How to write an obituary?
September 25, 2018 6:11 PM   Subscribe

What do you wish you'd known when writing an obituary? I need to write one.

Aside from Googling "How to write an obituary" I'm wondering if there's more to know. Or mistakes I can avoid? Is there such a thing as a newer or better way to do this? Or is it just the facts? Help.

Fuck cancer.
posted by BlahLaLa to Writing & Language (12 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I am sorry for your loss.

I had to write an obituary over the summer, and I wish I had known how restrictive the word count can be. I wish I had found out the specific formal constraints of the writing before I poured my heart into it, because shortening it—and having it further shortened by an editor—felt like having a part of myself amputated.

Fundamentally, what I misunderstood is that most venues consider an obituary something more like an announcement and registration of a person's death, rather than a tribute to their life. You can always write a longer, more fleshed out tribute later, and if you're up to that I would encourage it—doing so was greatly helpful to my own mourning process. Treating the obituary as a tribute that had to capture the essence of the person who died caused me more pain, and it could have been partly avoided.
posted by mister-o at 6:23 PM on September 25, 2018 [4 favorites]

I'm very sorry for your loss.

I've had to read a lot of obituaries for my job. The best ones, while brief, have details that give a sense of the person without going in to a lot of detail. Also, err on the side of inclusion with family members.

If there is a service scheduled, mention that as well. If the funeral home has a tribute page, you can put a longer obituary up there with more details.
posted by mogget at 6:27 PM on September 25, 2018 [6 favorites]

I'm sorry for your loss.

When I wrote my father's obituary, I stuck to the basic facts: cause of death, birth date, parents, education, career, volunteer work, survivors, and information on the memorial. (In our case, the memorial was several months later, since my dad wanted to be cremated and didn't care about the ceremony, since he said he would be involved but not present.)

I wrote a much longer, and harder, eulogy four months later for the memorial ceremony.

In my experience, the obituaries that are long and detailed are generally written about people who have died of natural causes at the end of a long life, leaving aside public figures who are in newspaper obituary files just in case.

In case it helps, my obituary and my later remarks are available here.
posted by brianogilvie at 6:29 PM on September 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

This person is a public figure in their industry. Their death will be covered as news inside the industry. I guess I'm starting to understand that my job is to lay out the facts at this point, and then let the journalists do their own job later on?
posted by BlahLaLa at 6:38 PM on September 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

Yes. That's exactly correct.

Your job is to represent not just the person but the family. So the advice given above to include people is what you need to do. Parents, siblings, children, grand-children, and spouses (if any) to the siblings, children, grand-children, etc. .

Of course it's important to mention their role in the industry, but most people still read obituaries looking for the family details. So make sure you get that part right (double and triple check spellings of names, for example). Also take care if there are estranged family members or previous spouses and treat mention of those people with care and consideration of their place in the current family and of current family relations.

As for the industry part, you can't include a person's entire resume, but you can cover the highlights, including prominent roles (president of ACME) or important contributions (creator of movable black holes).

Charity or service club work should also get a mention, but as with the industry stuff, just focus on the highlights (chair of the Coyote Dynamite Victims Association or leader of the fundraising effort to finance the construction of roadrunner crossings in the desert).

If this is a very prominent person that journalists will be writing about, it would help to have a full and complete biography (point form is fine) available to hand out to reporters. A recent colour photo (in good quality resolution if it's digital) should also be made available to them as well. Have one person designated as the point person for any media inquiries. Make sure that person is somebody who knows how to communicate with the press and knows what story you want to relay about this person and their life.

Also, please accept my condolences on your loss.
posted by sardonyx at 8:00 PM on September 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

I do think you're going to need multiple versions:

  • Given that your friend attained prominence in their industry, you need one that focuses on professional achievements to send to the relevant journals, associations or whatever. Include a lot of contact info, including others in the industry if possible, because the secondary purpose of this obituary is to get those writers to call you/the contacts when they put together their obits.

  • Similarly, if you think this person's death will be covered by one or more major newspapers, then adapt the above with a personal anecdote or two. In my father's case, I included contacts for personal information and professional accomplishments and both were called.

  • A different version that is more personal and less professional that will wind up on your friend's Legacy page and possibly on the funeral program, if there is one. You might send this one to your friend's home town paper.

  • A death notice if that's what will go in your big city paper.

    In all cases, include educational attainment, next of kin and requests for donations if that's appropriate.

    Condolences to you and all who will miss your friend.

  • posted by carmicha at 8:07 PM on September 25, 2018 [2 favorites]

    I’m so sorry.

    An obituary serves multiple purposes: public notice of death, remembrance of a person’s life, and historical record for future descendants and genealogists. If you are planning to publish it in a newspaper they will often have templates and/or requirements. But the basic template goes something like this:

    Person, born $YEAR, died $DAY from $CAUSE. The child of $PARENTSNAMES, person grew up in $LOCATION [then went to school, worked, married, etc ... this part can include detail, anecdote and story or be very succinct]. Survivors include spouse, children, parents, siblings, and so forth. A service will be held at (location, place, time). In lieu of flowers please donate to $cause.
    posted by hungrytiger at 8:07 PM on September 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

    I am so sorry for your loss.

    "... historical record for future descendants and genealogists." This.

    Please get the correct spellings of names. Some obituaries abbreviate the list with the specifics of parents, siblings and their spouses, children and their spouses, and then the number of grandchildren, great grandchildren, nieces and nephews.
    Complex family relationships are given with just a list and limited details.
    With the children of the deceased, I'd err on the side of including all former spouses. I would include the parent of a grandchild.

    "Survived by children John B. and Mary Smith (add other children and spouses); grandchildren George Smith , Grace and Paul Perkins, Bill Brown (add other grandchildren and spouses); family members Georgia Green, Betty Brown."
    posted by free f_ cat at 5:51 AM on September 26, 2018 [2 favorites]

    I say fuck cancer too. It took my mother before anyone was ready to say goodbye. I am very sorry for your loss, and it is lovely that you will be writing the story of your person.

    One of my sisters oversaw writing our mother's obituary and I have bookmarked it to go back and re-read when I miss my mom because I love what we ended up writing. I love reading obituaries - they are the final stories we tell our village about our person. It bothers me that women's obituaries tend to focus on how they were good cooks, loved their grandchildren, was social, blahblahblah but that gendering, blech... all the ways women have been socialized to raise families and tend to them. Women generally are not talked about in whole-person terms, and that makes me bristle to read. Most mens obits are action oriented, not caretaking oriented.

    My siblings and I agreed to tell the broader story of our mom - a few of the things she loved (her faith, the smell of soil in spring, lambing season, new art supplies), how she was a lifelong learner and a bit about the institution she last studied at, some of the hobbies she enjoyed and did expertly but without fanfare. We talked about her musical and creative arts experiences. We referred to her professional career, how she hated injustice, poverty, and exclusion, and taught her children to want and work for more for everyone. We explained that she was ferocious on behalf of the underdog. Sure, she played cards with her grandkids but THAT is not all of who she was. We listed the names of immediate family, deceased relatives included, children, grandchildren. At the end we provided information about the time/date/location of the memorial service, and at the very end we provided the URL for people to make donations in her name to a local urban ministry organization, if they so chose.

    Oh, and if you have a photograph and can afford the additional cost to include it, I encourage you to do that, but caution about using selfies. You can usually tell a selfie IS a selfie and I find it a little creepy to look at the image of a person who took their own (usually crappy) picture. Looking up into someone's armpit while they are holding their own cell phone is gross and not the way I want to remember that person. Also, if able to trim images try to crop out extraneous other people's arms/head/hands, etc. because that looks weird too.
    posted by mcbeth at 8:07 AM on September 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

    Read other obituaries online to get an idea of what might be included.

    Tell the person's story. Speak well of them. Here's my grandmother's obituary:

    posted by bendy at 10:03 PM on September 27, 2018

    Read some obituaries in the New York Times. Look at some of the elements that are highlighted in obituaries and start thinking about what the deceased would like to be remembered for. If there are relatives, they should have an opportunity to make changes. An obituary of someone in my family misquoted a lot of information, maiden names, and titles/degrees. It was a big slap in the face to a lot of people in the family. Try to avoid that.
    posted by metasunday at 8:20 AM on September 28, 2018

    Thank you. All these answers were helpful. I am proud of what I've written -- short, and with the pertinent details, but also including a few personal/color beats to reflect who she was, and mention of the charities she supported. I think it's great and her husband agrees. We got the photo squared away too, so thanks for reminding me of that.
    posted by BlahLaLa at 10:27 AM on October 1, 2018

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