Some obituaries are simply informative. They let the neighborhood know when someone in their community has passed, inform them about when and where the funeral will be held, and detail the decedent’s family who will be grieving their loved one. These are the most basic versions of an obituary. And while there’s nothing wrong with writing one that’s on the plainer side, there’s a reason why these aren’t the obituaries that go viral.
Every now and again, we come across an obituary that sticks with us. At the end of 2021, Renay Mandel Corren’s son, Andy, penned her obituary, which quickly spread across the online world. Whether or not Renay really came up with the name for Sunoco or had an affair with Larry King isn’t the point. The point is that the obituary painted a lively picture of a flawed, spirited, and real person who left behind stories that could fill a hundred books.
When Andy Corren wrote his mother’s obituary, he didn’t set out to go viral, but he did strive to write something that truly sounded like his mom. Let’s break down how to write an obituary that’s just as powerful.
What Do You Need for a Great Obituary?
1. Start with the basics.
Before you begin writing an obituary, be sure that you have all the information that you’ll need about your loved one. An obituary generally includes the person’s name, birthplace, and age, though you may also want to have the date and cause of their death. You’ll also want to include who the decedent is survived by, like their spouse, children and children’s spouses, and grandchildren. If they were preceded in death by anyone, like a parent or spouse, you should add that as well.
2. Compile stories.
The length of an obituary depends on the publication that it will appear in. The average size is around 200 words, but some publications will let you go longer. However, the best obituaries focus less on word count and more on substance. An obituary that includes just the basic facts will likely be pretty short, but if you want to write a great one, it’ll be longer. You want to paint a picture of the person you loved. To do that, talk to their other loved ones. Collect stories that show who they were. Did they have a “bawdy, rowdy life lived large, broke, and loud” like Renay? Or did they live more quietly, reserved but kind? And were they nationally ranked in cribbage like Renay claimed to be? Every person is a sum of a million tiny details. An obituary should utilize the details that make them stand out the most.
3. Try writing in your loved one’s voice.
A great obituary sounds like the person who passed away could have written it. In Renay’s case, even those who didn’t know her could hear her voice coming through. It’s easy to picture her speaking, telling the stories that Andy reiterated. You could read their relationship right there on the page. If your loved one was known for a dark and dirty sense of humor, why ignore that voice in their obituary? An obituary doesn’t have to be a list of facts. Aim to match your loved one’s voice so that anyone who reads their obituary can hear what they sounded like.
4. Think about how they would want to be remembered and whether the tone you choose is appropriate.
Renay’s obituary works because it matches her as a person. And at the age of 84, she lived a full life. Matching the situation is also an essential part of writing an obituary. If someone died younger, especially of a grave illness, having a humorous obituary that pokes fun at the decedent might not be in the best taste. Consider the situation that you’re writing for when you decide on the tone of the obituary.
5. Don’t forget to include funeral information.
If you’re holding a public viewing or funeral, you’ll want to be sure that the obituary includes that information. If it doesn’t, you run the risk of the grieving family having to field questions during a time when they shouldn’t have to continuously be disturbed. Additionally, you can use the obituary to describe how the decedent wanted to be remembered. Sending flowers for a funeral is a lovely thing to do, but some people prefer to use their death to encourage others to donate to their favorite charities. If the person you’re writing the obituary for was a big fan of animal rights, for instance, you may want to include in the obituary, “In lieu of flowers, please consider donating to your local animal shelter.”
Writing an obituary can be tricky, but what matters most is telling the life story of someone you loved. Be honest about who they were, and people all across the world can come away from reading it feeling like they knew them too. With a great obituary, even in death, your loved one can touch so many lives.