How to write an obituary

Delivering bad news can be tough, but somebody has to do it. In some cases, a death may be under such circumstances that an obituary is going to be required.

The role of an obituary is in its layers. While the outer shell is to inform, to celebrate life is at its core. As NY Times Obituaries editor, Bill McDonald puts it, “Death is just the news peg. It’s the lives that make it interesting.”They offer a chance to look back on someone’s life.

An Obituary, or, Obit. Is the news that someone has died. Obituaries can be an effective way of managing time and resources, as well as spreading the news, it can act as a mass invite. The obituary itself can also be used to pay respects and kept as a memory of a funeral or passing.

There are two variations on obituaries and they are not to be confused. The first is a Death Notice. This will not include any biographical details and in many cases will be required as a public notice. The other type is a paid Memorial Advertisement which is usually written by family and friends in connection with a funeral home. The idea being you can use the funeral homes ad space for a bigger memorial and the funeral home gets to put their name on it.

We’re focusing on writing an obituary for publication in newspapers, they are not free and are often on a first come first serve basis. They are always at the editor’s discretion.

What makes a good obituary?

Harry de Quettville, ex-obituary of the editor, has three rules for what makes an obituary a good read:

  1. Write well – Quite a bold claim here, but finding an angle and working with it can be the difference between a good obituary and a great one. You can see it in the prose when the author hasn’t enjoyed writing it. (Can’t you?)
  2. Don’t be too reverential – Don’t try and build them up on too much of a pedestal. It’s important to be respectful but remember what the person was really like.
  3. Master the details – It’s the finer points that make it enjoyable, the small details that people won’t always think of but will smile when they read them.

Writing Rules

Like people, all obituaries are different. Most papers will have a loose guide that can help you in the writing process but typically, facts are presented in this order:

So there’s no strict way to write one, but generally, this is the minimum of what you need to include:

  • Name
  • Age
  • Place (town name) of death
  • Optional: cause of death, usually in a brief description such as “died of cancer” or “died after a long illness”
  • Optional: exact place of death, such as “in the hospital”, “at home” or “on the golf course”
  • Proofread it. Give it to other people to proofread, then proofread it again. It’s going to print, you want to make sure that it reads as well as you remember the deceased.

There’s a fine line between tribute and history and it’s common for the obituary to lean toward the tribute. That said, if you are taking the time to write about someone’s life, you were probably quite fond of them anyway. People often find that writing an obituary to be cathartic, it allows a retrospect on somebodies life but within a limit. Allowing you to reminisce without getting too carried away.

The Mediums

Typically obituaries are presented in newspapers, or online. In large cities and larger newspapers, obituaries are written only for people considered significant. In local newspapers, an obituary can normally be published for any resident. 


  • Contact the newspaper(s) where you want the obituary published. Larger newspapers and publications will have dedicated obituaries desk, which means that speaking to someone will not be an issue should you wish. It’s also worth trying to contact them through email on their website as it may be easier. 
  • If you are not planning on contacting one national publication then It’s worth thinking about contacting more local publications in hometowns, frequent holiday locations, that sort of thing.  
  •  Don’t forget about price. Different publications have different pricing structures, but almost all of them will base this on the length, amount of pictures and number of days it runs. Some papers will charge extra for the placement to appear both online and in print, some do not. Ask as you go. 
  • Some people use obituaries to inform of a time and place for a memorial service or funeral. Make sure the paper’s deadlines coincide with this. 


  • Almost all newspapers have online versions now, and you can have obituaries published online, often for a fraction of the price and without as many constraints on length.
  • If you don’t want to publish an obituary to such a vast audience then why not think about a remembrance blog post?

Getting information

  • Before you start writing, gather the facts you’ll need. An obituary presents basic information about the person’s life and death. 
  • Decide what you want to write about. In some cases, depending on the publication (and cost) someone will write it for you based on the information you present. More often than not, something you have submitted will be changed – this is to fit in with the publications house style guide, and the fact you may not be an accomplished journalist. There may not be time for you to check the substitutions as it can be very time-consuming.
  • The information required usually includes:
  • Full name
  • Date of death
  • Where the person was living at the time of death
  • Date of birth
  • Birthplace
  • Key survivors (spouse, children) and their names
  • Time, date, place of memorial or burial services (if you want the public invited)
  • Other information that isn’t necessary but Is common to include:
    • Cause of death
    • Biographical information, life story, or major life events (covering as much or as little as you’d like)
    • Survivors who are grandchildren, siblings, nieces and nephews, friends, or pets
    • Memorial tribute information, such as “in lieu of flowers, donations may be made to such-and-such hospice or such-and-such nonprofit organization”
  • Make sure you run what you have written by other people who may be affected.


If you need a bit of inspiration, here are some examples of great obituaries that encompass some, if not all the advice we have provided.

  • Harry Stamps – Excellent example of a humorous, good-willed obituary, the keen attention to detail and a fact in every sentence makes for an entertaining yet informative read. 
  • William Donaldson William Donaldson’s obituary is a great showcase for taking someone’s not-so-savoury lifestyle and turning it into an entertaining, celebration of their life.  
  • Cookie The Cockatoo – Sometimes it doesn’t even have to be a human.

It may seem daunting trying to condense a whole person’s life into a few words and it’s, but it’s not the job of an obituary to condense or contain. It’s a chance look back, reflect, (hopefully) entertain and celebrate. It’s like De Quettville says “it has to be about entertainment, that’s what makes obituaries uplifting.”  They are there to remind you that a life has been lived, no matter for how long, and that is reason enough to celebrate.

While it might be considered in bad taste to write an obituary before a passing. Planning for your own funeral is another way you can get ahead of the curve. That’s the sort of organisational skill would be great content for an obituary…

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