Humans have an innate desire to remember and treasure our loved ones once they have passed on. This is a normal part of the grieving process as we work through what life looks like now that someone we loved is no longer around. Learning how to do life after someone’s passing is a complicated thing to walk through and one that takes a significant amount of time. One of the first tasks that a person is often faced with when a close family member or loved one dies is in writing their obituary. 

One of the challenging aspects of someone passing away is typically found in the hustle and chaos of formalities that come after. Not only do loved ones have to process the deeply emotional impacts of death but they also have to think about funeral expenses, service times, and receptions. In the midst of all of this, the task of writing an obituary is awarded to a loved one and it marks the first step in commemorating the life of the one who passed on.

This first step of remembering and commemorating serves a multitude of purposes both personal and simply practical. It is an odd mixture of both the formal and the personal. Something that is important for those who loved the recently departed, and yet at the same time it holds a societal function providing important information to the general public. 

So what is an obituary? Why do we write them and what do you need to know about this important practice so you can be sure that you write an obituary you are proud of?

What Is an Obituary?

An obituary, historically, has been a way of allowing the greater community that an individual lived in to know of their passing. This piece of important information has been historically published in platforms like a newspaper or daily journal. 

More recently, obituaries are shared through online platforms such as online news, social media, or even funeral home websites. The historic function of an obituary was always to serve a functional purpose in allowing others to know important details about the deceased and how they can show their respects. 

This included information such as specific identification of the deceased along with information regarding when certain services were taking place such as burial, internment, and graveside services—it served as a death announcement. 

This allowed the family to have a public platform to share this information in a formal way. 

How Have Obituaries Changed Over Time?

As time has moved on and society has changed, so has the way that obituaries are presented to the public. The core reason behind an obituary has largely stayed the same. It still serves as notice of death however certain elements have taken on a more personalized and intimate tone. 

While at one point in time it was normal for an obituary to hold very little personal information about the deceased, now an obituary can have a more warmer and personal tone. This is largely due to the access to publishing that historic obituaries had. 

For instance, before the advent of the internet and social platforms like social media, a community may only have had one form of mass communication in the form of a local newspaper. This translated to a certain necessity for brevity and formality. 

Traditionally, obituary templates had these four basic elements:

  • Introduction
  • Surviving relatives 
  • Memorial service information
  • Optional information (cause of death)

These brief messages carried only the amount of information necessary to fulfill the social aspects of a person’s death within a community. However, over time the ability to share more information and further from a cold, impersonal tone has allowed for communities to share a more personal and intimate form of obituaries. These obituary examples can now include a loved one's hobbies, passions, and even mentions of beloved pets

For instance, as the ability to share an obituary online or through social media became prevalent, families were given greater ability to handcraft these special messages. The purpose of the obituary stayed the same as it is the main method of public communication from the family to the general population of a community. However, it can now function as a celebration of life for the deceased, almost like a published eulogy praising their achievements, their wit, or their charitable affiliations.

The Benefit of a More Intimate Obituary

As times changed and families and loved ones were able to take more freedoms when creating an obituary, it became a space where survivors could begin to truly start processing parts of their loved one’s life during this time of grief in a healthy and positive manner. 

Whereas before an obituary was bare-bones and only provided practical information, now it can act as a powerful tool in the process of commemoration and memorializing the deceased. This also bought a much more human, and loving element to the process of community awareness. A large change happened in the history obituary writing after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. 

These horrific events shook an entire nation and a lot of ways impacted and shaped an entire generation. With such a devastating attack taking a naturally deep effect on the country, obituaries actually became a form of healing. The city of New York published obituaries for all of the victims of this attack and shared the very human side of these victims through their obituaries. 

This was one of the first times that, largely, obituaries took on a much more personal, human tone. Obituaries furthered their journey from simply functional information, pertinent to a community, into the territory of being a part of the emotion and commemoration of memorialization of the deceased and their essence. 

How To Write an Obituary

Now that there has been somewhat of a foundation for not only what an obituary is and where it came from, but also what it can be, it’s time to look at how to write one. The first thing to really do when writing an obituary is breathe. Writing an obituary can seem overwhelming and it is very normal to feel intimidated by such a task.  

1. Take a Deep Breath

Several factors can contribute to making writing an obituary seem overwhelming. For instance, there is a deadline associated with an obituary. The funeral service itself is a rather large ordeal and can take a lot of energy and have a particular strain on loved ones, so writing an obituary can feel like a burden. Recognize that and take a deep breath, give yourself space, and set an intention to be happy with your best efforts. 

The most important thing is that you are doing something thoughtful, important, and necessary for the person who passed. Celebrate the deceased's life and trust your instincts. Don’t allow your mind to make the task harder than it is and don’t be afraid to reach out for help to their siblings, cousins, or even nieces and nephews if you need help. 

Get the Fundamentals Down

An obituary serves a very practical function so it can help to focus on getting this out of the way. This not only will help you to view the task as something you can accomplish but create a backbone or a template for you to put your thoughts into place.

If you feel overwhelmed, start by putting in the information that is needed:

  • Full name and date of birth
  • Survived by
  • Date of death
  • Cause of death and place of death 
  • Funeral details for the community 

This may also be a good place to ask for charitable donations in lieu of flowers if those were your loved one's wishes. Additional details such as their place of birth, places of residence, and ancestral information such as the names of their parents and grandparents may also be relevant here.

Once you have structured this and put it on paper you can start to see not only a light at the end of the tunnel but a construct to develop a deeper, more intimate message regarding this special person's life. 

Making It Personal

With the practical aspects of the obituary down, now comes the question of whether or not you will add personal notes. Realize that this is not necessary to what an obituary is, however it can be a great tool in helping to commemorate and memorize your loved one.

An obituary also does not have to be of a particular length; however, it is often better if the piece is shorter in nature. So this can help to narrow down what aspects of your loved one you would like to share. 

Some direction here would be to focus on what personal qualities you would like the community to know. For instance, one easy-to-use and very common part of obituaries is a biography. If you want to make the obituary more formal, then simply adding the ‘survived by’ section along with a comment about how long they had resided in their community could suffice. 

If however, you feel that there is a benefit to sharing more, pick some aspect of your loved one that can be stated succinctly and warmly. You can mention nicknames, milestones, important events, or fond remembrances of their sense of humor and warmth. These insights will be cherished not only by their surviving loved ones but by generations of great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren to come.

In Conclusion

The most important aspect of an obituary is that you have no regrets about it. Whether that is a short, succinct obituary that gives practical information or a longer more personal one. Give yourself the time and the space if possible to make sure you feel comfortable and at peace with the writing. 


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