I recently had the occasion — the privilege, really — of helping a friend finalize the obituary for her husband.
She already had done a fine job, describing his life and what he meant to her and their family. Really all that was left was for me to offer a few minor suggestions and tweaks.
In the end, she produced a wonderful tribute to a beloved man who deserved nothing less.
As it happened, a few days later, another friend submitted an obituary for his mother, who by his eloquent account was a saintly woman and truly a rock for her large family. My meager contribution was some very minor editing.
All of that got me thinking once again about the importance of obituaries.
In today’s world, with everything seemingly instantly in our hands digitally, some may view obits as a quaint throwback or a mere formality, a chore that goes along with saying the final goodbye to a loved one.
But I have long felt that obituaries can and should be so much more. In a way, an obituary is the final accounting of a life, told by those left to carry on.
I know it can seem like an overwhelming task, coming at a time when there already are so many details to be attended to and when grief has made just getting through the hours and days seem nearly impossible.
I know, too, that not everyone is a skilled or confident writer. Putting the right words together to capture the essence of someone’s life can be challenging even for those of us for whom writing comes more easily.
As a young reporter many years ago, I often was tasked with writing obituaries from information turned in by the local funeral homes. With rare exception, I didn’t know the people, and I must admit we had a rather formulaic approach to the assignment.
But even then, I had the sense that the work, as repetitious as it sometimes seemed, was important to the families who submitted the obits. As the years have gone by, I know this to be true.
My thought in writing this is to offer some simple guidance for those faced with writing an obituary.
The most important advice I can offer is simply to remember that you are writing someone’s story. In a page or two, your job is to tell us who this person was who has passed on.
This may focus in part on their achievements or accomplishments, their education or career. But almost always, it’s a story of who they were to their family: a husband or wife, a parent or child, a brother or sister.
Obituaries are a time for fond remembrances — of childhood, of adventures, of loves, heartaches and passions.
The second piece of advice I can offer is to write from the heart. If the words aren’t perfect, it doesn’t matter, because the sentiment will be.
There are some obituary conventions that can help with the process. Use them as you see fit.
Write about when and where the person was born, and when and where he or she passed away. Include as much information as you are comfortable with about the circumstances of death.
Tell the readers where the deceased went to school, what kinds of jobs were held and note any military service.
Recall favorite pastimes and hobbies and what was important in life to the individual. Share a favorite story about the dearly departed.
Include the names of the people left behind, along with necessary information about services and memorial donations.
And remember, there is no wrong way to write an obituary.
Make it personal, and make it something you think the departed would love to have read.