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?

Would’ve done anything for anyone

She and her [church] buddies produced over 400 quilts for homeless children. –Lora Falltrick Boyd Allen (~1924–2018)

Would’ve given the shirt off his back
She was known for giving away the jewelry she was wearing if someone really liked it. She even gave away her purse once after emptying the contents into a plastic bag. –Susan McDonnell, 1953–2017
Loved animals
[He was a] talented turkey whisperer. He fed (and named) wild turkeys in his backyard and had several eating from his hand. –Michael R. Pollica, 1945–2018
Had boundless energy
We actually took him to see his doctor as a baby because he moved like he was running, even in his sleep. –Kolbjorn Arndt, 2005–2017
Never met a stranger
[Her nephew] recalled a family trip in the 1960s to see a Cleveland Browns-New York Jets preseason game. “We were in the lobby waiting for my aunt and after a couple turns of the elevator cycle, the doors opened and there she was standing arm in arm with Joe Namath,” he recalled. –Anna Marie Bolden, 1925–2018
Was always willing to help
One of George’s favorites places to eat was Patricio’s, in Old Orcutt, California. Pat Arnoldi, of Patricio’s, was very kind to George. He made George feel important and always took the time to listen and visit with him. One would often find George helping by bussing his table and helping the staff when Patricio’s was busy.     –George Miguel Carrari, 1957–2017
Was always happy
He was also a member of the Farmer’s Branch Senior Ukelele Band who traveled around the area putting on concerts…Even the day he died, he was singing to his family and the nurses caring for him. –John Wesley Fitzpatrick, 1924–2017