The narrative arc of a person’s life naturally moves from cradle to grave. We’re born, go to school, attend college or learn a trade. Most of us get married. Most of us get divorced. Most of us have children. Some join the military or open a business or change the world. We travel. We get facelifts. Our knees and hips start to ache, and we trade Minneapolis or Buffalo for Boca del Vista and a really sweet golf cart. If we’re lucky, we live long enough to enjoy the sunset. An obituary template is a generic form designed to cram that entire period into a few paragraphs, creating a meager little end-of-life summary that’s really just a string of factoids. Such a tribute may tell us what we did and where we went or worked or lived, but it doesn’t say who we were.
A modern obituary is more storytelling than résumé writing. It doesn’t try to cover every phase of our lives. Nor does it necessarily move through the events in sequence. Whether you’re writing your own obituary or preparing one for someone else, take the pressure off yourself. Accept that you won’t be able to include some of the most beloved people and important events in your obituee’s life. But whatever you do, ditch the generic template. A few carefully chosen, thoughtful anecdotes will capture your obituee’s uniqueness better than any template could. A virtual memorial platform can accommodate more people and events, of course, than a text-centric obituary can, and you might want to go that route if you have the time. (Click here to compare the cost and features of dozens of virtual memorials.) But in an online obituary, it’s okay just to hit the highlights.
So how do you decide what those are? You probably have a jumble of memories competing for attention right now—so many memories, maybe, that you’re drawing a blank. To get focused, brainstorm some ideas using a mindmap (like MindNode or Lucidchart), or just jot down your ideas on paper. This video shows you how. Use the list of questions in Chapter 4 of How to Write an Online Obituary. (If you don’t need the whole book, you can download just the chapters on writing. Click here to learn more.) Or visit StoryCorps and go through the questions there. This free Quick-Start Guide to Writing an Online Obituary is a handy reference, too.
Once you have a mindmap, choose two or three brief stories that illustrate your obituee’s personality. (See this post for more on writing a first draft.) These stories will give the obituary depth, beauty, and meaning even if they don’t cover every milestone, role, accomplishment, and phase of life. Sometimes it takes very few words to capture the essence of a person’s spirit. Take 33-year-old Kory Baker, for example. Before he was lost to heroin addiction, Kory had been an army medic who served in Iraq. Two sentences from his obituary inspired a chapter title in my book (Chapter 7: A Hamster Named Kristin: Handling Sensitive Circumstances):
Kory was one of the most compassionate and sensitive humans on the planet. In second grade, he had a hamster named Kristen and when she got sick, we thought we might have to call a real ambulance. (–Kory John “K.J.” Paradise Baker, 1983–2016)
I mean, what more do you need to know about Kory Baker? First of all, he could have gone with “Buttercup” or “Cuddles” or “Frisky” or “Fuzzy,” like everyone else, but nooo—he settled on “Kristen.” And could there be a more vivid mental picture than a little boy fretting over an ailing rodent balled up in the corner of its Habitrail? No matter that Kory was all grown up. He carried that gentle disposition with him into adulthood. Kory’s mom, Barb—with whom I’ve had the pleasure of exchanging a few emails—told me that Kory’s sister, Nikki, wrote Kory’s obituary on her flight home to attend his funeral. She could’ve been forgiven for using a template—after all, anything that eases your burden at such a painful time is a welcome relief. But if Nikki had used a fill-in-the-blank template as her starting point, Kristen probably wouldn’t have made the cut.
(Photo of Kory Baker courtesy of his mom.)