Among all the types of writing, there are few as personal as writing an obituary. An obituary is meant to inform others about the death, the funeral or memorial service details, and the deceased’s familial relationships and impact on their community. Obituaries can be written about anyone who has died, be it a friend, family member, or colleague. Typically, obituaries appear in places like local newspapers, social media, or funeral home websites.
Like many parts of the grieving process, writing an obituary can be challenging. Here’s what you should know about writing a respectful, thoughtful obituary.
What to include in an obituary
No two people are the same, especially as seen through the eyes of a loved one. But there are certain guidelines about what goes into an obituary that are universal. For example, it should contain information like:
- the name of the deceased and their photo
- the date they died and their age at that time
- their family members (for example, a partner or children)
- funeral or memorial details (date, time, and location)
- flower or donation information
Beyond that, an obituary is meant to provide context about the deceased and help tell the story about who they were and the life they led. To achieve this, it should include brief anecdotes that illustrate their personality or how they spent their time, and their accomplishments or contributions to their community.
An obituary is typically limited to just a few paragraphs (or about two to three hundred words). That short length may feel constraining, but it’s important to remember that the obituary is just one way to honor a loved one’s memory. While the obituary is about informing a public audience of their death, there will be other opportunities to share their stories, like eulogies, which may provide a deeper look into their personality and life story. Keeping this in mind may help alleviate some of the pressure you may feel while writing an obituary.
How to write an obituary in 4 steps
If you were very close with the deceased, you may already know the important details, like who their family members are and when the funeral is. But you may be writing the obituary as an outsider on behalf of the family to help support them during the grieving process. Either way, it can help to ask the deceased’s close friends and family members to fill in any details you’re missing. This can also give you insight into what other people may want or expect from the obituary and which photo you should use, if applicable.
Look at the things that made them unique
Beyond the biographical details of their life, there were probably a lot of little details that helped shape your loved one into the person you knew and loved. Here, it can help to give yourself specific prompts, like:
- What is your favorite memory of your loved one?
- How would most people describe them?
- What personality traits stand out in your mind?
- Did they have any hobbies?
- Are there any quirks that come to mind when you remember them?
- How would they want to be remembered?
You don’t necessarily need to include everything you think of in the obituary, but gathering this context can help you shape the story you’re telling about who they were. Again, asking friends and family members for their favorite stories of your loved one can be a way to make the obituary more well-rounded.
Organize the obituary
Once you’ve compiled all of the information you want to include or consider for the obituary, it’s time to give it structure. Here’s one way to organize it that will give it a natural, logical flow:
- Start with the facts: the deceased’s full name, how old they were, the date they died, and who they are survived by in their family.
- Give factual details of their life: educational degrees, professional titles and awards, and how long they’ve been with or married to their partner, etc.
- List things they loved to do: hobbies and general interests as well as any short anecdotes that capture who they were and how people remember them.
- Don’t forget to include funeral or memorial service details for those who wish to attend or, if it’s a private ceremony, the wishes of the family.
While this structure can help you get started, it’s not your only option. The goal should be to write an obituary that feels fitting for the person, whether that means focusing on remembering their achievements and impact on the world, celebrating the person they were among friends and family, or some combination of the two. That said, it should be written primarily in the third person rather than from your own perspective.
Once you have your obituary in a place that you’re satisfied with, it’s important to take time to proofread it. You’ll want to look for basic things like typos, but you should also pay attention to the tone. It should reflect the person your loved one was, but it should also be respectful and written in an empathetic way. If you aren’t sure whether the tone feels right, try running your draft past someone you trust for their feedback. It’s even more helpful if they also knew the person who has passed.
Note: You should remove any information that is personal or could be used for the purposes of identity theft. This includes things like phone numbers or home address.
Example 1: A traditional obituary
On Friday, April 8, John B. Doe, a beloved husband, passed away. He was seventy-four. Born to Matilda and Anthony Doe, John graduated from the local university with a bachelor of science and went on to become a chemist. After working his way up to become a senior researcher, he met fellow scientist Carl, who became his husband. They were together for nearly forty years.
John was active in his local birdwatching club and regularly volunteered to run game night with his buddies Charlie, Susan, and Pat. John also loved fishing, gardening, and watching his favorite TV show, Murder, She Wrote. He is survived by his husband, Carl. The funeral will be held on Saturday, April 16, at 1 p.m. at Crown Funeral Home. Donations may be directed to the memorial fund: <add link here>.
Example 2: An anecdote-driven obituary
On Sunday, May 8, 2022, Janice Francis Doe, loving partner and mother of two, passed away at age fifty-six. An avid reader, Janice earned a bachelor’s degree in education and spent thirty-four years as a high school English teacher. She was named teacher of the year many times during her tenure as an educator and was known for having an open-door policy for any student looking for help—whether they were working on a college application, reviewing a paper, or seeking guidance in their lives.
Janice also had a love of science fiction, both in books (she was particularly fond of novels by Ursula K. Le Guin) and other media (for example, the original Star Trek series—she named the family dog Mr. Spock). In her own words, “There are few things that can capture the wonder and strangeness of the human experience as science fiction.” After attending her first book fair as a teacher, she met the love of her life, Hank Doe, with whom she bonded over strawberry ice cream and their mutual love of the genre. After several months of dating, they married at the Community Church, and two years later their twins, Anna and Sarah, were born. When the twins expressed an interest in space exploration, Jane painted their bedroom ceiling dark blue with bright white constellations so that they could dream about traveling through the stars.
Janice was best known for her quick-witted humor, fierce determination, and generous spirit. She is survived by her husband, Hank, and their daughters, Anna and Sarah. A memorial service will be held on Sunday, May 22, 2022, at 2 p.m. in the gardens of the public library on Main Street. In lieu of giving flowers, the family asks that those who are able instead make a donation to the library restoration fund.