The Art of the Obituary

Obituaries are essentially journalistic profiles that open windows into the recent past. So, how do you distill a life into 68 words?


Writing about a life well lived is an art. You don’t need to be Ernest Hemingway to get it right, but you might want to see how the pros memorialize the lives of public figures to bring some sparkle into summing up the life of your loved one.

Chances are your loved one wasn’t a public figure or a celebrity and they didn’t have a chance to hire a professional writer to sum up their life before passing.

Here are some guidelines to help you craft the perfect story about a life well lived:

  • Think about where you would like to publish your loved one’s obituary. The New York Times or the Poughkeepsie Journal? The audience and writing styles differ from one publication to another.
  • Brainstorm beyond the facts: the marriage, the kids, the job and the location of the services don’t always sum up a life. Include an anecdote or two, like her passion for gardening or his volunteer work in coaching little league.
  • Keep it human, lively, and interesting. Pretend you’re a journalist writing about a great person – almost everyone has something notable to write about.
  • Decide in advance (if placing the obituary is your responsibility) if it’s okay to include the cause of death, this could be a touchy subject with the family.
  • Newspapers charge per word, don’t be cheap with the word count, this is the last message, which will sum up this persons life, and they deserve a good send off.
  • Think beyond the nuclear family unit: yes, immediate family should always be listed, but there is also chosen family which may be very important to your loved one, like a partner, care giver, best friend or roommate.
  • The ‘devils in the details:’ check the time and place, of all associated funeral events, and then check again, (especially if you’re in a state of shock). Have a calm, detached friend look over the obituary as a fail safe.

Below is a cut-and-dry personal bio outline you can use to get started. This type of information is usually included in every obituary.

  • The name of your loved one
  • Date and place of death
  • Birth date, age of death
  • Upbringing (education, hometown, etc)
  • Marriage Info
  • Accomplishments
  • Work history
  • Personal achievements, rewards, community service
  • Unique characteristics
  • Surviving family members
  • Charity donation
  • Funeral service information

Here’s one of our favorite obituaries, its also a great example of how to summarize a life well lived in 32 words.

Elvis Presley, who revolutionized American popular music with his earthy singing style and became a hero to two generations of rock ‘n’ roll fans, died yesterday in Memphis, Tenn. He was 42. Read more.

Reprinted with permission from


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s