So you define “obituary” as an article about the dead? Think again.
As Yoda told Luke Skywalker, “You must unlearn what you have learned.”
Obits aren’t about death. They’re about life. Oh, sure. The death is the reason for the obituary, but a reporter-written obituary shouldn’t simply announce a death. It should chronicle — even celebrate — a person’s life.
That’s Tip No. 1 for writing better obits: Adjust your attitude. Obituaries are personality profiles about people who happen to be dead.
Tip #2 is Obit-writing Rule #1: Make sure they’re dead.
Get official confirmation of the death from a funeral home, cremation society, body donation agency or coroner. Because of stiffened privacy regulations, you may have to get the family to instruct the official pronouncer of death to release the information to you.
While you’re at it, also ask for the cause and/or circumstances of death.
Tip #3: Standard procedure.
Gather facts: deceased’s name, age, city of residence; date, location and cause of death; date and location of birth; education; military service; work history; political involvement; volunteerism; memberships, honors and hobbies; surviving relatives; date, time and location of funeral; name of funeral home; requests for memorial donations; names and phone numbers of people to interview.
Remember, you don’t have to include every club affiliation, job promotion or hobby.
Conduct research. Interview the dearly departed’s relatives and associates.
After doing all that, I tend to start writing the obit by formulating a chronology of the person’s life and adding archival information.
Then I can ask better, more productive questions to fill in the gaps. I like to compose the obit with a lively and/or life-defining lead and a satisfying finale.
Tip #4: Be skeptical of what the family says.
Does it make sense? Do the numbers add up? Are there unexplained gaps in time?
Watch out for exaggerations. If some of the information is unreliable, you may not be able to trust the rest of it.
Tip #5: Show. Don’t tell.
When asked about the dead, most folks will tell you what they think you want them to say and what the family would like them to emphasize. Let them get what I call “Obitspeak” out of their systems. If they say, “He was honest and giving, never met a stranger, loved his family,” ask for examples of their honesty, generosity and selflessness.
Tip #6: Meaningful quotes.
Do not settle for the standard “He touched a lot of people and will sorely be missed by all.” Newspaper space is precious. Use it effectively. Get the interviewee to tell you how the decedent impacted the community. What set him apart from the rest of the crowd? What did you learn from her? What did he do for fun?
Tip #7: Accuracy is imperative.
Even when someone, who is supposed to know correct spellings, has submitted legible information to the newspaper, the reporter must spell back the names of the deceased and the surviving relatives to the funeral director or the family. Document what you can and fact-check as much as possible with your allotted time before deadline. If there are any discrepancies, get it right before getting it in print.
Tip #8: When in doubt, punt.
Can’t establish an exact year for a milestone? Be vague. If information is inconclusive, leave it out or find another way to explain that aspect of the deceased’s life.
Tip # 9: Be proud.
Writing obits is not the “Siberia of journalism,” as actor Jude Law’s character describes it in the movie “Closer.” It is the best job at the newspaper, a beat without borders. People from all walks of life die. Obit writers get to do stories about folks who might otherwise be covered by business, entertainment, sports, politics or religion writers.
These once-in-a-lifetime stories will be treasured by families for generations to come.
Tip #10: Think outside of the pine box.
We grim writers must get the facts right, adhere to our paper’s policies and work within the limitations set by individual editors. Other than that, we can be creative in our presentation of the person’s last writes.
Alana Baranick, obituary writer for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and chief author of Life on the Death Beat: A Handbook for Obituary Writers (Marion Street Press), won the 2005 American Society of Newspaper Editors Award for Obituary Writing.