How to Write an Obituary
What is an Obituary?
More than merely a "good-bye" to the deceased, this is a farewell which can, in chronological order, detail the life of the deceased. An obituary also serves as notification that an individual has passed away and details of the services that are to take place. An obituary's length may be somewhat dictated by the space available in the newspaper it is to appear in. Therefore it's best to check how much room you have before you begin your composition. Remember that the obituary needs to appear in print a few days prior to the memorial service. There are some cases where this may not be possible, therefore give some consideration to the guidelines below when composing the obituary.
What to Include?
Naturally, it is vital that the full name, along with the location and date of passing is included so that there is no confusion over whom has died. You may wish to consider placing a photograph (which can appear as black & white or in color depending on the newspaper's layout) with the text. There are usually extra charges applied if you are thinking of using a photograph. If you wish, mention where the deceased resided. This will normally only include the street, city and region/state/province/county. The street number is not normally included for reasons of security.
In a concise manner, write about the significant events in the life of the deceased. This may include the schools he or she attended and any degrees attained; you may also include any vocations or interests that the deceased was involved with.
Writing a great obituary is very similar to writing a eulogy. In both cases, you want to convey who the deceased was a person, what made them unique, and how they influenced others. It is also important to highlight their personal and professional accomplishments.
An example of a great obituary is the New York Times obituary written legendary comedian, Don Rickles, by Richard Severo.
The obituary that was published is quite lengthy and can be read in full here.
The following sections are excerpts from the obituary and serve as excellent examples of how to write an obituary.
For more than half a century, on nightclub stages, in concert halls and on television, Mr. Rickles made outrageously derisive comments about people’s looks, their ethnicity, their spouses, their sexual orientation, their jobs or anything else he could think of. He didn’t discriminate: His incendiary unpleasantries were aimed at the biggest stars in show business (Frank Sinatra was a favorite target) and at ordinary paying customers.
This first excerpt does a good job of outlining Mr. Rickles career and how he made a name for himself. The excerpt discusses the style of comedy he was best known for while highlighting the talents he had to think quickly and build an act that was different every night. Mr. Rickles worked hard to become one of comedy’s biggest legends and this excerpt helps showcase the path he took to get there.
Bookings in the late 1950s at the Slate Brothers nightclub in Hollywood and the lounge of the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas spread the word. During his Slate Brothers engagement, Carl Reiner recalled in “Mr. Warmth,” the biggest names in show business felt that “if they hadn’t been insulted by Rickles, they weren’t with it.”
This section does a great job of showing the impact Mr. Rickles had on others during his career. As his popularity continued to grow, Mr. Rickles became so influential that celebrities wanted to become a target of his routine. Being a part of his act meant that they could feel validated about their success. This is a powerful excerpt that shows how respected and admired Mr. Rickles was. An important part to include in an obituary is how the deceased impacted the lives of others. This excerpt is an excellent example of that.
Health problems inevitably slowed Mr. Rickles down, but even after a leg infection in 2014 affected his ability to walk, he continued performing, making the occasional concert and television appearances. In May 2015, he was one of the last guests on “Late Show With David Letterman.”
As recently as 2007, the year he turned 81, Mr. Rickles had been working, by his count, about 75 nights a year.
While it is important to highlight the achievements of the deceased, you should also try to discuss their characters and values. For Mr. Rickles, he loved to perform and was dedicated to his craft. This section does a good job of discussing this by showing that even into his eighties, Mr. Rickles was still performing on a weekly basis.
He shared an apartment with his mother and did not marry until he was almost 40. After marrying Barbara Sklar in 1965, he saw to it that his mother had the apartment next door. His wife survives him, as do a daughter, Mindy Mann, and two grandchildren. Mr. Rickles’s son, Lawrence, died in 2011.
An important part to include in an obituary is a reference to the deceased’s family. In this case, Mr. Rickles had preceded much his immediate family in death so it lists who he is survived by. This is important to include in the obituary so that readers know who they should express their condolences too.
Do's & Don'ts
If you don't know where to start, do read other obituaries to gain an idea of how personal and touching an obituary may be.
Do use such terms as "visitation will be from" or "friends may call from". Do not utilize the phrase "lie in state" as that only applies to a head of state such as the prime minister or president.
Don't use the phrase "in lieu of flowers" when memorial donations are to be requested. Instead merely start the final paragraph of the obituary with the words "Memorial donations may be made to"
Do consider if you wish to send the obituary to newspapers in other cities e.g. to a town where the deceased may have resided previously. Obtain copies of the obituary to send to distant relatives and friends.
Any and all information to be included in the obituary should be verified with another family member. A newspaper will have to verify with the funeral home being utilized that the deceased is in fact being taken care of by that funeral home.
Seeing as most newspapers charge by the word when placing an obituary, it may not always be feasible to mention everything that we have stated in our guidelines. Use your own discretion and do not put yourself under any financial hardship. Your loved one would understand.
If you would like to learn more about writing an obituary, please contact us to speak with a member of our staff.