How to Write an Online Obituary

Colorful stories for modern lives

Obituary Writing

Step 1: Getting Started

Step 1A: Gathering Details

Gathering Details for an Obituary

Writers resort to telling, rather than showing, when they don’t have enough information. That means you’ll have to collect lots of details about your obituee. Much of this information will end up in the compost bin, but the more you have to start with, the easier your task will be. Use a recording app or take notes as you talk to people. Trust but verify. Here are some other tips:

  • If possible, interview the would-be obituee him- or herself.
  • Talk to the obituee’s family, friends, colleagues, pastor, golfing buddies, or supper-club partners.
  • If your obituee owned a business, ask employees and customers to share their favorite memories.
  • If he or she frequented a local pub or diner, talk to other regulars, as well as the barkeep and servers.
  • Check the bookshelf in the obituee’s home. Is it filled with presidential biographies? Harry Potter books? Graphic novels? What do these choices tell you?
  • Check the obituee’s Amazon wish list and Goodreads posts for clues, too. What do her choices and comments say about her interests and personality?
  • Look at your obituee’s Facebook page, Instagram pics, pinboards, tweets, and other social media.
  • If you interview only one person, make it the obituee’s hairstylist. You’re apt to learn more from him or her than from anyone else.
Step 1B: Creating a Mindmap

A mindmap or wordcloud is a visual collection (or just a list will do the trick) of 10 or 12 specific details about your loved one. Later, you’ll create your barf draft simply by turning each of the words and phrases on your mindmap into a sentence. Your wordcloud or mindmap doesn’t have to make sense to anyone but you.

For more on creating a mindmap and generating a barf draft, see my YouTube playlist, Step-by-Step Obituary Writing, and check out the sample mindmaps below.

Mindmap used to write barf draft of obituary for Art Ellefsen.

Sample mindmap or wordcloud used to write the barf draft of an obituary.

Step 2: The Barf Draft

Creating a barf draft of an obituary is a quick way to get rid of that blank screen and generate some raw material to work with. For this barf draft, we used one of the mindmaps we created earlier. This barf draft is worthy of the name and proves Hemingway was spot-on when he told a younger writer that “the first draft of anything is shit.” Click here to download.

Blog post image: Barf draft of Arthur Ellefsen's obituary


Step 3: The Hook

Diagram showing the hook section of an obituary A great hook gives your obituary curb appeal.

See this blog post for more samples.

Step 4: The Body
The body is the meat of your story. Choose a couple of themes that capture what was special about your obituee—say, “wallflower” and “sharp cookie.”  Then choose brief stories that illustrate each theme. Each anecdote should consist of one to three paragraphs.

Don’t try to move from cradle to grave. You can’t cover an entire life in any obituary. Just hit the highlights. What made your obituee different from everyone else on the planet?

Step 5: The Conclusion
Your conclusion should echo one of your themes or circle back to your hook, bringing the story to a satisfying close. “Like a poem’s final stanza,” says writer Francis Flaherty, “the end of a story can linger in memory,” as in this wrenching example.

A traditional obituary concludes with an announcement of the funeral arrangements and a list of surviving family members. I recommend that you not include those sections at all. Such lists are stubborn remnants of a time when communities relied on newspapers to announce and record important events. The internet has made it pointless to offer such information, and listing survivors’ names leaves them vulnerable to scams. A request for memorial donations is optional.


Step 6: Spit 'n' Polish
Now you’re ready to apply a shiny coat of varnish to your tribute. Read it out loud to see if it flows. Take your time. “Writing is hard work and bad for the health,” says E.B. White, co-author of The Elements of Style (a.k.a. Strunk & White). If you move less than your cat for a day or two, you’re on the right track. When you’re finished, the obituary will do your loved one (or you) proud. Here are some tips:

  • Avoid using obituary cliches.
  • Include quotations in your anecdotes.
  • Use specific language that shows, rather than tells.
  • Scrutinize every word to make sure it’s doing useful work.
  • Keep it conversational. Use contractions and casual language. Obituaries don’t have to be stuffy.
  • If no portion of your obit is funny, it’s probably gloomy and dull. Was your obituee gloomy and dull? I rest my case.
  • If it feels right to use “I” or “we” or “us,” don’t be afraid to use the first person. Writing in the third person (e.g., “Jack Hammer died on Wednesday. He was 81…”) makes it unclear who wrote the obituary. Although you want the focus to be on the obituee, there’s no reason to hide the obituary’s authorship. It makes the tribute a bit warmer and more personal.
  • Include sensory information: smells, textures, relevant weather conditions, flavors, physical sensations, the quality of someone’s voice, and so on.
  • Step away for at least a few hours and read the obituary again. You’ll undoubtedly find something you’d like to add or change when you read it afresh.
Step 7: Images, Video, and Sound
In an effort to edge out competitors, virtual memorials introduce new features on the regular. When my dad died in 2014, his obituary site could accommodate only one accompanying photo. I cheated by putting two photos side by side and saving them as a single image. But media and design options have grown exponentially since then:

Step 8: Posting and Sharing
A virtual memorial is a website dedicated to a specific person. You can build it from scratch (a blank screen), from a generic template (such as a WordPress theme), or from a memorial template. The choice depends in part on your level of comfort with technology. Look for a site or app with good social media integration so you can share your memorial on Twitter, Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook, and elsewhere. For a list of virtual memorial websites and apps, including a comparison of their features, click here.

Examples, Ideas, & Advice for a Fresh, Original Tribute


Free Quick-Start Guide to Writing an Online Obituary

Quick-Start Obituary Writing Guide