Writing Down a Life: Crafting the Obituary
An obituary also serves as notification that an individual has passed away and details of the services that are to take place. But it can be for more than that. A well-crafted obituary can detail the life of the deceased, with style.
An obituary's length may be somewhat dictated by the space available (and the related costs) 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 Should You 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 who 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. Do not include the street address, for security reasons; just mention the city and region/state/province/county.
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.
Add the Names of Those Left Behind…as Well as Those Who Went Ahead
It is common to include a list of those who have survived the deceased, in addition to those who passed away prior to the death of your loved one. The list should include (where applicable):
Spouse and children
Half & step children
Half- & step-siblings
The relatives listed above may be listed by name. Other relatives will not be mentioned by name but may be included in terms of their relationship to the deceased. In other words, the obituary may mention that the deceased had 5 grandchildren, or 7 great-grandchildren.
Also, anyone listed as a special friend or companion is not normally included amongst the list of survivors unless the deceased's blood relatives request that it be so. The obituary's traditional purpose is to list survivors either related through the bloodline or marriage.
Additional information such as where the body will be laid to rest and any pallbearer's names or names of honorary pallbearers may be mentioned.
At this point list the details of the time and location of any services for the deceased: these may include the funeral, burial, wake and memorial service where appropriate.
Tips for Crafting a Complete Obituary
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 say the deceased will "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, as this limits how readers can express their sympathy. Perhaps they want to send flowers to the family – and unless you are adamant that flowers are not wanted, the phrase is decidedly “off-putting”. Instead merely start the final paragraph of the obituary with the words "Memorial donations may be made to" and then state the charity’s name.
If you wish, send the obituary to newspapers in other cities or towns where the deceased may have resided previously.
Obtain copies of the obituary to send to distant relatives and friends.
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, how they influenced others and highlight their personal and professional accomplishments. An excellent example of this is the New York Times obituary written for legendary baseball player Yogi Berra, by Bruce Weber. 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.
"Yogi Berra, one of baseball’s greatest catchers and characters, who as a player was a mainstay of 10 Yankees championship teams and as a manager led both the Yankees and the Mets to the World Series — but who may be more widely known as an ungainly but lovable cultural figure, inspiring a cartoon character and issuing a seemingly limitless supply of unwittingly witty epigrams known asYogi-isms — died on Tuesday. He was 90."
In this first section of the obituary, Weber does a good job of covering Yogi Berra’s accomplishments as a baseball player and celebrity in general. Yogi was one of baseball’s most decorated players of all time and a major sports figure both during and after his playing days. When you are summarizing someone’s life with an obituary, an important part to include is some of the big accomplishments the deceased had during their life.
"Lawrence Peter Berra was born on May 12, 1925, in the Italian enclave of St. Louis known as the Hill, which also fostered the baseball career of his boyhood friend Joe Garagiola. Berra was the fourth of five children. His father, Pietro, a construction worker and bricklayer, and his mother, Paulina, were immigrants from Malvaglio, a northern Italian village near Milan."
In this section of the obituary, Weber makes note of Yogi’s early years and family. While millions of people knew Yogi the baseball player, many did not know about his upbringing. This section discusses his early years and provides the reader with information about Yogi’s parents, siblings and childhood best friend. It’s important to include this kind of information when writing an obituary. It helps to provide a complete story of the deceased’s life.
"He married his wife Carmen in 1949, and the marriage endured until her death in 2014. He is survived by their three sons — Tim, who played professional football for the Baltimore Colts; Dale, a former infielder for the Yankees, the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Houston Astros; and Lawrence Jr. — as well as 11 grandchildren and a great-grandson."
It is always important to acknowledge the deceased’s family including who they are survived by as well as who preceded them in death. When listing the survivors, they leave behind, stick to only naming their immediate family. If the deceased had grandchildren or great grandchildren, you can list how many there are instead of names.
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.
Today there are online memorials, such as the Book of Memories™, where the obituary can be available for the cyber-community of the deceased to view. It is also a place where friends and family can leave messages of condolence, light a memorial candle, or share photographs and videos. If this sounds like a good option for your family, contact us to learn more.