The Art of Writing an Obituary
Do you find yourself needing to write an obituary?
Are you ready to write your own obituary?
Wondering what should be included in an obituary?
The thought of writing an obituary or a memoir—whether for a loved one who has just passed away or for yourself—can be quite intimidating. You might be wondering if there is a certain structure or format you should follow. Perhaps you should write an obituary in a specific style. Not to mention, you may be going through a difficult time emotionally and find it hard to focus.
The topic of death can be scary, and many people think that it’s morbid to take care of anything related to death in advance. Some people live their lives as if death is something that won’t happen to them: the "if I ignore it, it will go away" mentality. However, more people today are embracing a powerful way to handle something that we have no control over: death.
Who Writes a Deceased Person’s Obituary?
Obituary writing is usually a task handled by surviving family or a special friend. If you find yourself in the position of having to write an obituary, don’t delay. You may only have a few days after a person’s death to get the obituary printed for notification of any upcoming funeral service or memorial service.
But more often, today’s baby boomers are bucking the trend and writing their own obituaries. Why? Because they don’t want to burden their family with any unnecessary tasks after their passing. And they do want to leave a mark—in their own way and in their own words. See for yourself how a self-written obit affected complete strangers: Now This is How to Write an Obituary.
Today’s obituaries are far more than a birth date, death date, cause of death, request for donations, and a listing of surviving family members. These components outline your typical death notice or death announcement. Baby boomers are taking charge, celebrating life, and writing their own exit. Today’s obituaries are about telling a story… the story of you.
Gather Information for Your Obituary
If you are writing an obituary for yourself, then you only need to work from your own memory. However, if you are writing an obituary for someone else, you’ll want to gather some essential details first in order to outline an account of an individual’s life or to create a biographical sketch.
When a loved one close to you has passed away, it is important to collect as much personal information as necessary. This makes your job of writing the actual obituary a lot easier. You may want to start with a copy of the person’s résumé or online LinkedIn profile, if it is available. Then be sure to talk to family members, friends, and colleagues to find out more. It may seem like a lot of work up front, but it’s always best to have more information than you’ll need than to not have enough information to create a well-rounded obituary.
Also, take the time to do a little fact checking to be sure you have the most accurate information. And verify the spelling of relatives’ names and any towns where the deceased lived. The survivors will appreciate your accuracy.
What to Include in a Good Obituary
First, check with the newspaper where you want to print your obituary. Some newspapers have specific guidelines or restrictions on length. Some newspapers and funeral directors may offer an obituary template, or even a sample obituary. In addition, some newspapers charge by the word, line or column inch. You'll also want to understand the distribution area of the paper if you are unfamiliar with the area. So, you may want to be aware of these or any other factors before you get started.
Start with the information that best identifies who you are (or who the deceased was):
- What are you known for?
- How do you want to be remembered?
- What are some of your greatest accomplishments?
- What makes you happy every day?
- What have you learned?
- Lessons from early years
- Lessons from early adulthood
- Lessons from later years
- Which three adjectives best describe you?
- What do you consider the highlight of your life, apart from children and career?
Avoid “I was born in …” and other chronology-based sentences. You don’t have to start at the beginning, and you certainly don’t have to start at the end.
Of course, you’ll still want to include the traditional information in a newspaper obituary.
- Place of birth
- Parents’ names
- Other survivors (survived by), including spouse and children, other relatives, friends, and pets and where they live
- Family members who preceded in death
- High school and colleges attended
- Degrees earned
- Work history
- Military service
- Hobbies, accomplishments, and any awards received
- Church or religious affiliations
- Clubs, civic and fraternal organization memberships
- Charities supported (memorial donations)
- Where to send flowers or in lieu of flowers
How Long Should an Obituary Be?
The length required for your obituary depends on where it will be published. Typically, newspapers are very strict about the word or character limits for their obituaries. Newspapers also can provide you with style and formatting guidelines. So, you may want to ask about these in advance of writing and/or submitting your obituary for publication.
If you plan to print the obituary in one or more local newspapers, call each obituary department in advance to confirm their space limit. If you plan to have the funeral home publish your obituary online or on their website, then you may have more leniency regarding the length of your obituary. All or parts of your obituary can also be read as part of the eulogy or graveside service, as funeral traditions can vary widely in different countries and within different religions.
For most circumstances, you may want to have a long version and a short version available. The average length of an obituary is approximately 200 words, but some publications may accept obituaries as long as 450 words or as short as 50 words.
Tips on Writing Your Obituary
When you write your own obituary, you can create a personal summary of your life or the deceased’s life. And you can also avoid any possible mistakes that may occur when obituaries are hurriedly written at the time of death by a distraught or grieving family member. If you've ever had to write an obituary notice for someone else, then you understand what a daunting task it can be. And when that task is given with short notice, it's all-the-more difficult.
What style suits you best? Do you want it to be humorous? More serious? Should it be a listing of your proudest accomplishments? Maybe you can talk about what life meant to you, while highlighting what made your life well-lived. Some people mainly want to leave words of wisdom to their survivors. The bottom line is that if you are writing your final words proactively, it's YOUR OBITUARY and you can write it anyway you would like.
Write your obituary several different ways and review it with your family and your closest friends. You'll undoubtedly receive suggestions and feedback from those who know you best. You'll be surprised at how candid people will be, how accepting they are with what you are doing, and how insightful their advice may be for including things that might be extremely important to you.
Whatever you write, be sure to leave your own personal touch. Choose a flattering, high-resolution photo of yourself or the deceased to be published, either in print or online. Double space between lines for easy reading, and avoid using a fancy font or colored ink. ‘Keep it Simple,’ is the best policy when writing an obituary.
And if you feel overwhelmed by the job, then most definitely ask for help. Don’t wait until the last minute. You are enduring your own grief at the same time, and your job could certainly be made easier with a helping hand.
How Do You Publish an Obituary?
Now that you’ve written your obituary, what do you do next. If you’ve written your own obituary, then you’ll want to put it in safe hands so that it is available when the time comes. If you’ve written an obituary for someone else, then you’ll have to make some quick decisions. Here are a few things you’ll want to know first.
- Newspapers will almost always edit your obituary for spelling, grammar, and style. So, don’t worry if a few errors slip in. However, it’s best to check in advance in case you’ll want someone else to read it over before you submit.
- Newspapers typically charge for printing obituaries (based on length), and costs can vary widely from one paper to the next. You can usually pay online, by phone or by check in person.
- Some newspapers may offer an option to print a personal message, graphics, a poem, biblical verse, quote or other inspirational piece with your obituary.
- Some newspapers may require either a copy of the death certificate or confirmation from the funeral home before publishing the obituary.
- Some newspapers automatically print your obituary online if you publish it in their paper. Other newspapers may charge you extra for this service. Still other papers might only print an online version, but nothing in print. Be sure to check in advance so you don’t find out when it’s too late. Also, find out how long the obituary will remain viewable online or if it will be archived. To be safe, always download any online version to your computer so you will always have it.
- Know your deadlines. If you want to use the obituary to invite people to attend services, then be aware of any print or online publishing deadlines so you make the announcement in time.
- Ask to see the final version before printing so you can review it one more time and catch any errors that may have been introduced.
Where to Print Your Obituary
You have several options available to you when deciding where to publish your obituary.
- Online newspaper sites
- Funeral home website
- Obituary websites
Many people print obituaries in just the local newspaper. However, some families also print the obituary in any city where their loved one may have lived for a significant time: city of birth, hometown, city of marriage, a regular vacation location, etc. If the deceased still has close family and friends still living in that area, you may want to consider publishing the obituary in those local newspapers as well. You can find the names of these local papers through a simple internet search.
Once you’ve decided where to print/publish your obituary, you’ll find that most newspaper websites will have online instructions that prompt you through the process. You can also make arrangements by phone or in person.
Finally, take the time to check the obituary after it prints in the paper. If there are errors, call the newspaper to let them know. They should offer to reprint it the next day free of charge.
As another option, many obituary websites create a space to memorialize you or your loved one. If you’d like to pay tribute through one of these sites, you may be able to upload photos and add an online guest book for people to digitally sign and/or leave their own memories. If you do an internet search for ‘online obituary’ or ‘memorial tribute,’ you’ll find many sites to choose from.
If you are still struggling and just need a good starting point, we can help with our free obituary writing tool. We ask simple questions, you provide the answers, and we'll help you to fill in the blanks. Give it a try. Or, visit our blog for more obituary examples.
Lastly.com enables you to easily capture the stories and special moments throughout your own life (or that of a loved one), so that you will be remembered and cherished by future generations. Reviewing your life and creating your life story may be the best way to start in writing your own obituary.