Facing a blank page with the goal of writing an obituary for someone important to you is a daunting task. But while there are guidelines for how to write an obituary, at Farewelling we believe in infusing this important remembrance with a few details and phrases that truly capture the spirit of the person being honored. We’ve put together some tips for how to write an obituary, but with the idea of writing not just any obituary, but an interesting and memorable tribute with a bit of flair. We’ve even put together obituary examples at the end, so read on for more help.
1. Basics First: What is an Obituary?
An obituary is a written notice of the death of an individual. It can be printed in a newspaper or published online. In fact, more and more obituaries are being hosted online via funeral homes or other legacy sites. Either way, the idea is, an obituary functions as a posted death notice that contains facts about the person’s life, including important dates, accomplishments and surviving family members.
New York Times obituary writer Neil Genzlinger tells us that being asked to be an obituary writer at the Times is considered one of the paper’s highest honors. He describes obituaries as “fact-heavy” narratives that should evoke the feeling of a whole life, not just the death. He advises that the average length of an obituary is approximately 200-1000 words.
2. How Do I Start Writing an Obituary?
First and foremost, begin with key information you’ll want to share about the person who has died. Birth date, death date, age, location of their residence at the time of their death. And of course the full name of the person you’re honoring, including their maiden name if you want to mention it to help people who may be searching for it.
Next, make a list of important names of family--their spouse if they had one (whether living or dead) and surviving family members. When writing an obituary, some people choose to name just immediate family members (parents, siblings, children, grandchildren) or only family members who are still living, while others will include those who have died previously.
A good obituary will note the person’s lifetime accomplishments, such as their education, their career highlights, and other proud achievements such as work with a charity or community organization. Start with earlier accomplishments, and follow the timeline of their life. Keep it to 3-5 main accomplishments for the most impactful result. You can draft this section of the obituary first. Just write each achievement out in a full sentence, then put them together and edit for style and polish.
Think about how you’d like to treat the topic of how they died. In an obituary, you can note that the person “died at home, surrounded by her loving family, after a long battle with cancer,” or you can choose to omit the circumstances around the death itself. That’s a personal choice, and one for the author of the obituary or the family to decide.
If appropriate, Include information about any related public funeral or memorial services to be held.
3. Once You Have Your Notes, Write the Framework of the Obituary.
Take the above information you’ve gathered and write out full sentences to weave the obituary together. Don’t worry too much about styling or flair just yet. Just get the general structure together, and then you’ll polish it.
4. But How Can I Make the Obituary Really Great?
The most important way to transform an obituary from staid to standout is to add personal details that reflect one or more of the following:
How the person is remembered by their community adds meaning and depth. Ask family, friends, neighbors to share a word or two about them, or a story that illustrates their values, their sense of humor, or their personality.
Notable (or even quirky) hobbies or interests make an obituary interesting. Did they create a community orchestra just for fun? Speak four languages? Tell tall tales? Bake everyone in town a heart-shaped strawberry cheesecake every Valentines Day? Love fishing and their grandchildren more than anything? Take in stray pets and find them homes?
Humor can be a great way to personalize an obituary, but only if it’s right for the person you’re honoring. A hilarious and witty obituary can make a great tribute that fits the person being honored, but in many cases, humor might fall flat. The best way to know is to think of the person and take your cues from their style in life.
The secret to writing an obituary that is memorable is to think deeply about the person themself, and to call out a few of their most praiseworthy attributes, while also acknowledging their human quirks and qualities.
To help you create something unforgettable, we’ve written two (fictional) obituary examples. The first is perfectly fine and more traditional, but less revealing, less truly personal. The second is woven with more texture of the life being honored, making it more memorable and relatable. That’s what makes for a really great obituary. Notice the flow of information and details. You can easily copy this format and add in the appropriate information.
5. Obituary Examples to Help You Get Started
Obituary Example 1: A more formal version, with less personalization:
“Marie Bremmer, educator and author, died Monday, May 25, 2020, at her home in Davis, California. Her family announced the death.
Ms. Bremmer was born Marie Lynn Johnson in 1945 in Indianapolis, to parents Anna and Graham Johnson. She graduated from UCLA in 1967 with a degree in English literature and a minor in the French language. While working as an administrative assistant to the Superintendent of California Education, she met Leo Bremmer, an education rights lawyer. They married in 1972. She worked as a teacher in the California public school system for nearly thirty years before retiring in 1995. In her later years, Ms. Bremmer volunteered with at-risk youth to help them build literacy skills.
She is survived by her three children, Sophie, Bram and Laurel, and eight grandchildren, along with her two siblings, Lina and Johnathan. Her husband, Mr. Bremmer, died in 2018.
Ms. Bremmer died surrounded by her loving family after a long battle with breast cancer. Donations can be made in her honor to the American Cancer Society.
A memorial service will be hosted on June 23rd at 1:00 PM at St. Paul’s Chapel, 393 Blaine Avenue in Davis.”
Obituary Example 2: A more personal obituary, with a lot more detail:
Note how this obituary example features the same information, but using her first name more. This version is also layered with more personal details. If you like this style, you can start with the simple framework of facts and add in layers to polish it as you go.
“Marie Bremmer, beloved educator and author of children’s poetry books, died Monday, May 25, 2020, at her home in Davis, California. She was 75 years old.
A lifelong reader who loved to teach others, Marie was born Marie Lynn Johnson in 1945 in Indianapolis, to parents Anna and Graham Johnson. Her earliest memories were of teaching her younger siblings to read, and planning a trip “out West” to see the Pacific Ocean. She accomplished both of those goals, graduating from UCLA in 1967 with a degree in English literature, a minor in the French language, and a passion for surfing.
While working at her first post-college job as an administrative assistant to the Superintendent of California Education, she met the dashing Leo Bremmer, an education rights lawyer whom she taught to surf. They married in 1972 in an oceanside ceremony that blended their nearest and dearest from the diverse communities of education and surf culture. Friends said that’s just who Marie was--always bringing people together in beautiful new ways.
She thrived as a third-grade teacher in the California public school system for nearly thirty years before retiring in 1995. Her three children, Sophie, Bram and Laurel, who survive her, remember her saying, ‘Third graders are the best, because they’re old enough to listen, yet young enough to ask the world’s most fascinating and far-reaching questions without any shyness at all. They are all about the why of a thing, and there is nothing more interesting in this world than why.’
In her later years, Marie flourished in a second career, volunteering with at-risk youth to help them build literacy skills. She continued surfing well into her retirement. Friends described her as ‘the funniest person I know,’ and ‘a true poet at heart, a gift to her community.’
In addition to her children, Marie is mourned by eight beautiful, book-loving grandchildren, along with her two siblings, Lina and Johnathan. Her husband, Leo, died in 2018.
Marie died surrounded by her loving family and her two constant companions--a pair of golden retrievers she rescued named Pooh and Piglet. In place of flowers, the family requests that donations be made in Marie’s honor to the ASPCA.
A memorial service will be hosted on June 23rd at 1:00 PM at St. Paul’s Chapel, 393 Blaine Avenue in Davis.” A more informal “paddle-out” tribute will be held by Marie’s surfing community buddies. She will be dearly missed by all, including the waves she knew so well.”
6. Notes on Obituary Format and Style
Both of the obituary examples here are perfectly acceptable, but one or the other may be more appropriate, or even something in between. The key to a memorable and interesting obituary is to start with the facts, then speak from the heart, finding the true humanity and the small moments in between the grand accomplishments of a beautiful life.
For More Help
If you’d like to create a memorial website and/or write an online obituary for someone you love, we have a free obituary template to help you. [Click here to get started]. Also, it’s free!
If you find obituaries as fascinating as we do, check out Farewelling: The Podcast. In
this episode, host Karen Bussen speaks with New York Times obituary writer Neil Genzlinger about what makes a great obituary. Or check out Karen’s conversation with Mo Rocca, host of the fabulous podcast (and companion book), Mobituaries: Great Lives Worth Reliving.