How to Write the Best Obituary …and Why There Should Be Two

Who will tell your life story? And how well will that story be told? Will it be accurate? Will it miss important events? And, importantly, will it capture who you were and what you were about?

In his insightful and wonderfully witty new book “Yours Truly: An Obituary Writer’s Guide to Telling Your Story,” James R. Hagerty says that, unless you take matters into your own hands, “your story is likely to be written in haste by a friend or family member distracted by grief and the many urgent tasks of dealing with a death. And, I’m sorry to inform you, this well-meaning person will probably describe someone you wouldn’t recognize.” Expect that obituary to have inaccuracies and, most importantly, it will give “no hint of who you truly were, what you were trying to do with your life, what you learned and what you accomplished.”

We asked Hagerty, who is the obituary writer for the Wall Street Journal, for his advice on how an obituary can more fully capture the essence of a person and a life lived.

One way is for a person to write his or her own life story. That is what Hagerty is doing. But he cautions us not to tell people to write their own obituary. It can sound off-putting. It’s better simply to urge people to share their best stories and lessons learned. One option is to enlist a friend or family member to ask questions.

It is important to preserve the best stories. When and what were the times and experiences that meant the most to you and affected you the most?  It is important to take down these stories while people are alive. Call it their life story. A good obituary will be based upon this life story.

If you think that your life is not worth remembering, think again. In reading your life story, your family and descendants will learn and benefit. Don’t think of it as a self-indulgent exercise. You are contributing your story to the family legacy for generations to come.

The easiest way to tell one’s life story is in chronological order. Here are some examples of the questions the family member or friend should ask:

  • Why did you leave the old country and come to America? Talk about the decision.
  • Where were you born, where did you grow up and what did your parents do for a living?
  • Talk about your childhood. Friends? Elementary school? High school? Sports? Clubs? Highs and lows.
  • Why did you become a dentist? Why did you change majors? And why had you pursued that first major in the beginning?
  • What gave you the idea to study this or work at that? Did you enjoy it? How did it go? What did you learn from it?
  • What was your first job? Did you have summer jobs?
  • What did that company you worked for do?
  • What do you consider your triumphs and defeats and what did you learn from them?
  • How did you meet your loved one? Tell me the story.

Ask for anecdotes that capture the person’s character. Ask, then clarify, repeating the question sometimes multiple times to get to the heart of it. 

The questions shouldn’t just be about the high points of a life. In Hagerty’s self-written life story, he describes how his first book was a flop and what he learned from it. 

Hagerty says when he asks family members these types of questions after the death, they are often not sure and tend to speculate on many of the answers.

The answers to these questions and the stories that are told should be written down. They will be the basis for a true to life obituary that is a summation of the person told with kindness, humor, humility and truth. It is not a tribute. A great obituary helps us understand who the person was, what he or she set out to do and how it all came out. Not just what they did, but how and why. 

Be specific. Don’t say “he was devoted above all to family.” Give examples. Maybe: “He worked two jobs to put his children through college.”

How important is humor in an obituary? It can be a nice element, but those hilarious obituaries that virally make the rounds are just too over the top. Life is not all one big joke. 

Finally, Hagerty suggests that two obituaries be written based upon the life story that was created through the interview. 

  1. A 200-500 word public one.
  2. A longer (as long as you want) version for friends and families that will have more personal information. This version is for the generations to come and might be placed in the family archives.
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