How to Write an Obituary
Writing an obituary is a big responsibility, and can be stressful and overwhelming even if you have writing experience. The writing process will likely bring up strong emotions, so take your time, lean on your support system, and seek professional support if needed.
There is no “one size fits all” template for the perfect obituary. Every life is different, so every obituary will be different. However, there are some basics that you’ll need to consider as you write; what follows are tips to help guide you on your writing journey.
Decide on tone
The tone of an obituary can range from solemn to heartwarming and everything in between.
Obituaries can be solemn if the person being written about had a difficult life or tragic passing but they don’t always have to be this way. They can (and should) reflect the personality of who you’re writing about. Think of how your loved one is most often described; are they charismatic, wise, joyful? You can even ask around and see what answer is most repeated. Then take that characteristic and translate it into your writing. If they were always cracking jokes, put a few in the obituary! If they were a very positive person, make their obituary a joyous reflection instead of a sombre one.
Don’t be afraid to include your own voice — it should sound like a loved one wrote it, not a stranger. For example, an obituary written by a son for his mother went viral for its hilarious tone and neverending jokes. He found the standard obituary “depressing and cold”, and realized that his mom’s obituary should reflect her sense of humour.
Information you should (and shouldn’t) include
An obituary is intended to give a brief description of the deceased and their life. But how do you sum up an entire lifetime in just a few sentences?
It helps to start with the basics. Key items you may want to include in an obituary include:
Full name, including maiden name and nickname, if applicable
Age at time of death
Where the deceased passed away (city and province or territory)
Date of death and birthday (month and year)
Number of surviving and predeceased immediate family members (e.g. “…leaves behind his wife, 4 children, and 8 grandchildren.”)
In the personal section, it is common to include hobbies, sports, interests, favourite causes, and other recreational activities. When choosing activities to include, try to select ones that reflect the values of the deceased. Instead of simply listing activities, consider including stories about their favourite activities that demonstrate their character.
You can also include career, volunteer, sport, or academic achievements.
What to leave out
The risk of identity theft and fraud does not end after death. One way to mitigate this risk is to limit the specifics included in the obituary. Information that should not be included in an obituary include:
An exact birthday
City of birth
Mother’s maiden name
Other common security question answers
Full names of surviving and predeceased immediate family members
Learn how to protect your loved one’s identity after death on the EstateBox blog.
It’s also important to protect your loved one’s legacy. Relationships are never perfect, so if you have unresolved tension with your loved one, try to avoid venting any negative feelings or sharing unfavourable stories in their obituary. Remember that it’s not about you. Keep the focus on your loved one and avoid sharing stories in which you are the main focus.
Choose the perfect photo
Obituaries typically include a recent photo of the deceased. However, if your loved one was ill, or didn’t look like themselves at the end of their life, choose a photo from when they felt best. Find a photo associated with a strong memory, or simply a photo where your loved one looks happy. There is no right or wrong answer here; any photo that you think best represents your loved one will be perfect.
Keep in mind that depending on where you decide to publish the obituary, there may be additional costs for using a colour photo. If you’re planning on publishing in a newspaper and trying to keep costs to a minimum, select a photo that will be visible in black and white.
Decide whether or not to mention the service or memorial
Many obituaries will end with details about an upcoming service or memorial. Consider two things before including this in your loved one’s obituary: where the obituary will be printed or shared, and if the service is open invite. If your loved one was widely known and loved (a wonderful thing!), the service could quickly become overwhelmingly large if the details become public knowledge. If you wish to keep the service relatively small but still open invite, reach out to those who your loved ones would absolutely want there, and rely on word of mouth to reach the rest.
Honour someone’s legacy through gifts and action
People often feel compelled to give when someone passes, whether it's flowers, food, or donations. If you wish to collect donations specifically, state this at the end of the obituary. If your loved one didn’t specify a charity, choose a charity that reflects their hobbies and passions, that personally helped them, or that will work towards preventing deaths like theirs in the future.
You can also request that people honour your loved one’s legacy through action. This can look like encouraging folks to volunteer in their community, perform random acts of kindness, or spend extra time with their loved ones. Think of what your loved one valued most, and find the best way to honour those values.
Write your own obituary
In recent years, writing your own obituary has become a more common practice. It takes the burden off of your loved ones, and allows you to control how you are remembered. If you choose to write your own obituary it doesn’t have to be a polished piece, since your loved ones will have to update it and make changes after you pass. Don’t forget to upload your obituary to your EstateBox — it’s only helpful for your loved ones if they have access to it!
Don’t do it alone
Writing a loved one’s obituary is an emotionally draining process. That’s why it’s so important to have someone supporting you through the writing process. They can act as an editor or emotional support, or both. You can also find resources available to you in Canada for grief and bereavement on the Canadian Hospice Palliative Care Association website.
Just start writing
Sometimes looking at a blank page can make the writing process feel impossible. If you’re not sure where to begin, just start writing — even if it’s just point form using the suggestions given earlier in this resource. This will create an outline and give you content to build from. Sometimes it’s easier to just write whatever comes to mind and then edit it later.
If you’re more of a visual person, try drawing a timeline of the life of the person who you’re writing about to jog your memory.
Decide where to publish
Once you’ve crafted the obituary and picked the perfect photo, your final step will be to publish. Obituaries are typically published in newspapers, obituary or funeral home websites, and social media platforms.
The two main things to consider when deciding where to publish an obituary are 1) how much you want to spend on publishing fees, and 2) whether any loved ones want to keep a physical copy.
Each newspaper will have different pricing structures; typically publications will charge by the word, per inch for text, per line, or flat fees. Some will also have word limits so if you want a physical copy but are trying to keep your costs down, consider publishing a shortened version in print and a longer version online.
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Last updated July 2022