Many people struggle with how to write an obituary. After all, for most of us, this task may only come up once or twice in our lifetime and of course it is also often an emotional time as we are dealing with our own grief. Summing up a loved one’s life in just a few paragraphs is not always an easy task, but a few tips from writers may make the job a little easier.
Author Nora McInerny has written four books but shared that nothing she’s done has ever been as popular as the obituary she wrote in collaboration with her husband, Aaron, who was dying of brain cancer.
Filled with humor and love, his obituary went viral. “It was the perfect inside joke for the people who loved him,” McInerny explained in EndWell’s Take 10 conference.
Inspired by another viral tribute, NBC asked writers for their advice on writing the perfect obituary. Among their tips:
- Jot down key facts: Even the most sensational obituaries should include basic details about a person’s life and death: name, birth date, age, profession, locations of birth and death.
- Write it in the present tense: Choosing present tense can “make you feel like you are really connecting” with the person. You can change it to past tense later.
- Reach out for memorable stories: Find the hidden gems from friends and family that reveal the person’s personality and quirks.
Ask yourself questions. Were there foibles or quirks that made your loved one special? What did you love most? What were their hobbies or favorite things?
The article offers other prompts to help you shape your piece and reminds you that you don’t have to be funny.
But if funny is what you need, perhaps you can find inspiration in a son’s tribute to his “plus-sized Jewish lady redneck mom,” Renay Mandel Corren.
He “enjoyed the Statler Brothers, NASCAR, chicken livers, iced tea and rhubarb pie” wrote writer Melissa Jane Kinsey in her father’s obituary. Kinsey says details like these turn a name into a person.
“After she was widowed, there were 13 toothbrushes in her bathroom all kept there by people who regularly enjoyed her company,” wrote Kay Powell, a retired obituary editor. She wrote over 2,000 obituaries over her career, but her mother’s obituary was special. Powell calls obituaries “American folk art.”
In the end, as McInerny says, “It’s important for all of us to be remembered not for how we died but for who we were when we were alive.”
Note that some funeral homes and websites will let you post an obituary for free – including here at Afterall – while newspapers may charge based on the length of your submission, so you may want to create both a short and long version for use in each place. Many people also share obituary details on social media channels.
You can find more tips on writing obituaries from AARP, Next Avenue, Modern Loss, Lantern and Cake.
For more tips on how to write a meaningful obituary, take a look at our article here.