Writing an Obituary


A client recently asked me for advice on how to write an obituary. Having no idea, I consulted my father-in-law, Dave Callahan, who spent most of his career working for Gannett newspapers. All credit for this newsletter belongs to him.

When to write an obituary

Sometimes it's possible, and advisable, to prepare the obit ahead of time. If death is imminent, a family member who writes with clarity can be designated to prepare the obituary. A couple of other family members could be asked to read the obituary and point out errors or omissions. Also in advance, family members can comb through family photos to find the best one to put into the newspaper. Getting a good photo and getting the obit information right is more difficult while attending to funeral and burial arrangements.

Most funeral homes have forms to help in writing an obituary. They usually prefer to have the finished obituary text and photo e-mailed to the funeral home, so that errors aren't introduced by funeral home staff members.

Where to publish an obituary

Family members might want the obituary to appear in out-of-town newspapers, say, in a city where the deceased person grew up and where he or she lived for a long time. Many newspapers will not accept an obituary directly from the family, to avoid being the victim of a hoax. They will print only obituaries submitted by the funeral home handling arrangements. Funeral homes can e-mail the obituary to the out-of-town newspaper.

Here's the general outline for the old-fashioned obit:

Paragraph 1: Name of decedent along with age, city of residence, death date and death location. This paragraph also can include close survivors.

Paragraph 2: Decedent's biography, including when and where born, military service and work history. Many contemporary obituaries are including hobbies and interests of the decedent.

Paragraph 2: Close relatives preceding the decedent in death.

Paragraph 3: Other survivors.

Paragraph 4: Funeral and burial information.

Some other ideas:

-- Some of the paragraphs can move about, often in consideration of family sensitivities.

-- Among things included in paid obituaries are phrases such as "was called home by the Lord" rather than "died."

-- Often, when the decedent received the care of Hospice, a thank-you to providers is included in the obituary. In fact, the family often is so thankful for their help, the thank-you is included in the first paragraph.

-- When survivors are listed, some families choose to use full names and cities for even the great-grandchildren. Larger families often use a list of first names only for grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

-- Some families list the cause of death, especially for victims of cancer. The family might want to list the cause of death in general terms (e.g. an illness or accident) to stave off a reader’s assumption of a nefarious or tragic cause of death.

A Sample Obituary:

James Oscar Callahan (1927-2015)

James Oscar Callahan, 88, died Friday, Oct. 16, at his home in Owensboro, Ky. Those surviving him include his wife of 19 years, Doris, and four others with whom he made a home: step-granddaughter and caregiver Angela Jones (and husband Aaron), and step-great-granddaughters Alyssa and Brianna. Those preceding him in death include his first wife, Wilma, who died in 1995 after 46 years of marriage; son Dan (Anna) of Covington, Ga., who died in 1998; and sister Jessie Knight of Stockbridge, Ga., who died in 2013.
Jim, as he was known, was born Sept. 26, 1927, on the family farm in Fannin County, Ga., the second-oldest of eight children born to Sam and Jenny Callihan. Jim served three years in the U.S. Army Air Corps beginning in the last days of World War II. He became a steelworker in Ohio before moving to Owensboro in 1953. He retired in 1984 after working more than 30 years in the rolling mill at Green River Steel. Upbeat and fun-loving, Jim enjoyed bowling, playing card games, woodwork and, most of all, travel.
Other survivors include sons Ron (and wife Misty) of Marion, Ind., and Dave (Louise) of Williamsburg, Va., and a daughter, Karen, of Conyers, Ga. Also surviving are grandchildren Heather, Beth, Paul, Ginny, Dave Jr., Kristina and Beverly; step-grandchildren Amanda, Shannon, Nicolas and Emilie; great-grandchildren Justin, Rachel, Nikki, Anson, Maya, Ben, Sasha, Kathleen, Bobby, John, Sabrina and Jocelyn; and a great-great-grandson, Layne. Jim also was survived by sisters Rachel Carver of Smyrna, Ga., Agnes Caison of Glennville, Ga., Sarah Baker (Harold) of Stone Mountain, Ga., Esta Cater of Covington, Ga., and Carolyn Bradshaw of Covington; a brother, Joe Callihan of Stockbridge; and a special niece, Lou Ann Osborne of Marietta, Ga.
A memorial service will be conducted on Oct. 24, at Mount Moriah Baptist Church Cemetery in Fannin County, where his remains will be buried. Jim’s son, Dan, was buried in the same area of the cemetery.

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