How to Write an Obituary

Writing an obituary for someone we love can acknowledge their passing and help honor their life. We can acknowledge their passing, celebrate their life, share parts of their life that people are not aware of, and express the grief of our loss.

An obituary informs people of when the death occurred and all the details concerning the visitation, memorial service, and the interment arrangements. It also tells the community of the death and invites those who knew our loved ones to attend the funeral and interment and offer sympathy and support.

It is wise to take the time to write a meaningful obituary that is well thought out, expressive, informative, and easy to read.

To write an obituary can be daunting, especially for the person assigned to do it. That’s why we’ve written this how to write an obituary guide to walk you step-by-step through the process of writing a meaningful and comprehensive obituary for your loved one.

WHAT IS AN OBITUARY?

An obituary is an announcement published in newspapers, online, or social media when an individual passes away. It serves as a notification of death and provides information about the time and date of visitations, memorial service, and the interment.

An obituary is more than a simple death announcement. It is where we honor our loved one’s life story to live on forever. It pays tribute by telling who they are as a person.

It can be done in different ways by sharing their life stories, writing about their hopes and dreams, telling about their love and hobbies, listing their accomplishments, and reflecting on how they lived.

Most memorable obituaries touch on the person’s life and legacy.


HOW TO WRITE AN OBITUARY

Before you write an obituary, check your local newspapers for any print requirement concerning the length of the obituary and how much it will cost, this will impact the length of your obituary. Be aware of the line rate before you begin writing.

Read the obituaries in the newspaper you want to publish and note the format to better tailor your writing, so you don’t make your obituary too long or too short.  However, if you want to publish the obituary on your website or through social media, the length doesn’t matter.

You can write two versions of the obituaries: the abbreviated version for the newspaper, and a more detailed version for online such as the funeral home website, your website or other memorial sites.

STEP 1 – ANNOUNCEMENT OF DEATH

Begin to write an obituary by announcing the name and time of death in the first sentence.

In your opening sentence, highlight the basic facts about the deceased, including their full name (first, middle, and last name, nickname, and suffixes like Jr., Sr., III) where they lived. Include the age, place of death, and how they died. Keep the opening sentence brief and to the point.

Example:

On the evening of October 15, 2019, Thomas Smith of Dallas, Texas, passed away in his sleep at the age of 90.

You may want to avoid using the word “died” because it may seem blunt, you can instead use the phrase “passed away,” “departed,” or went to be with his Lord” if they are religious. Use what you are comfortable with.

The cause of death is optional. You don’t need to provide it if you don’t want to, but there are many reasons to include it in the first paragraph. However, the cause of death is something many obituary readers are curious about. And, it may keep you from having to explain what happened over and over to every friend and mourners.

STEP 2 – SUMMARY OF THEIR LIFE

Include a summary of your loved one’s life in the next paragraph.

An obituary is not a biography, but you can include the most important events and contributions in his life. Create a list of significant events in your loved one’s life on a separate sheet of paper so you will have options to choose from.

Biographical information you may wish to include in the obituary:

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

An obituary isn’t a legal document, so you can include their stepparents as parents, and you don’t need to mention divorce if you don’t want to.

You can list life events chronologically, or you can put them in order of importance.

Mention some significant accomplishments, contributions, and recognitions but chose carefully. Make a summary, especially if he is involved in many social organizations, places of employment, places of residence, and hobbies.

Avoid listing your loved one’s mother’s maiden name or his birthday in the obituary since identity thieves could steal this information and commit fraud.

Try to use a few words as possible to make the obituary concise.

For example: “Tom was born to Adam and Emily Smith in 1929. He received his bachelor’s degree in 1950 and managed the Smith family restaurant for 55 years. In January 1954, he married his childhood sweetheart Julia and together raised three children Gerald, Eva, and Clinton.”

You can also include a short paragraph about personal characteristics, hobbies, and passion. Including these personal details will capture the personality of your loved one, so readers will understand what their life was like.

“Tom was a creative children’s book writer in his spare time. When he is not managing the restaurant, he would go to the children’s hospital and read to sick children. He was known for his caring acts and for helping in the community.”

STEP 3 – WRITE FAMILY INFORMATION

Mention survivors and predeceased information in the third paragraph. It is customary to write family members who have survived the deceased.

Use “survived by” before listing any relatives still living. For family members who predeceased him, use the phrase “preceded in death by” before listing any relatives still living including:

  • Parents
  • Spouse/partner
  • Children (with their spouses or partners’ names also noted in brackets, if applicable)
  • Adopted children
  • Stepchildren
  • Siblings, half and step-siblings
  • Grandchildren
  • Surviving in-laws

List close family members by name, such as immediate family and parents. For extended family, you can use a collective phrase or list the specific number.

Make a list of surviving family members to ensure no one will be left out. It can be painful if we forgot to mention step-sister or stepchild.

List family members with their first name, spouse’s first name in parenthesis, then surname. If the couple is not married, include the partner’s first name and surname in parenthesis.

Consider the people most important to the deceased like aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, cousins, fiancé, and closest friends. Even if they are not blood relatives like adopted children, you may wish to include these loved ones.

Nowadays, obituaries include life-long friends, caregivers, and even pets.

For example:

Thomas is preceded in death by his father Adam, his mother, Emily, and his wife, Julia. He is survived by his children Gerald, Eva, and Clinton, and seven grandchildren, five great-grandchildren.

STEP 4 – PROVIDE FUNERAL OR MEMORIAL SERVICE INFORMATION

Provide funeral and memorial service details if it’s public. If you are holding a public service, list the date, time, location and the name of the funeral home. Be specific with the details so other people who are closed to your loved one will know where to go or send funeral flowers.

For example:

“A public memorial service will be held at 10:00 am on October 19, 2019, at Watermark Community Church.”

Do not provide funeral or memorial information if it is a private service.

Other information that must be included:

  • Dates, times, and location of the visitation
  • Time, date, and place of memorial service with the name of the officiant
  • Time, date, and location of the burial or interment

STEP 5. WRITE SPECIAL MESSAGES

At the end of the obituary, you can write a special message or a request for donations to a specific charity. You can write charities or organizations that were important to your loved one.

If you want to “pay it forward”, you can ask for donations to an organization that raises awareness for an illness or a cause. You can also ask for donations to cover the cost of the funeral.

If your family prefers charitable donations or monetary contributions, you can include the phrase “in lieu of flowers,” you can consider donating money to the American Cancer Society.

STEP 6 – ATTACH PHOTO

A photo helps identify the deceased and allows readers to recognize your loved one from all other obituaries. However, adding a photo can add to the cost of the obituary.

Choose a picture that reflects your loved one’s personality. A close-up photo typically works best. If you’re having a hard time selecting one photo, bear in mind that you will be able to add more pictures and videos on the online version of the obituary.

Check with the newspaper for their requirements. If you are working with a funeral home, the funeral director may be able to assist you with formatting the photo and writing the obituary before submitting it to newspapers.

STEP 7 – REVISING THE OBITUARY

After you write an obituary, read it out loud to catch any errors. Carefully read the obituary to see if there are any sentences or spelling errors.

Read the obituary from bottom to top, going from right to left to catch any mistakes. Read the entire obituary slowly to catch some phrases that are worded incorrectly or sound awkward.

If you wrote the obituary on a computer, print it out so you can easily mark the page with what you need to change. Note your changes with a pencil, so you know where to go back and change them.

Check and review for mistakes.

Once you are satisfied with the copy, have a family member or a friend read it to check for missed information. It’s always better to get a different perspective. Allow them to read and ask if there’s anything they like to add or wish to remove. Write down their suggestions to work them into a new copy of the obituary.

Compare your copy to other obituaries in the paper. Read the current obituaries in the newspaper you’re planning to submit to. Check their structure to see if you need to change anything about the copy you’ve written.

STEP 8 – SUBMITTING THE OBITUARY

Many funeral homes offer the printing of the obituary in local newspapers as part of the package. Coordinate with the funeral director to ensure you don’t miss any vital information.

Check your local paper’s website to see how to submit an obituary. Many newspapers accept obituaries through a web portal or by email.

Check the website for their requirements and what files you need to include. Submit the obituary 2-3 days before the funeral service so others can make travel arrangements to get there.

The information you need to ask include:

  1. How much do they charge? Generally, newspapers charge per inch, also consider the word count, font size, and style, as well as the column width. Ask how many characters can be included in an inch. Also, ask how much they charge for a photo and if they have a size requirement.
  2. Ask for the deadline of the paper. You need to submit the obituary within the deadline to get it printed. Most newspapers have a 5:30 pm print deadline. You may get it published even if you submit late, but avoid long text because the editor may not have much time to proofread it.
  3. Ask if they can accommodate you on the date you want it printed. Prepare and submit the obituary to the newspaper as soon as possible to inform everybody about the death, time, and place of the funeral.
  4. Call the paper if it has a nationwide circulation. If your loved one is popular in a larger area or has lived in another town, contact the newspaper from related cities to get the obituary printed on them on time.


OBITUARY SAMPLE:

On the evening of October 15, 2019, Thomas Smith of Dallas, Texas, passed away in his sleep at the age of 90.

Tom was born to Adam and Emily Smith in 1929. He received his bachelor’s degree in 1950 and managed the Smith family restaurant for 55 years. In January 1954, he married his childhood sweetheart Julia and together raised three children Gerald, Eva, and Clinton.”

Tom was a creative children’s book writer in his spare time. When he is not managing the restaurant, he would go to the children’s hospital and read to sick children. He was known for his caring acts and for helping in the community.

Tom is preceded in death by his father Adam, his mother, Emily, and his wife, Julia. He is survived by his children Gerald, Eva, and Clinton, and seven grandchildren, five great-grandchildren.

A public memorial service will be held at 10:00 am on October 19, 2019, at Watermark Community Church 7540 Lyndon B Johnson Freeway, Dallas, TX 75251. With Senior Pastor Todd Wagner officiating. Those who desire to make memorial donations in memory of Tom may be made to the American Cancer Society.


HOW TO WRITE AN OBITUARY: TIPS

1. Have basic details ready

Write the basic information about the deceased. It will make the obituary writing easier.

  • Full name
  • Date of birth and age
  • City of residence
  • Spouse or partner’s name
  • Children’s name
  • School attended
  • Year in the military service
  • Honors and awards received
  • Organization affiliation
  • Religious denomination and address
  • Funeral home and address
  • Days of visitation and time
  • Funeral service date, time and address
  • Memorial service date, time and address
  • Interment date, time and address

2. Guide Questions to answer about your loved one:

  • How would you describe your loved one’s personality?
  • What are your fondest memories of your loved one?
  • What are the things you loved most about the deceased?
  • What were his proudest accomplishments?
  • What were his hobbies and special interest?
  • What are the unique personality traits of your loved one?
  • How would he like to be remembered?

Answering these questions will make the obituary more compelling.

3. Use third-person narrative

Avoid writing the obituary in the first person or use phrases such as “the family of Thomas Smith announces,” the obituary is not about the family members who write it, but about the person who died.

Write it from the third-person perspective, like an outsider who witnessed the event.

4. Keep it Accurate and Simple

The best way to complete a great obituary is to write a draft. Having basic information at hand will make the writing of an obituary easier. Make sure that is accurate, but keep it simple. Stay consistent with the way you list the family members.

Make several versions of the draft before making the final copy. Make the abbreviated version for the newspaper and long version to be placed on the internet.

5. Ask another person to read the obituary and give feedback

After you write an obituary draft, ask another family member or a friend to check and provide feedback. It will ensure the accuracy of the information, and the copy will reflect your loved one’s life.

6. Proofreading, Editing and Revising the obituary

If you find editing and proofreading difficult, ask a family member or a trusted family friend to verify facts and catch misspellings.

Proofreading avoids mistakes in the obituary when it goes to printing. Review the details carefully, and once the obituary is printed, it cannot be changed.

7. Things you should never mention into an obituary

Some things should never go into an obituary because this information can make you and your family vulnerable to identity theft or fraud:

  • Complete date of birth
  • Complete home address
  • Mother’s maiden name

The reason for not including this information is that identity thieves can be a real problem. Some unscrupulous people may try to use your loved one’s identity to access bank accounts and personal credit.

People often save a copy of obituaries as a remembrance of their loved ones, so make sure that the final copy is something worthy of a scrapbook and worthy of your loved one’s memory.


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