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How To Write An Obituary

An obituary tells the story of a deceased person's life. It acknowledges the person's passing, his or her life accomplishments, the people left behind and funeral or memorial services. When you get assigned the task of obituary writing, review these tips on writing an obituary to make it easier to complete.

A Life Lived

Since the obituary tells a story of someone's life, make it compelling and interesting to read. Focus on the key achievements the person accomplished. If the deceased person was a standout in life, make his or her obituary a standout as well. More than enough of the obituaries are dull and boring and tell little more than the person died, the names of surviving family members and the funeral arrangements.

While that is important information to include, remember that an obituary is the last chance to let people know about the deceased's life and the contributions he or she made to the community. If you are worried about newspaper costs that charge by the column inch or number of column lines, to keep word count down, focus on the how the person was in life, rather than the funeral arrangements.

Important Facts to Include

Obituary writing must always include the full name of the deceased and a nickname if he or she had one. The town or city of residence, the place and cause of death, the person's age and the date he or she died, including the year are all important facts to include when writing an obituary. When it comes to writing about the person's life, include the important events in the person's life such as the date and place of birth and the person's parents.

Include siblings, close friends and information about the person's education, if they attended a college, university or technical school. Include information on notable awards or other achievements, where the person worked, business colleagues, notable career events, hobbies, interests or other activities. If the person was involved with charitable or religious activities include those as well. If the deceased had an unusual life or attributes, add these when obituary writing.

Listing Family Members

List key family members in the following order, which can be cut from the bottom up there isn't enough room in the newspaper. List the spouse first, include the town or city where the spouse lives, children in the order of when they were born and their spouses, if any, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, parents, grandparents, siblings, cousins, in-laws, nephews or nieces, all listed in birth order. Include friends and pets, if the person was particularly fond of their pets. List those who have preceded the deceased after living members in the same order, i.e., spouse, children, grandchildren and more.

Memorial or Funeral Information

Include the place, day, time and date of the funeral or memorial service. List the person's name who officiates the service and the names of pallbearers, if applicable. If the funeral involves an open casket, include the dates and times for viewings. If there are plans for a graveside service, include the site, day, time and date. Let readers know the funeral home in charge of arrangements and whom to call for more information if there are no services planned.

The Final Part of the Obituary

Sometimes family members set up memorial accounts with a charity especially when there was a debilitating disease, accident or crime involved. Let people know where they can send their memorial donations by including the address or website in the obituary. Last, give thanks to any special people, institutions or groups that were particularly helpful to the deceased. Include a favorite poem or quotation of the deceased and a few words that summarize the person's life.

The Words to Use

Now that you know the important information to include when obituary writing, there are other tips on writing an obituary that go beyond the mere facts. Make the obit compelling by using words that show instead of tell. Dry facts will tell the story, but it won't compel people to read on.

Instead of writing "he served in the military," try something like this instead: "after Korea and two tours in Viet Nam with the U.S. Army that resulted in a Purple Heart and a Distinguished Service Cross, Joe retired from active duty in 1978." Also think of a way to sum up the person's life in three to six words, something that would resonate with friends and family members. These phrases typically appear as the epitaph on a cemetery headstone or inspire those who might be participating in the eulogy.

Keep it Simple and Accurate

The best way to complete a successful obituary is to write a draft; keep it simple, but correct. Stay consistent with how you list the family members; consider making several versions of the obituary for placement in multiple newspapers. The obituary should appear in the local newspapers of family members and friends. Keep a long version to place on the Internet or your blog, and write-up shorter versions for different publications.

Proofreading, Editing and Revising

If it's hard to proofread and edit, have a trusted friend or family member review the obituary to catch any misspellings or to verify facts. Proofreading avoids errors in the obituary when it goes to the newspaper. Once it's printed, it cannot be changed. Review the details carefully. The written obituary serves as a record of the deceased's life; it will also be used by family generations to come for genealogical research.

Third Person Narrative

Don't write the obituary in first person or use phrases such as "the family of Joe Friend announce," as an obituary is not about the person or family members who write it, it is all about the person who died. Write it from the third person perspective, as an outsider or bystander who witnessed the event.

Don't forget to include all family members. If you decide to only list the names of the spouse and children, don't include the name of a favorite grandparent and not include all the grandparents names, because this shows a deference on the part of the writer. You could list the names of the spouse and children and could include the number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren without listing all their names. However you decide to write it, remain consistent with how you list those that survived the deceased.


Before submitting the obituary to newspapers, conduct research to find out what it might cost you. Local community newspapers usually don't charge a fee for an obituary, but with the rising costs of newspaper publication and the decreasing amount of newspaper space available, many do charge. Fees for newspaper obituaries are calculated by the number of lines in a newspaper column or by column inch. For example, most newspapers limit an obituary to 24 lines in a column without a fee. Unless the deceased one was significant to the community in some way, the newspaper will need you to write the obituary.

Newspapers print two types of obit notices, one of which may be legally required: a death notice and the obituary. A death notice appears in the classified or legal section of the newspaper and leaves out the deceased's life story. It's only a factual accounting of the person's death. Death notices are typically used in the event the person had a large estate and will, business partners or extensive creditors.


Here's a sample of obituary writing when writing an obituary for your family member or friend:

Betty "Betts" H. Carman, 85, died Sunday, November 4, 2012 in her daughter's home from complications related to her emphysema. In hospice care for a six months prior to her death, Betts died peacefully in her sleep.

She leaves her daughter, Laurie Brenner and husband Gordon; son Larry Reeves and wife Tina and son Zachary Parks, granddaughters Naomi, Rachael, Stephanie and Danielle, and six great-grandchildren.

She was preceded in death by her spouse, Robert Carman in 1994 and her daughter, Jo Tiila, in 1978, who died at the age of 19.

Born in Astoria, Oregon September 24, 1927 where her father was stationed during his Naval service, Betty spent her early years traveling with her parents during her father's 30-year military career until they settled in La Jolla, California. An Alpine, California resident for forty years before her passing, Betts lived primarily in and around San Diego County most of her life.

Her membership in the La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club's water ballet group at the age of 14 got noticed by visiting Hollywood producers that secured her a swimming role in two of Esther Williams' movies, "This Time for Keeps," and "Bathing Beauty." She worked with film notables Red Skelton, Lauritz Melchior, Johnny Johnston, Xavier Cougot and was fondly nicknamed "Tango Legs" by Jimmy Durante. While on the MGM set, she went to school with Elizabeth Taylor and used to say that Elizabeth's eyes "were really violet."

In the years that followed, Betts was recruited to swim in Olympian Buster Crabbe's (of Flash Gordon and Tarzan fame) Aqua Parade in tours of the United States and Europe. After her moviestint and involvement in the "Aqua Parade," Betts worked as a bookkeeper and was one of the first programmers using keypunch cards at San Diego State University.

Long known for her positive outlook on life and her sense of humor, Betts served many years as the Alpine VFW Post Ladies Auxiliary Treasurer and volunteered at the Alpine American Legion.

A private memorial service was held at her daughter's home in Placerville, California for family members.

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