How to Write an Obituary

A lot of older people go to church, my grandfather used to say, because they’re cramming for the finals. My grandfather was not particularly serious about much, and that included death. After he turned 75, there was hardly a family gathering at which he didn’t make some joke about how he expected to kick the bucket sometime soon. When I was younger, “kick the bucket” had been a puzzling phrase. A memorable phrase, but puzzling.

People like euphemisms for describing death, the more euphemistic the better, it seems. I read the obituaries in the print edition of The Toronto Star every morning (yes, I am a dinosaur) and I am frequently struck by how few people have died; they have, instead, “passed away.” There is an art to writing a good obituary, and I wanted to share some advice from years of reading great ones.

  • For starters, check to see if there’s one about you. If not, proceed to the next point. Otherwise, see a doctor immediately.
  • By sheer happenstance, people in big city newspapers tend to die in alphabetical order.
  • Obits cost a lot of money, so not everyone who dies gets their name in the paper. If you read the death notices in the Saturday Star you might reach the conclusion that death is confined, perhaps, to the wealthy and well-educated. But the death rate is the same no matter what demographic a person belongs to: one per capita.
  • Believe whatever you read in a person’s obituary, but remember that it’s likely only part of the story. The thing about the obituaries section of the newspaper is that, for a lot of people, this the only time they will ever be publicly recognized. This is why most obituaries focus on the deceased person’s small acts of heroism, the “Anne-frequently-traveled-to-the-Galapagos-Islands-to-wash-oil-off-birds” stuff. They generally omit the tedious (but frequently more relatable) “John-spent-Saturday-mornings-reading-death-notices” stuff.
  • Beware euphemistic language used in obituaries. As mentioned, most obituaries make no mention of the word “death.” I don’t know for certain, but I’d be willing to bet that the person who thought of “passing” as a euphemism for “dying” is the same person who decided to start referring to “shell shock” as “post traumatic stress disorder” and the fifth year of high school as a “victory lap.” Language in obituaries frequently obscures, rather than clarifies, meaning. So, if a person is described in an obituary as “strong-willed” and “passionate,” in most instances that is code for “miserable S.O.B.” Learn how to read between the lines.
  • Maybe this is just me, but I feel perturbed when I see typos in obituaries. There was one in The Star in the last couple of weeks, which described a man in his 60s having died “after a long battle.” But I think there were a couple of missing words, as it didn’t say, for example, “a long battle with cancer.” For all I know, this fellow died after a long battle with an army of centurions. I know that most newspapers have long since done away with copy editors, but there was a time when proofreaders took more care with obituaries than in stories about city politics. After all, the death notices are really the only part of the newspaper people cut out and pass along through the generations. They should be written with this in mind.

In closing, obituaries are, paradoxically, the happiest part of any newspaper. It’s where we get to read accounts of full lives lived by ordinary people, most of whom die naturally when they’re supposed to. This is the part of the paper where we get to read about caring moms, fun-loving dads, eccentric aunts and uncles – people who never made the news until this moment. Yes, the obituaries are a happy place in the newspaper, and they’re frequently written with such care, affection and grace that they’re some of the best nonfiction reading around.

Recommended Reading

For more fun Saturday morning reading about death notices, check out Mr. Bad News, Gay Talese’s 1966 Esquire profile of New York Times obituary writer Alden Whitman. Talese’s classic piece Frank Sinatra Has a Cold is probably better known, but this feature is just as good, if not better.

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