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By Kath Noble of Postscript by Kath
Someone you love has died. Suddenly you have a million things to take care of, and you don’t know where to start. I can help by sharing some tips on writing a good obituary.
When I began my business writing obits, Postscript by Kath, I read a TON of obituaries from all over. Many are full of trite phrases and lists of people, places and careers, probably assembled by staff at a funeral home.
Every once in a while, there was one that was obviously written by a family member or friend that made me smile or tear up. That’s the kind I try to write and teach others to write.
Writing a good obituary begins before the person dies. My mom and I sat at her kitchen table over the years before she died at 92, with me writing as fast as I could and her telling me stories, names, dates.
I used questions from A Grandmother’s Book but you can make up your own or just ask them to tell you their life story. Be sure and ask about spelling for names and places. You may end up doing a “G-rated” version for immediate sharing and an “X-rated” version for sharing later with intimates, as I did.
Alternatively, you can talk to someone else who knew the person well, and take good notes. Ask them about stories the person used to tell, what made them laugh or cry, and what they cared about the most in life.
Did they have a favorite joke? What were the high points and low points in their life? Did faith play a role in their life and how did that change over the years? What issues did they care most about? What role or job did they love the most? How did their friends describe them? Do they have a favorite charity in case others want to donate in their name?
Must you compile a list of dates, parents’ names, siblings, spouses, children, jobs, places lived, and so on? Yes, if you can, but not necessarily to include all of it in the obituary. This important information can be given to the survivors for their own use.
How about birth dates? A friend’s mom really did not want others to know her age, so she wrote, “Mary was born sometime in the 1920s!”
But there is another reason to avoid using exact birth dates. Identity theft often happens using data from obituaries, so consider using the birth year and place, but not the date. And NEVER list a home address.
Most obituaries include the cause of death. If a person died in an accident or by suicide, some families may wonder if they should leave out the cause. If they don’t, some readers may read the obit and wonder, “Well, what happened?”
This is a very personal decision, however, and satisfying readers’ curiosity should not be the deciding factor. Much of the stigma attached to suicide has diminished, though, and perhaps we can acknowledge that by being honest and saying “died by suicide.”
What should you actually include in the obituary? It doesn’t need to be a play-by-play of the person’s entire life nor a list of accomplishments. The obits that make me smile give a glimpse into a real person, not a saint.
Consider the obit for Mary “Pink” Mullaney.
“We were blessed to learn many valuable lessons from Pink during her 85 years, among them: never throw away an old pair of pantyhose. Use them to tie gutters, childproof cabinets or hang Christmas ornaments.“
If you are thinking about writing your own obituary, start writing now. Your family will be so grateful to have one fewer thing to deal with when you die and to have your story told the way you wanted it to be told. They can write eulogies and tell stories about you at the memorial service.
Decide what style of obituary you want to write for yourself: a traditional one written in third person or a more personal one, telling some of your life story in first or third person.
See my Facebook page “Postscript by Kath” for examples or search for “great obituaries” online. Read a lot of these so you can steal their ideas and style. Decide if you want help writing or editing your obituary and where to get it.
Just make sure you give several copies of your obit to your family and let them know your wishes about editing it and where to have it published - in the newspaper, on the funeral home website, and/or on a Facebook Memorial Page.
The latter two choices are free, whereas hard newspaper obits can run into hundreds of dollars and may not reach as many people.
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