Obit Workshop

If you missed the obituary writing workshop, here are the notes from the presentation for your perusing pleasure!

Obituary Writing For Beginners   Patti Fitchett

Racine Arts Council Writer-In-Residence

Writing an obituary can be a daunting challenge. Whether you are writing one for a loved one at the time of death, preparing for the death of a loved one, or writing out your own story, here are some tips:

Announce the death

Start off the obituary by announcing the death of the loved one. Provide the name and a very brief description, the age of the deceased, and the day of passing. It is not necessary to provide the cause of death, but sometimes it can relieve the family of answering the “what happened?” question over and over.

On Monday, September 4, 2017, John Doe, loving husband and father of four children, passed away at the age of 74 from injuries he suffered during a car accident.


Provide general biographical information

Include some biographical information such as birth date, upbringing, education, marriage information, accomplishments, and work history. Feel free to include context and meaning with phrases such as “She was the youngest of 11 children and was raised on a farm.” or “He was the oldest and only boy in a family of six children.”

John was born on July 31, 1943 in Houston, TX the only child of Bob and Jane (Smith) Doe. He received his law degree from the University of Texas in Austin in 1971, and he practiced business law for 31 years in Houston. On May 28, 1975, he married Grace Ann Lewis. They raised two sons, Nick and Joel, and two daughters, Alice and Lisa.


Make it personal

To write a great obituary, it’s important to capture the spirit of the loved one who has passed. Compose a paragraph that describes not only what your loved one did, but also what your loved one was like. Focus on hobbies, passions, and personal characteristics. A short, factual obituary might be all you need. But if you want to write a special, personalized obituary, include details like this:


Questions to answer in the obit can include:

What brought him joy?

What made her laugh?

What was her greatest accomplishment?

What was something about them that people didn’t know?

         What defining moment or action would the family say summed up

         the person’s life or personality?


John had a passion for painting. He also loved to bird watch, and he combined his two favorite hobbies to create extraordinary art. His paintings of various birds were much admired not only by friends and family, but also by all who frequented the coffee shops where his paintings were displayed. He was also an avid music lover and a collector of Beatles memorabilia. He was known for his quick wit, his infectious smile, and his kind and compassionate spirit. John’s family will never forget the day he invented his famous “floor stew”!



Listing the family members

While you don’t have to mention every nephew and cousin by name, it’s important to write a general overview of the family members who passed away before the loved one as well as the surviving family. Close family members can be listed by name, and other relatives can be referred to more generally. Spouses of family members can be listed this way: Steven (Jill) Lewis, Samantha (Bob Smith) Lewis or Jane (the late Irving) Seymour. Last names need only be listed if they are different than that of the deceased.

John was preceded in death by his father, Bob, and his mother, Jane. He is survived by his wife Grace, his four children, Nick (Eileen), Joel, Alice (Sarah Simon), and Lisa (William) Collins, his brother Paul, and several cousins, nieces, and a nephew.

Funeral Service information

Provide the date, time, and location of the funeral. Also include information regarding donations, flowers, or condolences. If you would prefer not to receive flowers, a line about “In lieu of flowers, donations to ____________ are requested” can be added.

A funeral service will be held on Thursday, September 7th, 2017 at the Church of Christ on Main Street at 1 o’clock p.m. A visitation with the family will be held on Thursday from 11 o’clock a.m. until the time of the service. Flowers or donations may be sent to 1234 St. Houston, TX.


How to list family members

An obituary is a tribute and an historical document, not a legal one. If you want to list “step” grandchildren along with “real” grandchildren, go right ahead! Careful though, as emotions run high after a death. Be kind.



Technical terminology tip: A service with the body present in a casket is called a funeral. A service with cremated remains present, or no remains present, is referred to as a memorial service.


Remember, newspapers will charge you by line, word, or inch (depending on the publication), so don’t write more than you can afford. A short, factual obituary listing death and service times might be all you need to put in the newspaper. A full and more comprehensive obituary can be placed on the funeral home’s website or on social media accounts of family members.

Tips to Avoiding Pitfalls

  • Do not start with “the family regrets to announce . . .”   Instead, start with the deceased’s name and make the obituary about them.
  • Do not reference the deceased back to the obituary author(s).  For example, avoid saying “Mom” or “Dad.” Instead write about the deceased in the third person, as an individual.
  • Do not automatically say “after a courageous struggle . . .”   Think about other ways to say this. Honor the deceased’s fight with their illness by describing it accurately and sensitively. Although you need not disclose the cause of death, sometimes as in the case of suicide or addiction issues, making the person’s struggle public can be very powerful. This is a very personal decision though that no one can make for you.
  • Do not exclude the life.  Describe more than just the final period of life and the death. Do not just thank those who helped with the care during the illness and dying. Instead think of thanking those who helped out during the lifetime such as mentors, coaches or especially supportive friends.


  • Do not use abbreviations that could be unfamiliar. ”He was a member of L.I.M.R. and O.V.N.C.” will not tell anything about the deceased to folks unfamiliar with those organizations.


  • Avoid the pitfall of using clichés. The obituary you write does not have to sound like all the others. For example, instead of asking people to make a memorial donation, some obituaries ask people to buy a friend a flower, fill out an organ donation card, or do a good deed.
  • Do not forget to proofread, and proofread again.  The worst feeling is to look at an obituary in the newspaper and realize that you have mis-spelled a family member’s name or left someone out entirely.
  • Keep it accessible. If you write your own obituary, or one for a family member, make sure to let someone know where it is.  Many families have found fully written obituaries (or worse specific funeral instructions) hidden away months after a death. Make sure your family knows if you have a plan!


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