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Sharon Hunter - March 2022

How to write an Obituary

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Obituary; it’s a common enough word but its one where people often struggle to understand its actual meaning and the role it plays. Obituaries frequently get confused with death notices regarding what to say, who writes it, and where it gets published.

Let’s unravel some of the confusion, and help determine if an obituary is appropriate for someone you love when they have passed on.

What is the difference between a death notice and obituary?

The key to understanding the job of a death notice is in the words themselves; it’s a notice about a death. It is short, factual and published in a specific section of the newspaper, traditionally alongside other classified advertising. A death notice generally gives the full name of the deceased, the date of their birth and death, and the place they died. It may include funerals details and a short statement by the family. It is a brief factual piece written by the family.

By contrast, an obituary can be thought of as the story of someone’s life. It’s longer and more detailed. Most often, we read an obituary when someone well known or famous has died. This can run the gamut from heads of state to heads of companies; world changing scientists to world renowned sports stars. Written by journalists, the obituary of an important death will make front page news in the world’s biggest publications.

Is an obituary appropriate for the not-so-famous?

Absolutely it can be! There are countless newspapers and other publications that might be appropriate to carry an obituary for someone who has passed on. Small town newspapers are perfect for someone who touched their community and whose loss will leave a sad gap. Newsletters of clubs and groups are also perfect. Magazines in niche or special interest areas are also perfect. Many major newspapers carry obit sections that anyone can book according the the space they need and the amount they wish to spend.

Obituaries frequently gets confused with death notices regarding what to say, who writes it, and where it gets published.

How to write a great obituary

Good writing is a pleasure to read. People enjoy well-crafted stories that take them on a journey. Here are some tips to writing an obituary that hits the perfect note.

  1. Think about the audience: The obituary for a former teacher published in the school newspaper warrants stories of a life spent teaching and shaping young lives. Writing one for the fishing club newsletter? An obituary that captures passion for rod and reel will hit the right note.

  2. Keep it real: By all means celebrate their life, but resist the urge to give them characteristics or achievements that aren’t grounded in reality.

  3. Stay respectful. Some stories might be best left to an amusing speech at the service after-function. The community newspaper is probably not the place to share life’s wrongdoings or misdemeanours.

  4. Side step the chronology. Charting someone’s life from birth, through childhood years, working career and onwards is rarely interesting in its entirety. Break up this kind of narrative with interesting details.

  5. Go deep not wide: One great anecdote told really well that captures the true nature of a person is better than several that have a superficial approach.

  6. Get help: Some find writing comes easily to them. Others less so. Draft what you want to say and have someone you trust with good writing skills check it over. They will keep the essence of what you want to say while giving it an essential polish. Even the best writers benefit from having work edited.

If you’re looking for an example on how one family nailed an alternative approach to an obituary you could do worse than take a cue from the one for Joe Heller, published in the Hartford Courant. Without doubt, the obituary written by his daughters took an irreverent and unconventional approach. Readers are left in no doubt that for all his odd foibles and habits, Joe was loved and cherished exactly as he was. Can’t ask for more than that. Read Joe Hellers obituary here.

Take the Obituary online

An honoring page is the perfect place for an online obituary. In fact, online you can do so much more than a printed version. Family can create the central narrative and then others can add their own stories to build a nuanced picture of someone’s life.

That wild night in Bangkok eating crazy street food, singing karaoke in bars and drinking home brew liquor? What about the girl’s road trip along the coast belting out rock anthems and show tunes? Maybe it was just the sheer pleasure of meeting weekly throughout the years to walk and have coffee.

These stories likely wouldn’t make the obituary a family would write, yet these moments add a wonderful tapestry to the story of a life. Gather them all. You will treasure them forever. Create a Great Goodbyes honoring page here.

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