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February 1, 2019 Beyond The Dash

What's the One Thing That Can Make or Break an Obituary? The Writer.

Qualities of life story tellers that can enhance a final written tribute

What's the One Thing That Can Make or Break an Obituary? The Writer.
As an obituary writer, it's your responsibility to tell a life story accurately. But in the end, it's your ability, personality and style that makes a story stand out. (Getty Images)

Life stories are fascinating. Everyone has one, and reading about how a person lived their days teaches those living lessons about life. When someone sits down to pen an obituary, it is an act of love. To memorialize a loved one's accomplishments and character in a written tribute is to ensure that their story will never be forgotten. With thousands of obituaries being published each day in the United States, how can an obituary writer ensure that their version of a life stands out among other in the obituaries section of their newspaper of choice?


Be a good writer


No writer is perfect. And with most obituaries are written by a family member or friend of the deceased person, it's unrealistic to expect perfection. But an obituary doesn't  need to be written by a professional in order to be a moving representation of a life. 


Being a good writer has a lot less to do with grammar, spelling and structure than your primary school English teacher would have you believe. In the case of a newspaper obituary, these technical aspects can be addressed by a proofreader. Writing well begins with larger issues. 


If you lack confidence as a writer, find someone to help with the more technical aspects of writing. You can hire a professional obituary writer, or task a well-read friend with editing your work. 


Good obituary writers ask (and answer) important questions


Before beginning an obituary, even a one-time obituary writer should resolve the following questions before penning the life story of a loved one:



  • As an obituary writer, what are my personal biases? 


Everyone holds bias. When writing the obituary of a loved one, it can be hard to separate your love and grief from your objectivity. Obituaries are best when written with love and tact, but it's okay to point out qualities of your loved one that were inconsistent, quirky, funny or even difficult. A well-crafted life story paints a concise picture of a person's time on earth, and often the details that make an obituary interesting are the real ones. A great obituary writer can identify bias and make a plan to address it in the final draft.



  • What facts are essential?


In a traditional obituary, there are some facts that should not be omitted. Think carefully about the essential facts, and plan to include them in the story in a unique way. Names of survivors and predecessors, dates, funeral arrangements and certain biographical details may need to be mentioned, so make a note of them during your planning process.



  • What should be the final impression of the finished story?


There's no one way to write an obituary. Some are traditional, neatly telling a life story and advising of funeral arrangements. Other stories directly confront social issues, such as mental health and addiction. And a rare few go for brutal honesty, baldly revealing the failings of the deceased person. There are funny obituaries, mysterious obituaries, and even spiteful obituaries. Think about the final impression you want to leave readers with, remembering that readers will include closest family members, acquaintances and strangers. 


What information should be left out?


Though obituaries that that share real or candid information make for the most interesting life stories, there is some information that can be left out. Consider the values of the person who has passed, and make decisions about sharing that they would approve of (unless you've decided to write a brutally honest obituary).


It's also important not to reveal information about those who are still living. Having the wisdom to know what information will enhance or detract from an obituary is the mark of a great life story teller.


What qualities make a good obituary writer?


There are some qualities, beyond writing ability, that make you the most effective obituary writer.



  • You're invested in the life story.


For an obituary writer looking to highlight a well-lived life, the person writing should care about the deceased person. Even if you never met the deceased person, it's important to fundamentally understand the things that made the deceased person extraordinary. Translating a person's uniqueness and value into words is a tall order, but the ability to reflect the reasons for paying tribute to their life is essential to crafting a meaningful obituary. 



  • You understand the value of an obituary.


As an obituary writer, it's important to fully realize the gravity of the task you've undertaken. Even if you're writing a funny or irreverent version of the life story, this obituary will still likely be the main record of the person's existence. The gift of a written memorial is priceless. Everyone dies, and most want to be remembered well when they leave the earth. Take this job seriously. 



  • You're detailed


Even a short obituary can be enhanced with detail. There are many small ways for an obituary writer to add to a life story in a way that will be more interesting or meaningful for readers. Think of the parts of the story that are relatable, and expand upon those parts in greater detail. 


These moments can make an obituary stand out from others nearby, and teach others what's important about life. 



  • You're curious about death


Obituary writers who are curious about life and death write great obituaries. Why? 


Though the death is the reason for writing, it's not the whole point of the story. Sometimes it's not even the main point. People who are curious about death search for answers to their questions. When you're curious about issues surrounding life and death, fear, grief or pain can't drive the narrative of the life story. 


Focus on talking about life, impact and personality of the deceased person doesn't take away from the fact that they are now gone. In fact, focussing on these details can be a heartbreaking juxtaposition for readers understanding that a wonderful person has been lost. 


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