I know. Obituaries aren't something anyone enjoys talking about. In fact, when families are grieving, it's about the last item on anyone's checklist. When a family is trying to deal with a death, whether the death somewhat anticipated or horribly unexpected, writing the obituary becomes an albatross.
In most cases, it is a job that simply must be done, and done quickly, and the responsibility of writing the obituary usually falls to the person closest to the deceased, who has the most writing experience. And usually, the extent of that person's writing expertise is somewhere between poetic stanzas of teenage angst and writing a yearly Christmas letter. In other words, next to nothing.
How can you say no? If someone in your circle is suffering and asks you write an obituary, the automatic answer isn't typically, "Oh, sorry. I can't. I just don't have enough experience." Of course not. Instead, most well-meaning, part-time, closet, or recreational scribblers will accept the task without much thought to how difficult it will be. But make no mistake -- it won't be easy. You aren't just writing a story about a person, you're writing the last story about the person.
Where to begin? Well, I've come up with a way that works best for me, and I'll share it here:
- First, enlist help. Even if you've written stories in the past and think that you're pretty good, ask for help from someone who knows the rules of the English language. There is nothing worse than reading an obituary that is littered with misplaced commas, misspelled words, oddly placed capital letters, and misguided semi-colons.
- Next, as painful as it may be, you simply must "interview" the family. I put that word in quotes because it is imperative that you put on a journalist hat and ask the family questions about the deceased, even if you feel like you knew him as well as anyone.
- Everyone has a story. When you're interviewing the family--listen. Listen for the little details that stand out as unique to his/her personality. Did he read the newspaper faithfully every day? Did she have a favorite vacation spot? The details are what will make a personal tribute.
- Ask the family how long they would like (or how much money they can spend on) the obituary. Newspapers charge by the word/line, so listing every friend of the deceased could become costly if the family isn't prepared to spend a lot of money. If the family says money is no object, I would still not include every friend. Instead, spend the time describing details about the deceased so that even strangers will feel like they knew him a little.
- Realize that many people read obituaries every day looking for folks they know (shout-out to my mother). You should make every attempt to include the names (and correct spellings) of the deceased's spouse, children, grandchildren, siblings, parents, and anyone else closely related (and their spouses). Separate each major entry with a semi-colon. Also, obit readers may not recognize the married name of a deceased female, so ask the family for permission to include her maiden name.
- Don't forget to include the pertinent information about the funeral or memorial, including the address of the church or cemetery. Don't rely on the family to help you with this; do the legwork yourself and make sure your information is accurate.
- When you're finished writing, expect the family to make changes. Present them with a draft and ask for their approval, inviting them to add or delete anything. A family needs to feel in charge of their loved one's memory, and you, as the writer, are just the deliverer of the message. Your job is silent (special, but silent).
- Finally, don't tell anyone you wrote the obituary. This isn't the time for glory. It's a time to be thankful that you could do something to help out in such a time of grief and need.
It is an honor to write the last words about a person--the great send-off. The family and future generations will read the words for many years to come.