Writing an Obituary


In the traditional sense, an obituary is a shared announcement that summarizes the life of someone that has died. It can be straightforward with details on the funeral or memorial services, and the familial relationships of the decedent, or colorfully written in a way that captures the personality of someone who mattered to you. Either way, an obituary is a story. A factual account that becomes part of the archives.

Prior to the internet, most people went to the back of the newspaper, near the classified ads, to find the obituary section. Today, we consume news and current events in radically different ways so you might wonder if an obituary is still a relevant practice. I’m here to argue that it is. For one, an obituary is part of the grieving process because telling stories reminds us of the importance of living a memorable and impactful life. It’s also cathartic for the writer, which brings me to who should be responsible for writing an obituary. In most cases, that’s going to be a friend or family member, or a collective group of people closest to who has passed away. Under other circumstances, and increasingly popular, the writer might even be the decedent herself. When you think of an estate plan, you might automatically think of the common tools used for transferring belongings; will, trust, etc., but that’s not all that’s been accumulating over your lifetime. There’s valuable stories, lessons, and personal values to gift, and who better to emphasize those narratives and express gratitude than you. 

Secondly, we can thank DNA services for shining a spotlight on the importance of a well written and accurate obituary. If your family is anything like mine, the decades-old stories you’ve heard about your ancestors and heritage may need further verification. For instance, I’ve been living with the knowledge that I’m of indigenous decent. With a little digging, I’ve been able to trace my family tree back to a great, great grandfather by the name of Winter Shandler Swift. So strong in the belief that his name proves native naming customs, my mother had hoped my daughter would honor the story of our birth right by naming her daughter Winter. Although my granddaughter doesn’t share his name, according to the obituary that has since been found on a public records site, she was born on the same day of the month. I’ve also been able to use some of the information in his obituary to make connections on our family tree that feel like more than sheer coincidence. I’ve discovered a thread of commonalities with names and places that I otherwise wouldn’t have known.   

Whether you are writing an obituary as a tribute to someone else or creating your own mini autobiography, the experience is very personal and challenging. Here are five steps to follow that might help you complete the task.

Step 1:  Get inspired.

  • Think about the story you want to tell. 

  • Jot down key characteristics that you wish to convey in your writing.

  • Consider what you would like the next generations to take away from a brief summary.

Step 2:  Be specific.

  • Provide full names and relationships.

  • Incorporate educational and career accomplishments.

  • Include hobbies and philanthropy interests.

  • Detail what can be done to honor the memory of the decedent. This tells the reader almost as much about you as a few descriptive words.

  • Don’t forget to include funeral or memorial service details.

Step 3:  Just start writing.

This is the hard part. Keep in mind that most obituaries aren’t extremely long so no need to get overwhelmed. The goal of your first draft is to write as much as you think you need to say. Word vomit is okay, you can clean it up later. 

Step 4:  Give it structure.

During the editing process look for words that you don’t need. Don’t include anything too personal like a home address or phone number. Focus on the story you are telling and not perfection. This is the time to let your thoughts change and evolve. When you are ready, share your writing with someone you trust to get their feedback. 

Step 5:  Proofread.

Look for basic things like typos and confirm the details again. You’ll also want to make sure to pay attention to the tone. 

Don’t let fear stand in the way of getting started. Put on your storyteller hat and be sure to smile along the way.