How to write an Obituary

I have done genealogy long enough that I have read thousands of obituaries.  Let me give you an idea about a few things you should include in an obituary and some things you should not.  This is my idea on how to write a proper obituary.

First and foremost, an obituary is a public service announcement.  You will say good-bye, or bid farewell, to your loved one at a funeral or grave-side service.  But an obituary is not just for you, it is an opportunity to put the public and creditors on notice about the death of an individual.  Next, it is an opportunity to invite friends, community, and distant family to grieve with you.  This is not just for people to come to the funeral, but for the community and others to rally around and give some service, emotional or pecuniary, to the deceased’s estate and to the family.  I have noticed the western United States tends to do better at their obituary writing where the east skimps on this important information.  Additionally, the more famous, the less vital information that is shared (I am unconvinced by their reasoning, but may be for good reasons).

Each week I roll through the obituaries of a half-dozen newspapers looking for names that catch my eye.  I am fortunate enough to have some fairly rare family names.  But I do have some family who marry into more common names so I often will look at an obituary to see if the individual is related or not.  Then I scan to see if they really are related, or just a similar name to an individual I know.

I also worked for a law firm at one time that had me keep an eye on obituaries to see if a client with a will had passed away.  Another firm dealing with public relations had me search the obituaries for family members of clients and we would send cards to the client if one appeared.  Lastly, in a service position, I often tried to track members of an organization who had disappeared and I looked first for the older people in the obituaries of the state in which they last lived before attempting other means.

I am just indicating that obituaries have a valid purpose beyond some sweet, potentially selfish, family reason to share their love of the decedent with others.

Therefore, here are a few items to include in every obituary.  These are the items the disinterested public wants to learn in an obituary.  I have included a copy of a good obituary below.

  • What is the individual’s full name?

Please include the full name, spell out the middle name.  You do not need to put the maiden name as the name will be listed with the parents.

  • What is the individual’s parent’s names?

Please include the full name of both parents.  This is where you do want to include the maiden name of the mother.  Usually, I will write the mother’s name first as a maiden name, and then the father’s name to not worry about determining what the real last name is.  Hence, something like, “Richard was the second son born to the marriage of Jane Ethel Jones and Harvey John Smith.”  Mention the marriage if it exists.  If one of the parents are dead, put ‘late’ in front of the parents name (if both are dead, you will mention that farther down and can drop the late).  If the deceased was adopted, please state this in the obituary.  You do not have to give the biological parents, if you know them, but just show, “Jane Ethel Jones and Harvey John Smith adopted Richard when he was 17 months old.”

  • What is the individual’s birth date?

Please include the entire birth date of the deceased.  This is especially important if it is a common name like John Henry Smith.  Even if it is not a common name, include it because uncommon names tend to repeat names in their families which could still muddy the waters.

  • Where was the individual born?

It is not uncommon for individuals to move in our society.  This is even more true of couples who retire to Florida or Arizona.  An obituary is published in Queen Creek, Arizona and not in their home in Montana, and the next thing we know we are searching for an obituary for someone and an apparent match appears in Arizona but we having nothing to confirm the connection.

  • Who did the individual marry?

I completely understand if you want to maintain some privacy to the spouse of an individual, especially if they are still living.  If so, just list the first name.  No matter how much you might hate that first wife, list them.  If you really want to spite them, put their whole name.  Just make a reference to their divorce and put the next marriage.  But please list it, some states still leave property to a spouse after death, even after divorce.  Do not cut yourself short.  If there are other children from such a marriage, list them.  This is a common courtesy if you are not on speaking terms to let them know of the death.  If a spouse has predeceased, just write something like, “Jim married Belinda Carlisle on 4 February 1920, she predeceased him on 23 March 1984.”

  • When and where did the individual marry?

These items too can be useful for genealogy and legal research.  If married in a community property state, or even a state where family does not know of additional property, there can be implications.  An obituary may be one of the only ways this information will be out in the world on a free basis.  Working from obituaries, if a marriage date or location is not given, then a presumption arises that they were not or the family does not even know this information.

  • When did the individual die?

You would think an obituary might make this obvious.  However, let me tell you where this can become a problem.  Imagine you cut out an obituary and place it in a book somewhere.  20, 30, or even 100 years later someone is looking for that death date.  They do not want to walk down to the local library in another part of the world where the newspaper was published to spend a long time to find the exact page on which the obituary was located to figure out when exactly “last Friday” was on the calendar.  In our day and age with government records, it is much easier to ascertain the day that someone died.  But if you have John Henry Smith, with a hundred or so born in the US in a given year, that obituary with a date will be much more pleasing.

  • Where did the individual die?

This one might sound odd, but it also applies.  Let’s say I am a 2nd cousin who has not been in contact with Uncle George since 1978.  The last mailing address I have is in one town but I do not know if they still live there and I would like to search for their current address or a phone number.  Well, if they moved over just a few towns I will not find them, if they have a common name.  Most people die at a location fairly close to their home.  This will make it easier for the lawyer, governmental entity, or family member to contact you should they want to.  They will find you, but not listing it will just delay the inevitable.  Also, government entities often will list the location of last benefit, but that is not the same as death location for genealogical purposes.

  • When and where is the funeral?

This is one that many obituaries do not forget.  After all, we want people to come bearing love, condolences, and love.  Some even measure how great a person was by the number of individuals at a funeral.  However, I make mention because a few obituaries do not list this information.  I have read an obituary or two that I am left wondering where the funeral is at to send flowers or a card.  I only find out on the day of the service when the newspaper publishes it.  By that point it is too late to send flowers.  While cheaper for me, some people probably would not have minded attending the funeral.

Lastly, I do not mean to indicate that other things should not be included.  Military service, favorite hobbies, and special thanks should probably be included.  If a person has dedicated their lives to the Masons, a community, a church, or employment, that should probably be listed.  Please do not spend too much time on it though.  Some newspapers charge over a certain amount of lines too.

One last item that I would highly recommend, but understand for privacy reasons if you do not wish to do this.  List all the children of the decedent.  A little hint about the daughters, list them with the husband (if still alive) and married name.  Hence, “Jim is survived by 2 children, Molly (Kevin) Jenkins of Sacramento and Richard (Karen) Schmidt of San Francisco.  Jim was also predeceased by his daughter, Diane (Gary) Warner”

It is also common to list out the number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.  Please do not name them.  Usually it takes space and the usual reader cannot tell which child belongs to whom, so it is just type we skim over.  Close family know who they are, the less-interested public will skim.  I read an obituary once that had like 11 children and they listed out all 42 grandchildren!!  They did not even give the last name of the grandchildren so even a person who does family history would have found the list useless (and if all the same last name, still just as useless).  List them in the funeral program, not the obituary.

Here I have to put in a note regarding our current society and identity theft.  The theft of a decedent’s information is somewhat limited in use.  First and foremost, report to the government immediately the death so that the Social Security Number and other relevant identification routes are stopped and that the government will be put on notice if someone attempts to use it later.  The probate court should take care of the rest.  Even if the hospital or funeral home is supposed to take care of it, make sure you check it out and report it yourself to both the state and federal government offices.  The information is not often independently valuable unless the government benefits are available.  Too often the family does not report it in time and the next thing they know someone else is using the information and even filing taxes under the decedent’s name and government identification numbers.  If you want closure with your loved one, do what you can to keep others from perpetuating their identity!  It will save you loads of heart ache to do a little effort immediately, like when you are writing the obituary!

I hope this helps some on how to write an obituary.  Keep it simple and do not put too much affection in.  After all, most of the public just wants the facts to determine if we know the person.  If we want sappy, we will come to the family, or send a card/flowers.  Or, if we have business, we now know we need to watch out for the probate notice.