How to Write an Obituary

How to Write an Obituary
Learn how to write an obituary using tips in Eirene's online obituary writing guide. Plus the difference between a death notice and a memorial notice.
6 minute read

When a person dies, one of the necessary funeral-related tasks is to write an obituary. It is a way to notify the public of a person’s death and funeral plans, while providing a final tribute to them. For some people, writing an obituary may be intimidating or challenging especially at a time of grief. To help, we have compiled a step-by-step guide to help guide you through the process.

What is an obituary?

An obituary is a published notice reporting a recent death of a person in the community. It contains information about the person's life and upcoming funeral services.

These notices are usually published online on a website or in newspapers, but can also be found in other media, such as trade magazines or via broadcast media.

Journalist-written obituaries

Note that an article or broadcast written by a journalist about a notable member of the community who has died is also referred to as an obituary or “obit”.  Here for example is an obituary written about hockey star Guy Lafleur in the Montreal Gazette.

Family-placed obituaries

The most common type of obituary is a notice placed by a family or friends in a community publication such as a website or newspaper.  These are considered advertising and in some cases draw a publication fee, although some publishers offer them for free, especially when they are published on a website.

Here is an example of placed obituaries in several prominent Canadian newspapers:

There are two types of obituary advertisements:  Death notice and memorial advertisement.

The cost is commonly included in funeral packages, but can also be paid for personally. Additionally, some funeral providers, like Eirene, offer complimentary online memorials on their website.

What is a death notice obituary?

A death notice is a simple obituary that notifies the public of a person's death. It excludes most personal and biographical information. This is a standard advertisement used to inform a community or group of a person's death.

What is a memorial notice obituary?

A memorial notice advertisement is an obituary written by friends and/or family of the deceased person. Some funeral providers or newspapers may also write the obituary for you or have templates to choose from. Either way, obituaries focus on positive aspects of a person's life, even when written for public figures.

Common components of an obituary

Obituaries can contain almost any appropriate information about the deceased person. However, their purpose is to inform and pay tribute, so they consist of some or all of the following key components:

  • Death announcement
  • Biographical information or summary of life
  • List of family and close friends
  • Funeral or memorial details
  • Acknowledgements and donations
  • Pictures (optional)

What information is in a death announcement?

The first notice to be published is a death announcement. This should include basic information about the deceased and their death, such as:

  • Their full name
  • Age (at the time of death)
  • Date of birth (optional: place of birth)
  • Date, time, and place of death
  • Place of residence
  • Cause of death (optional)

This information should be kept short and will likely fit within a sentence or two. Additionally, this list can be tweaked or adapted slightly to suit preferences.

Biographical information or summary of life

This part of the notice is reserved to provide additional information about the deceased person and their life. This section will often be longer, but it should not be treated as a biography. Instead, it should summarize significant moments in their life, such as important events, achievements, and milestones. There is no precise outline for writing this portion, but it should be concise and compact. Examples of what to include in this section are as follows:

  • Brief summary of childhood, adolescence, and adulthood (e.g., where they were born, when they came to Canada (if applicable), where they met their spouse, etc.)
  • Dates of birth, graduation, marriage, and retirement
  • Educational and work accomplishments (e.g., degrees earned, type of job, years at a job, etc.)
  • Summary of hobbies, favourite activities, or passions (e.g., birdwatching, bowling, painting, etc.)
  • Community involvement (e.g., volunteering)
  • Important ranks or awards (e.g., military rank of Colonel)

List of family and close friends

Another common portion of an obituary is a section outlining the person’s family. This includes a list of family members who are both living and deceased.

Determining which names to be listed in the obituary can be challenging, especially if there is a word or character limit. A good rule of thumb is to include immediate family by name and extended family more generally.

Immediate family commonly includes the names of the spouse, siblings, children, grandchildren, and parents. If the family is smaller, this may extend to great-grandchildren, first or second cousins, close friends, etc. These names will be written out entirely, and it is common for spouses to be listed in brackets. For example, if daughter Jane Smith is married to Fred then it would be referenced as follows: ”his daughter Jane (Fred) Smith".

When referencing extended family, you can say something like, "he/she will also be missed by several cousins, nieces, nephews, and friends."

Funeral or memorial details

An obituary will also be referenced by people who knew the deceased person to find funeral or memorial details. You must provide all relevant information about the planned services, including the full date, time, and location. If there are multiple services, you need to include this information too. Ensure it clearly states what is happening each day. Including the number or email for the funeral home may also be helpful so guests can easily check with them on the details.  

It is also vital to briefly explain the type of service it is. This informs guests on what to expect and what is expected of them. For example, wardrobe expectations for a traditional burial are different from celebration of life attire, so if guests are unsure of the type of service, they may not dress appropriately.

Acknowledgements and donations

It is also common at the end of an obituary to include special acknowledgements or donation instructions. For example, if the deceased person received hospice care before they passed, the family may want to thank the staff at the facility.

Another common element to include here is donation instructions. For example, if the deceased person had a cause important to them, the family could ask that donations be donated to help that cause.  

Obituary pictures

Finally, many people include a picture of the deceased person in their obituary. This adds a personal touch, putting a face to the description. It can also help people identify the deceased person more easily.

Families can choose whichever photo they would prefer. However, choose one that is more recent, preferably within the previous 10 years or so. For example, if the deceased died at 80 years old, a picture of them as a teenager may be harder to identify.  

Obituary writing tips

One of the most important obituary writing tips to keep in mind is that there is no right or wrong way to do it. What matters most is the intention. However, keep the following guidelines in mind:

  • Get the facts straight. It is essential that the obituary's information is correct and factual. Before you start, gather all the information you think you might need and fact-check it with other members of the family or friends.
  • Collaborate. Speak with people the deceased person had close relationships with to gain insight from people that knew them. This helps ensure all information is included and accurate and allows those closest to the deceased to be part of the process.
  • Proofread. Spelling and grammar mistakes can happen when writing an obituary. Having a second set of eyes to proofread can help fix mistakes you may have missed. You might also want to run a draft of the obituary through Grammarly, an online tool designed to correct writing mistakes.
  • Make it personal. An obituary is an excellent opportunity to paint a picture of the deceased person's life and their impact on those around them. Including personal experiences, and expressing your family’s feelings can make an obituary special.
  • Don't sweat the small stuff. Inevitably, mistakes can happen. While they may upset some people, it is important not to be too hard on yourself. Writing an obituary is difficult, especially when grieving. As long as you do your best and your intentions are good, that’s what matters.

Obituary examples

Need to see some examples of great obituaries? Click here to read some lovely and inspiring examples of real obituaries written for some of the people Eirene has provided end-of-life arrangements for.

Post an online obituary for your loved one

You can post an online obituary for free on Eirene's memorials website here at https://eirene.ca/memorials. It is designed to also help you notify family and friends of your loved ones passing. Once you’ve created your online obituary, you can share your page through email. You can also invite friends and family to post memories adjacent to the obituary too.

Questions?

If you have a question about cremation, funerals or obituaries, you can ask our experts at Eirene Cremations. Email support@eirene.ca. To make cremation arrangements, click here. Post an obituary: Click here