How to write and publish a meaningful obit


Q. My aunt, a woman of great accomplishment, is dying. She was very good to me throughout my life, and as her closest living relative I want to write an obituary for her now and have it ready to send to our local newspaper when the time comes. How can I make the obituary as special as she is?

A. One of the best obituaries I’ve ever read was the one that appeared in the New York Times last June for Martin Ginsburg, a well-known lawyer and the husband of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Small details brought the man to life. The obituary spoke of the supportive role he played in his wife’s career and painted a picture of a happy marriage between two very successful people. Anecdotes illustrated his sense of humor, such as his quips about his wife’s lack of cooking skill and “her favorite recipe—tuna fish casserole.”

In your aunt’s case, try to remember specific instances where she made a difference in the lives of others, in her profession or field and/or in the community. Instead of just listing her achievements, tell a little story about some of them. Keep an eye out for moments that speak eloquently of her humanity, kindness, zest for life or even her cranky disposition—whatever fits. Did she take tango lessons or play poker in her eighties? Say so. Such information inspires people and helps them connect with the deceased. Before you sit down to write, take a day or so to think about what you want to say, and take notes as ideas come to you. Then get started.

Be aware, however, that newspapers have their own styles. Some want a staff member to interview you and write the obituary based on your information. Some will accept your copy, but will edit it due to space and other considerations. Others offer a choice of an edited or unedited obit.

Check the website of your newspaper for its obituary rules and requirements. For example, if your own copy is acceptable, vital statistics such as age, place and cause of death must be included. Check, too, on the format for photographs (if photos are accepted). The obituary may be published free, or there may be a charge depending on length. In some cases a death notice is free, but a full obituary is not.

Need more info? Visit our how to write an obituary resource center. If you have a question for Florence, email her at


Florence Isaacs is the author of several books on etiquette, including My Deepest Sympathies: Meaningful Sentiments for Condolence Notes a.... She writes two advice blogs for Sincere Condolences and Widow in the World, a new blog for bereaved spouses and partners.

Image via stock.xchng / lusi

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