How Not to Write an Obituary:
A Plea for a Return to Sobriety, Seriousness, and Above All, Dignity
The wife and I are Old School. Yes, that is right; we still hang on to our newspaper subscription. We do not read it for the news: any local news is usually disturbing, and what little national coverage we get is even worse. And that does not even address the horror of the Op-Ed page one finds in the almost-daily newspaper of a medium-sized East Texas city. No, our interests lie elsewhere. She works the crossword, and I tackle the cryptoquote and the Sudoku. But then we both, for different reasons, scour the obituaries. She does it to keep tabs on an intricate web of relationships, as befits a Southern lady: for how else would you know that “this guy graduated with Glenda’s aunt’s second husband.” My interest is less noble-minded: I read them for their pure unintentional humor.
Writing an obituary used to be an art form, and still is, I suppose, in the pages of the New York Times or the Telegraph of London. There have been books published containing nothing more than the creme de la creme in this genre. But our local newspaper is quite a few rungs down that ladder. The wife has a theory. She speculates that current obituaries are often written by conscience-stricken adult children, who, after sticking Mom or Dad in a nursing home at their first bobble, are now trying to atone for their sins by penning a glowing Happy Family obituary. This sounds about right to me; either that or the child once took 2-3 weeks of a correspondence class in creative writing. I am not exaggerating; read a few if you are brave enough to do so. It will scare you into writing your own obituary, and adding a codicil to your will dictating that your children will not receive a dime unless they publish your obituary exactly as you wrote it.
I have always been of a mind that Death is serious business, and should be treated as such. So unless you happen to be a staff writer assigned to the obituary beat for the NYT or Telegraph, then stick to the script. Unfortunately, the modern obituary is often simply the literary equivalent of the ubiquitous “Celebration of Life.” Both are exercises in our frantic and futile denial of death, right up to the end, and beyond. Dignity should be the watchword in crafting an obituary.
Certain words, cliches, and literary devices should be avoided. A short list:
Exclamation marks: There is simply no place for them in obituaries. Maybe grandpa Bob was a character, as we say. You include a few of his choice expressions or habits in his obituary, and put an exclamation mark at the end to make sure everyone gets the point about how cute and/or clever the old so-and-so was. This never makes the transition into print. The operative word here is “never.” Neither you nor grandpa may be quite as clever as you think in print.
The word “cherished” is currently in vogue; such as “Milton cherished his time with family and friends at his ranch in West Texas,” or “Krystal Sue cherished her time with family and friends at the yearly gatherings at their lodge in the Colorado Rockies.” We are bordering on the precious here. Is the point really to express how much Milton enjoyed his ranch? or Krystal Sue her mountain lodge? or to convey how fortunate they were in the Lottery of Life? I think it is rather the latter, in many cases.
The word “passion” should be avoided even more than “cherished.” Throughout history the word has had a certain meaning, and it generally was not complimentary. A passion was always something that controlled you. Today one reads, “Mildred had a passion for macrame.” Just say “Mildred enjoyed knitting ugly plant-hangers.”
Also steer clear of the word “adored.” So Frances adored her children and grandchildren. That is generally assumed of most people. To have to say it almost sounds as if you are trying to convince the reading public. And if she didn’t adore her children and grandchildren, then that doesn’t need to be said either. Simply list the children and grandchildren and the natural assumption that people love their children will suffice. No need to try and prove it in print.
If possible, avoid the mundane. Remember, you are paying by the word. So Evelyn enjoyed watching the Hallmark Channel. Is this really obituary-worthy? Why not leave Evelyn’s television viewing habits to everyone’s imagination?
Always avoid cliches and/or colloquialisms, such as:
“Never met a stranger”
“Would give you the shirt off his back”
“Traveled the world”
“Love of his/her life” and/or “soulmate”
I have actually seen the first two together in a single sentence. You can simply say, “Gladys had a friendly and gregarious nature.” We’ve all known those “never met a stranger” types, and sometimes we find ourselves avoiding them for that very reason. “Elmer was caring and generous,” serves the same purpose as “shirt off his back.” If Harvey took a couple of cruises to Cozumel, that doesn’t mean he has “traveled the world.” But if Peggy did engage in purposeful travel, then say so. What locales attracted her interest or affected her life? “Love of his/her life” is a nice thought, but borders on cheap Happy Family sentimentality, and has been ruined by overuse. Ditto for soulmate. Find another nice way of saying the same thing.
There is not really any place for family nicknames in the obituary, unless of course, those are the names by which you are generally known. The fact that your grandkids call you “Pee-Paw” is cute when you are gathered together at home; but your obituary reading “John William ‘Pee-Paw’ Smith” ends up looking a little silly.
I would suggest that most people should forget their high school activities altogether. , Obituaries of an 84-year old, for example, might contain an entire paragraph devoted to his high school track awards, or her moment of glory as head majorette. I am left wondering if there was anything in the subsequent 66 years that might warrant a mention in their obituary? The sooner we realize that there is so much more to life than high school and that absolutely no one cares, the better. In this context, I was reading a recent obituary of someone in her mid 90s, which mentioned that she was often named Most Beautiful in her high school yearbooks. A picture accompanied the obituary, leaving me thinking that I was going to need some proof of that. Unless the deceased is unfortunately a recent high school graduate, then excessive attention to the teenage years comes off as a little pathetic.
Leave politics out of your obituary. There is so much more to life than politics, and emphasizing the political in your obituary just illustrates how cramped your worldview actually was. One 2020 obituary urged readers to go out and vote for He Whom Shall Not be Named on this site. I was not offended, but it was neither clever, cute, nor convincing.
If you are 87 years old, it is understood that your parents predeceased you. There is no need to mention it at that stage.
If you post a picture, try for one of you without your gimme cap. I realize that this is getting harder and harder to do in the South, a the caps are, I think, perhaps surgically attached. My dad always wore a hat; but the minute he stepped inside, the hat came off. It was what gentlemen did. Now, people I thought would know better wear them everywhere; taking your hat off in a restaurant or at a friend’s dining room table is unheard of. I’ve even seem some at weddings and funerals.
It is right and proper to list your alma mater and the degrees you received. That said, there are some alumni who are cultically obsessed with their college, at least here in Texas. One tires of hearing about this university interjected into almost every conversation or social situation. We get it. You love your alma mater, and are so happy! that your children went there and “got their rings,” and that all 6 of your grandchildren are robotic as well. Remember that your obituary is not a pep rally.
Finally, do not try to preach your loved one into Heaven by way of their obituary. There is no need to go on and on about what a fine Christian Gloria Kay was, or expanding on how much she “loved the Lord.” Frankly, it is not as if the Office of Admissions in Heaven is keeping a file of clippings, and this obituary will be one more document in your favor. Just say “Gloria Kay was a faithful Christian, a member of fill-in-the-blank Church.” Also, go-slow on stating what your loved one will be doing in Heaven now. That is always just so much broad evangelical wishful thinking. It is important to remember that we are actually not in control here, and it may be presumptuous to assert that Homer is now face to face with his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. When I see an obituary that says something like “Wilma adored her precious children and grandchildren but her greatest joy was telling others about Jesus,” well, that just describes the type of person you would duck down another aisle if you saw them across the way in the grocery store.
I know I can sometimes be too snarky and critical. And if everyone took my advice, I would have no humor to scan in my local newspaper. But human nature being what it is, I do wonder sometimes, “Do they really expect me to believe that.”