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How to Write an Obituary for a Loved One

family reunion family together family funeral obituary
Left to right: Back row — my husband Gil, my niece Makayla, my niece Jewel, my sister Kim, my mom Nina, my brother Dennis, my stepfather How, and my nephew Tyler; Front row: My daughter Charlotte, my son Gilbert, and me; Photo Credit: Anita Couto

Welcome to Live-It-Uary, a place to celebrate life while we live it. Live-It-Uary honors people who show kindness, people who create and inspire, people who do good deeds. It also helps the living grieve the loss of their loved ones.

Remembering a Life in Words

This is not the first time I’ve written an obituary, and as much as I hate to think about it, it will not be the last.

My brother Dennis passed away on June 7, and in an instant, my world changed. How do you come to terms with the passing of your baby brother? Needless to say, my heart has broken.

In times of grief, it can seem an impossible task to sit down and write, never mind the life story of someone you cared about. That’s exactly what an obituary is when you think about it. While a death notice is limited to names and dates, an obituary is a treasure-trove of information. It is a biography, a collection of stories, rich with character development and plot. Together, those stories mark a legacy.

If you are given the task of writing an obituary, do not see it as a chore. It is a privilege. You have been given the opportunity to learn more about the person you love and to share your discoveries with the world. Instead of remembering their life in your own thoughts, you remember it in words, and those words will be marked for generations to come.

Who Should Write the Obituary

Not everyone will be asked to write an obituary, and not everyone will have the capacity to write one if they are overwhelmed with grief. Still, whether you are a writer or a reader, the obituary is an important part of the grieving process.

Knowing what to include in an obituary can be hard. Unless you anticipate someone is going to pass away, few people prepare one in advance. Every now and again you’ll find someone who has written their own obituary. Perhaps they have a terminal illness like Bailey Jean Matheson or Jane Catherine Lotter who wrote their heartfelt goodbyes to family and friends. There are also wise-crackers like Kay Ann Heggstad and Walter George Bruhl Jr. who wrote their obituaries with the sense of humor they shared in life.

To be honest, most of us do not have that lead time. We are writing on the spur of the moment. We are popping out words at breakneck speeds to get them printed or posted in time so that people can attend services a few days later.

What to Include in an Obituary

Writing an obituary can seem hard but it doesn’t have to be. You can easily do a Google search to find templates you can download if you find that easier. They will encourage you to include:

  • Name
  • Age (the date of birth is discouraged since people could misuse this information for identity theft)
  • City/town where they lived
  • Date of death
  • Cause of death (or not — it’s a personal choice on whether to include this)
  • Biography (education, degrees attained, life events*)
  • List of survivors/predeceased persons (the traditional order for surviving family members is parents, spouse/partner, children, siblings, grandchildren, and in-laws)
  • Dates of funeral and/or memorial services

Outside of the biography (which we’ll talk about in a minute), it should be straight-forward unless there is some family drama about who should or should not be included. If that’s the case, I’m sorry for you. You already have enough to deal with given the passing of the person you knew and loved.

Writing an Obituary with Heart

If you use a template, you’ll have all the relevant info, but the obituary may not capture the essence of your loved one. This is where the biography comes into play. You want to write an obituary with heart. Ask yourself how you would want to be remembered.

If you have the means, and I know not everyone will, I ask you, beg you, not to do this part on your own. You are not the only person who has memories of this person. Your view could be skewed, for better or worse. To tell a more complete and meaningful story, you need to hear what other people have to say.

When my grandmother passed away, I called my mother to talk about her. I learned so many fascinating things that guided me towards the story that needed to be told. When my brother passed away, I sat down with family at a meal and we told as many stories as we could until we had tears in our eyes, not from grief but from fond memories and belly laughs. It added so much color to what I was about to write. I did not get to write obituaries for my father or grandfather, but I would have approached them just the same.

I am proud and honored to have shared their stories with the world, but more importantly, I am grateful to have been a part of their lives. In writing their obituaries, I learned as much about myself as I did about them. It is a powerful process. As you sit down to do the same, remember this. An obituary does not have to be a marker for the end of life. It can be a celebration of a life if you do it right.

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