Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Writing Obituaries
*But Were Afraid to Ask
Curious about morbidity—or just morbidly curious? Maureen O’Donnell and Linnea Crowther, both award-winning members of the Society of Professional Obituary Writers, who write obituaries for the Chicago Sun-Times and Legacy.com respectively, recently did an AMA about their life’s work over at Reddit. Turns out you can write your own obit (although not everybody does), and even bad guys get good send-offs (sometimes). Here are a few highlights from the AMA, and when you’re done, use what you’ve learned to scrutinize these classic obits for literary legends.
On how one gets into obituary writing, exactly:
I’ve been working for Legacy.com for almost 18 years, and I was honestly just a writer who needed a job back in 2000. I found my way to Legacy via the employment ads. I never expected to write obituaries when I got my English degree, but it has become a calling for me.
On what a good obit should include:
I would say the things you really can’t miss including are:
*Full name, including maiden name if applicable and any nicknames by which they were widely known
*The details of their death (date, location, cause of death as you’re comfortable talking about it)
*The details of their life (age, place(s) they lived, & occupation are most important IMO—can also include hobbies & interests, causes & charities they supported, schools they attended, favorite books/movies/music/athletic teams, etc.)
*Family relationships—definitely immediate family members & maybe some less immediate relatives, as you see fit & have space to include
*Information about any funeral or memorial services, burial, etc. If this information isn’t available yet, provide some way readers can access it later (like the name of the funeral home you’re working with, so they can contact the funeral director)
*Many obituaries (but not all) also include information on a memorial fund or charitable donations
I think the two most important things to remember are: 1. This should be a lasting way for you to remember the person, so think about what you know and love about them and include that, and 2: This is also one way people will get the information about the death, so make sure you’ve included enough basic information that an old friend would be able to know whose obituary they’ve found if they’re searching for it online or browsing the newspaper.
First, I always start with “the five W’s”: who-what-when-where-why. These always lead to more specific questions. Who is the deceased person? What did he/she do? When were they born, and where? In a hospital? At home? Where in the birth order? Where did they go to school? I ask how historic events affected them. Were they alive during the Great Depression? How did they make ends meet? I go back a little further, too, asking what their parents, grandparents or relatives did. Sometimes you hear fascinating stories about what brought families to Chicago, like maybe jobs at the Jay’s Potato Chips factory, or the chance to study with a famed ballet teacher. Was the deceased person known for a special achievement? It doesn’t have to be a prestigious award. It could be they were once the best polka dancer on Chicago’s Northwest side (which is saying a lot)! A Toronto colleague at the Canadian Jewish news, Ron Csillag, likes to ask, “What is something about the deceased that no one else knows, or that would surprise people?” Another member of the Society of Professional Obituary Writers, John Pope, who writes for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, suggests we look for the “Rosebud”—the thing that was important to the deceased, that made them tick. Canadian journalist Tom Hawthorn suggests you ask about a decisive moment—something that set the person on their path in life. Maybe they were inspired by a teacher who was a nun, for example, and they decided to join a convent. And, I ask about their passions, be it a good cigar, their love for French bulldogs, their appreciation for Denzel Washington, or their ownership of Detroit muscle cars. And I even ask about noteworthy physical attributes. Were they known for a crushing handshake? Their penchant for wearing purple? Their 80 pairs of high heels? And sometimes I ask about their favorite places, be it an island in the Caribbean or at the birdfeeders in their backyard. I guess I could summarize by saying I ask a lot of general questions that lead me to the specific. If they were a phenomenal cook, I even ask for a recipe or two, and we’ll reprint that.
On writing obits for celebrities with questionable pasts:
I’m typically not going to make someone’s bad (or iffy) deeds the focus of their obituary, but I also don’t try to hide it or sweep it under the rug. If someone is best known for their work (e.g. a politician, entertainer, etc.) but also has some skeletons in the closet, the obituary I write will focus on their life and career while making a mention of their sordid past at some point. It’s part of their life and my point isn’t to ignore it, but if it’s not the bulk of their story, it doesn’t need to take up much of the space in their obituary. For someone who is known primarily for being a bad person (e.g. a serial killer), it’s different—our obituary for Charles Manson, for example, didn’t focus on his musical career or anything. We just noted what he had done and focused on his victims.
On what to do when there’s. . . just . . .nothing good to say:
Once I telephoned a woman who’d been married to her husband for something like 65 years. My editor suggested it, saying that anyone who was married for that long had to have an interesting story. When I asked the widow to talk about her late husband, she grimly replied, “It was a long 65 years.” So, I tried asking her another way, asking what kind of father he was. “It was a long 65 years,” she repeated. I asked a few more questions and her answer didn’t change. Needless to say, I didn’t write his obituary!
I’ve written a few celeb obits for really controversial people, like Fidel Castro and Charles Manson. And I mean, what can you say about Manson? There’s nothing positive to say. We try to keep obits for people like him pretty perfunctory and just-the-facts.
Sometimes there are also notable people who I personally dislike for whatever reason—maybe I didn’t like their work or their politics, or they were known to be abusive or otherwise bad in their personal life. But they’re admired by a lot of people for their work, and I’m not here to inject my opinion into my obituaries, so I just have to set aside my personal feelings and write the truth of their life, whatever it is. But if part of that truth is that they were known for some bad deeds in addition to a brilliant career, I’m not going to hide that stuff. Probably wouldn’t call anybody a tosser, but I’ll include the information that made them a tosser. :)
. . .
[But] I think there’s something interesting & worth writing about in every life. Whether you’re an international superstar full of amazing stories or someone who’s lived a very quiet & simple life, there’s something to say about that life. Sometimes it takes a little more work to uncover that really interesting thing, but that’s what we do, we dig into someone’s life and figure out how to express the nutshell of their legacy.
On writing obits for people you know:
I couldn’t write the obituaries for my parents. It was just too close to my heart and too painful, though I did write the eulogies that were delivered at their funeral service. But since I grew up in Chicago, and I write for the Chicago Sun-Times, there have been times when I have written obituaries for people I knew, either from being a longtime reporter, or sometimes from knowing them personally. I made sure my editors knew of a connection. I haven’t written about an old flame, but I can think of at least one obit I wrote for someone who was in my class in high school and whom I considered a friend. What’s that saying, “Tomorrow is promised to no one”? This obituary reminded me of that.
I did write my grandmother’s obituary. We’re not discouraged from writing about people we knew, although if any specific death of a friend or family member was too hard for me to write about, my editor would absolutely understand. For my grandma, it just felt right. I loved her and I wanted to make sure her obituary was done well.
On how obituaries have changed over the years:
I’ve worked for Legacy.com for almost 18 years, and a couple of changes stand out for me. One is that the rise of social media has made obituaries much more popular than they once were. There was always a readership for obituaries, of course, but typically the people who would read any given obituary for a regular person (not a celebrity) would be their friends and family, as well as the obit-page devotees who read all of the obituaries regularly. Today, the most interesting or poignant or funny or beautiful obituaries are shared on social media and some of them go seriously viral. Tens of thousands of people might read an obituary for a person they had never heard of before their death.
Another change is that there seem to be more of those interesting/poignant/funny/beautiful obituaries than there used to be. We see more and more people writing their own obituaries, and their loved ones just fill in the details of the death when the time comes. These are often very personal and quirky and fascinating to read. Even when it’s the family writing an obituary for their loved one, I find they’re more likely to personalize it and go beyond the basic details to try to show what their loved one was really like. It makes the obituary a really special thing to remember the person by, more than “just the facts” but the story of their life.
I agree with Linnea—many professional newswriters and “civilians” are getting creative with obituaries these days. Have you seen this death notice for Terry Ward, a man from Crown Point, Indiana who had “zero working knowledge of the Kardashians”? This went viral because it made so many people smile. . . It was written by his family, and it’s fun, refreshing and irreverent.
On staying in touch with family post-obit:
I have stayed in touch with some survivors because they’ve been so welcoming and appreciative. When I first reached out to them to talk, I sent them friend requests on Facebook. And we wound up staying FB friends and we “chat” from time to time, especially on the anniversary of their loved one’s deaths. It’s been a very nice side to obituary-writing. I know obituary writers who’ve been told by families that talking about their loved one, and then reading the obituary afterward, was like therapy for them.
On what they’ve learned from writing obituaries:
From writing obituaries, I think I’ve learned not to put things off. So many people I’ve written about had a dream trip they wanted to take, but they never got the chance to do it.
My wisdom learned from this work is similar to Maureen’s—do the things you want to do now, so you won’t regret not doing them at the end of your life.
On whether they’ve written their own obituaries:
I actually haven’t done this, although you’d think I would have gotten around to it at some point in the past 18 years of working at Legacy. It’s often an assignment given to writing/journalism students (I didn’t go to journalism school, which maybe explains why I haven’t ever done it!). I did recently take the plunge and write up my will, even though I don’t plan on dying any time soon, so maybe it’s time to get thinking about my obituary.
Oooh, good question. I have not. Can’t handle it psychologically, at least for now. But I have told my family a few things I’d like at my funeral services—music, for example. I wouldn’t mind having some of my ashes being placed at Graceland Cemetery, a glorious Chicago graveyard with incredible monuments and beauty. I used to picnic there all the time when I lived in the neighborhood. (I’ve always liked visiting cemeteries when I travel, too.) I think our colleague Jade Walker, who writes for the Huffington Post, has not only written her obituary, but she updates it as needed.