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How to Write a Biography for a Funeral Program + Examples
Belinda McLeod, BA in Secondary Education
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After a person dies, someone in the family usually writes a biography or obituary about the person. This task sometimes falls to a friend or the funeral director may also help with the writing process.
You may then submit the biography or obituary to the newspaper through the funeral home. Most newspapers charge families a per-word rate to print the article. You may also write the obituary for the funeral program on the funeral home’s website.
Check out our tips for writing a biography for a funeral. We will also give you short biography examples to help you with your task of telling your loved one’s life story.
Jump ahead to these sections:
Steps for writing a biography for a funeral, funeral biography samples.
Think of a biography (or obituary) as a news article informing the general public about a death that occurred. Even though you may feel emotional when writing an obituary, this is not typically the outlet for writing about your feelings.
Even though the biography is an informative article, it is up to you to include the details. You can include pretty much whatever you want, but it’s a good idea to get the family’s general consensus regarding what you will write about in the biography.
The number and types of details may vary, depending on the person and where the biography or obituary will be used. A biography (or obituary) read at a funeral may include more details than one printed in the newspaper or funeral program .
Step 1: Start with the general facts
You want to identify the deceased first. Use the full name (with the maiden name in parentheses) and the age of the person. If the deceased had an often-used nickname, consider putting it in quotes.
The more identification factors you use makes it less likely that your loved one gets mistaken for someone else. This is especially important if your loved one had a common name.
Step 2: Consider including the essential dates in the obituary
Some families choose to include the birth date and death date of the deceased in the obituary. You can present this information in a variety of ways.
Others avoid giving this detailed information in hopes of limiting the likelihood of fraudulent activity. You may provide partial information, such as “She was born to Bob and Mary Smith in October 1982.”
Step 3: Consider including the cause of death
The family must decide whether or not to include the cause of death. Most people who read the biography will wonder, “What happened?” This question may seem nosy to you, but it is only human nature to be curious about such matters.
Some families choose to leave this information out of the biography, which is their prerogative. Others may view it as a piece of information that may be helpful to future generations. Some may give partial information, such as “Mary Frankie Jones, 65, passed away after a long illness.”
Step 4: Include information about the early life of the deceased
Most people choose to include the names of the parents of the deceased as well as the city of birth. Again, only include specific information if you feel comfortable; some unscrupulous individuals use this biographical information for nefarious purposes.
You may consider including where the deceased graduated high school and/or college. Include any brief military service during this section of the biography as well.
Step 5: Include other family information
Often, you list a deceased person’s marriages in the article chronologically and list children at the end of the article as “survivors to the deceased.”
For some, it’s easy to write about the deceased’s spouse but makes a difficult task for others. Again, there are no “rules” on who to include, so you and your family must make those determinations.
People agonize over whether to include estranged family members. You may also wonder whether to label stepchildren differently than biological children. Ex-spouses and long-term partners that never marry may pause you as you write the obituary.
Each situation is different, so most etiquette guides recommend that people do their best to keep their relationships with their living family members intact by not limiting the list of survivors in the obituary.
Step 6: Write about your loved one’s professional life
A funeral biography is not the same as a resume, but most people give at least some general information about how the deceased earned a living.
If the deceased worked his entire adult life at one place of business, you would include this detail in the obituary. If he job-hopped but stayed in the same industry, you may include a sentence about his profession.
You may make this section of the biography longer for those with active careers.
Step 7: Consider including information about community involvement
Many families choose to include their loved one’s involvement in community groups. For example, you may choose to include the deceased’s involvement in a specific church, civic organization, or volunteer group. You may also want to include any offices that the deceased held in any of these organizations as well as any awards earned.
Step 8: Add any details that made your loved one special
There’s much more to life than work and club memberships. Think about other details you could include in the biography that would help people understand what made your loved one unique.
Perhaps you want to write about how she was a Star Wars superfan and waited in line each time a new film was released. Maybe your loved one was an avid camper and fisherman and spent each weekend in a tent.
You may want to write a lengthy exposition about what made your loved one special, which you should do. Use this information to write your loved one’s eulogy or share your writing with close family members. Depending on where you publish it, you may find your writing limited by the amount of space available.
To get you started in your writing process, read these short, fictional obituary snippets.
For a parent or grandparent
Douglas Richard Schrute, 82, passed away peacefully in his home on Monday, June 23, 2020. His wife of 53 years was by his side at the time of death.
Douglas was born on December 22, 1938, to Richard and Mary (Sullivan) Schrute in Elmwood, Illinois. He was the fourth son born to the couple.
After graduating from Elmwood High School, he joined the U.S. Army, serving his country in Korea.
For a child or grandchild
Mary Kate is survived by her parents, Michael and Patricia Carmichael, and one brother, Cole. Other survivors include her maternal grandparents, John and Tawnya Crabtree, and her paternal grandparents, Frank and Louise Carmichael.
For a partner or spouse
Peter worked in the telecommunications industry all his life. He began his career at Southwestern Bell in 1973 and retired from AT&T in 2018. He worked as a technical salesperson for most of his professional life.
For an adult without immediate family
Michael will always be remembered by his friends as the “man of 1,000 stories.” He began each conversation by saying, “Stop me if you’ve heard this before,” which no one ever did. He was the life of the party, and laughter followed him wherever he went.
For someone who died after a long illness
Jack passed away Friday, December 8, after a long battle with lung cancer.
The family wishes to express appreciation to the Elmwood Hospice organization for helping make his transition to heaven as peaceful as possible.
Take Great Care When Writing the Biography of a Loved One
If you are in charge of making all of the arrangements, you may find yourself overwhelmed by your list of “to-do” items.
Even though you may find yourself pressed for time, carefully consider the wording of your loved one’s biography or obituary. Take care to be as accurate as possible by double-checking dates, the spelling of names, and other facts.
Anytime you write something of this level of importance, it is good to have other family members and friends check the piece for accuracy, clarity, and grammar. Have others proofread the funeral program as well and help you pick which modern funeral program to include.
You only have one chance to write the obituary of your loved one, so take your time as you complete this task.
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Writing a Meaningful Eulogy
How Long Should a Eulogy Be?
How to write a eulogy, how to add humor to a eulogy, how to write a eulogy in 5 easy steps, 1. brainstorm ideas and gather information.
2. Write an Introduction
3. write a brief biography, 4. share special life moments, memories, and qualities, 5. conclude the eulogy with some comforting words, here to assist you.
Photo By: John Doe
Photo by: John Doe
How to Write a Biography of a Deceased Person
Rebecca cioffi, 29 sep 2017.
Everyone dies. It’s a simple fact of life. And when they do, many times an obituary is needed, which is just another word for biography. If you are writing one for a local newspaper or something that requires brevity, use three paragraphs. For anything else, like a eulogy or even a school paper on a dead relative, you can make it as long as you like. Just remember you are writing about someone's life and give your biography the respect that this person deserves.
Explore this article
- Begin with the background
- Include personality traits
- Was sad but so many rich things
- Fact check your article
1 Begin with the background
Begin with the background. Described who the person was as evidenced by whom he left behind, including spouses and children. You can also include details like where he worked and what he did. Include that he was a wonderful teacher or everyone loved his Santa at Christmas; it doesn't have to be a full life story, just some interesting tidbits and highlights. It doesn't have to be the Nobel Prize to be included, unless he did win the Nobel Prize.
2 Include personality traits
Include personality traits and unusual or funny characteristics. If he was extremely philanthropic or donated to one cause, mention that. Give a sense of the man here -- a sense of his personality, what he found funny or cared deeply about and why people liked him.
3 Was sad but so many rich things
End with the idea that his passing was sad but so many rich things came from his life. You can then end with some accomplishments of the deceased’s family. Remember that research is important here. Make some phone calls to his family and friends and interview them. Just a few comments from relatives can really add to the biography.
4 Fact check your article
Fact check your article thoroughly as you don't want to get any facts wrong including dates of birth and death, a list of survivors and funeral dates and times. If you are including sensitive information such as cause of death, check with the family first before publishing.
About the Author
Rebecca Cioffi worked in the entertainment industry for almost 20 years and is currently living in Phoenix, Ariz., where she is working on a book. She is also a phlebotomist.
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Lesson of The Day
Writing a Short Biography With Obituaries
In this lesson, we invite students to learn about obituary writing in The New York Times, and then write about someone who led an interesting life, using the format of an obituary.
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By Erica Ackerberg
Featured Section: Obituaries
When the reporter Margalit Fox retired, she reflected on her career as an obituary writer at The New York Times: “Writing daily obits only reinforced what I had long suspected: It is the best beat in journalism. The reason is simple: In following their subjects from cradle to grave, obits are the most narrative genre in any daily paper. For a writer, there is little better than being paid to tell stories.”
Since 1851, hundreds of thousands of obituaries have appeared in The Times. In the most basic sense, an obituary is an announcement of someone’s death. But each one is also a life story: It highlights the impact a person had on the world and what made him or her special. Those you’ll see in the pages of The Times are usually of famous people, such as Hank Aaron or Betty White , but you’ll also find obituaries of lesser known, but otherwise newsworthy, people, like Betty King, who worked backstage at Carnegie Hall, and André Cassagnes , the inventor of the Etch A Sketch.
In this lesson, you will read some of the obituaries published in The New York Times to find out what they’re like, what kinds of information they typically include and how they are written. Then, you’ll research and write an obituary for someone who led an interesting life.
Teachers, writing an obituary can help your students practice essential research, writing and storytelling skills. You can have them write obituaries for people they knew, notable figures or anyone else whose life story is worth knowing. Here are a few ideas for different subject areas:
An English teacher might have students write an obituary for a character from a shared class text to better understand who that person was, what was important to him or her and what effect he or she had on others in the book. Students could also write obituaries for authors or other important people from your curriculum.
A social studies teacher could do the same with a historical figure. A math or science teacher might pick an influential person from a field of study students are learning about.
Health or advisory teachers could use this lesson to talk about ways to remember and memorialize those who have died. They might engage students in discussion on how different cultures honor the dead.
Watch this trailer for a documentary about the Obituaries desk of The New York Times, and think about the following questions:
What does it mean that obituaries are a way “to make the dead live again”?
Does writing or reading about someone who has died feel depressing to you, or even creepy? Or, as with these obituary writers, do you find it intriguing?
Is there anyone whose life story you would like to tell? What made that person’s life special or meaningful?
Pick one of these obituaries to read. Or search through the Obituaries section to find one that interests you.
Questions for Writing and Discussion
Read the obituary you chose, and then answer the following questions:
1. What, if anything, did you know about this person before you read his or her obituary?
2. List some basic facts about the person: Where and when was he or she born? Who was in his or her family? What did this person accomplish in life? When and how did he or she die?
3. Why do you think The New York Times wrote an obituary about this person? What made this person newsworthy? How was his or her life special?
4. Was there anything about the person’s life that surprised you? What detail did you find most interesting? Why?
5. What, if anything, do you find inspirational about the person’s story?
6. Now, read the obituary as a writer. What do you admire about the way this piece was written? What is your favorite line, and why?
Now, it’s your turn: Write an obituary for someone — perhaps someone you knew personally, a historical figure you are learning about in school, a character from a novel you are reading or anyone else whose life story you’d like to tell.
1. First, you’ll need to do research. You might read newspaper articles or biographies, watch or listen to interviews featuring your subject, or talk with the person’s family members or friends.
(If you’re speaking with someone whose loved one has recently died, remember to approach the conversation with compassion. When Neil Vigdor, a Times reporter, calls someone who has lost a family member or a friend, he starts by saying, “I’m deeply sorry to be reaching out under these circumstances.” Then he asks to hear more about the person who died.)
2. Next, you’ll need to identify the most basic facts of the person’s life and death. Here is part of a tip sheet from The Times’s Obituaries desk on the essential information every obituary should include:
Date of death Place of death Age at death Cause of death Full birth name, and place and date of birth Education Military service Marriages, to whom and when; and divorces, if there are any. Names of parents, siblings, spouse or companion and children. Numbers of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The more biographical background the obituary can give, the better. For example, how did they start their careers? Details like education and military service should be given when relevant or interesting. If possible, give the names and occupations of the subject’s parents, as well as his or her place and date of birth.
But you don’t want your obituary to just be a list of dry facts. Add what journalists call “color.” What made this person’s life interesting? In “ How to Write an Obituary, ” Malia Wollan interviews Victoria Chang, a poet who wrote obituary poems after her mother died, and gives examples of these kinds of details:
“Everyone is special and quirky, and I think the best obituaries capture the essence of those qualities about each of us,” Chang says. What things did she collect? What did she love to eat? What brought her joy?
3. Finally, it’s time to write. The format of an obituary is often uniform. Ms. Wollan describes it this way:
An obituary tends to have three distinct parts: the beginning (name, age, date of death, cause of death [if possible to include], work, education); the middle (anecdotes that celebrate the person’s life); and the end (so-and-so is survived by, which Chang calls “a very efficient way of saying who’s grieving.”)
Also, consider the tone you want your obituary to have. Ms. Wollan continues:
An obituary is for the living, but you should consider the sensibilities of the deceased. How would the person want to be remembered? “Imagine what they would write about themselves,” Chang says. It’s OK to be funny. “There’s a lot of humor and oddity, strange tensions and funny stuff about people and the things they do together,” Chang says.
And if you want to get creative, instead of writing a traditional obituary, make a slide show of the person’s life with photos and text , put together a mixed media collage or write an obituary poem, as Ms. Chang did for her mother. Share what you make with your class.
If you want to learn more about obituaries in The New York Times, the documentary “ Obit ” is available on Amazon Prime. You can also listen to this interview on NPR with two obituary writers from The New York Times.
Want more Lessons of the Day? You can find them all here .
- Write a Life Story
A short life story can be an alternative to writing an obituary in advance. When the obituary is needed, all the facts of the life are already at hand.
A life story can be composed for oneself or a relative or friend. It only needs to be a couple of pages long. A life story has the advantage of being able to be reviewed by the person involved. This step is good for checking the accuracy of facts and for the tone as well. A life story also can be a way to trigger and consolidate memories of the older – and the not-so-older – members of the family.
As well, Grandma's or Grandpa's life story (while they are still living) can be presented as a memento to children and grandchildren.
The best way to start is to get started. Get ideas down on paper, and organize them either by timeline, theme, or both. Don't worry about style, it can always be improved later. Many events of any person's life will sound bland and ordinary, but need to be included.
A note here about personal diaries (or journals). A diary is written for the person writing it; a life story or memoir is written for other people. If a diary has been kept, this could be source material in preparing a short life story or a longer memoir. Also, if a diary has been kept: make sure there are instructions for after death to either have it passed down or destroyed.
Because a life story is written while the person is still living (and so of course does not wind up with funeral arrangements), the ending can be happy, and even oriented to the future. Whether the story is written chronologically or thematically, consider finishing the story with a positive theme in any case. Cast the final sentence so it ends with an upbeat or future-oriented word.
Look for a way to end like: "Belonging to the coin collecting club has been a source of many good memories and continues to bring to his life much enjoyment."
Or: "She has participated in numerous running competitions over the years, and is preparing to enter the local senior's event next year."
Or even: "He has been greatly interested in the lives of his grandchildren, and looks forward to seeing them grow and change in the future."
Alternatively, end with three words that sum up the person's life. (Or, think of six words; see the review Six Words To Describe A Life? )
A basic two-page life story also can be a start to a longer memoir. For more on this subject, see the article “Memoir Man” a Born Storyteller .
Of course, having already written the life story, when the time comes for the obituary, the facts, anecdotes, and themes of the life lived are already there.
Life Story Writing Tips
- Use this website. Look at the Obituary Template as a guide for necessary information.
- Get started. The most important thing is to get started. Get your ideas down on paper. Organize your ideas either by timeline, theme, or a combination. Worry about improving the style later. For on-going and current events, use the present tense.
- Get all the facts. While you are collecting ideas, include all the facts, for example the complete birth dates of ancestors as well as children and grandchildren. This is more detailed than an obituary needs to be, but can be very useful for posterity. Ideas for details that are often missed: street addresses where people lived, locations where deceased ancestors are buried.
- Deal with diaries. Incorporate any information from them; confirm instructions for them after death.
- End on a high note. Conclude with three words that sum up the life, or with an on-going theme or interest in the person's life. Make the ending positive, even inspiring.
- Read it to others. Read aloud a draft at a family gathering to check facts, to get feedback on descriptions, and to generate more ideas. This process is a way to not only confirm, but also relive and revive old memories.
- Edit. As with any writing, revising improves the final product. This process not only spots errors, but also improves the style. An excellent way to improve any writing is to set it aside for a few days, then look at it with fresh eyes – your own or someone else's.
- Proofread. Then proofread again.
- Send it out. Distribute the completed life story as a keepsake to family members. It could even prompt the writing of stories for other family members.
- Consider a longer memoir. A short life story can be the basis of a longer work.
- Keep it Available. Use the life story as a handy resource for when the obituary is needed.
See Also: Memoir Writing: Ten Tips Six Words To Describe A Life? “Memoir Man” a Born Storyteller A Family History Writing Workshop Live Well, Do Good
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How to Write a Commemorative Biography
Why Write a Commemorative Biography?
When someone close to us passes away, we are often left with a question that can be overwhelming to face: what now? How do we live with the memory of this person? How do we share this memory? How do we preserve it? The past is what shapes us, and remembering those we have loved and lost is an important part of living mindfully and building future relationships. Though there are a number of different ways through which one can preserve memories– photographs, memorial services, and other acts of remembrance– the writing of commemorative biographies is a practice that can be both deeply personal, as well as highly informative for future generations.
Why Collect Records?
In addition to having therapeutic emotional and mental benefits, writing down the life story of a loved one has a number of practical benefits as well. For example, by contributing to genealogical records, you are contributing to accessible records which may aid future generations in garnering a better understanding of their family history and relationships, as well as the development of their communities.
Unlike in the past when records such as these were often difficult to access as they existed in hard copy in specific locations, online access to genealogical records has increasingly become the norm. Just as grieving in the “digital age” has dramatically changed the ways in which grief is expressed as engaged with (via online grief support forums , for example), the ways in which the lives of those we lose are documented and preserved has also adapted. Qeepr’s own online memorials are exemplary of this, as we provide an online platform which can be personalized for recording and preserving the life stories of loved ones.
With our memorial profiles, you can record as much or as little personal information as you choose about those who have passed away; providing space to include all basic information about the individual (place of birth, occupation, family members, etc.), as well as offering the opportunity to share personal memories and anecdotes, upload pictures, videos, and write condolence messages. These kinds of biographical pages are both invaluable sources of information, as well as personal spaces for sharing memories and working through grief.
Top 3 Biography Writing Tips
- Draw information from everyone around you: Writing the life of someone is not something that can be done completely by a single person. It is important when writing a commemorative biography to speak to others who were close to the deceased. This includes family members, close friends, coworkers: anyone who spent time with the person who you have lost. By speaking to as many people as possible and noting how they perceived that person as well as stories of times they shared will lend itself to the development of a much richer biography.
- Gather as many documents as you can: Gather marriage records, old photographs and videos, letters, citizenship documents, birth and death certificates- any documentation that speaks to aspects of the deceased’s life. These kinds of physical pieces of documentation are important for reference when writing a biography, and also can be scanned and added to any digital profile you are creating.
- Collect more than just records: We all have drawers full of photographs and chances are our family members do as well! On a recent trip to visit family, one Qeepr team member found a stack of photos of their great-grandparents from the late 1800s. You can make the hunt for genealogical records that much more exciting by searching for family photos and digitizing them for everyone to enjoy.
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Unlike death notices, which are typically written in the straightforward style of a news item, obituaries usually include biographical details and anecdotes that show why the deceased person was special to those who knew him. If you are asked to write a biographical obituary, contact the funeral director for the basic facts, then interview the person's family members, friends and colleagues for the stories that will honor his memory.
Organizing the Obituary
Give the deceased person's full name, including a nickname, if it was commonly used. Include the person's city and state of residence, the date of death and his age. Check with the family for permission to include the cause of death.
List the deceased's education and occupation, including degrees earned and awards. If the person had special or unusual hobbies, describe them. They will bring out her personality, which is one of the goals of a biographical obituary.
List survivors. The standard order is: spouse, children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, parents, grandparents, siblings, other relatives, special friends and pets. If space is limited, ask the family which names to leave out. The obituary also may include names of family members who preceded the person in death.
Give the date and time for the visitation and funeral service. Include the street address and telephone number of the funeral home or place of worship, so mourners can get additional information. Some obituaries also list the names of pallbearers and clergy who will conduct the service.
Include memorial information, with the names and addresses of designated organizations. Thank hospital and hospice staff who may have been helpful to the deceased and the family.
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- If your biographical obituary is a feature story, running in addition to a full death notice, you will have more space for anecdotal stories. Eliminate all but the most essential factual details.
- Refer to the deceased as an individual in his own right. Often family members talk about "Dad" or "Grandpa" in an obituary, but that focuses on the survivors, rather than the person who has died.
- Use clear, simple language. Flowery descriptions or outdated expressions can make an obituary sound stilted.
- Ask the family for a photo to be published with the obituary.
- Do not write "in lieu of flowers." Instead, simply state where to send appropriate memorials.
- Avoid euphemisms, such as "dearly departed," "succumbed" and "expired."
- Leave out the person's date of birth and, in the case of a married woman, her maiden name. This kind of information, commonly included in the past, can now be used for identity theft.
- Avoid including the deceased's street address. It alerts criminals to a home that will likely be unattended during the hours of the visitation, funeral service and burial.
Lauryn Macy Roberts is a Midwesterner who began writing professionally in 2009 when she coauthored a grant-writing book. Since then, her work has appeared in various online publications. Roberts has taught English and composition for several years. She earned a Bachelor of Science in education from the University of Wisconsin and is completing a Master of Arts in professional writing at Mount Mary College.
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The Book Mechanic
Oct 31, 2021
9 Important Tips to Write an Obituary for a Deceased Person
An unusual writing chore… but somebody has to do it.
It is always hard to know what you should say in an obituary when someone close to you has passed away. How can you sum up everything that the deceased meant for the others in just a few short paragraphs?
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