How to write an obituary

An obituary serves as a recap of the life of the deceased and contains important facts that pertain to the individual. These facts include but are not limited to family, schooling, hobbies and employment as well as funeral services or arrangement for the deceased. Many funeral homes or newspapers have a standard form for families to fill out that requests the necessary information. We’ve put together a general template that will help those families in need of additional assistance in putting together an obituary for their loved one.

Information that will be needed to write the Obituary

It’s important to take a minute to gather together all the paperwork and, in some cases, people that will be needed to help get the information for the obituary. Finding the birth certificate of the deceased will provide a lot of general information. You may want to have diplomas on hand from high school and/or college as well as any award certificates or other accolades that are going to be noted in the obituary. Additionally, having an immediate family member with you while you are writing all the information down can help with keeping facts and dates accurate and complete.

A picture will also need to be selected for the obituary. Ask family and close friends to send digital images or bring photographs of the deceased and don’t be afraid to ask those closest to the deceased to help choose the most suitable image.

Basic Information

This is basic information pertaining to the deceased.

  • Full name and/or nickname - The first, middle and last name of the deceased with a nickname applicable in parentheses.
  • Age - The age of deceased on the date of death.
  • City, State of residence - The city and state where the deceased was living on the date of death.
  • Date of death - The day, month and year of the date of death of the deceased.

Additional/Optional Information About the Deceased

This information is up to the family’s discretion if they want to include. Depending on the circumstances surrounding the death, families may choose to not disclose certain details surrounding the loss of the deceased.

  • Cause/place of death - This can be a limited description or a more detailed description of how and where the deceased died. For example, using a phrase such as ‘after a short illness’ versus ‘after battling breast cancer’. The place of death can be a city and state, a hospital, at home, etc.

Date of Birth/Family

In this section, facts regarding the family of the deceased are given.

  • DOB (Date of Birth) - The day, month and year that the deceased was born.
  • Family - Parents and siblings of the deceased are listed here. First and last name of the parents and typically only first names of the siblings. Siblings should be listed in order of birth.

Life Timeline/Special Interests

This where the family has the opportunity to give a brief history of important dates such as education, marriage, employment history and any special interests and or achievements. Depending on the age of the deceased and their life history, this particular section of the obituary is typically the lengthiest and the most personal. Families can add details that are a little more in depth to WHO their loved one was - what made them special and unique.

  • Education - high school and/or college education is noted here. List the year of graduation followed by degrees earned, special honors, etc.
  • Marriage/Commitment Ceremony - The date of the ceremony and the spouse’s/significant other’s first and last name.
  • Births of Children - Some families choose to list the births of children of the deceased. The first name of the child followed by the month and year of birth can be listed in birth order. Or families can elect a more general acknowledgement of the births of children. For example, ‘Over the course of 7 years, John became a father to five beautiful children - three boys and two girls.’
  • Employment History - Typically only recent employment is listed. The dates of employment, the title or position and then the employer is noted. However, families can elect to highlight a career path. ‘John started at Hall, Weber and Johnson as a legal assistant in 1998 and then went on to become a Partner in Acquisitions at Hogan Lovells in 2011.’ Families can give as much employment history or as little - whatever they feel is most relevant to the life of the deceased.
  • Special Interests - Take the time to jot down what the deceased was passionate about. What did they love to do? Who did they love to do it with? What made them special? This is a great time to ask family and close friends for their input and incorporate it into the obituary. One great rule of thumb is to choose three words that would sum up the personality or spirit of the deceased. Take those three words and find things in their life that are an example of three words.

Survived By/Family

In the ‘Survived By’, immediate and close family to the deceased is listed. Immediate family such as a spouse and children is listed first followed by other close family members. Family is listed first name then last name with maiden names in parentheses followed by their place of residence. Children are listed in order of age and with their spouses where applicable. Close friends and pets may be listed here as well.

  • Spouse - First, middle and last name of spouse with maiden name if applicable listed before the last name in parentheses.
  • Children - First names of children only unless adult children. Then first and last names of adult children with maiden names in parentheses. Children should be listed in order of birth and married children should be listed with their spouses. The city and state of residence should be listed after the name of the child and spouse.
  • Parents - First and last names of parents. The city and state of residence should be listed after the names of the parents.
  • Siblings - First names of siblings only unless adult siblings. Then first and last names of adult siblings with maiden names in parentheses. Siblings should be listed in order of birth and married siblings should be listed with their spouses. The city and state of residence should be listed after the name of the sibling and spouse.
  • Grandparents - First and last name of grandparents. The city and state of residence should be listed after the names of the grandparents.
  • Other family such as grandchildren, nephews and nieces, cousins, etc. - If the family is large, listing ‘several grandchildren’, ‘4 cousins’, etc. is completely appropriate rather than recognizing each person individually. If recognizing each person individually, list their title (i.e. grandchild, niece, etc.), first and last name and maiden name if applicable, their spouses name if applicable and their city and state of residence.
  • Friends/Pets - only very close friends should be listed here. First and last names followed by city and state of residence. If the deceased had a pet they were close to it is appropriate to list that pet (i.e. her treasured labrador, Otis).
  • Others - Some families may have ‘honorary’ grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc. People that are close to the family that are not related but may be a best friend to a spouse and are considered part of the family. It is perfectly acceptable to list those treasured ‘Aunts’, ‘Uncles’, etc. and list them in the survived by section.

Predeceased in death

Any family members that have died before the deceased can be listed here if the family wishes. The relationship to the deceased is mentioned first (i.e. father, sister, etc.) followed by the first and last name of the predeceased.

When listing the predeceased, how do you know how many generations to go back? Typically, obituaries go back one or two generations at most. This is also very dependent on the relationships the deceased had with the predeceased. If it’s a grandmother that died prior to the birth of the deceased or there was no existing relationship, it is not necessary to list that individual in the predeceased in death. However, if you are going to list one than you need to consider listing all. i.e. Don’t list a grandmother in the predeceased from one side of the family and leave out a predeceased grandparent from another side of the family unless it is with intention or with mitigating circumstances. It could lead to family disputes or hurt feelings.

Services/Memorial Donations

Any information pertaining to the service or celebration of life should be given in this section. Additionally, if a memorial fund has been established for donations or in lieu of flowers that information is also provided.

  • Visiting hours or wake - The day of the week, the day of the month and the month should be noted. Additionally, list the name of the establishment where the visiting hours/wake is being held as well as a physical address. Be sure to list the hours as well and note whether it is am or pm.
  • Funeral services/celebration of life - The day of the week, the day of the month and the month should be noted. Additionally, list the name of the establishment where the funeral/celebration of life is being held as well as a physical address. Be sure to list the hours as well and note whether it is am or pm.
  • Graveside services (if applicable) - Graveside services generally take place immediately following the service and that is exactly as it can be stated. List the name of the cemetery and give a physical address if possible.
  • Memorial donations - Give the name of the organization, an address where donations can be sent. Also list any pertinent information such as a contact name, number or web address.

Choosing the picture

The picture for the obituary is the opening for the life story of the deceased. It’s the first thing that readers see and will connect with. Choose a picture that can be cropped to a head shot and that captures the life of the deceased. It is not necessary for the picture to be a formal or professionally taken shot. Often times, a candid snapshot of the deceased best captures the more personal qualities of an individual and provides that instant connection with friends and family by seeing a familiar grin, a twinkle in the eye, a particular expression.

Some tips when writing the obituary

  • You are telling a life story - Focus on what made the deceased great and tell that story. They were a kind person? How were they kind? What made them kind? The stories and memories are what people will connect with.
  • Check your facts and your spelling - Obituaries are printed all the time with the wrong facts. A wrong birth year, a misspelled home town, etc. Double check all of your facts and have a family member check for accuracy as well.
  • Proofread your obituary - As you write your obituary you will undoubtedly need to proofread and fix things. Don’t be afraid to read it aloud to family and get their feedback.