The Obituary

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An obituary is a published notice of a person's death, often with a brief biography of the deceased. 

To journalists, writing obituaries of people who are not prominent--average private citizens--may seem routine, even boring; however, to the family of the deceased, obituaries are anything but routine. They are the published record of their loved one's life, the last document attesting to the worth of someone about whom they cared. Here are some common ways of writing first-day obituary leads:

W. James Hassleblatt, 78, of East Lansing, former chairman of the English Department at Lansing Community College, died Tuesday in Mercy Hospital after a short illness.
Plumber, building contractor, and folk singer John B. Constance of the Town of Tinapple died Wednesday in Millard Fillmore Hospital. He was 64.
Nancy Whire, 94, a retired Latin teacher at St. Louis Academy, died Monday in her home following a long illness.

The lead combines this special information with an identifying description, or at least an occupational title, and with the full formal name of the deceased, his or her address and age, the day (but not time) of death and, usually, the cause of death or circumstances surrounding it.

Examples: died Wednesday after a brief illness; or suffered a fatal heart attack Sunday, two days after his wife of 51 years died."
(W. Richard Whitaker, Janet E. Ramsey, and Ronald D. Smith, Mediawriting: Print, Broadcast, and Public Relations. Lawrence Erlbaum, 2004)

Obituary Guidelines

"Obituary writing follows some basic forms, even when you are writing a special profile. All obituaries, no matter how long or short, must contain the same crucial information . . ..
Name: Use full name, middle initial and nickname if it was commonly used. . . .
Identification: . . . Usually, people are identified by occupation or community service. . . .
Age: In some cases, a family will request that you withhold the age. . . .
Date and Place of Death: Use the day of the week if the death occurred that week, the date if it was more than a week prior to the obituary. . . .
Cause of Death: This fact is not required at all newspapers. . . .
Address: Tell where the person lived when he died and previous areas of residence for any major length of time. . . .
Background: Specify major accomplishments, organizations, educational background, military background and any other highlights. . . .
Survivors: Use the names of immediate family members (husband or wife, with her maiden name, children, brothers and sisters). . . .
Services: Specify the time, date and location.
Burial: Name the place, and provide memorial information when available."
(Carole Rich, Writing and Reporting News: A Coaching Method, 6th ed. Wadsworth, 2010)

On the Perfect Obituary

"The 'best obit ever' can be read at Harry Weathersby Stamps."
(Stan Tiner, "Raise Your Glass to Harry Stamps." Sun Herald [Biloxi, Mississippi], March 14, 2013)

Obituary Example

Jill E. Miller, 39, Savannah, died Friday, March 25, 2005, in St. Joseph’s Hospital, Savannah. A memorial service will be held at a later date in Barnesville, Minn.
Jill Eileen Smilonich was born in Minneapolis. She graduated from Barnesville High School and Minnesota State University Moorhead. She earned a Master’s degree and PhD in Art History from the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. She worked for Armstrong State Atlantic University, Savannah.
She is survived by her husband, David Veater, St. Simons Island, Ga.; her parents, Nick Smilonich, Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif.; her mother, Phyllis Smilonich, Moorhead; a brother, Michael (Melissa), Columbus, Ohio; and a sister, Stefani (David) Anderson, Bagley, Minn.
Memorial service: Tuesday at 12:30 in the Fine Arts Auditorium, Armstrong State Atlantic University.
(Fox & Weeks Funeral Directors, Savannah, Georgia; March 27, 2005)

Exercise: How to Write Your Own Obituary

"Begin at the beginning--when and where you were born. Think about your most meaningful childhood memories and the greatest lessons of your formative years. Think about your high school and college accomplishments. A healthy dose of self-deprecating humor can make this exercise quite fun. Write about your first job. Reflect on the relationships that have helped to define your life. Another way of looking at this exercise is to think of it as a condensed autobiography. Write about your greatest triumphs. . . . Face your failures head-on, and think through the gifts that eventually came into your life because of those tough trials. Weave them into your life story.
"Now think through your hopes and dreams for the future--what you still want to accomplish in your life, places you still dream of visiting, experiences that capture your interest and imagination, books you still want to read, and people you want to get to know. And last, think how you wish to be remembered. What would you like engraved on your tombstone? My favorite epitaph is the one Malcolm Forbes wrote for himself: 'While Alive, He Lived.' My personal choice is, 'He Made a Difference.'"
(W. Randall Jones, The Richest Man in Town: The Twelve Commandments of Wealth. Hachette Book Group, 2009)
"The obituary . . . can be useful to students in upper elementary grades through high school and beyond. It demonstrates how to capture essential information and present it in a 'nutshell' format (brief and to the point)."
(Lynne R. Dorfman and Rose Cappelli, Nonfiction Mentor Texts: Teaching Informational Writing Through Children's Literature, K-8. Stenhouse Publishers, 2009)
"The problem with the [imagined] obituary is that it entices you to dream and to express certain wish-fulfillments. What should concern us even more urgently is what has made us the person we are now, at the starting point of this writing course."
(Stephen Wade, Write Yourself a New Life: A Life-Changing Course Where You, and Your Words, Are the Tutor. How To Books, 2000)

The Lighter Side of Obituaries

"When I go at 104, I want my obituary to read, 'Her chute didn't open.'"
(Jan King, It's a Mom Thing. Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2001)
"When television host David Frost asked [Senator Eugene McCarthy] what he wanted his obituary to say, McCarthy answered without the least suggestion of irony, 'He died, I suppose.'"
(Mark Kurlansky, 1968: The Year That Rocked The World. Random House, 2005
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "The Obituary." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 28). The Obituary. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "The Obituary." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 11, 2021).