4 Tips on Crafting Better Obituaries with Your Families

Posted September 2, 2020

7 min read

Obituaries and eulogies are such an important part of celebrating someone’s life.

They are much more than words alone. They are memorable stories—stories that capture the essence of a loved one.

They help families honor a loved one, and they help families celebrate what makes all of us human. Not only that, but obituaries and eulogies also help us to heal and grieve.

How Do You Create, or Help to Create, a Memorable Obituary?

As a funeral professional, you already know the importance of celebrating someone’s life and legacy. That’s why we’re sharing 4 tips to help you craft a memorable, simple, yet elegant obituary:

  1. Write to capture feelings
  2. Don’t forget to add in vivid details
  3. Keep the structure simple
  4. Don’t be afraid of rewriting an obit

Now let’s take a closer look at each of these tips.

1. Write to capture feelings

When you think about a memorable obituary that perfectly celebrates a life, it’s often an example of great storytelling. And what’s at the heart of great storytelling? Most great stories appeal to our emotions whether that be happiness, sadness, surprise, or fear, as a few examples (1).

The point is that great storytelling evokes emotions (which are unconscious and conscious) and feelings (which are typically conscious).

To evoke the kind of emotions you’re after, try these two things to start:

  • Start saving examples of when it’s done right. Paying attention to emotion-evoking obits will greatly help your writing. You can even go as far as saving a few of the ones that do a great job of evoking emotion in you as a reader. Once you become more aware of how it’s done, you can pull these out and examine them. Why do they make you happy? Were you hit with unexpected emotions—and why do you think that’s the case? Why do the words make you feel hopeful? What is it that tends to make you feel joy, happiness, sadness, etc. in these examples?

  • Add just the right amount of context. Part of the reason we’re able to feel a certain way is because of the amount of characterization that happens in a typical story. In an obit, you have limited text, but you can still add a lot of context and detail to show a great deal about someone. That in turn, is likely to help you evoke emotion. Work with your families to pull out as much information as you can on someone so that you infuse their obits with this context.

You can also buy a thesaurus of feelings and emotions, available from any bookseller, to help capture those sentiments which you don’t quite know how to describe. “They’re easy to use and can be incredibly helpful, especially if you have a limited amount of time,” says Petra Lina Orloff, President and CEO of Beloved, a company that produces custom, personalized, handcrafted obituaries and eulogies.

2. Don’t forget to add in vivid details

Great stories appeal to us because the words come together in a way that allows us to step into the scene (1, 3). Just think about a recent obit you read that was memorable or that made you smile, and it was likely very specific and detailed in certain ways.

Petra also explains that adding in vivid detail can be easier to include than you may think. “Maybe you start with a list of hobbies, a few favorites things, or maybe a short anecdote which sums up the deceased succinctly,” she suggests. Second, add in adjectives and that will add even more detail to your story or example. Consider these three variations about a nurse:

  • Mary was a nurse.
  • Mary thoroughly appreciated working as a nurse.
  • As a nurse, Mary thoroughly appreciated serving others.

You can see how just a few words can paint a much different, more emotive and detailed depiction. The answer isn’t always in adding more adjectives, since you can over-do it, but when it’s a fit, that can help you add context and detail. If you’re worried about the length becoming too long, you can always refer back to your funeral home website where people can access the obit in its entirety.

3. Keep the structure simple

Pixar, the beloved, award-winning animation studio behind films including Toy Story, Up, Monsters, Inc, Finding Nemo, Coco, and many others, has a concept referred to as “simplexity,” a way of simplifying things down to their essence. Pixar has learned that the best storytelling tends to keep stories very simple in structure and design (1, 2, 4). In sharing their rules for great storytelling, they share this idea of keeping things as simple as possible: “Simplify. Focus…Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free” (1, 2, 4).

Knowing that great stories tend to have a simple structure, apply this to how you craft your obit. As a writer, it may help to outline or think of your structure before you write, especially depending on just how much detail or information a family has shared with you.

While a simple overall structure is best because it won’t lose your audience, it doesn’t mean you always have to start at the beginning of a person’s life. “The best stories don’t start at the beginning and end at the end. Particularly when you have limited space, it isn’t necessary to get it all in,” says Petra.

In fact, many memorable stories don’t start at the beginning, in terms of time, at all. Some well-known films that are structured this way include Kill Bill (Vol. 2), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Usual Suspects, Gandhi, Saving Private Ryan, Slumdog Millionaire, Goodfellas, and countless other stories don’t start at the expected “beginning” of the narrative.

“[You can] choose the most interesting and the most important details. These are usually the items family members repeat over and over again. Think about it this way: I would like my own obituary to start on the day of my death, because I spent a lifetime working towards that day and the things that I am working on when I die are the things most important to me,” adds Petra.

4. Don’t be afraid of rewriting an obit

One of the biggest surprises to many who don’t identify as writers is just how often a writer will do a re-write. Just because they have a first draft completed, doesn’t mean the work stops there.

In fact, as author and writing professor Steven Gillis says, “The art of writing is in the rewriting” (5). His assertion is that the first draft is only your blueprint. The first draft is the first attempt at putting all the ideas onto a page, he says. After that comes the real work, so don’t be afraid to re-write your obit or eulogy as many times as needed (1, 5).

“Your first draft should be everything you can think of off the top of your head,” explains Petra. “The second draft will be putting it into some kind of order that makes sense and in the third draft you can layer in those adjectives and adverbs and also, the transitions that turn a death notice into a story.”

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Sources:

  1. https://medium.com/@Brian_G_Peters/6-rules-of-great-storytelling-as-told-by-pixar-fcc6ae225f50
  2. https://www.fastcompany.com/3051708/4-design-lessons-from-the-pixar-team
  3. https://www.blueridgeconference.com/6-tips-writing-vivid-descriptions/
  4. https://medium.com/@42courses/pixars-22-rules-of-storytelling-dc24162fe8ce
  5. https://www.writersdigest.com/write-better-fiction/the-art-of-writing-is-in-the-rewriting

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