End of Life Planning

11/22/2022 | By Terri L. Jones

Writing a meaningful obituary is one of life’s challenging tasks. Seniors Guide writer Terri L. Jones had to write two in one year. She offers guidance on writing an extraordinary obit … for your extraordinary loved ones.

Last December my favorite aunt died. Because I’m a writer, my cousins asked me to write her obituary. I was honored to do it; however, of all the things I’ve written over the years – from websites to wedding shower rap songs – I’d never been charged with writing an obituary, least of all for someone I loved.

While I was still shell-shocked from her sudden death, I had to learn quickly what went into an obituary and then sit down and write final words that her friends, family, and even obit-browsing strangers would read about my beloved aunt. It was hard. Not to mention, the finished product seemed dry, sterile, and devoid of her personality and gentle spirit.

Practice does not make perfect

As if that task wasn’t agonizing enough, fast forward 10 months later when her sister, my sweet mother, also passed away. After writing my aunt’s obituary according to the prescribed format, I desperately wanted my mother’s obituary to be different. However, crafting this story just 24 hours after Mom died, when my emotions were raw and consuming, challenged my ability to put a sentence together, much less capture the essence of my kind, playful, and fiercely loving mother.

With help from my sister and my mother’s partner, I did the best I could, but the words that I quickly composed in the wake of her death still fell far short of reflecting the woman who was my North Star my entire life.

Suggestions for writing an obituary

Don’t wait

After gaining some unwanted experience in obituary writing, my first – and best – advice to those charged with doing the same is to try to write those obituaries as early as possible, before your loved ones die. Newspapers write obituaries for famous people in advance. Why couldn’t you also do that for your mom and dad, aunt and uncle, spouse, siblings, etc.?

While it may make you uncomfortable writing obituaries for loved ones while they’re still alive, getting a jump on things allows you to fully express how you feel about them – without being constrained by time, sleep deprivation, or grief. Your loved ones can even write their own obits, if they so choose, or at least participate in the process.

Gather the facts

Flowers on top of a funeral casket. Writing a meaningful obituary is one of life’s challenging tasks. Seniors Guide writer Terri L. Jones had to write two in one year. She offers guidance on writing an extraordinary obit … for your extraordinary loved ones. Image by Jared Richardson

When you do decide to write, reach out to the person about whom you’re writing or to family members to compile the pertinent details, such as birthplace, age, and date, location and cause of death (optional). Also jot down info about the person’s life, including high school and/or college, marriage, children, career, and volunteer work, along with the names and relationships of who survives and predeceased your loved one. You’ll also need info about the memorial service and where to send flowers or donations, if that information is available when you write your obituary. These details will become the bones of your story.

Flesh it out

You can stop at the bones to craft a traditional factual obituary for your loved one. There are lots of online articles to guide you. Or you can take it a few steps further and flesh out the story to give readers a better sense of who your loved one really was.

To add color and personality to your story, Susan Shain, a freelance writer who provides obituary services, suggests asking: “What are the first words that come to mind when you think of the person [who has passed]? What are some stories that demonstrate those qualities?”

According to Hannah Sentenac, another obit writer, other questions that might bear fruit for the obituary include:

  • What were your loved one’s proudest accomplishments?
  • What were your loved one’s hobbies/favorite things?
  • What was the thing you loved most about this person?
  • Any foibles/quirks or other personality traits that made your loved one extra special?

Consider how your loved one would want to be remembered and how they really will be remembered.

To provide food for thought, read an obituary that was deemed “the best obituary ever” by the New York Times – but don’t feel the need to compete with that one.

It’ll cost you

If you’re not comfortable writing your loved one’s obituary, you can turn over the job to a professional writer; however, you’ll need to pay for the service.

Publishing the obituary may also cost you a pretty penny. Newspapers typically charge by the line, the word, or the “column inch” for obituaries that are printed in the physical paper, less for those that only appear online. Including a photo of your loved one may cost extra. The average obituary costs between $100 and $800, depending on length, newspaper, and even area of the country, with a long, more fleshed-out story sometimes running in the thousands of dollars. When you’re composing an obit for your loved one, write to your heart’s content and then go back and trim it down as much as you can, as a tendency toward verbosity might break you. You can always publish a more complete obituary on Facebook or a blog.

Related: How to announce a loved one’s death on social media

Examples of Facebook death announcements

If I could go back and write Mom’s obituary again, I’d definitely do a few things differently, but nothing would’ve made it any easier. Writing an obituary for someone you love – despite when and how you do it – will still be one of the hardest tasks you’ll ever have. But it will also be one of the most special.

I’m glad I was able to honor my mom in this way. I think she would’ve been proud.

Terri L. Jones

Terri L. Jones has been writing educational and informative topics for the senior industry for over ten years, and is a frequent and longtime contributor to Seniors Guide.

Terri Jones