Late last year Jessica A. Smith of the Order of the Golden Rule (OGR) asked me to be a course leader for a 2016 OGR-sponsored webinar about writing obituaries. The webinar, titled “How to Write an Obituary Worth Reading,” is slated for mid-June, and “will look at the factors which make a good obituary” as well as “provide a forum where funeral professionals can share their obituary-writing experiences and learn from one another.”
The topic was prompted, in part, by the recent rise of the “viral” obituary, where the story (or the personal agenda of the writer) resonates so deeply with readers that the obituary is shared — using popular social platforms such as Facebook and Twitter — by millions of Internet users.
You know the ones I’m talking about. Think back to 2013 when the obituary of Marianne Theresa Johnson-Reddick was published. This scathing “tribute,” written by her surviving adult children, included sentences like these: “Everyone she met, adult or child, was tortured by her cruelty and exposure to violence, criminal activity, vulgarity, and hatred of the gentle or kind human spirit,” and “We celebrate her passing from this earth and hope she lives in the after-life reliving each gesture of violence, cruelty and shame that she delivered on her children.” It also featured a call for “a national movement and dedicated war against child abuse in the United States of America.” This lurid story, combined with the expression of vengeful desire and the direct “call-to-action,” made this obituary an overnight global sensation.
Then there’s the 2013 obituary for Harry Weathersby Stamps that painted a picture of a “ladies’ man, foodie, natty dresser and accomplished traveler.” It also had a sociopolitical agenda: putting an end to daylight savings time. It too was written by an adult child, but it’s a loving, honest and funny testament to a really nice guy.
Then in 2015, the self-penned obituary of Emily Phillips made quite a splash. It opened with a candid — and thoroughly relatable — remark: “It pains me to admit it, but apparently, I have passed away.” It continued with poignantly shared memories and an observation most Boomers can surely relate to: “So…I was born; I blinked; and it was over.” It then urged readers to “…do your best, follow your arrow and make something amazing out of your life. Oh, and never stop smiling.”
Most recently was the 2016 obituary for Wilma Black, published by the Raleigh News & Observer — which then pulled it offline after just 24 hours. Its publication prompted numerous online articles, such as, “How not to write an Obituary” (Bob Collins: Minnesota Public Radio), who wrote, “If you ever want to dishonor the memory of someone in order to settle a score, this is the obituary you write.”
The Right Way to Write Obituaries
It’s a safe bet you, or any other funeral director, don’t want to be a part of dishonoring someone’s memory. But more than that, you don’t want the obituaries you publish to be an embarrassment for either your firm or for the family.
Unfortunately, most obituaries published today won’t make anyone — beyond the circles of family friends and acquaintances — stand up and take notice. They are often dry, boring, without inspiration and loaded with spelling or grammatical errors. I’m not laying blame here: funeral directors aren’t necessarily skilled writers, and in the early days after a death, bereaved family members cannot necessarily write the best possible tribute. Add to that the time-sensitive nature of the obituary and you have a recipe for mediocrity.
And while “going viral” probably isn’t your intention, you really do want to be proud of every obituary published on your firm’s website. That means you should get good at both writing obituaries and editing (or revising) those submitted to you by family members. When it comes to honing your writing skills, any writer will tell you: good writing takes practice — a lot of practice. Good writers are also avid readers; in this case, you won’t be writing (or reading) novels — you’ll be reading as many obituaries as you can (one of my favorite pastimes).
Back to the Webinar
While we won’t be reading lots of obituaries here, we will take a short look at their social and linguistic evolution (obituary language and style reflect the mindset/verbiage of the time in which they were written).
But most important will be the review of the most common grammatical mistakes, some of which have been around for a very long time. Consider the subject/verb agreement error seen in this obituary published on February 4, 1870 — more than 145 years ago: “Mr. Addison BENTON, of Virgil, met with a fatal accident last Wednesday morning. He, together with some of his neighbors, were chopping in the woods on Wager Hill.” Did you see it? Just take out the dependent clause “together with some of his neighbors” and you’re left with: “He…were….”
together with some of his neighbors,
were chopping in the woods on Wager Hill.”
Grammar aside, we’ll also focus on what makes an obituary really memorable. Does it lie in rancor, a sociopolitical agenda or over-the-top criticism? No. An obituary is noteworthy when it expresses appreciation, recognition or acknowledgement of qualities and experiences of the life lived. But how can you express what you’ve not known personally?
Something else I will discuss: the strategies you currently use to obtain obituaries from family members. How do you motivate and inspire a family to write, or collaborate on, an obituary for their loved one? And what do you do when they won’t bother? This is where things get lively, as course participants (and leaders!) can share their obit-writing stories.
Sure, I’d like you to join us for the OGR “obit writing” webinar in June, but for those who cannot, here are four simple ways to improve the quality of your obituaries:
1. Ask the right questions.
In the early 1980’s Jim Nicholson, a reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News, helped popularize the “common person” obituary. When speaking of his style of interviewing, he concluded, “There aren’t any boring people. There are just boring questions.” Obituary-writing success starts with asking “open-ended” questions so as to elicit the telling of stories that will then be used in the obituary.
After all, people love stories — Rud-yard Kipling was right when he said, “If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.”
In writing obituaries, it’s our job to tell the story of what is often described as an “ordinary” life in a way that makes it memorable. Here are a few questions to ask (to ensure accuracy in presentation, I suggest recording the “Q & A” session, after asking the family’s permission):
- What is your best memory of (the deceased)?
- What were the biggest obstacles he or she faced?
- How did he or she overcome them?
- What about (the deceased) makes you smile?
- What was your relationship like?
- How do you believe he or she would like to be remembered?
2. Go beyond the clichés.
You know the one where the family member responsible for writing the obituary declares, “Her smile lit up the room” or, “He’d give you the shirt off your back.” Instead, get them to tell you a story proving the point and blend it into the appropriate place in the obituary.
3. Ensure accuracy.
Families often want to rewrite history, eliminating relatives in the immediate family or embellishing their loved one’s achievements or personality. Certainly, you should always double-check a family’s obituary submission with the facts on the vital statistics form, but you may find other relatives good sources for any missing information. WFAE’s 2016 online article, “The Life and Death of an Obituary,” quoted veteran obit writer Ken Garfield, who said there’s a shade of gray in obituary writing, but there’s also an overriding responsibility for accuracy. So, then, how should you handle it “if someone wants to be remembered as handsome but they’re not the most attractive, or they want to list one but not all four ex-wives as survivors”?
Tactfully, that’s how.
4. Review (and edit) for clarity and tone.
Is the obituary understandable? This is where good grammar and spelling come in. I can’t tell you how many obituaries I’ve had to put a “red pencil” to in correcting armloads of basic grammatical and spelling errors. How did the writer convey his or her feelings about the deceased? In other words, is there “attitude”?
In the article cited in the third tip, professional obituary writer Ken Garfield admonished funeral directors and newspaper publishers to review an obituary not just for “misspellings or length…but (also) with an editor’s eye for potentially [libelous language], families using it as a platform to wage their war, clearly incorrect information, clearly inappropriate information in any sort of way.”
When writing obituaries, strive to find the nobility in everyday people and do your best to portray them as interesting, unique and fallible human beings. That’s where those open-ended questions come in. Utilizing anecdotes instead of clichés brings the person to “life” for the reader. It’s also essential to ensure factual accuracy and to edit for clarity and tone.
Yes, it’s a big job, and you’re probably busy with other tasks anyway. And frankly, maybe you just can’t get very excited about the work. You could always delegate the task to another staff member, or you could learn how to write obituaries easier and faster — with greater accuracy (and anyone will tell you, learning something new is the best way to keep your brain “young”).
So…sign up for the OGR webinar, “How to Write an Obituary Worth Reading,” by visiting the OGR website (www.ogr.org/webinars). I think you’ll discover how skillfully “writing down a life” — if not exactly fun — can be a very rewarding experience.
Kim Stacey is a licensed funeral director and certified grief counselor, and also holds a Master’s Degree in Anthropology. She is currently a professional freelance writer specializing in developing unique search engine optimized content and copy for funeral home websites. Kim can be reached for comment or conversation at firstname.lastname@example.org.