Writing an obituary or eulogy is one of the most difficult and important things you’ll ever have to do. The obituary is the way many of your loved one’s acquaintances will first receive the news of their passing. For many others it might be the one thing they read about your beloved, your one chance to tell the world, including the future generations of your family, who they were.
That’s a lot of responsibility; it can feel both urgent and insurmountable, added pressure during what can be one of the darkest times of your life. There are often cultural or religious time constraints regarding the arrangements as well, some of them quite stringent. Bereavement is also a trying time for families, when complex, intimate patterns and dynamics can be magnified and made even harder to navigate by sadness, stress and exhaustion. Each new task can seem too much – especially one like this; the process of deciding what to say can be volatile, treacherous territory.
On the other hand, many people welcome the opportunity to articulate their loss. It’s often the profound and transformative experiences of our lives that awaken the poet in us. This may be a way for you to give one final gift to your lost loved one.
First, go to the obituary page in your local newspaper. Most news outlets have online versions as well. See what their fee structure is; it usually starts out with the price for 50 words and goes up from there. That’ll give you your word limit – and a chance to read what others have written about their loved ones. That’s a good way to get ideas about what you might – and might not – want to say.
Generally one begins an obituary with the full name, including any nicknames. You can include other descriptions here, such as ‘marathon runner’, ‘brilliantly gifted concert pianist’, ‘beloved mother’, ‘husband and best friend of Emily’ or ‘hardworking father of Elle and Ethan’, then the date and location of their death. You can be specific, naming the hospital or hospice, or general, providing only the city and state. If you want to offer the manner of their passing, do; if you want to keep it to yourself, that’s fine, too. Some people prefer to be discreet: ‘entered into eternity’; others volunteer more information: ‘died suddenly as the result of a drunk-driving accident’. If they passed surrounded by family or doing what they loved, that’s a comforting thing to mention.
Next, you can talk about their education and profession. Where did they go to school? What did they do? How long did they do it? Were they ever in the military? Did they receive honors for their service? Perhaps they were known for a particular achievement.
Were they married, or did they have a longtime significant other? For how long? Where did they meet their spouse? Who else is most affected by this death? Was there anyone who was particularly helpful during the time leading up to their passing? This is the place to list family members and friends you think of as family (‘is survived by’). You can do it by birth order, geographical proximity or another arrangement more appropriate to your situation. It’s customary to list each person’s city of residence.
Follow that with any other passions, pastimes or affiliations: club membership, bird-watching, foster parenting, advocacy or volunteer-work for a cause. “A longtime member of the Shriners and the Kiwanis Club, Jack divided his time, enthusiasm and seemingly inexhaustible energy between his store, hiking the trails of his beloved Front Range, and Little League, where he helped to cultivate the athleticism and character of countless local young people for more than a generation.”
What else do you want people to know? This is the time to tell them. It can be as simple as ‘will be sorely missed by family and friends’, or as complex as you wish. Your constraints are your budget and your imagination.
Leave readers with the viewing and funeral information; if you want them to come, give the location. Otherwise, try something like ‘cremation has taken place’ or ‘will be laid to rest in the family chapel with a private graveside service. Gathering at ________ to follow; please join the family there.’ If you’d like to ask that donations be sent in lieu of flowers, specify the charity – with contact information if you have the space.
If all this is too much to contemplate right now, think of contacting a professional writer who specializes in death notices and eulogies, often called an obituarist, memorialist or obituarian. It’s a growing industry; you should be able to find someone who does quality work within your budget.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard.
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.
– Wm. Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act II Sc. Ii
“.. almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.” – Steve Jobs
Passages: the right words for the most important moments of your life