How to Write an Obituary

Writing an obituary can be difficult. How do you sum up a life in a few paragraphs? How do you convey the details of a complex person? You want to be sure that the intelligence, wit, charming quirks and mischievous sparkle in someone’s eye come across—but how?

Though there are a few tenets of a traditional obituary—name, age, occupation—a modern obituary can be much more than just a funeral announcement and list of names of people left behind. Contemporary obituaries include funny stories, quirky memories and smart details that showcase a loved one’s personality and true passions. Information about jobs and hobbies is great, but writing a memorable obituary really celebrates the heart and soul of a person, sharing likes and dislikes, hopes and dreams, proudest accomplishments and even regrets.

It’s a great honor to write the obituary of someone you loved. Whether it’s short and sweet or filled with stories, an obituary should reflect a loved one’s special life.

What is an obituary?

In its simplest form, an obituary acknowledges the life and death of a person. Acquaintances, faraway friends and distant family members often learn of a loved one’s death by reading an obituary in a newspaper or online. An obituary can solve the immediate need to notify others of a death and relay funeral or memorial service details, but it’s also an opportunity to creatively highlight the characteristics of an unforgettable individual: how your grandfather was devoted to shining his shoes on his lunch break; how your mother never missed a chance to bring donuts to your cheerleading practice; how your brother visited 100 countries, always with a bag of cookies and a copy of On the Road in his backpack.

Too often, an obituary is written in haste, and family members miss an opportunity to really tell the story of someone they loved. Here are a few things you can think about to avoid that—and instead, leave an indelible impression on everyone who reads your loved one’s obituary.

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Information to include in an obituary

When you work with a Dignity Memorial® funeral director, you get professional guidance every step of the way—including help writing an obituary for the newspaper and online. We’ll start with some basic questions, but the more details you share with us, the better the obituary will be. Here are some things to consider:

Details of the death. A typical obituary starts by stating when someone died. Think: “Monday at home” or “Saturday morning after his second cup of coffee.” An obituary often includes vague information about the cause of death: “after a long battle with cancer” or “of natural causes.” Some people leave that part out—and that’s perfectly OK.

Biographical information. Many people include details such as where a parent was born, where the person went to high school or college or where he or she worked. Many also include milestones and accomplishments, such as getting married, becoming a grandparent, serving in the military, joining a church, being elected to an office or winning an important award.

When writing about a person’s life, try to go beyond what’s expected and highlight what was truly special about this person. In how many plays had your aunt performed, and what was her funniest role? What was your dad’s worst joke—the one he managed to work in at every family gathering? Was your loved one renowned for her shoe collection? His obsession with astrology or a devotion to orchids? Her love of karaoke but complete inability to carry a tune? Think about the attributes that drew love and adoration from others and really put them on display.

Deceased and surviving family members. Most obituaries list close relatives who died before the person being written about did, as well as those who are still living. Though this might seem like a simple task, it’s easy to leave out a name and hurt someone’s feelings. If there are many surviving family members, consider listing only very close relatives by name (mother, father, sisters, brothers, spouse, children) and grouping others together with a phrase like “... also survived by many beloved nieces and nephews.”

Funeral details. If a public visitation, funeral and/or memorial service will be held, the obituary should provide locations, dates and times. If funeral services will be private, state that. People will understand.

Memorial donations. Though it’s common for people to send flowers or gifts to the family of someone who has died, some people prefer that resources go to a charitable organization instead. Donations may be requested for a nonprofit that researches the disease from which a person suffered, a facility that provided exceptional end-of-life care or a cause that was close to a loved one's heart. Likewise, a family might request that a contribution be made to a fund that will provide for someone’s spouse and children, especially when a death was unexpected.

A memorable photo. A photo is a pleasant reminder of a person in good times. Choose a well-lit head shot taken within the last few years to ensure that people recognize your loved one. (If you use a photo from your grandmother’s high school days, people may not know who she is and could overlook the obituary.) Sometimes it costs extra to add a photo to a newspaper obituary; there is no cost to add one to an online obit.

If you still need help writing the perfect obituary, your Dignity Memorial provider can share samples of obituaries with you or help you write it. Either way, we’re here to help you.