This article was originally published on HowToWrite
If you’ve come to this page on how to write an obituary, you’ve obviously lost a loved one, and I’m deeply sorry for your loss. If you’re in a hurry, skip ahead to the obituary template and example by going straight to item No. 5. But I recommend at least scanning the numbered obituary writing tips below before you get started.
I spent two years editing obituaries at a daily newspaper and want to share with you tips that will help you write your obituary and reduce the chance of errors from being printed in the newspaper.
The ultimate botched obituary that sticks out in my mind is when “a” in the word “aunt” inadvertently was replaced with “c” (I wish I could write it, but use your imagination) to create a very inappropriate writeup for a “beloved aunt” in the sitcom Curb Your Enthusiasm. Even though this is a fictional example, this kind of thing happened on a regular basis at the newspaper where I worked, and happens at newspapers around the country.
These situations make great fodder for a sitcom, but it’s nothing to laugh at if these unfortunate errors appear in the obit of your loved one. When my mother passed away last year, the last thing I wanted to do was deal with her obituary, but you can be sure that I carefully proofed everything so her obituary did not turn into a joke. Newspaper editors are very busy, and even though they should catch all errors, there will always be things that slip by. You can help reduce the likelihood of this kind of error by submitting your obit electronically and following some other tips I’m about to give you.
Here’s a Step-By-Step Guide to Writing an Obituary
1. Grab a copy of your local paper. Most newspapers require obituaries to be written in a specific style, so take a look at your paper when looking for a guideline on how to write an obituary. You also should ask your funeral home if they have templates. If you plan on submitting to other newspapers, try to get a copy, or check to see if they print obits online. If you don’t follow the newspaper’s style, they will likely rewrite your obituary, which could introduce errors into the writeup.
2. Set a price limit if you’re on a budget. Most newspapers charge by the column inch, and lengthy tributes can cost you hundreds of dollars. Many funeral homes will include a basic obituary as part of the funeral package. If your funeral home will be submitting the obit, ask them what the word limit is, and how much it will cost you for each additional inch. Because the word count per inch varies depending on the column width and font size used in the newspaper, call your funeral home or local newspaper and ask them roughly how many words are in a column inch for obituaries. Also ask them if there are any length restrictions. This will give you a rough idea of how much you should write.
3. Ask for the deadline time. Most daily morning papers have a deadline of 4 or 5 p.m., so you’ll want to submit your obit as soon as possible to ensure accuracy, especially if you want it to run the next day. Newspapers often make exceptions and take obits after deadline (we did it all the time because the paper didn’t want to turn away the money), but just remember that doing this increases the chances that an error will appear because editors might not have enough time to proofread it.
4. Decide what you want to include. If you don’t have all of the information you need, you’ll want to make phone calls and gather these facts as soon as possible, preferably before you start writing. Again, if you’re in a hurry and want to skip ahead to the templates, go straight to item No. 5.
The basic obituary usually includes:
—Full name of the deceased
—Date of Birth
—City and state of residence where they were living when they passed away
—Name of significant other (alive or deceased)
—Time, date and place of viewing, burial, wake and memorial service arrangements–If you don’t have this information yet, you can always write something like, “funeral arrangements are being made by ABC Funeral Home and will be announced at a later date.” That way those who are interested can contact the funeral home for more information. If you plan on repeating the obituary, you can include the details in a future issue.
Other things you might want to include:
—City and state of birth
—City and state of other residences–You may want to include this if: most of the person’s life was spent living in a different place from where they died, they lived in a town or city that was important to them or if they were well known or did something notable in a previous town.
—Parents’ names and residences–Some people only include these if they’re still alive, but others give tribute to a deceased parent (ex: “daughter of the late John Smith”).
—Children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren’s names and residences–If this list gets two long, you can eliminate the names and locations (ex: “five grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren”).
—Other family members (nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, etc.) and special friends– Again, this can make your obituary quite long (and can get political if you include some names, but not others), so you may want to leave these people out unless you have a small family or are prepared to pay for a costly obituary.
—Activities–Include churches, clubs, organizations, volunteer groups, hobbies and other things that were important to your loved one.
—Vocation and places of employment
—Degrees and schools attended
—Date of marriage
—Personality traits and anecdotes
—How they died–Most people don’t include this information, but it’s up to you. Use good judgment, especially if the death was gruesome, involved illegal activity or was a suicide. However, if someone died while in the war or during a major catastrophe, you may want to include that information.
—Where people should make a memorial contribution. If you’d rather people not send flowers, tell them where they can make a contribution. Again, think about what your loved one, not you, would want.
5. Write the obit. Now that you have all of the information you need, it’s time to sit down and write the obit. Here’s a basic template that you can use to get started. I’ve also included a sample obituary below to help you out.
Basic Obituary Template
NAME, AGE, of RESIDENCE, died (passed away, went to heaven, etc.), DATE (cause of death optional).
HE/SHE was born (PLACE, DATE OF BIRTH, PARENTS). NAME graduated from SCHOOL and received DEGREE from SCHOOL. HE/SHE was married to SPOUSE’S NAME (date of wedding optional).
INSERT OPTIONAL BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION HERE: Employment history, accomplishments, organizations, activities, etc.
HE/SHE was survived by CHILDREN, GRANDCHILDREN, ETC. (Make sure to separate each entry with a semicolon or it can get messy. See the example below.)
Funeral arrangements will be held TIME, DATE and PLACE.
Here’s a sample obituary
Mary Jane Smith, 88, of Miami, died Wednesday.
She was born to the late Donald and Rita Green, Nov. 11, 1919, in Savannah, Ga. Mary graduated from Memorial High School in 1938 and received a BA in English from the University of Georgia in 1942. She married the late John Smith in 1943, and they lived together in Athens, Ga., before relocating to Miami in 1960.
Mary was a high school English teacher until she retired in 1984 and was passionate about making a difference in the lives of her students. She founded the Miami Reads program for underprivileged children in 1968 and was honored with the Dade County Teacher of the Year award in 1966 and 1970.
Mary was an active member of First Baptist Miami Church, Miami Rotary Club and the Dade County Book Club. She loved to travel, and took 20 cruise trips with her husband in her lifetime.
Mary is survived by four children: Jane Doe and Samantha Andrews, of Ft. Lauderdale; Jennifer Brown, of New York City; and Mike Smith, of Miami. She also is survived by eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
In lieu of flowers, the family is requesting that donations be made out to Miami Reads.
A viewing will be held at 7 p.m. Friday at Green Family Funeral Home. Burial will be held at 1 p.m. Saturday at Oakland Cemetery.
Most obits follow a very basic noun/verb format. This may seem dry and boring, but this is the style at most newspapers. However, if it looks like your newspaper offers more flexibility and you feel like being creative, by all means go for it. The example above is just an example, and styles differ from paper to paper. Try to mimic the style of other obits in your newspaper so it will not be rewritten. Just focus on getting the format right and don’t sweat the small stuff such as abbreviations, days vs. dates, courtesy titles, etc. Editors will fix these things to conform with the newspaper’s style rules.
6. Have someone else, preferably a close family member or friend, proof the obituary. It is always a good idea to have someone else read the obit before you submit it to the newspaper. This person should not only check for spelling and grammatical errors, but they also should make sure you didn’t leave out important family members or anything else that was inadvertently excluded. As you’re writing and reading the obituary, think about how your loved one would want others to remember him/her. If fishing was his life, you should include that. But if he was in the chess club just to pass the time, you might want to leave that out. If she was close to her extended family, you might want to make an effort to get those names in and leave something else out.
7. Submit an electronic copy via e-mail or CD. I can’t stress this enough. When I worked at a newspaper, 90 percent of all obituary errors started with people (or funeral homes) who submitted a typed or handwritten copy. Even if you type it on your computer and fax it in, someone at the newspaper will have to scan it in or retype it, increasing the chance that errors will be introduced into the obituary. If the funeral home is submitting the obituary on your behalf, make sure that they plan on e-mailing the announcement to the paper. If not, you should submit it to the newspaper yourself.
8. Request to receive a proof from the newspaper before your obituary is printed if you’re worried about mistakes. You probably don’t have the time or energy to worry about it at this point, but if you’re concerned about errors, ask if you can see a proof before it goes to press. Most newspapers won’t allow you to look at a final copy, but if you put up a big enough fuss, many papers, especially small-town papers, will honor your request (we did). You may have to come into the newspaper office or have a copy faxed to you.
9. Submit the obituary to other newspapers. If there are other towns where your loved one lived and had a number of family or friends, you may want to submit the obit to those newspapers. Just check those newspapers’ guidelines and modify the style of the obit as necessary.
10. Check the obit when it prints in the paper. If there are errors, call your newspaper to let them know. Again, if you put up enough of a fuss, they should reprint it the next day for free. Believe me, we did free reprints all of the time.
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