What is an obituary and do I write one?

What is an obituary and do I write one?

by Jon Crawford2023-12-130

The death of a loved one is never easy. In such difficult times, writing an obituary and reliving your loss can seem like a daunting task. At Fenix, we understand the emotional weight that comes with this responsibility. 

In this guide, we offer some simple step-by-step tips on how to write an obituary, hopefully taking some of the stress out of the process. If you need further advice or assistance with any other funeral related query, contact us today to speak to one of our compassionate team members.

What is an obituary?

An obituary is a short biographical article that is published in a newspaper or online following a person’s death. 

Obituaries are an important step in the grieving process. They honour the memory of the deceased, sharing their story in an enduring celebration of their life that can bring comfort to those they leave behind.

An obituary for your loved one also serves to inform a wider circle of people about their passing. This allows those who may have missed the news to pay their respects and send condolences - and, if the obituary is published soon enough - to attend the funeral.

How to write an obituary

Obituaries can be brief, detailed, formal or lighthearted depending on the character of your loved one and the audience the tribute is written for. There are, however, some core details that an obituary should include.

An obituary should include: 

  • The deceased’s name 
  • Age and date of birth
  • Date, place and cause of death
  • A recounting of their life 
  • A list of surviving family members
  • Details about the funeral or memorial service

Before starting to write an obituary keep the following in mind:

  • Be clear and concise. Obituaries should be easy to read and understand.
  • Be accurate and up-to-date. Double-check all of your facts before submitting the obituary for publication.
  • Be respectful. Obituaries should be written in a respectful and dignified tone.
  • Be positive. Focus on the deceased's positive qualities and accomplishments.
  • Make it personal. Adding fond memories or an amusing story will make the obituary more memorable for those who read it.

Sections of an obituary broken down into more detail

  • Announcing the death
  • Name of the deceased
  • Age of the deceased
  • Date and place of death
  • Cause of death (optional)
  • Recounting the deceased's life
  • Place of birth
  • Family background
  • Education and career
  • Hobbies and interests
  • Military service (if applicable)
  • Religious beliefs
  • Personal qualities
  • Listing surviving family members
  • Spouse
  • Children and their spouses
  • Grandchildren
  • Great-grandchildren
  • Parents
  • Siblings
  • Sharing details about the funeral or memorial service
  • Date and time
  • Location
  • Officiant
  • Dress code
  • Donations (if requested)
  • Adding a special message or poem

This can be a touching way to personalise the obituary

  • Choosing an obituary photo

Pick a happy, smiling picture of your loved one if you can

The different stages of writing an obituary

Here we outline three steps that will help you break down the process of writing an obituary.

Stage one - planning the obituary structure and gathering material

Start by gathering information about the deceased. Start a document with a list of the topics in the above section and other details of your loved ones life that you would like to include. Think of it as a kind of ‘brainstorm’ - an ideas pad that you will draw upon when writing the obituary in full.

This initial list will include their birth date and place of death, as well as information about their family, education, career, hobbies, interests, and military service. Think of any other family members who may have played a big part in your loved one’s life and, if you can, weave their relationship into the obituary too.

This is a good time to reach out to family and friends of the deceased and see if they can contribute any more details or important life events that you may not know about.

Stage two - writing the obituary

Once you have all your research, important life events, dates and anecdotes gathered, it’s time to start writing the final version of the obituary.

Set aside a quiet time when you don’t have any other distractions and won’t be too tired (ie not after a long day at work), and pick a calm place to get to work writing.

Make sure you include all the essential information you have gathered about your loved one but also try to capture their character and spirit in the tone of the obituary.

If you are inspired to write more than you planned, or digress on an anecdote, don’t worry. Write as much as you feel you need to. The obituary will be edited and revised before being sent out.

Stage three - proofreading, fact check and review

You should now have a first draft of the obituary. The next step is to go back and proofread it for any errors. Auto spelling correct and grammar suggestions are useful tools, but they don’t always pick up everything that a good read-through will. It’s absolutely crucial to have an error-free obituary out of respect for the deceased.

Next, it’s a good idea to send the obituary to close family members and friends who helped gather material. Encourage them to read the obituary through and check that all the important details like dates, places, names etc are correct. 

Now that the obituary has been checked by multiple people you can make any changes that are needed and prepare to send off your final draft.

Example of a standard obituary (fictional)

Obituary: John William Smith (1950-2023)

John William Smith, beloved husband, father, and pillar of the community, passed away peacefully on September 15, 2023, at the age of 73. He leaves behind a legacy of love, kindness, and unwavering commitment to his family and friends.

Born in London on March 10, 1950, John was the eldest son of Robert and Mary Smith. He grew up in the borough of Islington, where his passion for community service - and Arsenal FC -  was nurtured from a young age. 

John attended Islington High School, where he excelled academically and was a standout athlete on the football team. His leadership qualities were evident even in his youth.

After completing his education, John embarked on a successful career in banking, ultimately rising to the position of Vice President at London Trust Bank. His dedication and work ethic were unwavering, earning him the respect and admiration of colleagues and clients alike.

Beyond his professional achievements, John will be remembered for his immense generosity and commitment to charitable causes. He was an active member of the Islington Community Foundation, where he worked tirelessly to improve the lives of local residents. John's passion for helping others extended to his involvement in various local charities, where he served as a mentor and advocate for those in need.

John's love for his family was boundless. He is survived by his devoted wife of 50 years, Elizabeth, and their three children, Sarah, James, and Emily. He was a doting grandfather to four grandchildren, whom he cherished and adored. Family gatherings at the Smith residence were a source of joy and laughter, with John at the centre, regaling everyone with his stories and warm smile.

John William Smith's legacy of love, generosity, and community service will continue to inspire those who were fortunate enough to know him. He will be deeply missed but forever remembered in the hearts of all whose lives he touched.

Can Fenix and their funeral directors help me write an obituary?

Yes, of course! Fenix can assist you with any aspect of planning a funeral in the UK and the funeral directors we partner with will be able to assist you in writing an obituary and publishing it.

Funeral directors in the UK usually have strong links with local news outlets in their area, publishing many obituaries and death notices in local media every week. With their knowledge and experience they will help you in crafting an obituary and arranging publication in the most appropriate places.

Where to publish an obituary

Obituaries can be published in local and national newspapers, online publications and on social media. If you arrange a funeral through Fenix, you are invited to post a tribute to your loved one on our online memorial pages. Here you can post pictures and memories of your loved one, creating a lasting digital memorial.

Changing publishing trends for  obituaries in the UK

Print newspapers were traditionally the place to publish an obituary. Local papers especially used to enjoy a wide readership in their areas and were read by the whole community, whether delivered through doors for free or bought from the newsagent. 

These days, obituaries are perhaps more likely to be published in online newspapers and magazines. Online obituaries are often more affordable than newspaper obituaries and reach a wider audience more quickly. They can be easily shared by smartphone so that the news travels to the deceased’s wider circle of acquaintances. 

Like Fenix’s memorial pages, many online social platforms provide a way to share memories, condolences, and tributes to our loved ones. There are websites dedicated solely to obituaries which allow people to create comprehensive digital memorials complete with photos, videos and personal stories.

Publishing an obituary on social media

Social media platforms can also be used to publish obituaries. However, it is important to be respectful of the deceased's family and friends when publishing an obituary on social media. It may be a less formal type of obituary, yet it should still be sensitively written.

Also, think about your loved one’s family and social circle. If they are from an older generation, they may not be regular users of social media. If your loved one was younger and very active on social media, then it is the right place for a tribute.

What to do when posting an obituary on social media

  • Check with the family of the deceased first to see if they are happy for you to post a tribute and that the details in the post are correct.
  • Post a heartfelt message that pays tribute to the deceased, emphasising their positive qualities, accomplishments, and the impact they had on others.
  • Share the essential details - full name, date of birth, death and any funeral or memorial service if appropriate and agreed with the family.
  • Make sure the tone of the post is respectful and compassionate.
  • Find a picture of the deceased at a happy time to add to the post.
  • Consider privacy settings - you might want to share only with a smaller group of friends.
  • Monitor comments on the post. You want to encourage messages of condolence, but keep an eye out for anyone posting anything disrespectful or graphic.

What NOT to do when posting an obituary on social media

  • Don’t overshare - post sensitively and do not reveal any details the family would not like you to post.
  • Similarly - never post graphic or upsetting images with a social media obituary.
  • Don’t post on social media if the deceased was a very private person.
  • Don’t post funeral service details unless it is an open event with plenty of space and the family are happy for people to turn up unannounced.

Is an obituary different to a death notice?

This is a common question asked by those who have lost a loved one. There is a difference between the two, although they are often closely connected.

A death notice - printed in a local newspaper for example, is a short, factual announcement of death, sometimes with funeral and donation/flowers details, but usually nothing more than this. In newspapers, the advertising department usually handles death notices and often they are charged by the word. Most printed newspapers will also include online publication too, sometimes for an extra charge.

An obituary is a much more in depth profile of the deceased, which might be published after the funeral or memorial service. Compared to the functional death notice, it focuses less on announcing the death and more on the character and achievements of the deceased.

Can I write my own obituary?

Who knows your life better than you? Strange as it might sound, increasing numbers of people are opting to write their own obituaries in advance. 

In fact, at major news outlets, file copies of obituaries for notable public figures are kept regularly updated so that they are ready to publish when the moment comes. Keeping a log of your own achievements and life story as a ‘work in progress’ is not too different.

A gift to the bereaved

Writing your own obituary is not only a way to choose how people remember you after you are gone. It can also be seen as a considerate gift to the grieving too. Writing an obituary is just one part of the many tasks that those grieving for a loved one need to complete - all while experiencing high levels of grief and stress.

Your loved ones may find it incredibly valuable to have a near-completed version of your obituary to hand. It’s one less stressful task for them to deal with, and they also don’t have to worry about you approving the text.

Another unexpected gift you are giving those you love is the chance for them to see your life ‘from the inside’ - from your personal point of view. It can be revelatory and deeply moving.

Non-traditional obituaries

What if, to truly honour the spirit of your loved one, the traditional, sombre tone of the standard obituary just doesn’t fit the bill? 

As society moves away from less traditional funerals and there is a movement towards being death-positive and celebrating life, rather than mourning its end, many people would rather bring a smile - rather than a tear - to their surviving loved ones’ faces. 

Similarly, if you have lost somebody close to you who was a staunch non-conformist or who was always cracking jokes, it’s unlikely a sombre tribute to them would capture their essence - or please them.

A little humour can humanise an obituary

Life itself is a strange mix of tragedy and comedy, so don’t be afraid to inject a little humour into the obituary of a loved one - if it’s appropriate to do so. 

  • Did your loved one hold strong views on something that amused the rest of the family? 
  • Did they have a particular phrase they like to use or a funny nickname? 
  • Was there a time that they defused a tense situation with comedy? 

Adding such details in an obituary can help to paint a fuller picture of your loved one as a real human and not read like a CV or uninspiring timeline. ‘Ordinary’ people do extraordinary things every day and this should not be forgotten.

Speak to friends and family of your loved one and collect some anecdotes and stories about them and time that they made them laugh. Remember, you’ll run your final draft of the obituary past some other members of the family too, so they can veto anything they don’t think should be included.

Other inspirations for a unique obituary

Just like today’s funerals - which can be completely custom and bespoke - obituaries are less trenched in tradition than they used to be. Adding elements to an obituary that reflect the passions and interests of the life they are narrating is becoming more common. 

If your loved one was a lover of poetry and literature, it could be a great idea to use a quotation from one of their favourite books. Some people also opt to include a poem in obituaries - you can find some inspiration for a suitable verse from our guide to funeral poems

The same could be done with favourite songs and films. Whatever best reflects the character of your loved one.

The growing trend of video obituaries

As the way we communicate all of life’s events shifts to digital channels, the popularity of video obituaries is steadily growing. Visual content has never been as dominant as it is now.

If you have taken steps towards writing a traditional obituary already, then you are halfway to a video obituary. Obviously, you will need plenty of visual material, but thanks to cloud technology, most of us have thousands of images that can be instantly accessed. These can be easily loaded into video editing software and the important details - date of birth, death etc - all overlaid.

One of the many benefits of a video obituary is that you can add short clips of friends and family sharing memories of your loved one alongside pictures and video of them at happy times and choose a soundtrack that fits the tone perfectly. 

Whether you choose to create a video obituary yourself or hire a videographer to complete it, the finished product can easily be shared to social media or message and forms a touching, visual tribute. 

Final thoughts on creating an obituary

As we’ve seen, writing an obituary can seem daunting at first. However, it provides a valuable opportunity to rediscover everything that the deceased was - and still is - to the people who loved them.

Researching their achievements and reliving their successes and qualities can be an enriching experience. Their passing may be sad, but looking at all they were in life, what they meant to the people around them and their legacy on earth can provide bittersweet joy and some comfort.

We hope this guide has helped take away some of the mystery around how to write an obituary, but remember - if we can help you with any other aspect of arranging a funeral in the UK, contact us today.

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