What Is an Obituary and Why Publish It?

An obituary is a written announcement of someone’s passing, usually published in newspapers, funeral programs, and online memorial pages. It’s a final farewell to a loved one that family members can keep as a memory of a life once lived. You can even say that it’s an indirect call for support as loved ones go through a difficult time in the coming days, weeks, and months. The typical obituary contains a brief description of the subject, along with details regarding their upcoming funeral service.

Although you’re likely to find obituaries of well-known figures and personalities in larger news publications, for everyday people, it’s still common for family members and friends of the deceased to share the news themselves on social media or pay the local newspaper for page space. Obituaries aren’t a must when someone dies, but they do help celebrate a loved one by creating a public record of their life. It’s also an opportunity for you to let the wider community know about one’s passing, particularly for old friends, distant relatives, and former colleagues you are no longer in close contact with. Fortunately, social media sites and online memorial pages offer free postings for you to announce the news without spending a dime.

The Key Differences between an Obituary and a Death Notice

It’s easy to confuse obituaries with death notices, and vice versa.

A death notice is a paid announcement that provides brief details about one’s memorial or funeral service for visitors to pay their respects and to know where they can forward their donations. Families of the deceased can submit the notice to their chosen newspaper, whether locally or nationally. Most funeral homes offer special packages that include the immediate publication of the death notice on your local paper. You can also opt to have them write the notice on your behalf, but make sure you take the time to review the material before it ends up on print.

On the contrary, an obituary is an editorial article that informs the community about a person’s death and presents biographical information about the deceased. Note that not many major newspapers publish long-form obituaries, except those of prominent or famous individuals, so it’s best to check with your local newspaper and community organizations that may include obituaries in their newsletters and publications.

Feel free to reach out to your local publishers and community groups for their pricing policies. The latter may even offer this service for free. But if it happens to go beyond your allotted budget, you can choose to post the obituary on a social media platform to save on costs.

Why Is Good Obituary Writing Important?

When Canadian-American rocket and jet propulsion engineer, Yvonne Brill, died in 2013, The New York Times announced her passing in the most controversial way possible: an obituary introduction that spoke about anything but her contributions to the field of Science and Technology.

Instead, the news outlet began with a line that complimented her cooking with a Beef Stroganoff reference. While the Times might have thought it was a good idea to talk about who Brill was as a person—a cook, a wife, and a mother of three—it’s not exactly the best way to pay tribute to someone who received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation award from former U.S. President Barack Obama.

Although they have since changed the first statements of their obituary with something more compelling, this highly criticized mishap by the Times serves as a reminder of how we regard obituaries. You see, obituaries aren’t quite like the standard type of journalism you’ve come to know. In most instances, it’s probably the first and last time that a person’s name ever appears on paper. They elevate the status of the deceased by focusing on the positives and sharing any news worth telling. And because it helps honor the dead on a public platform, you have to be very careful not to say anything insensitive and disrespectful to the friends and family of the deceased, as well as the rest of your readers. Practicing good obituary writing should help you memorialize the person who died with the honor and respect they deserve.

How Do You Write a Meaningful Obituary?

The nonprofit group, Our World in Data, reports the total number of deaths in 2017 at 56 million, with causes of death pointing to a variety of factors. While death is not something we can control or predict accurately, it is something we’re forced to accept regardless of the circumstances.

When someone dies, it becomes a touchy subject for anyone in the community to talk about. Having it in writing makes it easier for people to deliver the news of someone’s passing and giving honor to the life they lived. Generally, an obituary must consist of a specific set of information pertinent to the life and death of the deceased. And because it’s never easy to craft something that could trigger your emotions during these tough times, here are some tips on how to write an obituary to help you out.

1. Announce the Death

Begin the obituary with an announcement of a person’s death. It doesn’t have to be lengthy, as long as it highlights all the key details of the person who passed on, particularly their name, age, and day of passing. Adding a brief description of how loved ones remember them to be is one way to keep things personal. It’s possible to communicate this identifying statement, along with the announcement of one’s death, in different ways, as long as the message remains clear and concise.

As for whether to reveal the cause of death or not, this decision is up to the immediate family of the deceased, and no one else. If they choose to disclose this information in the obituary, choosing the right wording is crucial, so as not to cross any boundaries deemed insensitive to loved ones and the community. You can keep it as direct or vague as you want it to be, so as long as the family of the deceased is okay with it.

Death announcements can be tricky to write, so find out what you’re comfortable with sharing before you begin writing.

2. Provide a Biographical Summary

When it comes to an obituary, you don’t have to worry about making a full biography of the deceased. You wouldn’t want to dictate every single chapter of someone’s life on the pages of a newspaper. Instead, you can get in as much information as possible by emphasizing the important points that are worth saying. Apart from their name and birthdate, you can share a few stories about their upbringing, education, accomplishments, and career. Listing events chronologically also helps maintain a storyline, but it won’t hurt to squeeze in a few details of random events worth recognizing.

Summarizing biographical information not only simplifies what could’ve been a lengthy material, but it also acknowledges a person’s achievements and contributions that the community might want to learn about. It works well for individuals who actively participated in social organizations, charity groups, and other clubs.

3. Mention the Family

Although there’s no sense in getting the entire family tree in the obituary you’re writing, it’s essential to provide a general overview of the family members who preceded the person in death as well as the surviving members. It may include the person’s parents, life partner, children, siblings, and grandchildren. Listing family members is a common practice in modern society, especially among close-knit families, as it ensures that no one gets left out. Who you include in this section of the obituary will depend on who you’re comfortable with mentioning, so don’t feel pressured to make a list or diagram of your family tree.

4. Present the Service Details

We sometimes consider this part of the obituary as the most vital, as it informs visitors of the date, time, and location of the funeral or service. Other service details will depend on your local traditions and practices, as funerals do vary in different countries and cultures. Guests may refer to the service details indicated in the obituary, particularly for flowers, condolences, or donations that they wish to deliver. Readers should find this information in the last part of the obituary for quick reference.

5. Make Room for Special Messages

While it isn’t always necessary, people sometimes designate a section of the obituary for personal messages. It can be a message of thanks addressed to hospital staff, emergency units, or any public service professionals who played a meaningful part in the final days of the deceased. You can also place a short prayer or poem at the end of the obituary to keep it special and memorable.

Remember that this bit of the obituary is only optional, so don’t feel compelled to include it if it was never a part of your plans in the first place.

6. Add Photos

Photos are often a good addition to an obituary, as they serve as a visual reminder of the person who passed. It’s great to see photos of the person we miss while they were still young and able, so refrain from using photos that don’t depict them in their best state. But if you feel the need to use a dated photo, look for a recent photo that’s decent enough to include in the obituary. What’s important is that the person in the photo remains recognizable to friends and family.

Obituary Mistakes to Avoid

It’s common for one to encounter pitfalls when writing an obituary. That’s because those writing the obituary may have a feeling of sorrow when writing an obituary for someone they know or sympathy for the family and friends of the deceased. In such circumstances, mistakes happen, and it becomes difficult for you to write an obituary that centers on the announcement of death and the celebration of life. Also, those with little to no experience in writing obituaries may not know where to start.

Now that we’ve discussed the fundamentals in obituary writing, it’s time we have a look at some common mistakes you’ll want to avoid.

Focusing on the Loss than the Deceased: It’s easy to lose focus and turn the obituary into a piece about the people left behind, instead of the person who passed. We can all assume that you and the rest of those mourning the death of a loved one will have some emotions toward their passing, but you don’t have to lay everything out in your writing. Any feelings of loss and sorrow must be at a minimum to avoid turning the obituary into a sob story. It’s best to feature interesting details about the time between one’s birth and death for a more positive approach to the situation. Doing so allows you to celebrate the life that was lived rather than the inevitable passing of an individual.Using clichés: Some phrases and expressions have become so familiar and overused that they tend to lose their meaning over time. When this happens, you can expect the words written in your obituary to be less sincere than you intended. For example, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cardiovascular disease continues to be the leading cause of death for both men and women in the U.S. with 647,457 recorded in 2017. Phrases such as, “after a courageous battle,” and, “gone to meet his Creator,” are some examples you’ll often find in funeral cards and memorial programs in these events. Although the cause of death may be common, you’ll still want to avoid the clichés and stick with simple yet meaningful words.Turning It into a Thank-You Card: Unless you’ve spoken to the deceased (prior to their passing) about the people they want to thank in their obituary, you should avoid acknowledging anyone in specific. The reason for such is so you don’t forget or miss anyone significant to the deceased. If you wish to thank certain people, you can craft a handwritten thank-you note and send it to them directly to show your appreciation. You can also address any words of gratitude to all your readers through a general message in the obituary.Talking Too Much about the Funeral: You need to know where to draw the line between announcing the funeral and describing it in your obituary. Note that you’re announcing one’s passing, not trying to send a party invitation to the public. While it does welcome people to come and pay their respects, be sure to give basic funeral or service details that others might need. Refrain from going into too much detail, so as not to distract readers from Providing a date, time, and place should be enough to keep readers and those who knew the deceased informed.

Figuring out what to put in an obituary can be a struggle for most writers, especially if the person who died is someone dear to you. There are pitfalls to watch out for and tips to be mindful about to ensure your obituary remains meaningful and respectful to loved ones and the community. Ultimately, an obituary should show your appreciation for the life lived and give others the chance to say their final farewells to the person who passed. Keep these principles in mind and you should be able to prepare a good obituary in no time.