Writing an obituary can be a challenging task, as it requires capturing the essence of a person’s life and honoring their memory. I was recently a part of the process for my uncle. And before that, totally in charge of writing my father’s. 

To me, this is a portrayal that will go down in the archives. The next generations will find it on ancestory.com, Google, libraries, and resources that we can’t even fathom quite yet. So what better way to easily inform next generations about a relative than to write a good obituary. No pressure or anything! 

And thinking about it in that light, I wouldn’t want an obituary to read like a resume. Someone is more than their place of birth, career, and list of relatives. That said, a resume structure may be a good way to build a skeleton for your piece (no pun intended). From there, be sure to sprinkle in the spice of life – which is where I find many obituaries fall short.

Here are some guidelines to help you write a great obituary for your loved one:

  1. Gather Information: Start writing down all relevant dates and locations (birth, death, wedding, education, military, general milestones, etc). This may mean talking to extended family and friends to piece together a timeline, combing through scrapbooks, and flipping over photos to read descriptions and dates. Find whatever you can!

  2. Determine the tone: Consider the personality and character of the person who passed away. Decide whether the obituary should be formal, solemn, celebratory, or a combination of these elements.

  3. Start with a meaningful introduction: Begin the obituary with a compelling and concise statement that captures the essence of the person’s life. You can mention their accomplishments, passions, or the qualities that defined them. Keep in mind, just because you’ll want to start off with this, doesn’t mean you have to write it first. It may be easier to read through all the great points you make in the body and once finished, boil it down into a great opener.

  4. Create your body: Using all your gathered data, provide relevant biographical details about the deceased, such as their education, career, hobbies, and interests. Include significant milestones, experiences, or contributions they made to their community or profession.

  5. Add in your spice by highlighting personal attributes and achievements: Focus on the positive qualities that made the person unique. Highlight the way they made people feel and how they did that. Was it always inviting people over for a calming tea? Living their life with grace and values, infectiously rubbing off on those around them? Were they someone that never minced words so you could always trust them for an honest opinion?  Share anecdotes or stories that illustrate their character, spirit and the impact they had on others’ lives.

  6. Include surviving family members: Segway to name immediate family members who survive the deceased. This typically includes the spouse, children, parents, siblings, and grandchildren (if it’s a long list by the time you reach grandchildren providing a count or just first names is reasonable). If it’s a small family, or friends and extended family were a strong presence in the person’s life, it’s kind to name them as well. Overall, this can be a touchy section depending on family dynamics. Be sure to check with the family at large to ensure accuracy and completeness. Remember, it’s going down in the archives, so potentially a very helpful section for the next generations. So to that point, this is not a space to be petty. If anything, it may be a section that can right some wrongs if you’re dealing with an estranged or strained relationship. 

  7. Provide funeral or memorial service details: Include information about the funeral or memorial service, such as the date, time, location, and any special instructions or requests from the family regarding donations or flowers. If the person had specific cultural or religious affiliations, it may be wise to mention practices associated with their faith or culture. If you’re planning on something at a later date or already did a quick graveside memorial prior to publishing, make sure to note this. Otherwise, people will be wondering how they can pay their respects. 

  8. Proofread and edit: Review the obituary carefully for accuracy (dates/names/locations especially), grammar, and spelling errors. Use a service like Grammarly or enlist a talented friend if this is not your forte. It’s helpful to have another person read through to catch any gaffs, missed gems, or provide general suggestions.

  9. Select a great photo(s): You’ll need one great headshot photo for the published obituary. But you may want to collect many others for the purpose of the funeral, memorial, or obituary website. 

Two other big things to keep in mind are the timeframe and length. You may want to hold off printing until the Sunday paper, as that’s typically the most popular to ensure it’s seen. And that could be easy enough to time out if your memorial will be held at a later date. But you may want something mid-week if you need the notice and details announced early enough for an upcoming weekend service. You may need to write up the obituary in a matter of days. 

Length is another important consideration if publishing in the paper. Newspapers generally charge by the word or line. Or charge a flat fee for X words/line and then per word to the extent you surpass the limit. On average, obituaries cost between $200-$500. So keep sentences and word choices as efficient as possible. Keep in mind newspapers don’t generally paragraph out sections, it will likely be one continuous column.