposes. You can use it as the obituary for an online memorial. You can read it at the funeral. And you can have it printed in the funeral program. 

When planning a memorial service, you don’t think about how future generations will use the documents you create. Instead, you think about the emotional impact the person had on your life. Challenge yourself to write as a historian. This means you need to include details that you assume everyone already knows. 

Write the obituary for the deceased’s great-great-great grandchild. They will never have the chance to meet their ancestors. Even those who knew the deceased well will appreciate the full picture. 

Step 1: Start with the Name and Age

The first step in writing an obituary is to list the basic details. The name and age of the deceased should be first. Most people use the deceased’s full name when writing their obituary.  Especially if it is going to be published in the newspaper. This helps distinguish between the deaths of Mary Ellen (Porter) Jones and Mary Ellen (Peterson) Jones.

Include nicknames of the deceased to help with identification. Put the nickname in quotes, such as Robert “Buddy” Allen Jones.

When writing an obituary for a funeral program, you may not think additional details are necessary. But do it for posterity’s sake. Think about what future generations would want to know about this individual.

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Step 2: Include the Birth Date, Death Date, and Cause of Death

Include the month, day, and year of both the birth and the death. The death date should be the day the person died and not the day of the funeral.

It is not necessary to list the cause of death. But when someone sees an obituary in the paper or posted on social media, you wonder, “how did they die?” The cause of death is not anyone’s business, but that specific knowledge may be helpful for those reading.

Some families choose to omit the details surrounding a person’s death. That’s their prerogative. Other families may include those details on purpose. Families may include details when their loved one died as a result of mental health issues or passed away after a long battle with illness. Whatever you choose, it’s your choice. There is no right or wrong way to handle this.

Step 3: Include the Name of the Deceased’s Parents

Include the first and last names of both parents of the deceased, as well as the mother’s maiden name.

Sometimes this step can be a minefield. If the deceased had stepparents or was adopted, it’s hard to know what to include. You may struggle to fit these details into an obituary. On one hand, you are writing the history of the family. On the other hand, you are dealing with survivors whose feelings can be hurt.

People may argue about what the deceased would have preferred. Do your best to include important information. But if you don’t know if the information is appropriate or think something is private leave it out. You are not required to share every detail.

When it comes down to it, include as much accurate information as possible. But don’t destroy relationships to represent everything accurately.

Step 4: Include Details About the Early Life of the Deceased

Usually, obituaries mention the hometown of the deceased. If your loved one moved once or twice during the early years, try to include this as well. But there is no need to list every residence of the person’s life.

Most people include the name of the deceased’s high school and any post-secondary institutions. You may want to list any degrees that the deceased earned.

Step 5: Write About the Deceased’s Professional Life

An obituary is not the same thing as a resume. But since people spend a great deal of time at work, those general details are usually included.

You may mention significant career changes, but, again, avoid unnecessary details. If the deceased was very passionate about their career this section may end up being long. That’s okay too. 

Step 6: Include Community Engagement Information 

You can learn a lot about a person based on the organizations they were affiliated with. It is appropriate to list the organizations that were most important to your loved one. You can also include any awards your loved one attained in this section.

Sometimes people are modest about their accomplishments. Don’t feel bad about bragging about your deceased family member. It’s normal to want to let others know what the world is missing now that your loved one is gone. 

Step 7: Write About What Made Your Loved One Special.

There’s much more to life than advanced degrees and civic organizations. All kinds of people do great things in life. Your loved one might have worked a modest job and never joined any groups. But they were still special.

Maybe your loved one cared for a special needs sibling for decades. Perhaps they always shoveled snow for their elderly neighbor. Or they never missed a day of work. Whatever their quirks, it is part of what made them who they were.

Write about the unique qualities of your loved one. No one is perfect, but everyone has character traits that stand out. Fellow mourners will appreciate that you included these unique details. And future generations will be able to know their ancestors a little bit better.

Step 8: List Survivors and Already Deceased Family Members 

Listing family members can also be a hotbed of contention. Do you list estranged family members? Are step-children listed separately from biological children? Do you list ex-spouses or partners in an obituary? How do you refer to a person who was a long-term partner but never a spouse?

Again, there is no right or wrong way to handle these situations. Do your best to be accurate and include everything. But don’t ruin your relationship with a living relative by arguing over the wording of an obituary. If you need extra help, you can check out our guide to obituary etiquette for predeceased family.

Examples of an Obituary for a Funeral Program

Even though the obituary for a funeral program can be as long and as detailed as you want, don’t overdo it. Your goal is to have someone read it and learn about your loved one. Including too much information may be overwhelming. 

Here are some examples of details you can include in an obituary.

  • Laura Leanne (Kedzie) Porter, 82, died on January 30, 2015, of heart disease at her home. Laura was born on March 9, 1933, to Albert and Edwina Kedzie of Abilene, Kansas. She graduated from Abilene High School in 1951 at the top of her class.
  • Frederick earned his Master’s degree in Chemical Engineering from Purdue University. He was a board member of the American Chemical Society. His research was widely published. And he was essential in developing the current treatment for breast cancer.
  • Mrs. Cook began teaching in the early 1970s in a small town in Western Ohio. She obtained her teaching license when she moved to Chicago. She started her career in the Cook County School system in 1981. She taught hundreds of fourth-graders in the same classroom for 26 years. 
  • Mr. McKenzie worked as a certified electrician all of his life. He began his career with Sherman Electrics in 1960. McKenzie Electrics, his company, was founded in 1964. He employed dozens of electricians and office staff through the years.
  • Zoey was an incredible cake decorator. She taught herself how to decorate the most amazing cakes. Even though she never worked in the industry her cakes were widely sought after. Zoey used her talents for family birthdays, anniversaries, and even weddings. She won an amateur baking contest for her Harry Potter inspired cake.
  • Patrice is survived by her long-time partner, Robert Pinkle; her step-father, Maurice Hoover; her brother, Michael Anderson; and her niece Annie Holtz.
  • George passed away from Glioblastoma Multiforme, an aggressive form of brain cancer. He was diagnosed last May. The family asks donations be sent to Head for the Cure instead of flowers.

Writing a Well-Crafted Obituary for Your Loved One

Writing a well-crafted obituary may prove more complicated than you think. 

An obituary is not a resume, curriculum vitae, or a LinkedIn profile. Think like a historian. Avoid lofty phrases that add little meaning. Give some details, but not all the details. List relationships clearly, but avoid hurting the feelings of survivors. Talk about your loved one’s personality, but don’t overdo the emotions.

If you keep these tips in mind, you will end up with a loving tribute to the person you lost.