When I was in high school, I read a biography about the “unsinkable” Molly Brown – a Titanic survivor who went on to become a well-known advocate of workers’ rights and women’s suffrage. Despite his wife’s high profile, J.J. Brown publicly supported a more demure approach to fame and fortune, penning the famous adage that a woman’s name ought to appear in the newspaper only three times: at her birth, upon her marriage and following her death.
His words come back to me every time I read the obituary pages in our local paper – an endless list of names and dates that includes little else beyond the deceased’s dates of birth and death, a listing of family members and a brief overview of memorial services. No personality. No character. No indication that the deceased actually lived – just a sterile abstract that fits neatly into two column inches.
We can do better.
The frenzy of an at-need funeral often requires an efficient approach to writing obituaries. As funeral professionals, your focus is on those personal interactions that demand your immediate attention. You generously and tirelessly bring your energy and empathy to arrangement conferences, first viewings, visitations, memorials and graveside services. It seems unreasonable to expect you and your staff to use some of those limited resources to pen a more meaningful obituary.
Those face-to-face interactions are invaluable. They help grieving families understand the process and reflect on their loss. But remember that obituaries have an enormously long shelf life. My maternal grandmother’s obituary still comes up when I type her name into a Google search – and she passed away over 30 years ago.
This is why it’s a good idea to incorporate obituaries as part of your client families’ pre-need funeral plans. A prearrangement conference offers the time necessary for your client families to reflect on how they want their loved ones to remember them and gives you and your staff an opportunity to write an obituary that is both memorable and creative.
Here are a few tips to help you get started.
The best way to write with impact is to deeply and personally understand your topic. If you want to write a compelling obituary, you need to get to know your client families. You are already collecting the basic information as part of your funeral home file record – names, dates, family members, etc. Now, ask some follow-up questions to add some personality to the basic details:
- The deceased was preceded in death by her husband of 50 years. That’s half a century! Surely, there are some great stories to share. Ask about how they met. Where did they live when they were first married? Did they take any trips? What hobbies did they enjoy together?
- She is survived by three children, seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. There are few people more talkative than a proud grandparent. Ask questions about the grandkids. Are they involved in sports? Do they sing? How often do the grandparents get to see them? How do they celebrate the holidays?
Asking questions helps move the conversation forward and indicates to your client families that it’s okay for them to share stories with you.
Add some emotion.
Once you’ve had a chance to learn more about your clients, it’s time to put pen to paper. Length is always a concern when it comes to obituaries – column inches cost money, and there are certain details (like service times and locations) that have to be included. But the stringent length requirements don’t have to result in a nondescript summary.
Rumor has it that Ernest Hemingway rejected the notion that more words mean more impact, penning his first (and only) six-word story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
Clearly, you don’t need a lot of words to convey a great deal of emotion. You can find brief and impactful ways to include poignant details that add meaning to your obituaries, without adding expense.
Experiment with humor.
You might also consider including some humor (where appropriate). Consider the following excerpts from Legacy.com:
- “James ‘Jim’ Groth made his last wildly inappropriate and probably sarcastic comment on July 28.”
- “Famously opinionated and short-tempered, Big Al handed these qualities down to his daughter, Jill Ann Brownley of Phoenix, Arizona, a sharp-tongued character in her own right.”
- “Virginia R. Fieldman was born August 2, 1922, on Staten Island and died in Machias on July 15, 2014, of a worn-out, much-used heart.”
What I love about each of these examples is that they are not just funny, they also provide important information – dates of death, birthplaces and names of surviving children – and they do so succinctly. Humor can be a great way to add levity to the obituary of someone who wishes to be remembered for having a lighthearted, fun personality.
Modern families want creative memorial service ideas, and being able to write a memorable and compelling obituary is one more way you can meet the needs of your client families. Take advantage of the time and space available during a prearrangement conference to gather the information necessary to pen a creative (albeit brief) tribute.