After a loved one dies, you may be asked to write a meaningful obituary for a newspaper, social media platform, and/or website. Even if you’ve never written “obit” before, you can do it now by following a few simple steps.
At the very least, an obituary informs people that someone has died and includes funeral, memorial, and/or burial details.
At best, obituaries can summarize a person’s life and legacy.
This article explains how to write a meaningful obituary. You’ll learn what to include and why it’s important to double-check your facts.
Ask family members, friends, co-workers and/or others who knew the deceased well to help you. They can provide facts and dates, provide proper spelling, and offer an anecdote or two (a short story).
Check the exchange rate first
Before you send an obituary to a publisher, call or check details that may determine the length of the obituary.
Some newspapers charge between $200 and $500 for a “short” obit (usually up to 300 words) and up to $1,000 for a “long”. Most charge a small fee to include a photo.
If it’s necessary to trim the length of an obbit, you’ll probably want to do it yourself rather than letting a stranger do it.
In contrast, digital obituaries are generally free. And some platforms allow family members, friends, and neighbors to send their condolences and memories below the obit. In this way, it can become a keepsake.
Gather the information you need and then choose your preferred tool: Pen and paper or a calculator. Arrange the obituary in the following way:
- Full name of the deceased
- Their age
- Their date and place of birth
- Date and place of death
- Where do the deceased live?
- Cause of death (which family may want to keep)
Summary of life
Provide a brief summary of the deceased person’s life, starting from birth and working later. Think of yourself as a storyteller. You will tell the story of someone’s life.
You can, frankly, move from one reality to another. Or you can be more sincere. There’s really no “right way” to write an obituary. Find a published obituary you like that can give you an idea of your writing style.
Either way, try to be selective about the information you include. Ask yourself:
- Did the reader find this information interesting?
- Does it help “continue the story”?
- Does the anecdote reflect anything the deceased was known to?
You’re better off gathering “too much” information early on. You can always edit and/or shorten your obituary later.
List of relatives
List relatives, both living and deceased. Include the full names of the deceased’s parents, siblings, and children, as well as the person’s spouse/partner. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, uncles, and family members should also be mentioned.
Enter the total number of grandchildren or great-grandchildren. You don’t have to list them by name.
Children’s partners are cited in the obituary in parentheses, after the child’s name. It usually looks like this: “Survived by daughter Jane (John) Smith.”
Funeral or Memorial details
Funerals and memorials have changed a lot in the past 20 years. In fact, today many families say goodbye to loved ones with a “longevity” event, or a hot air balloon launch.
You may fear that a non-traditional memorial will make your writing job more difficult. But it shouldn’t. Just sharing information you know should be your main goal anyway. Using the journalist’s order of preference is:
Make sure to include any information that readers might appreciate if they want to attend the service. At the very least, the obituary should include the name and phone number of the funeral home or a website dedicated to the life of the deceased.
It’s common these days to ask readers to give up sending flowers to support a charity or memorial fund.
The choice is up to the family. Just be sure to name the charity or memorial fund to which the donations will be sent. An address is also helpful.
Obituaries are not just a matter of public record. They can become lifelong keepsakes for those left behind.
So take your time and get the right names. Make sure you spell the deceased’s name correctly, as well as the names of other family members or loved ones you mention.
Include middle names, initials, and distinctive markings such as “Jr.”, “Sr.” and “Dr.” Misrepresentation as “John Smith, Jr.” seems like a minor problem but the family will surely notice.
Ask at least one trusted person to proofread your obituary for errors or omissions. Then read it aloud, as many readers can.
Sometimes, ears are better than eyes when it comes to improving the tone of a story.
Edit the obit first, then read it again. Editing involves revising, rearranging and rewriting sentences for clarity. Proofreading is checking details like spelling and punctuation. You’ll definitely catch more when you focus on one task at a time.
Structuring an obituary is primarily a matter of choice; no two are alike. But readers expect to learn some general information about the deceased, including background facts, a life summary, a list of loved ones, and details of final service.
Before you get too busy writing, check out the current rates that newspapers and online platforms charge to run an obit. The price difference can affect your preferred word count.
frequently asked Questions
What should be included in an obituary?
An obituary should be informative. Guaranteed to include:
- Full name of the deceased, including nicknames
- Age of the deceased at the time of death
- City or town of residence at the time of death
- List of immediate surviving family members
- A brief summary of the life of the deceased
- Memorial or funeral details with address and date
- Details of charities or memorial funds to send a donation
Should the cause of death be in the obituary?
Check with the deceased person’s spouse or family members before announcing the cause of death. In some cases, the family may want to keep this detail secret. In such cases, you can use euphemisms like “past after a long illness” or “passed out suddenly”. Or you can ignore the topic altogether and not mention it.
What should be excluded from the obituary?
Obituaries should not be written in the first person. This means that you should not use the word “I”. Remember that the obituary is not a personal dedication. You should also exclude personal addresses and phone numbers.
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