person writing an obituary

Finding the Words: Advice for Writing an Obituary

Putting someone’s life and what they meant to us into words is not an easy task for anyone. Even those who enjoy writing, or do so professionally, can find their skills deserting them when trying to encapsulate the complex experiences and feelings of a lifetime – those stories, passions, quirks and relationships which make up a person. 

While there have been obituaries that are so beautifully written that they have become famous (such as this vibrant and funny tribute to Joe Heller), there is no need to put pressure on ourselves to make an obituary a work of art. However, it is understandably important to many of us that we grab this opportunity to express something important about our friend or loved one – even if it is difficult to know where to start. 

In this guide, we’ll explore a little more about what’s required for an obituary, and share our advice for writing them. 

What is an obituary? 

An obituary is a notice that shares the news of someone’s death in a newspaper, online blog or similar publication. Unlike a death notice, which serves the same purpose (and contains important information such as name, age, date of birth and date of death), an obituary usually includes a more illustrative account of someone’s life and achievements. 

Obituaries will often also outline plans for the funeral, so anyone who wishes to attend knows when and where it will take place, alongside any special requests the family has – such as sending any money that would have been spent on flowers to a particular charity.

They are also often written by a family member of the person who has passed, but they don’t necessarily need to be. If you think, for example, that your loved one’s best friend would write a wonderful obituary for them, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t ask them. 

Do you have to have an obituary?

There isn’t any formal requirement to publish an obituary, so you don’t have to write one if you would prefer not to. They are simply a useful way of letting your local community (including friends and wider family) know of the death and sharing a public tribute to your loved one, rather than an obligation. 

What do obituaries include? 

Newspapers tend to charge by the word for obituaries, so they are rarely particularly long. Whether long or short, however, they usually include a selection of details relating to the life and death of the person who has passed away. These outline: 

  • Full name
  • Age
  • Place of birth
  • Date of death
  • Place of death
  • Date, time and location of the funeral.
  • Any funeral requests. 
  • The cause of death (if the family is comfortable sharing this information). 
  • A photo (if accepted by the publication in question).

Alongside the information above, it is also customary to include the names of family members and loved ones who have survived the deceased, as well as close family members who passed away before your loved one. 

What separates obituaries from death notices, however, is the inclusion of more personal recollections and information. As such, they tend to have a description of notable events in the person’s life, some words on their passions and personality, and may include poignant, relatable or funny stories. In some cases, the person writing it will also share a special message, poem or book passage. 

How should an obituary sound? 

You may believe that an obituary needs to be solemn, and attempt to write one in this manner even if it doesn’t suit your personality or the personality of the person who has passed. However, as the obituary of Joe Heller (linked above) demonstrates, this is far from the case. 

Obituaries can vary in tone and content to a large extent, allowing you to write in the way you prefer. Some people will strike a balance between celebrating the person’s life while also acknowledging the difficult emotions that have come with their loss, incorporating humour or personal anecdotes alongside key details. 

Others prefer to celebrate their loved one’s achievements, whether that’s raising a happy family or having a shining career, or keeping to the facts with very little embellishment. It really is down to the individual and their reasons for creating the obituary. 

How to Write an Obituary 

If you would like to write an obituary for your loved one, but feel stuck or stressed out by the prospect, here are some ways to get over that writer’s block: 

  • Don’t be afraid to ask for advice.

Your funeral director will have seen and helped with many obituaries, and will be happy to lend their thoughts, ideas and guidance should you ask. 

  • Set a period of time in which to write. 

One of the things people often don’t realise until they face the loss of someone close to them is that there are many things to organise when a person dies. Rather than letting the writing of an obituary hang over you as a task on the to-do list, schedule a period of time in which you can dedicate yourself to completing the task, with no other distractions or pressures on your time.

  • Reflect on your memories and create a list.

Take a moment to look back on your time together to understand which details you may want to include, and create a rough draft or bullet point list to help form your thoughts. It can be useful, for example, to think of three words which best describe your loved one, or to list the things you know were most important to them. 

  • Take a break if you need to.

It isn’t unusual for the process of writing an obituary to bring up powerful emotions. It is important to be kind to yourself and take a break if you begin to feel overwhelmed – perhaps by taking yourself on a walk or losing yourself in a comforting film. If you are finding it very difficult to complete the task, see if there’s a friend or family member to help you.

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