En español | Carl Reiner, the legendary comedy writer, producer, director and performer, told CBS Sunday Morning in 2015 that the first thing he does in the morning before he has coffee is read the obituaries. “If I'm not in there, I know that I'm alive,” he said.
His death in June at age 98 made news around the world and garnered obituaries in the New York Times, in People magazine and on CNN. Reiner was like many of us who turn right to the obits to see who has died, whether the individual is a politician, a celebrity or a neighbor from down the street.
It's typically up to family or other loved ones to write an obituary. That's a tough task on its own. And it's often done while the bereaved are in mourning, grappling with myriad funeral details and notifying others of the loss.
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"People have to do something entirely new that they've never done before at their moment of grief,” says Jane Lerner, a former journalist who wrote scores of obituaries and a column for a newspaper in New York state and then turned her experience into a business called Lives Lived: A Professional Obituary Writing Service.
Getting the structure down
The best obits are memorable portraits that reveal notable details about a person's life and how it affected others. But it's also important to include the basics of a person's life and to share any funeral service information.
Numerous free online resources and templates offer help with getting an outline set, including many offered by funeral homes. A checklist offered by Shirley Brothers Funeral Homes and Crematory in Indianapolis is typical. It includes:
- Any familial survivors
- When the person retired, if relevant
- Any military affiliations
- Any volunteer affiliations
- Date, time and location of the funeral
- Any viewing details
- Requests for donations in lieu of flowers
Some obituaries don't mention the cause of death. Lerner recommends including it if possible because readers will want to know, and then the rest of the piece can focus on the person's life. “An obituary doesn't need to be about how someone died but about how someone lived,” she says.
Celebrate what made your loved one unique
Did your mother play shortstop in high school or take a second job to put you through college? Take the time to highlight such details, and include what else made the deceased special, such as hobbies, nickname or proudest accomplishments.
Priscilla Martel, a cookbook author and food writer who wrote the obituaries for her favorite uncle and her mother and father in the space of two years, compiled an engaging, well-rounded profile of each. She created a vibrant portrait of a singer who once opened for Tony Bennett, a collector of dollhouse miniatures who had a bouquet of friends, and a music shop owner who owned more than 100 cars in his lifetime and had a thriving second career as a classic car appraiser.
"You are really memorializing these people for eternity. It's an opportunity to craft something that is really about who they are, more than just a collection of milestones, military service, education, professional career and family,” Martel says.
Most of us don't have all the facts or stories about our loved ones. To glean compelling details, reach out to relatives and family friends, Martel says. A bonus is connecting with those close to the deceased when many of us need an emotional boost.
If writing the obituary or contacting others for information is too much to take on, reach out for help. A funeral director should be able to offer guidance, and professional obituary writers can assist as well.
It's OK to add some levity
Death is no joke, of course, but it's fine to sprinkle some humor into an obituary . A Connecticut woman took this to extremes last year when she memorialized her prankster father, Joe Heller, 82, in a hilarious and loving tribute that went viral on social media and which the New York Times dubbed “The Best Obituary Ever."
It describes Heller as a hoarder who named his first dog Fart and left his family with “a house full of crap, 300 pounds of birdseed and dead houseplants that they have no idea what to do with.”
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, when in-person funerals are limited to a handful of mourners, obituaries are including more personal anecdotes than before, according to Stephen Segal, director of content for Legacy.com, an online obituary company that provides support and obituary-related services to newspapers and funeral homes in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.
"In the absence of a physical funeral, the obituary is taking an even more prominent role as the place where those stories get told, where those memories get shared, where a loved one's life story is honored and preserved,” Segal says.
How to place an obit in print or online
Newspapers have long been the go-to outlet for obituaries. Printing obituaries was once a free community service, but now most charge a fee that can climb from less than $100 to more than $1,000 depending on the length, whether you include a photo and how long it runs.
Lerner suggests sending the obituary to the deceased's alumni publication, religious community and interest group newsletters, and also posting it on social media, which are all free of charge. “Some obits are so good they have gone viral,” she says.
For newspapers, funeral homes will handle the logistics. Tracy McClarnon, a coordinator at Shirley Brothers Mortuaries & Crematory in Indianapolis, advises paying for a short obituary with service details and then linking to the funeral home website for a longer obituary, which is often part of the funeral package.
To do it yourself, most newspapers have user-friendly portals with deadlines, fees and instructions on how to upload the text. The paper will share a proof of the obit so you can check for accuracy and make any changes before it runs.
Many newspapers automatically publish paid death notices on Legacy.com, an online obituary service with its own suite of paid options.