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September 1, 2018 Beyond The Dash

Obituary Writing: Remembering the Good, Bad and Ugly

How to write a positive, honest tribute in the days following a death

Obituary Writing: Remembering the Good, Bad and Ugly
You will probably have many conflicted feelings in the days following a death. Use the techniques in this article to persevere through the obituary-writing process. (Shutterstock)

Writing an obituary in the immediate aftermath of a death is a labor of love. Even though you want to tell your loved one's life story, researching, reflecting and writing the obituary is a tall order for someone who might still be unable to comprehend the loss. 

If you are tasked writing the obituary of a recently deceased friend or relative, you might be struggling to unravel which stories to include. Going beyond a run-of-the-mill means exploring your loved one as they were—warts and all. But which anecdotes are appropriate? How can you tell a true story, while keeping the sentiment generally positive? 

Untangling and identifying conflicting feelings

When someone dies, we tend to ruminate on the events leading up to the death and the death itself. These moments play and replay in a  hyper-emotional, slo-mo loop for weeks, and sometimes longer. 

Other charged memories come up too. Times when the relationship wasn't so great might be haunting, even if issues were resolved long before the death. More likely, you'll be reliving the best moments shared with your loved one. But happy memories are often actually harder to handle immediately following a loss. With all this emotional turmoil, it's hard to understand how anyone can expect you to complete such an important writing assignment. 

Getting started

1. Make a list

If the idea of writing an obituary is daunting, try organizing your thoughts by jotting down a list of the stories that come to mind when you think of your loved one. Only some of these stories will end up in the final obituary story, so don't hold back. You can even include the story of how they died. 

The idea is to write down all of the stories that are coming to mind and overwhelming you as you begin the writing process. Include the stories you would never dream of including in the final published obituary. Once all of your thoughts are on paper in front of you, it will be much easier to organize them into useful material for the life story.

2. Research

If this obituary is to follow a traditional format, you'll need to gather some factual information as well:

  • Full legal name

  • Nickname

  • Birthdate and death date

  • Birthplace

  • City and state of residence at death

  • Name of significant other

  • Full names of parents and siblings

  • Names of those that preceded them in death

  • Names of those surviving

  • Date and time of funeral services being held

  • Names of pallbearers

  • Name of funeral home and cemetery

Memories will come up as you investigate your loved one's life story. Try to find catharsis in the creation of their life story and final tribute.

Ensure the accuracy of all dates, places and spellings of names. This information anchors your story to truth and will inform part of the public record for generations. 

3. Organize 

Now that your thoughts are all down on paper, they should be much easier to organize. Add stories, moments and qualities that show your loved one's unique spirit to a new list. This list should include all the stories that definitely need to make it into the final obituary story, eulogy or other memorial tribute. Make a separate list for stories that are unflattering, irrelevant or that you or your family would prefer to keep private. 

In this step, you may also ask other family members or close friends for memories to add to the story. Though you may want to keep a newspaper obituary shorter in length, an online obituary can usually tell a more full life story.

Create an Obituary

4. Write

It's time to blend the biographical details of your loved one with your memories of them. Tell the story of their life, including as many good memories that you can. There are many ways to structure an obituary, but the most common is chronologically. 

Now is the time to read what you have written, and return to that pesky "bad" list. This list could be quite sparse, or it could be filled with family secrets and guilt-ridden memories. Most of these should probably not be included in the obituary. If you do add some of these more colorful recollections to the obituary, make sure they are funny, light-hearted or somehow worthy of inclusion. 

5. Review

When you look at the story you've created, what is your impression? Is anything missing? Do any parts seem redundant or too negative? Editing your own work is difficult, especially when it is the life story of someone close to you. It should be easier to make little changes to a fully written story, especially know

Have someone else who knew the deceased person well look over your story for errors. Another set of eyes is always a good idea. 

A means to an end

This exercise was to prompt you to write more effectively, and to set aside your own tumultuous memories during a time of intense grief. Facing the thoughts that are cycling through your mind and setting them down on paper is a way of compartmentalizing just long enough to get the obituary published in time for the funeral. 

Nobody's perfect. It's hard to reconcile this bit of common sense with the death of someone you knew. There is a natural tendency to ignore a person's flaws after they die, but for those who knew them well it might not be so easy. Particularly where guilt exists for the living, being able to set aside complex feelings in order to write an obituary is a good first step. 

Your loved one had a remarkable life. Tell their story, and we’ll publish it online for free.

After creating an online memorial, you can also publish in print in any of over 6,000 newspapers across North America.

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