My $45,000 Per Month Inhaler
Attitudes Toward Old Age

A TGB READER STORY: How to Write a Good Obituary

EDITORIAL NOTE FROM RONNI: Thank you for all your story contributions this past week. We now have a good collection to keep us going for three or more months.

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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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[EDITORIAL NOTE: Reader's stories are welcome. If you have not published here or not recently, please read submission instructions. Only one story per email.]



Comments

I wrote mine 3 years ago, and now I will check it, to make sure I left out my birthdate!

Thanks for the invaluable information and suggestions.
I will be 90 in a few weeks so I guess I need to start on my obit.😳

A recent obit in our local paper stated that the young man had "lost his battle with severe depression". I appreciated the honesty of that statement. People die from mental illnesses - and being open about it helps alleviate the stigma.

I've always intended to write my own. Who else could keep all these years straight?

Excellent article filled with good advice. I have written my own obit, and if readers want to explore this topic further including some rather light-hearted advice about how to write one, go to my blog at www. gabbygeezer.blogspot.com Use the search feature to find Give Yourself a Proper Sendoff. Hope you find it enjoyable.

So far, I've gotten away with ignoring funerals and the idea of writing an obituary. Give me a few years and I might change my mind and if I don't have a few years left, somebody will figure it out. Cheers. J

My husband died unexpectedly of natural causes and just as unexpectedly our local newspapers soon phoned to interview me so they could write an obituary. They still publish obituaries free with content generally very personal, much as you describe, which I appreciate. I was quite unprepared and hadn’t even thought about what should be said. Wish I had declined and said I’d provide the information later.

The well-intentioned young writer, who may have been a temporary inexperienced employee I learned later, asked many questions including some for extraneous information that had better been left out as I assumed would be — such as who were some of his favored musicians (I thought that she was just trying to understand him better as both an academic administrator and also professional musician earlier in his life.) Obviously she didn't recognize any of those musician names since not of her generation, must not have even taken very good notes, so she just made up some of the names that were grossly inaccurate, no known real artists, thus didn't even make any sense to readers and would have seemed ridiculous to his fellow musicians across the country. I tried to make a joke of it when I sent copies to them.

There had been no opportunity to preview what she wrote before publication. So, if you haven’t yet written an obituary for your loved one when they die, if you’re contacted, I highly recommend delaying providing such information a short time to allow an opportunity for thoughtful consideration of what you might want to be published — and/or declining to provide information you consider of little importance lest those offering to publish your loved ones obituary inject such extraneous matters into their story. Ideally, might be nice to preview what others write or submit your own printed obituary though that isn’t always possible.

Actually, I don't plan on having one so that's one less thing my survivors (or I while I'm still around) have to worry about!

Kath,
What wonderful, useful advice. Lots of tips we would not think about. I had never considered writing my own obit , but now I certainly will. Better me than a strange ,as in the case Joared mentioned about her husband. Thank you for helping educate us all.

I loved born sometime in the 20’s. Definitely my style.
M

Thank you Kath for the helpful suggestions that make it easier and safer for families to handle unexpected pitfalls. Even though I am a writer, I did not think to write an obituary for my husband beforehand. I had no idea that a physically strong person would die of dementia. Denial stood in my way but helped me survive the dreaded future loss—until it happened.

Although the obituary was straightforward, I was able to compose a eulogy in the middle of the night before the burial, and felt I did justice to my husband In that way instead. I made photocopies for my friends and family which I had on hand while “sitting shiva” at home for the following seven days.

May his memory be for a blessing.

I've written both mine and husband and with daughters help if I recall son's was written when he suddenly died. But I best take a look again and be sure no ID info could be used for those who shouldn't have it.

I loved this!

Personalized obits, mini biographies.

Meant to be read slowly.

Thanks for the tips!

Thanks so much for reading my article and commenting! I wanted also to comment on the fact that with increasing use of cremation, folks often do have more time to write and share an obituary. Often it’s free or inexpensive to publish a death notice naming the funeral home or crematorium and these places usually publish obituaries on their websites for free and in perpetuity. Links to the obituary are easy to share later in social media or via email or texts.

My niece died suddenly last fall and her stepmom told me it cost $300-500 to print her obit in the newspaper. It was stressful to have to do it in a hurry since she had a traditional burial.

My sister died unexpectedly in Montana and I wanted to honor her memory by
writing an obituary for her. She was cremated in Montana. She had lived for years in the same area where I currently reside before she was forced to move due to financial problems. she lived with her son who was unable to afford an obituary.

That I was able to give her still living acquaintances the story of her demise was a happy thing for me. I was able to include some personal memories of her being a tomboy and that she liked to cook. It cost $425. to run for 3 or 4 days over a weekend but I figured it was the money that I normally would send her for birthdays and Christmas presents. She was living below the poverty level with the minimum social security income.

I need to write my own obit , thanks for the reminder.

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