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Writing Obituaries

A Celebration of a Life

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Newspaper focus on 'Obituaries'
Keith Goldstein/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Beginning reporters often view the writing of obituaries with disdain. After all, they say, an obit is by its very nature old news, the story of a life already lived.

But seasoned journalists know that obits are some of the most satisfying articles to do; they give the writer a chance to chronicle a human life from start to finish, and in doing so to find themes and deeper meaning beyond the simple retelling of events.

And obits, after all, are about people, and isn't writing about people what makes journalism so interesting in the first place?

The Format

The format for an obit is surprisingly simple - it's basically written as a hard-news story, with what amounts to a five W's and the H lede.

So the lede of an obit should include:

  • Who died
  • What happened
  • Where the person died (this is optional for the lede, and is sometimes put in the second paragraph instead)
  • When they died
  • Why or how they died

But an obit lede goes beyond the five W's and the H to include a summing up of what made the person's life interesting or significant. This usually involves what they did in life. Whether the deceased was a corporate executive or a homemaker, the obit lede should try to summarize (briefly, of course) what made the person special.

Obit ledes also generally include the person's age.

Example:

John Smith, a math teacher who made algebra, trigonometry and calculus interesting for several generations of students at Centerville High School, died Friday of cancer. He was 83.

Smith died at home in Centerville after a long struggle with colon cancer.

You can see how this lede includes all the basics - Smith's occupation, his age, the cause of death, etc. But it also sums up, in just a few words, what made him special - making math interesting for generations of high school students.

Unusual Deaths

If a person has essentially died of old age or a disease related to age, the cause of death generally isn't given more than a sentence or two in an obit, as you see in the example above.

But when a person dies young, either through an accident, illness or other causes, the cause of death should be explained more fully.

Example:

Jayson Carothers, a graphic designer who created some of the most memorable covers for the Centerville Times magazine, has died after a long illness. He was 43 and had AIDS, said his partner, Bob Thomas.

The Rest Of the Story

Once you've fashioned your lede, the rest of the obit is basically a brief chronological account of the person's life, with the emphasis on what made the person interesting.

So if you've established in your lede that the deceased was a creative and much-loved math teacher, the rest of the obit should focus on that.

Example:

Smith loved math from an early age and excelled at it through his grade-school years. He majored in math at Cornell University and graduated with honors in 1947.

Soon after receiving his bachelor's degree he began teaching at Centerville High School, where he became known for his engaging, animated lectures and pioneering use of audiovisual materials.

Length

The length of an obit varies, depending on the person and their prominence in your community. Obviously, the death of, say, a former mayor in your town will probably be longer than that of a school janitor.

But the vast majority of obits are around 500 words or less. So the challenge for the obit writer is to neatly sum up a person's life in a fairly short space.

Wrapping Up

At the end of every obit are a few must-haves, including:

  • Any information available about funeral services, viewings, etc.;
  • A listing of the deceased's surviving family members;
  • Any requests family members have made regarding donations to charities, scholarships or foundations.

Try the obituary newswriting exercise here.

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