How to write the perfect obituary, according to professional writers

Why do some obituaries go viral? There’s nothing quite so moving as an obituary that truly captures and honors the spirit of the deceased.
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When writing an obituary, tap into how will they be genuinely remembered by those who loved them.Werner Wynakker / EyeEm / Getty Images/EyeEm
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By Nicole Spector

I’m the writer in my family, which means that I am offered a great deal of unpaid work from my loved ones. If someone’s kid is applying for colleges, chances are high I’ll get an email asking if I have time to edit (i.e., completely rewrite) their personal essay. I’m also frequently paged to help with wedding toasts, job applications and dating profiles. Over the years, I’ve learned the importance of saying no, and usually politely decline most of these solicitations for free editorial assistance, unless someone is asking for help with an obituary or eulogy. When it comes to composing or honing one’s words of remembrance, I’m almost always ready to lend a pen.

Why am I so eager to donate my time to this rather morbid type of writing? On one hand, it’s because, having written eulogies for loved ones, I know firsthand how difficult it can be to think clearly when grieving, and I imagine that, if you’re not used to writing every day, the task of crafting an obit can be mighty daunting; but my interest in eulogistic composition also stems from my fascination with the fact that in the end, we all become stories. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust, sure, but also: words to words. Writing doesn’t get much more meaningful than that, and there’s nothing quite so moving as an obituary that truly captures and honors the spirit of the deceased.

Earlier this week, thousands of readers were blown away by an obit that did just that and then some. The obituary of 82-year-old Connecticuter Joe Heller, penned by his daughter Monique Heller, was praised as the “best obituary ever” by The New York Times, which also profiled Heller’s “wacky” funeral, a casual affair that saw his coffin carried off in a vintage Mack fire truck.

Monique Heller was unsparing in her remembrance of her father as a penny-pinching prankster, a hoarder with a soft spot for dogs (whom he gave hilariously vulgar names) and a “consummate napper” who spurned suits and snobbery. It’s possibly the funniest obituary ever to make the rounds online, and yet it is also incredibly loving and informative. The reader is given interesting facts about Heller’s life — like that he was a self-taught chemist, a volunteer firefighter and a Navy veteran. The reader is also provided essential details about Heller’s memorial service, where to send donations, and who survives him — but even these particulars are delivered in a sportive spirit of fun-poking and wit.

What makes a great obit?

I never met Joe Heller, but boy, I wish I had. I also hope that if I’m ever responsible for writing the obit of someone very close to me that I can do half as good a job, because this obit, as Hannah Sentenac, a freelance writer who specializes in obituaries says, is “legendary.”

“I was incredibly impressed that it was written by a family member and not a professional writer, although it makes sense given the incredible level of detail and personal insight,” says Sentenac. “I think the fact that this went viral speaks to the fact that people don't want ‘traditional’ obituaries; they want humor, flair, wit, personality.”

Katharine Blossom Lowrie, owner/writer at The Précis, a provider of obituary and eulogy services, was also impressed by Heller’s obituary, and shared it on her site for prospective clients to read.

“I intend to urge future clients to read [Heller’s obit] before filling out their forms so they can see the possibilities, the humor, the beauty of telling the truth about someone,” Lowrie says.

Susan Shain, a freelance writer who provides obituary writing services is in agreement with writers Lowrie and Sentenac (along with pretty much everyone who reads it), that Joe Heller’s obituary is wonderful, adding that it accomplishes what all obits should by being “unafraid to let the person’s personality shine.”

The anatomy of a good obituary

How can we compose similarly fantastic obituaries for our own dearly departed friends and family, or even for ourselves ahead of our final days?

We’ve compiled a list of tips that the pros recommend.

1. Jot down the key facts first

Even the most sensational obituaries should include key details about the person’s life and death. First, you’ll want to include the person’s name, birth place, age, date of death, location and cause of death (optional). From there, Shain says you should go on to include other biographical staples such as “whether they got married, had kids, [details of] their careers and retirement.” You’ll also want to share the names and relationships of who survives the deceased, and finally, include the details of the memorial service, where to send flowers or donations and any other must-know information for mourners. The recitation of these details can feel a bit cold and clinical, but it’s important to have the basics down. Free online obituary templates can help serve as a checklist here.

2. Write in the present tense, in letter form and change it later

Emma Goss, an eyewitness news reporter for Bakersfield Now and former producer at NBC News, has written obituaries for celebrities, beloved community members and, strange as it sounds, for famous people who aren’t yet deceased. Goss’s most practical tip is to “write in the present tense and change it to the past tense later.” This approach can help you “feel like you’re really connecting to who you’re writing about,” Goss says, adding that you can also benefit from a first draft in letter form. “Deliver it like you’re writing it to their husband or wife or best friend. Tell them something [positive] that they may not have known.”

3. Reach out to friends and family for memorable stories

Part of what makes Heller obituary so lovely is that it gives you all the staple information of a traditional obit, but functions more as a eulogy, with tons of anecdotes and character. To write an obit like this, narrow in on your clearest memories.

“What are the first words that come to mind when you think of the person [who has passed]?” asks Shain. “What are some stories that demonstrate those qualities? It's a good idea to talk to other family members because you will jog each other's memories. See what other people remember — that’s a really good place to start.

Sentenac stresses not to be shy when it comes to recalling “funny stories, mishaps or eccentricities. Sometimes those kinds of things best represent a person's life.”

4. Ask yourself these questions about your loved one

Sentenac shares some questions she asks her clients when crafting an obit for their loved ones:

  • How would you describe your loved one’s personality? What did people say most often about him/her?
  • What are some of your favorite memories of your loved one?
  • What were your loved one’s proudest accomplishments?
  • What were your loved one’s hobbies/favorite things?
  • What was the thing you loved most about your loved one?
  • Any foibles/quirks or other personality traits that made your loved one extra special?

Also fodder for thought: “How would they want to be remembered? And how will they be genuinely remembered by those who loved them? It's a dance between the two,” says Sentenac.

5. Don’t feel like this has to be funny

Joe Heller’s obit has numerous LOL moments, which works for his obituary because he was an infamous jokester, but humor may not be suitable for the obit you’re writing.

“If someone is more serious, more traditional, I don’t use humor at all,” says Shain.

Additionally, one’s death may just be too tragic for a jocular obituary. Goss recounts writing the obit of a 10-year-old boy who died after a heart transplant went awry. There’s just no way to make that obit hilarious, nor should there be. It’s okay for the obit to be short and to the point with just a few lines about the remarkable impressions the departed one has left on the world.

“Use your own judgment about what's appropriate,” says Sentenac. “If you knew the person well, chances are you'll be able to assess the tone and style that would suit them.”

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