Like people, obituaries come in many shapes and sizes: long or short, elegant or homely, glorified or humble. In newspapers and online, they come in just two forms: the editorial obits written by a writer on the newspaper staff or the paid notices submitted by funeral homes and crematoriums, often compiled by a family member or friend.
I’ve written many of both kinds – dozens as an impartial journalist, several as a devoted friend, and one as a heartbroken, loving daughter.
It used to be that obits contained basic information but not much more: who died, what day and how; hometown, parents (even if deceased), military duty, occupation, memberships, survivors; details about the service.
Today, though, obits have become a place to celebrate a more complete person – what motivated and inspired them, how they motivated and inspired others. Obits are often poignant and literary portraits – short stories, really – that can be interesting, even amusing. And why shouldn’t we smile recalling someone we’ll miss?
Recently, a friend of my sister’s wanted help in putting together “a list” of their mutual friend’s accomplishments to include in her obituary. To which my sister responded: “You know, obituaries have changed. They have a new personality. It's not just about the list of achievements. Yes, Elizabeth has accomplished many things, but her life is about the joy she has brought to people, the beauty that she surrounds herself with, both in her home and in the community, and the generosity she has shown to so many. It’s a more personal statement.”
If you are in a position of writing an obit, try to dig for the intimate details that will keep the person alive in memory: quirks, hobbies, favorite passions, oft-heard quotes, travels, food or unusual pursuits. It doesn’t matter if the person was a company president, an electrician, a cook or ballerina, everyone has a story to tell. But that story doesn’t come together by itself.
Ask friends, children, parents, co-workers and spouses for details they recall and favor. How did the person look or dress? What was his daily routine? Where did she find most happiness?
Be creative, look outside the box to find the personality traits and characteristics to recall.
Here are just a few that have caught my eye – bringing to life with grace and a smile people who, for the most part, I didn’t know. The last excerpt is from the obituary of someone I did know, a good friend. I wrote it at her dining room table the morning she died, sharing stories with her husband and daughter.
“He attended all home and away games for 25 consecutive years and was a proud Tide member.”
“During his life, he was known to have driven GTOs and Jaguars, seen frequently in white bucks and often observed going for an eagle on par five.”
“He was voracious reader who could dine all day on the Sunday edition of The New York Times or ingest an Elmore Leonard novel in a single sitting…”
“She was an avid gardener of vegetables and flowers, a soul-food cook, a superb seamstress of fashionable outfits for her daughter and herself, a comparison shopper and a born, spirit-filled contralto soloist at each stage of her church life.”
“Once diagnosed with cancer, she spent summers in her beloved Maine, traveled to the beaches of St. Barths, visited Machu Picchu, walked the vineyards of Burgundy and danced at weddings in Mexico, New York and London.”
People are often surprised at how expensive paid death notices can be – up to $75 a line in big city papers – particularly if you submit a photograph. But unless a person is famous, it’s likely no one will write so thoroughly about them again. Might as well get it all out there.
On the flip side, if you are concerned about what your own obituary will say about you, take charge! You can start making notes about how you want to be remembered, the things that are important to you – your achievements and aspirations, even a final last word of advice to your children. The best time to begin this process, of course, is while you are still healthy and productive, to reflect your most upbeat self.
Do make sure someone knows where you are keeping these thoughts and notes – maybe even newspaper clippings, citations, a favorite photo. A hidden drawer or secret shoebox full of memories won’t be much help to the one who’s left to tell your story.
Susan Soper is the founder and author of ObitKit™, A Guide to Celebrating Your Life. A lifelong journalist, she was formerly the Features Editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she launched a series called "Living with Grief" shortly after her father died. Susan lives in Atlanta with her husband.
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