Two hundred years in the future, what will people remember about your life? They might be able to find your social media profile, assuming that the links still work. Your name could be on a plaque somewhere. Perhaps your descendents will find a wedding announcement or an old yearbook photo of yours. At the end of life, we only leave faint traces in the physical world. Unless you’ve written an autobiography, future generations won’t have much information about how your mind worked or what made you smile.
For this reason, writing an obituary is an important responsibility. In many ways, it’s an opportunity to leave one final clue for the generations yet to come. The best obituaries give the reader a chance to feel as if he or she got to know the deceased person, even if they never met each other. Successful obituaries combine heartfelt sentiment and crucial information, allowing the reader to learn how the person engaged with the community.
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All obituaries need to contain certain useful pieces of information. We can divide the data into two categories: information for contemporaries and tidbits for future generations.
For future generations, a death notice must include essential biographical information, such as the deceased’s full name (including maiden name and nickname), age, date of birth, date of death, place of death, place of birth, survivors in the family, vocation, and military service. You may want to provide details that point future generations in the right direction for further research. For example, you could include a school attended, an important hobby or club affiliation, volunteer service, place of worship, etc. Any organization or club that might have extensive records about your loved one deserves an honorable mention. For a person who lived in many different places, you may want to mention some of the towns, cities, or countries that he or she called home.
For friends, family, and coworkers, you should share details relevant to the funeral or religious services. The date, time, and location of the funeral should be included in the announcement. In some cases, the obituary may link to a fundraising website for funeral expenses or medical costs. In addition, the obituary should answer any other immediate questions, such as where to send flowers or visit with mourners. Many families request a donation to charity in lieu of flowers. In some cases, the funeral or religious service may be limited to immediate family. If that’s the case, other mourners may need to know an appropriate way to share remembrances and condolences. If the cause of death seems useful to share, you can include that information, too.
The Emotional Content
Ask yourself about your loved one’s character. Was he a prankster? Did she love musicals? Were they obsessed with baseball? The content of the obituary should reflect the deceased’s life, so it needn’t read like a dry announcement. Some of the best obituaries include humor, especially when the person of honor had a penchant for laughs. For example, take a look at this excerpt from Connecticut retiree Joe Heller’s obituary, which lays out the expectations for his funeral:
A light dinner will be served as Joe felt no get-together was complete without food. None of his leftovers or kitchen concoctions will be pawned off on any unsuspecting guests. Feel free to be as late as you’d like as Joe was never on time for anything because of the aforementioned napping habits. Joe despised formality and stuffiness and would really be ticked off if you showed up in a suit.
A great obituary fits the personality of the person you’re describing. Think of the obituary as a shortened eulogy for those unable to attend the funeral. You may want to use it as an opportunity to tell some heartfelt stories, quote a meaningful lyric, or otherwise memorialize a one-of-a-kind character.
Include the Particulars
No matter who you’re writing about, that person led a unique and completely original life. Even for people with biographies that seem uneventful on the surface, a bit of digging can reveal life stories filled with complex relationships, colorful passions, and beloved routines. Write down all the wacky details that would belong in a footnote or in parentheses in your loved one’s biography. Sometimes those small details can be the most moving and evocative parts of a eulogy or obit. Once you’ve written them all down, you can choose one or two that stand out as particularly lovable.
Here are a few examples:
Had six German Shepards, all named Toast
Kept keys in the same dish for 65 years
Watched every Law and Order episode, then forgot the plot by the time the rerun aired
Traded sandwiches with a classmate every day
Smelled like warm milk and cookies
Sometimes, these very specific details breathe life into an obituary. They allow anyone reading the notice to feel close to the deceased one last time, which can be an amazing gift. The most memorable obituaries bring everyone—strangers, friends, and family—to a place of emotional intimacy, making them feel more connected to the person who died.
Double Check The Information
Believe it or not, rifts can develop when family members feel left out of an obituary. Yet, the person writing the obituary often juggles this responsibility with plans for a memorial service, travel details, and cremation, interment, or burial arrangements. In a time of grief, it can be easy to misspell a name or write A.M. instead of P.M.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Here’s a list of items that a second (or third) person should proofread and confirm:
The name and birthday of the deceased
Names of predeceased family members, including parents, siblings, spouses, children, etc.
Names of surviving family members, including grandparents, parents, siblings, current spouse/partner, children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, etc.
Name of funeral home and/or address to send flowers
Time and date of the funeral service and/or religious service
Contact information for sending remembrances (website, funeral director, or family member)
Write Your Own
Many people choose to write their own obituaries, so close family and friends don’t feel extra pressure during a period of grief. Some people do their own funeral planning, as well. Although it may seem morbid, recording your wishes now can save your loved ones stress and anxiety later. If you want to practice writing an obituary, try composing your own.
The upside of writing your own obituary is that you’ll probably draft something amusing and full of spirit—something much more uniquely you than what your grieving loved ones would have written.
Think about it. Two hundred years from now, how do you want people to remember you?
I’m an award-winning playwright with a penchant for wordplay. After earning a perfect score on the Writing SAT, I worked my way through Brown University by moonlighting as a Kaplan Test Prep tutor. I received a BA with honors in Literary Arts (Playwriting)—which gave me the opportunity to study under Pulitzer Prize-winner Paula Vogel. In my previous roles as new media producer with Rosetta Stone, director of marketing for global ventures with The Juilliard School, and vice president of digital strategy with Up & Coming Media, I helped develop the voice for international brands. From my home office in Maui, Hawaii, I currently work on freelance and ghostwriting projects.