WRITING TIPS FOR NEW OBITUARISTS
It's not a eulogy
An obituary, unlike a eulogy, is not intended to be a tribute. Obits, as published, are concise factual accounts of a person’s life meant to contribute to the historical record.
Remember, published obituaries are one of the most-often utilized archival materials for historians, genealogists, scholars and the general public.
Nor is it a paid death notice
Paid death notices are formulaic announcements of a person’s death. Historically, they were published as part of a newspaper’s classified advertising.
Include the basics
For the record, make sure you include the following information in the obit:
Name, age, occupation and address of deceased
Time, place and cause of death
Birth date, birthplace
Survivors (typically immediate family)
Funeral and disposition arrangements
Outstanding or interesting activities and achievements
Memberships in fraternal, religious or civic organizations
Service in armed forces
Anecdotes or recollections from friends or relatives
Be a storyteller
Write a story, not a chronology. Use anecdotal material, and keep it lively.
Keep it genuine
Avoiding clichés such as “he never met a stranger” will add credibility to the obituary. Also, try to avoid being overly sentimental.
Even Ernest Hemingway rewrote his manuscripts several dozen times—and he did his work in longhand!
Ask others to proof your copy. Reading it aloud is also a great way to catch awkward phrasings and punctuation issues.
Remember, these will probably be the last published words on your subject; you want to get them right.
Obituary is from the Latin obit, meaning death. The word obituary has been used to refer to published death notices since the 18th century.
British Inspiration: Although brief announcements of deaths were published in America as early as the 16th century, it took another 300 years and some impetus from the British (who beat us to the punch) for the longer, more-detailed accounts to appear in the press.
All About Prominence: Obits have historically been penned about people like soldiers, public servants, celebrities and adventurers because, according to historian Mitchell Stevens, the audience hangs with such interest on the details of their lives and, unfortunately, their deaths.
Mood-ometer: Over time, obituary style has reflected the frame of mind. Accounts of deaths of frontiers men and women emphasized value of life; those of Civil War soldiers were often sentimental and religious.
Poety Anyone? For a brief period, during the turn of the 19th century, obits were written in verse. A tribute to Guy Swain, who fell to his death while trying to chase a raccoon from a tree at night, was published in The Delaware Gazette (Ohio) on March 17, 1917. It begins:
A precious one is gone,
A voice we loved is still,
A place is vacant in our home
Which never can be filled.
O Guy, it seemed so bad,
The way you had to go …
Going Ghoul: Beginning in the 1880s, a trend called death journalism inhabited newspaper obits in England and the United States. During this time, obituaries focused on the graphic and often morbid details of the person’s demise. The New York Times piece on the death of Theodore Roosevelt, for example, leads with an elaborate description of the blood clot that “detached itself from a vein and entered the lungs.”
Democratization: During the late 20th century, obituary writing was reinvigorated by the rise of the “common man” obit, which recognized ordinary people as well as the aristrocracy. Among the pioneers of this genre is Robin Hinch of the Orange County Register whose candid and folksy tributes have been emulated around the country.
Lives Lost and Found: In 2001, the common man obit was given a new stencil with the “Portraits of Grief ” series published by The New York Times. This collection of 200-word obituaries, later published in book form, documented each life lost at Ground Zero.
Virtual Venue: As the American public discovered the Internet, the drawing power of the obituary was amplified. News organizations began selling obituaries to online sites such as the popular legacy.com. The Web also enabled two other experiments: multimedia tributes and obit blogs.
This Just In: One of the most famous multimedia pieces was a video-obit posted by The New York Times in 2007 as part of its “The Last Word” series. The opening featured an appearance by the newly deceased subject himself, Art Buchwald. In the first frame, the 81-year-old humorist addressed viewers with a giant grin and said, “Hi, I’m Art Buchwald, and I just died.”
Material compiled by Holly Shreve Gilbert who began her study of the obituary while pursuing her master’s degree at Oakland University.
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