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How to Write an Obituary

Writing an obituary for someone you love is an important way to honor and celebrate their life. The obituary acknowledges your loss, informs the community of the death, and invites those who knew your loved one (as well as people who care about you) to attend the funeral and offer sympathy and support.  

An obituary is where we record a loved one’s life story to live on forever. More than a simple death announcement, an obituary pays tribute to someone by saying something about who they were as a person. This can be done in many ways: sharing a story from their life, writing about their hopes and dreams, listing their accomplishments, telling about their loves and favorites, reflecting on what they meant to you. The most memorable obituaries often touch on all these aspects of a person’s life and legacy. 

Writing an obituary can feel daunting. You may feel overwhelmed by the responsibility of writing about a loved one who has died. Or you may worry that you’ll forget important facts or that the obituary won’t fully capture your loved one’s life. This is one reason why many families begin preparing the obituary in advance. 

Talking with a loved one about their life can give you the chance to reminisce and learn about your family history. Some people even choose to write their own obituaries ahead of time, relishing the opportunity to reflect on life, share what they’ve learned along the way, and maybe even get the last laugh.  

If you are like most people, you will be writing an obituary in the aftermath of your loved one’s death, when the obituary just one of many things to be done during this exhausting and emotional time. Legacy can help guide you through all the difficult decisions and tasks that come at the end of life, including how to write and publish the obituary

The funeral home is also a great resource — funeral directors can help with many details related to your loved one’s death, including writing and publishing the obituary in local newspapers. If you are handling the obituary on your own, be sure to check with newspapers for publication deadlines and pricing. 

Essential Elements of an Obituary

Here is a step-by-step guide to writing an obituary and the important information to include. Keep these things in mind, but also feel free to be creative. Some of the most beautiful obituaries are ones that don’t follow the standard formula. Whatever style of obituary you choose to write, include as many of these key obituary details as you can. 

1. Announce the death 

Begin the obituary with a statement that highlights basic facts about your loved one, including their full name (first, middle, and last names, maiden name, nickname, and suffixes like Jr. or Sr.), where they lived, age, date and place of death, and how they died. You can present this information in a straightforward, factual way, or more uniquely.

And there are many ways to say that someone has “died” (“departed,” “passed away,” “went to be with her Lord,” and “entered eternal rest” are some of the most common), so choose the expression you prefer. 

Traditional obituary samples: 

“HINKLE, OZELL STERLING, age 79 of Cullman, passed away November 9, 2006…” Read more 

“Jean Frances Breland Campbell, age 90, of Tuscaloosa, Alabama died August 30, 2018, in her hometown…” Read more 

“Margaret Bunting Wyman Tent, mathematics teacher and author, died on September 20, 2014, at Kline Hospice House, Mt. Airy from inflammatory breast cancer…” Read more 

These obituaries examples are more unique: 

“Terry Wayne Ward, age 71, of DeMotte, IN, escaped this mortal realm on Tuesday, January 23rd, 2018, leaving behind 32 jars of Miracle Whip, 17 boxes of Hamburger Helper and multitudes of other random items that would prove helpful in the event of a zombie apocalypse…” Read more 

“Robert Clyde Drew, beloved husband, father, and Papa, drew his last breath January 25, 2018, mainly, we suspect, to prevent himself from having to watch the Patriots and Eagles in the Superbowl.” Read more 

“Purmort, Aaron Joseph age 35, died peacefully at home on November 25 after complications from a radioactive spider bite that led to years of crime-fighting and a years-long battle with a nefarious criminal named Cancer…” Read more 

There are many reasons to include cause of death in the obituary: to inform the community, to acknowledge your loved one’s battle with illness, to raise awareness about a disease, or simply to reduce the number of times you are asked “How did he die?” That said, some families are not comfortable sharing this information. Do what is best for you and your family. 

2. Share their life story  

An obituary does more than simply announce a death — an obituary tells us something about a person’s life. Most people go their whole lives without their life story being written. An obituary is the place where we do them justice and record their memory to live on forever. If appropriate, don’t be afraid to have a sense of humor!

That said, an obituary doesn’t need to be a complete biography. You can hit the highlights of your loved one’s life story, share a favorite memory, talk about what was important to them and/or what about them you will miss the most. 

Biographical information you may wish to include in the obituary:

• Date and place of birth, marriage, and death
• Hometown, places lived
• Schools attended, degrees earned
• Places of employment and positions held
• Military service and rank
• Membership in organizations
• Place of worship
• Hobbies or special interests

3. List family members

Most obituaries name surviving family members of the person passing as well as those who died previously. Deciding whom to include in the obituary can be difficult. Start with next of kin (spouse or partner, parents, children, siblings, grandparents and grandchildren) and list individually by name or group together as needed (e.g. “five grandchildren and eleven great-grandchildren”).

Consider the people most important to your loved one — nieces and nephews, aunts and uncles, cousins, a fiancé, closest friends. Even if they were not blood relatives, you may wish to include these loved ones in the obituary. Nowadays, obituaries commonly include devoted caregivers, life-long friends, and even pets. 

4. Include funeral or memorial service information 

The obituary typically is published at least a day or two before the funeral service will be held and provides the community with important service information. Include the dates, times, and locations of the visitation, funeral, burial, and/or memorial service. Also include the name of the funeral home so that others can contact them with any questions about the services or sympathy flowers. Be sure to indicate if services are private.  

5. Add charity information 

Obituaries often request donations to a specific charity. There may be charities or organizations that were important to your loved one. Or perhaps the family would like to “pay it forward” by asking for donations to an organization that raises awareness about an illness. 

The family may wish to have people donate to memorial fund started at your loved one’s alma mater, or a fund to help cover funeral expenses. For any donation request, be sure to include the name of the charity or fund as well as an address or website where people can send donations.  

If the family prefers charitable donations or monetary contributions rather than flowers, include a phrase such as “In lieu of flowers,” followed by “please consider a donation to the American Heart Association,” “contributions suggested to the family,” or “the family is requesting financial assistance for the services.” 

6. Select a photo 

A photo helps bring the obituary to life, so choose a photo that shows your loved one’s personality. A portrait or close-up of your loved one’s face typically works best. The photo can be recent or from their youth, it’s up to you. Some newspapers may even allow you to choose more than one for print. Be sure to check with the newspaper for any specific requirements.

If you are working with a funeral home, they will be able to assist you with formatting the photo and obituary and submitting to newspapers. If you’re having a hard time selecting just one photo, keep in mind that you likely will be able to add more photos and even video on the online version of the obituary.  

Want your loved one’s obituary to be extra special? Consider these tips from Legacy experts. 

According to obituary writing expert Susan Soper, the founder and author of ObitKit®, A Guide to Celebrating Your Life, the interesting and memorable obit is in the details: 

“Try to dig for the intimate details that will keep the person alive in memory: quirks, hobbies, favorite passions, oft-heard quotes, travels, food or unusual pursuits. It doesn’t matter if the person was a company president, an electrician, a cook or ballerina, everyone has a story to tell.  

“But that story doesn’t come together by itself.  Ask friends, children, parents, co-workers and spouses for details they recall and favor. How did the person look or dress? What was his daily routine? Where did she find most happiness? Be creative, look outside the box to find the personality traits and characteristics to recall.” 

Condolence and eulogy expert Florence Isaacs, author of My Deepest Sympathies: Meaningful Sentiments for Condolence Notes and Conversations, encourages obituary, eulogy, and sympathy card writers to reflect on what made this person unique: 

“Try to remember specific instances where she made a difference in the lives of others, in her profession or field and/or in the community. Instead of just listing her achievements, tell a little story about some of them. Keep an eye out for moments that speak eloquently of her humanity, kindness, zest for life or even her cranky disposition—whatever fits.  

“Did she take tango lessons or play poker in her eighties? Say so. Such information inspires people and helps them connect with the deceased. Before you sit down to write, take a day or so to think about what you want to say, and take notes as ideas come to you. Then get started.” 

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