Dear Savvy Senior: Can you provide any tips on how to write an obituary? My dad, who has terminal cancer, has asked me to write his obituary, which will be published in the funeral program and run in our local newspaper. — Not a Writer
Dear Not: I’m very sorry to hear about your dad’s prognosis. Writing your dad’s obituary would be a nice way for you to honor him and sum up his life, not to mention avoiding any possible mistakes that sometimes occur when obituaries are hurriedly written at the time of death. Here’s what you should know, along with some tips and tools to help you write it.
Contact the newspaper
Before you start writing your dad’s obituary, your first step is to check with the newspaper you want it to run in. Some newspapers have specific style guidelines or restrictions on length, some only accept obituaries directly from funeral homes and some only publish obituaries written by newspaper staff members.
If your newspaper accepts family-written obits, find out whether they have a template to guide you, or check with your dad’s chosen funeral provider. Most funeral homes provide forms for basic information and will write the full obituary for you as part of the services they provide.
You also need to be aware that most newspapers charge by the word, line or column inch to publish an obituary, so your cost will vary depending on your newspaper’s rate and the length of your obit — most range between 200 and 600 words.
Also note that many newspapers offer free public-service death listings, too, which usually are brief and include the name of the person who died along with the date and location of death and brief details about the funeral or memorial service.
Depending on how detailed you want to be, the most basic information in an obituary usually would include your dad’s full name (and nickname if relevant), age, date of birth, date of death, where he was living when he died, significant other (alive or dead) and details of the funeral service (public or private). If public, include the date, time and location of service.
Other relevant information you might also want to include: cause of death (optional); place of birth and his parents’ names; survivors including his children, other relatives, friends and pets and where they live; deceased family members; high school and colleges he attended and degrees earned; his work history and military service; his hobbies, accomplishments and any awards he received; his church or religious affiliations; any clubs, civic and fraternal organizations he is a member of; and any charities he feels strongly about that he would like people to donate to either in addition to or in lieu of flowers or other gifts. You’ll also need to include a photo of your dad.
If you need some help writing your dad’s obituary, there are free online resources you can turn to, such as Legacy.com, which provides tips and articles at Legacy.com/advice/guide-to-writing-an-obituary. Or consider the 25-page e-book “Writing an Obituary in Four Easy Steps,” available at DearPersonObits.com for $5. This guide will help you gather the details of your dad’s life so you can write an obituary that will reflect his personality and story.
Many families today also choose to post their loved one’s obituaries online and create digital memorials. Some good sites that offer this are MyKeeper.com, GatheringUs.com and Ever Loved.com, which provide a central location where family and friends can visit to share stories, memories and photos to celebrate your dad’s life.
Or, if your dad uses Facebook, you could also turn his profile into a memorial (you’ll need to show proof of death) where family and friends can visit and share anytime.
Jim Miller is a contributor to NBC-TV’s “Today” program and author of “The Savvy Senior.” Send your questions to Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070; or visit savvysenior.org.