Ten Tips for Writing Your Parent’s Obituary (Hint: Do it Before They Die)
I want to talk about a topic often considered taboo. And maybe a bit macabre: Those dreaded mini-chronologies written about someone who’s passed on, known as obituaries. I recently read that legacy.com, a website that publishes obituaries and public comments about the deceased, has become quite popular of late. I’ve commented on the site myself.
But someone has to write all that stuff. Namely, you.
Especially as our parents age, we might want to determine what kind of obituary they would want, where they’d like it published, and what they think is important about their lives. If they’re climbing that proverbial hill, but not quite over it, it’s not too early to make few mental notes.
Heck, I’m even coming up with songs I want on my funeral play-list. Why would I want to pass away without letting someone know that I don’t want any bloody Pachelbel, or Elvis Presley singing Softly, As I Leave You.
When my dad passed away in 2014, I sat down with my mother at her dining table. Elbows leaning on her good, white lace table cloth, we went over what she’d written for his obituary. She had remembered his building career down to his first apprenticeship, where he started out, and each step he took moving forward until he retired at age 70. Except for mentioning his children, surviving siblings, and the number of grandchildren, it was all business. The fact that he stopped after work to buy me penny candy when I was sick wasn’t going in. So I left it alone. (OK, I tweaked it a little for style. But that was it.)
At least someone close to him had given his life careful consideration. I thought my mom presented a good picture of the man, known as Pop. For a guy whose life really was his work, her obit hit the old carpenter’s nail right on the head.
On the other hand, when his older brother Sheldon passed away a year or two earlier, he had no one to write about his many accomplishments and interests. His obit didn’t even mention his long career as a teacher, college professor, and head of a university’s student teaching program, let alone his volunteer work and the foreign exchange students he and his late wife hosted for many years. He was also a proponent of “sensitivity training,” a new way to put people in touch with their fears and prejudices.
My uncle’s obituary mentioned just a few facts about his place of birth, family of origin and late wife, and a statement that he was a college professor. Then ended with the names of few surviving family members and his beloved cat, Pud. The obit was shamefully short. Had anyone contacted me about putting it together, I would gladly have done so.
Now I know it’s important to reach out. To offer this service to family members as an act of love. In researching a relative’s background, we can interview family members about the person’s life, look over memorabilia, and remember them as they lived. Maybe learn something we never knew.
I probably would not have mentioned my uncle Shel’s sensitivity training period. But I would have said what a great listener he was. And how very funny. I would have mentioned that he loved children, even though he had none of his own, and how he bought yard-sale books and shipped them overseas to the families of his foreign exchange students.
Maybe it wouldn’t have been all that macabre to have interviewed him myself. Just for the record.
Here are a ten ideas for writing loved one’s obituary, which can also be placed on Legacy.com and other remembrance sites.
- Name of birthplace. Parents’ names, including mother’s maiden name.
- Names of schools attended.
- Military service, rank, where they served, and what they did.
- A paragraph or two on the deceased’s occupation, a simple trajectory of their career, or a brief history of their business. “Max started U.S. Paperclips in 1979, and went on to become Milwaukee’s Business Man of the Year in 1982.”
- A paragraph about what made them happiest in life. Hobbies, etc. What did they love? Making lemon meringue pie? Singing in the church choir? A weekly pedicure at Madge’s Beauty Salon? A beer with the guys down at the Bootleg Bar and Grill? Make it real but respectful.
- Include a bit of description when discussing the deceased: “The red-haired school teacher married her childhood sweetheart in 1963. They settled in Hippie Dippy Valley, where they built a geodesic dome and raised four children.”
- Ask a couple of family members or friends for anecdotes. Then edit for length. Include what they remember best about the deceased: “Aunt Maybelle always wore an angel pin and spelled of peppermint,” said her niece, Patty Pan. (Even if she died of lung cancer, and sucked on mints to cover up the smell of tobacco.)
- Include the person’s favorite author, musician, or perhaps their philosophy of life: “Mom’s favorite author was Stephen King. She would always stay up late reading, then fall asleep with the light on.” Make your loved one a multi-dimensional person – not a one-dimensional cut-out figure.
- The names of surviving parents, spouse, and children; the number of grandchildren, nieces and nephews, etc. Include family members who preceded the person in death.
- Write as though you care. Because this is your loved one’s life story in miniature. Your obituary could be the only biography anyone ever writes about them. FFG