Using words to capture a person, and that person’s movement through life, is no different from writing a realistic (that is, complex and unique) fictional character. It’s all in the details.
Lydia loved music.
Lydia had half a million songs in her personal music library. She would email the lyrics of her favorites to her closest friends.
If you prefer to work as much as possible within the framework of a standard obituary, it’s easy enough to add the details that will bring out your loved one’s character.
Enhancing the standard obituary to create your obitogy
In the below standard-format obituary, one I created that closely mimics many existing obituaries, the text in bold offers examples of how you might add to general descriptors with the fine points that will allow your departed to come through more vibrantly.
Sam Smith, 67, passed away at Palmtree Health Care Center in Chesapeake Monday, Dec. 10, 2018. Born in Brattleboro, Vermont to the late Harry Newton and Beatrice Matrix, she grew up in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. [Detail: What was Sam like as a child?] She graduated from Harvard in X year. [Detail: What kind of student was she?] Following graduation, she married Pat [Detail: What term of endearment might she use for Pat? Or, what was Pat to her besides a spouse?]. They settled and raised their [Detail: what word/s would describe their family?] family in Manchester, Connecticut until Pat’s retirement in 1986.
Sam was a devoted mother and grandmother [Detail: How so?]. Caring for her family was one of Sam’s greatest joys, but she also loved photography [Detail: What did she take pictures of? To what lengths would she go to get a shot?], baking [Detail: baking what? how often, and how much of it?], reading [Detail: reading what? when was her preferred reading time?], and sewing [Detail: sewing what, and what for?]. She was a devoted churchgoer active in the Women’s Fellowship [Detail: Active in what way?].
Sam is survived by …
A memorial service will be held …
Above obituary with details added:
Sam Smith, 67, passed away at Palmtree Health Care Center in Chesapeake Monday, Dec. 10, 2018. Born in Brattleboro, Vermont to the late Harry Newton and Beatrice Matrix, she grew up in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. As a young wanderer about town, Sam was rarely spotted without a can of Coke in hand, and by the time she was sixteen there was not a tree left in the Village Green that she hadn’t climbed. She graduated from Harvard, where she struggled through Economics, which she found “easy, but dull,” and attended one of every three psychology classes (the professor always read straight from the textbook, she used to argue). Following graduation, she married Pat, whom she referred to lovingly as “my sweet Star Wars nerd.” They settled and raised their adventurous, independent, and close-knit family in Manchester, Connecticut until Pat’s retirement in 1986.
Sam was a devoted mother and grandmother, always finding the time for her grandchildren’s extracurricular and sporting activities. Even when told she could skip a grandchild’s game or spelling bee, Sam appeared, as usual wearing the appropriate school colors and finding the spot or chair with the best view of the stage or field. She did this as a mother, too, ignoring her children’s assurances that parents really didn’t need to observe practice. (As a grandmother, she finally did skip practice, using the time to bake post-practice snickerdoodles, which she delivered in used Easter baskets. “Reuse, not refuse!” she liked to say.) Caring for her family was one of Sam’s greatest joys, but she also loved
photography using her macro lens to take artistic pictures of rocks and bark, baking snickerdoodles, apple coffee cake, and artistically-crusted pies, reading independently released literary novels, and sewing making her own clothes. She was a devoted churchgoer active in the Women’s Fellowship, where she led many meetings, gently (but persuasively—none dared refuse!) encouraged wider participation, and nourished members with her coffee cake, pie, or snickerdoodles.
Sam is survived by …
A memorial service will be held …
Writing an obitogy from scratch
When writing an obitogy, know that you don’t have to be trapped by the standard obituary format. You’re free to dismiss “[Name], [age], of [Town, State], passed away [date]” as your first line. You aren’t required to write the exact date of death at all, or even where the person lived, was born, went to school, or worked unless it matters to you. (And considering the risks of fraud, it may be safer not to include too many exact dates.)
When considering your opening, think about what trait(s) first come(s) to mind when you picture your loved one.
Was she someone with a dark sense of humor?
Some might say Sheila, a pilot, died doing what she loved. Sheila would argue that flying, not crashing, was her passion.
Was he someone who never went anywhere without a book?
Mitch Jones didn’t read every book ever written, but he was getting close.
There’s no wrong way to begin an obitogy. For inspiration, check out these 10 Incredible Obituary Examples That Will Make your Day.
Writing the rest
Take note of the words you would automatically use to describe your loved one (or, if you’re writing your own, yourself) and find a way to incorporate them into the obitogy.
Was the person funny? sensitive? quiet? studious? adventurous? understanding? outdoorsy? indoorsy? opinionated? creative? reliable? charming? philanthropic? supportive? talented? determined? ambitious? free-spirited? a realist? an incredible father? a prankster? resilient? the world’s best grandfather?
Whatever the words or phrases you choose, don’t forget to show them in action with the use of details, which can (and in some cases should!) include anecdotes.
Funny What, specifically, did she like to do that made people laugh? What story can you tell about a time she was her funny self?
Sensitive How did he show his sensitivity? Did he hug people going through a hard time? avoid sad movies because they affected him deeply? In other words, how might someone know he was sensitive? Is there a story you can think of that illustrates his sensitivity?
Quiet In what way, if not with words, did she make her feelings known? In what situations was she “quiet” when others might be less so?
The world’s best grandfather What, specifically, did he do with or for his grandchild(ren)? (If he baked – what did he bake? Cookies? What kind of cookies? Did he sneak any for himself? Did he let the kids lick the bowl, or did he tell them it was bad for them and then lick it, himself, once they left the kitchen? Maybe he bought them fun socks for every occasion, or left them with a famous quote or personal proverb after every visit.)
- The little things
The little things about a person are often the most indelible in our memories. The way she tilted her head when paying close attention. The gentleness with which he would set down his smart phone, as if it were made of phyllo-thin glass. Her almost painfully firm handshake grip. His frequent microwaving of the coffee he always forgot to drink before it cooled…
In the movie Sleepless in Seattle, Tom Hanks’ character, Sam, has lost his wife, and their son, Jonah, is afraid he’s forgetting his mother. The single detail Sam offers as a memory of his late wife is, “She could peel an apple in one long, curly strip. The whole apple.”
These details may seem small, but they go far in completing, even solidifying, the image of a person. Behaviors are observable to all, but understood and truly appreciated by the few. Familiarity with these singularities is the special gift granted those of us who best knew the deceased. As public speaker and former teacher Brian Wasko explains in a blog post he wrote about the Sleepless scene,
“…the way to keep from forgetting is to remember the little details. No words can describe a face. Not well. But remember the little things that make someone uniquely human and the face comes back with the rest…”
- Rounding it all out: Seek additional perspectives
Everyone is someone different to each person in his or her life. A father is one person to his children, another person to his friends, and someone else entirely to his own parents. His children will have far different feelings about him than will his partner or his old high school friends. The impressions of other people not only make for a fuller, more accurate obitogy, but they also introduce you, the obitogy writer, to previously unknown facets of your loved one’s personality or events in her/his life.
Note: Don’t be afraid to be honest! No one is flawless. Flaws make us interesting.
Depending on how immediately following the death you’re faced with the challenge of trying to encapsulate a person’s existence in what seems like far too few words, it may be one thing too many to try to come up with the right things to say, the traits to emphasize. Here are some questions to get you started, if you need them:
- What idea was most important to them? How did they show it?
- Any frequently shared quotes/phrases? When and how were they delivered?
- Favorite music? (Not just genre, but artists.) How did they act when a favorite song played?
- Teach any memorable lessons? What lessons, and how were they presented?
- Good/terrible dancer? How did they move?
- Collect anything? How determined were they to find objects? Or did they refuse to collect anything, because MESS?
- Did they have a “famous” meal, either to cook or to eat? Were they sharers of food or slappers of hands?
- Favorite drink? Where was a favorite place/when was a favorite time to drink it?
- Preferred outside-the-house activity? Was it for competition or for fun?
- Were they competitive? How did they show their competitiveness or lack thereof?
- Were they very particular about anything–how they squeezed the toothpaste, how they wore their hair, what socks they liked to buy…?
- Did they have a unique or unusual talent/skill? When or how did they share it, or did they keep it fairly private?
- Did they have a cherished item? What’s the story behind it, or how could you tell how much they cherished it?
- Did they go above and beyond (in either a sentimental or funny way)?
- Were they generous? How? To whom?
- Did they have a passion? What was it, and how did they go about satisfying it?
- Were they a good listener? How did they listen?
- Imagine the person. What’s the first thing you think of? Why? Use that.
I hope this site has been useful to you. If you need some assistance, whether it’s help with an obitogy you’ve already written or help writing one from the beginning, please feel free to contact me. [This is a fee-based service: $50-$75 for editing an existing obitogy; $200 if you’d like me to write one for you.] – Kris