A few years back, I wrote a magazine piece that the editor criticized for containing too many clichés. The new opening sentence in his edited version began with “Tall, leggy blondes…”
Turns out it’s tough to write without using clichés—shopworn, predictable expressions that serve as a sort of cultural shorthand for familiar situations and stereotypes. An obituary template is essentially a series of clichés strung together in a very…well, clichéd way. That’s why templates make everyone sound the same.
Obituary clichés serve a variety of purposes:
- They may sum up a situation, as in “You’ve done everything you can” or “He was tired of fighting.”
- Sometimes they capture a stock character type, as in “a woman with a heart of gold” or “a fat old bald guy” (or a tall, leggy blonde, as the case may be).
- Often clichés are intended to be polite or soothing—for instance, “I’m sorry for your loss” or “She’s in a better place now.” (Greeting-card clichés usually fall into this category.)
It’s doubly difficult to avoid falling back on clichés when you’re grieving and writing an obit on a tight deadline. Half the battle (ahem) is being aware of these hackneyed phrases so that when a cliché pops into your head, you can replace it with fresher imagery.
Follow the advice given to every journalism student on Day 1: Show, don’t tell. In other words, offer an anecdote that illustrates your point, rather than asserts it. Instead of telling readers that your obituee would’ve given the shirt off his back, for instance, recount an event in which he or she demonstrated exceptional generosity or selflessness.
Clichés are filler. A brief story or example (see the real examples below) conveys meaning more precisely, lingering in the reader’s memory. And when you’re writing an obituary, isn’t that the point?
She and her [church] buddies produced over 400 quilts for homeless children. –Lora Falltrick Boyd Allen (~1924–2018)