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Writing an Obituary: How Your Words Can Heal The Grief-stricken

by Jeanine DeHoney

When my mother died, I knew not only as her daughter but as a writer whom she was proud of, that I would be the one to write her obituary. Though full of grief, I wrote one that was simple yet eloquent in the way it celebrated her in her many roles as a woman. When my girlfriend lost her daughter a few years ago, she asked me to write her daughter's obituary. Again I knew I had no choice. Her pain was immeasurable and if I could ease it by handling the memorializing of her daughter, I could not decline.

Words can be a balm for those who are grieving, especially words that are written. As writers we can use our skills to write obituaries not only for loved ones but for those who may not know how to craft words as well and as skilfully as we do.

You can also help yourself. According to "Freelance Writing Pay Rates -- How Much Money Do Writers Make" by Laurie Pawklik-Kienlen (which appeared in the blog Quips and Tips for Successful Writers), writers can make from $35 to $225 per project writing obituary copy.

Even if you see this as a money-making opportunity, however, I hope you first and foremost see it as a means to use your writing to help the loved ones left behind. Your writing can give them words that can be inked into their psyche and wrapped around them like their grandmother's patchwork quilt, long after the mourners have gone and the last condolence card has been read. Hopefully these will be words family members can hold onto on those days when sorrow overwhelms them. Your words, like those I wrote for my mother and my girlfriend, should be carefully chosen to celebrate a loved one's life.

If you are considering writing an obituary -- whether for family or friends or as a freelance writing opportunity -- here are some tips to help you. If you need more help, you can also find many resources online, including templates.

1. Meet with the family of the deceased when they have the time to talk.

Planning a memorial service or funeral is time-consuming. Meet with the family at a time when they have some "down" time, perhaps at the dinner table. Listen to their stories, because even in their grief there are bound to be humorous recollections that you can interject into the obituary. Perhaps the loved one got a nickname for doing something outlandish, or loved a certain snack so much that they would trek to the local store in rain or sleet when they had a craving for it. Or perhaps they had a laugh that was so contagious it would set a room full of people laughing as well.

2. If you do not know the person you are writing about, ask to look at something tangible the person owned and loved. Ask to see photos, mementoes, postcards from a recent trip, etc. This will help you focus on the person's passions and dreams and what they celebrated in life.

3. Ask family members to give you three key words that show the essence of the deceased person. Because you have a limited amount of wordage to work with, make sure those three words are embodied in your description of the person. Ask the family if the loved one had a favorite poet or hymn or saying. You may want to insert it in the obituary.

4. Get the correct spellings of family members' names, schools they attended, and correct dates of events such as births or deaths. Double-check with another family member as a back-up. I need more than two hands to count the number of funerals I have attended in which someone did not fact-check a date or misspelled a name.

5. Choose a quiet haven to write in. Turn off your Blackberry and let the answering machine take your messages. Turn off the clamor so that you can envision the person you are writing about and welcome their memory into your own heart.

6. Don't break all of the rules. Most obituaries are cookie cutter speeches, containing certain information. Don't break all of these time-honored rules. More importantly, honor the family's traditions and wishes. If the family wants it straightforward, don't write an obituary that is too flowery, glowing with adverbs.

7. Make sure you include the basics before taking poetic license:

Full name of the deceased, including nickname if any, date and place of birth, date and age at death, cause of death if family agrees, parents' and siblings' names and whether they are alive or deceased. Spouse, children, and grandchildren's names. The family may also want you to include other close family members or close friends.

Schools attended -- high school, college, or university -- and any military service and awards, or other notable achievements. Employment history.

End with an uplifting quote and inspiring scripture verse.

8. As writers we know the importance of proofreading our manuscripts -- and even after the tenth time we may still find an error. Don't be lax about proofreading the obituary. Just because it isn't lengthy doesn't mean an error or two might not escape your eyes.

9. Put your writer's ego aside. Be humble as you write. Think about the family and how you can weave your words to honor their loved one. Obituaries are not about impressing people with your style of writing.

10. Be empathetic but professional. You have a job to do as a writer, so you may have to step away from the emotions of the family members to do it.

11. After you have finished writing an obituary, take a moment to celebrate your life and your loved ones. Writing an obituary may cause you to dwell a bit upon your own mortality. Don't.

Instead, think about all you have to be thankful for and count your blessings for even the smallest things you awaken to each morning, and all the blissful writing projects you have yet to write.

Copyright © 2012 Jeanine DeHoney
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.


Jeanine DeHoney is a freelance writer, wife, mother, and grandmother. her writing has appeared in several magazines and blogs, including Bella Online, Mothering.com, Grand Magazine, Writing For Dollars, The Write Place At The Write Time, 50 to 1, Listen Up, Literary Mama, Together newspaper, Shine Journal, Guardian Angel e-zine, and Kraze Magazine. Her essays have appeared in Chicken Soup for the African American Woman's Soul, the Whispering Angel anthology Living Lessons, and The Perfect Pair, an anthology about women and shoes. She is presently a contributing writer to Esteem Yourself E-magazine.

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