How to Write a Meaningful Obituary

After the death of a loved one, you might be asked to write a meaningful obituary for a newspaper, social media platform, and/or website. Even if you've never written an "obit" before, you can do it now by following a few simple steps.

At a minimum, an obituary informs people that someone has died and includes details about the funeral, memorial service, and/or burial.

At its best, an obituary can summarize a person's life and legacy.

This article explains how to write a meaningful obituary. You'll learn what to include and why it's important to double-check your facts.

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Ask family members, friends, coworkers and/or others who knew the deceased well to help you. They may be able to supply facts and dates, provide the proper spelling of names, and offer an anecdote (a short story) or two.

Check Rates First

Before you send the obituary to the publisher, call or check for details that may determine how long the obit can be.

Some newspapers charge between $200 and $500 for a "short" obit (often up to 300 words) and up to $1,000 for a "long" one. Most charge a small fee to include a photo.

If it's necessary to trim the length of the obit, you'll likely want to do that yourself than let a stranger do it.

By contrast, digital obituaries are generally free. And some platforms allow family members, friends, and neighbors to offer their condolences and memories below the obit. In this way, it can become a keepsake.

Writing the Obituary

Collect the information you need and then select your preferred tool: Pen and paper or a computer. Organize the obituary in this manner:

Basic Facts

Begin with:

  • The full name of the deceased
  • Their age
  • Their date and place of birth
  • The date and place of death
  • Where the deceased lived
  • The cause of death (which the family may wish to withhold)

Summary of Life

Provide a brief summary of the deceased's life, starting from birth and working forward. Think of yourself as a storyteller. You're going to tell the story of someone's life.

You can be straightforward, moving from one fact to another. Or you can be more heartfelt. There really is no "right way" to write an obituary. Finding a published obituary you like may give you ideas about how to write yours.

Either way, try to be choosy about the information you include. Ask yourself:

  • Would the reader find this piece of information interesting?
  • Does it help "keep the story going"?
  • Does the anecdote reflect something the deceased was known for?

It's better to gather "too much" information early on. You can always edit and/or shorten your obituary later.

List of Relatives

List relatives, both living and deceased. Include the full names of the deceased's parents, siblings, and children, as well as his or her spouse/partner. Also mention grandparents, aunts, uncles, and step-family members.

Note the total number of grandchildren or great-grandchildren. You do not have to list them by name.

The partners of children are cited in an obituary in parentheses, after the child's name. It typically looks like this: "Survived by daughter Jane (John) Smith."

Funeral or Memorial Details

Funerals and memorial services have changed a great deal over the last 20 years. In fact, many families today say goodbye to loved ones with a "celebration of life," tribute, or balloon launch event.

You may fear that a non-traditional memorial will make your writing job more difficult. But it shouldn't. Simply share the information you know, which is your primary goal anyway. Use the journalist's preferred order of:

  • Time
  • Day
  • Date
  • Place
  • Location

Be sure to include any information that readers might appreciate if they want to attend the service. At the least, the obituary should include the name and phone number of the funeral home or a website dedicated to the deceased's life.

Donations

It's now common to ask readers to forgo sending flowers in favor of making a donation to a charity or memorial fund.

The choice is up to the family. Just be sure to name the charity or memorial fund to which donations should be sent. An address helps, too.

Checking the Facts

Obituaries are more than a matter of public record. They can become lifelong keepsakes for the people left behind.

So take your time and get the names right. Make sure you spell the deceased's name correctly, as well as the names of other family members or loved ones you mention.

Include middle names, initials, and distinctions such as "Jr.," "Sr.," and "Dr." It may seem like a small matter to mistakenly refer to "John Smith, Jr.," but the family will surely notice.

Ask at least one trusted person to proofread your obituary for mistakes or omissions. Then read it aloud, just as many readers might.

Sometimes, the ears are better than the eyes when it comes to improving the tone of a story.

Proofreading Tip

Edit the obit first, then proofread it. Editing involves revising, reorganizing, and rewriting sentences for clarity. Proofreading is checking details like spelling and punctuation. You're bound to catch more when you focus on one task at a time.

Summary

Structuring an obituary is largely a matter of choice; no two are alike. But readers expect to learn some generic information about the deceased, including basic facts, a life summary, list of relatives, and details about the final service.

Before you get too carried away with writing, check current rates that newspaper and online platforms charge to run an obit. The difference in price may influence your preferred word count.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What should be included in an obituary?

    An obituary should be informative. Be sure to include:

    • The full name of the deceased, including nicknames
    • The age of the deceased at the time of death
    • The city or town of residence at the time of death
    • A list of immediate surviving family members
    • A brief summary of the deceased's life
    • Memorial or funeral details with the address and date
    • Details about charities or memorial funds to send a donation
  • Should the cause of death be in a obituary?

    Check with the deceased's spouse or family members before publishing the cause of death. In some cases, the family may prefer to keep this detail private. In such cases, you can use a euphemism like "passed after a long illness" or "passed suddenly." Or you can sidestep the subject entirely and not mention it at all.

  • What should be excluded from an obituary?

    Obituaries should not be written in the first person. This means you should not use the word "I". Remember that an obituary is not a personal tribute. You should also exclude personal addresses and phone numbers.

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  1. Beyond the Dash. How much does an obituary cost? September 20, 2021.