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Writing an Obituary: One Last Kindness

Writing an obituary is one of the last kindnesses you can do to honor a loved one’s life. But unless you’ve had to do it, you may know very little about writing an obituary (a public notice of death, usually with a brief biography), a eulogy (a tribute praising a deceased person), or a life sketch (a summary of a person’s life and achievements, usually written by family members). I like using the term “life sketch” to refer to the writing I’ve done for my deceased loved ones.

The first life sketch I wrote was in 1991 for my father who died of a heart attack at 56 years old. Since I’m the writer in my family, I volunteered. And even though it’s been 26 years since he died, I still remember the pain and joy of reviewing details about my father’s life to share at his funeral. Each tender memory kept me in tears while friends and family glided softly in and out of our home, bringing endless bouquets of flowers, trying to comfort my mother, my sisters, my brother and me. We were all in shock, but no one else could write about my father’s life like I could. So I did.

When my mother’s parents passed away, writing their life sketches was challenging, but it felt emotionally easier because my grandfather and my grandmother, Lester and Melba May, had lived full lives. I could also draw on content that they had written about themselves, and I asked my mother, my aunt, and my uncles to write their important memories about their parents (some of them hilarious), which I integrated into those life sketches. I used a similar process to write the life sketch for my Grandma Daisy Bush, who died when she was 98 years old. She had written a brief history of her life with her husband up to the point of my Grandpa Bush’s death of a heart attack at 60 years old.

Just last month, on April 30, 2017, my older brother—like my father and my grandfather before him—died unexpectedly at home of a heart attack at 59 years old. For my brother I thought, “I can’t bear to write another obituary. I need my mom (now 82 years old) and my sisters to help.” While they did suggest a few details and my younger sister dug up Eric’s high school yearbooks for me, getting the writing done became my job—again. This time I kept putting off the writing (the remembering and the tears) until the last moment, distracting myself with any other matter that needed to be handled whenever someone dies.  After I couldn’t put Eric’s story off any longer, I spent a day writing, revising, and editing the 850 words that captured only a sliver of my brother’s life. You can read it online: “Eric Bush, 59, Painted His Own Fantastic Life Path.”

Because Memorial Day is about honoring those who have sacrificed their lives for our freedom and because writing obituaries, eulogies, and life sketches might be some of the most difficult but important writing you will ever do, I’d like to share three things that have helped me write under difficult circumstances about the people I love.

1. Use a list like the following to help you gather information:

Personal Background
Full name of person (middle, family, or maiden)
Age and area of residence at death, death date, cause of death (optional)
Place and date of birth, names of parents
Areas lived and work history
Education, where and what years, degree(s)
If married, when and to whom

Interests and Accomplishments
Meaningful accomplishments, endeavors, publications
Special interests and/or hobbies
Awards, honors, military history and honors
Memberships, philanthropy, volunteer activities

Survivors, Services, and Donations
Survivors: immediate family, children, other relations, special friends
Funeral or memorial service plans, dates, location
Cemetery/place of burial or where ashes will be scattered
Where memorial contributions/donations may be made

2. Read obituaries for ideas, not only for content and structure, but for length.

Many big city papers charge to print obituaries. You’ll need to contact individual publications to learn their policies and pricing. Some will only print short obituary notices, but many funeral homes make life sketches available online for family and friends using a nationwide service like Legacy.com

3. Look through pictures, yearbooks, writing, and belongings of your loved one, even though this can be a difficult part of your grieving and writing process.

Reviewing items like these while also talking to other family members and friends will help you remember things you’ve forgotten or never even knew. For example, by searching through a drawer full of family pictures one evening, I happened on to an important envelope containing a statement my brother had written about his philosophy of art. I’d never seen it before. The moment I found those two paragraphs, I felt like Eric had been helping me write his life sketch too.

Although I never could have predicted that I would write so many of my loved ones’ obituaries and life sketches, I’m grateful for the opportunity and privilege that writing these brief life stories has given me to share, grieve, and honor the lives of people I love.

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