What Does It Take to Write An Obituary?

When Marie Fredriksson passed away last year in December, almost every international news site I frequently visit wrote her obituary. She was the vocalist of pop rock duo Roxette, which hit international fame in the 80’s and 90’s. Throughout her life she was known to be a productive singer, songwriter, pianist, and painter. She was married with two children and she was a victim of a 17-year-long battle with brain cancer.

The obituaries I read had some similarities and even more differences in their points of view. Although it gave out her personal information, as obituary does, each and every obituary I read took a distinctive approach in describing the life she had led. To me, it felt like looking at a pyramid from various sides; one time I might see a square and another time a triangle.

She was described as a genius in her field, a very talented Swedish musician who had broken through America’s domination in the world and pop music industry (although her popularity was actually constructed by it). She was private about her personal life. One obituary wrote about her not inviting her partner in Roxette, Per Gessle, to her wedding because she thought he wasn’t in her inner circle. A decision which later hurt their friendship.

In all obituaries I read, there was affection. There was a loving way of reminiscing the life of someone who was dear to a lot of people because of her works, even though none of us really knew her on a personal level. I grew up with Roxette’s songs, and after reading those obituaries I felt like I had grown up with her. And I had lost someone I knew well.

What does it take to write an obituary?

First and foremost, there is no such thing as a great obituary. There’s only heartfelt, gut-wrenching writing about someone who has completed his or her journey on this earth. There’s also sometimes an almost vain effort to describe one’s characteristics, accomplishments, and what he or she has meant to the people they leave behind.

Growing up I spent much time reading obituaries on the Sunday’s newspaper. Usually there would be two pages of them, full of picture, dates of birth and death, and a list of names of their immediate family and company they founded. Some obituaries cited verses from the Bible. Others were not exactly an obituary, it was more like a thank-you letter from the family of the deceased to those who had expressed their condolences.

Looking back, I realize I have never read an obituary in the form of an article on Indonesia’s mass media, like it is on Western’s. The obituary on the Western newspaper can be lengthy and very detailed, depending on the request. It doesn’t have to be about a famous person’s death. Even if the person who just died is a farmer, his family can order the writing of an obituary article to mark his passing away.

After reading the late Marie Fredriksson’s obituaries, I came up with a conclusion about a memorable obituary.

1. It has to be personal.

If you are a reporter assigned a task to write an obituary of a person unknown to you, make sure you get to know that person enough to write something about him or her.

Information about place and date of birth, the schools he went to, his spouse, children, and jobs, all can be found easily online or through official agencies. But you have to know beyond that. The kind of person he was, his strengths, his weaknesses (just a slight information to show that he is afterall only a human being), his interests, they are the things people will hardly forget about.

One article I encountered a few years back suggested interviewing the deceased’s enemy to get an honest and truest picture of someone’s personality. I’m opposed to that approach. If it’s a frenemy, there might be some good sides written in the obituary. If it’s a foe, it will be morally and ethically indecent to bad mouth someone who just passed away.

The best way to get to know someone is from his family, the people he spent most of his time with, the people he’s supposed to be closest with. It’s not the case for some people. There are individuals who are totally dedicated to their careers, that their bosses and colleagues are the ones who know them best. Either way, you should find that person, those people, who can tell what kind of person the deceased was.

Other than the people, try to take a look at his possessions, the things he kept close in his life. A collection of basketball cards, perhaps. Or a yearly ticket to an amusement park. Maybe a string of vintage photographs. By looking at those mundane objects, you’ll get to know how he used his time, what he deemed important or not. It’s as if rewinding his once blossoming life before your eyes and you’ll get many insights before you write his obituary.

2. Put yourself in his family’s shoes.

Try picturing yourself as his spouse or children or parent or sibling who is reading an obituary before an audience. Some funerals have a wake beforehand where there will be a simple mass and people take turn to speak about the deceased. Other families prefer a gathering to remember the deceased after his burial. Every person/family has their own preference.

Imagine yourself talking to the people who have known him all his life about his habit of picking his nose. Won’t it be degrading his reputation? Or imagine yourself talking about his past mistake which has caused shame to his parents. Won’t it be humiliating for his family to hear?

If you’re not comfortable with talking about those things directly, you shouldn’t write about them either.

Write the true things, not necessarily the nice things, but the true aspects of his life, personality, and legacy. Write the things he stood up for, the things he fought for, the things he worked hard for. Write about his attitudes, his preferences, his dislikes.

Write surprising things most people don’t know about him. You can gather the information by interviewing several people in his life. Sometimes people only see what they want to see and they miss other important details about someone, even though they’ve spent years living with him.

Also, write what he would hope for if he was still here. Write about his passions, his aspirations, his dreams, and his plans if only he had lived longer on earth. This can be an encouragement for the people who are mourning their loss, for the people who wish he had more time to be with them.

Yesterday, one of our neighbors passed away because of Covid-19. It was a shocking news, one we never thought we would hear. Gradually this pandemic is hitting closer to home. We’ve heard news about our acquaintances’ family or friends getting infected, we’ve lost two neighbors in recent months as well, but we never thought it would happen again this soon.

He was the father of my flute teacher, a friendly man who with his wife founded a music and ballet school in our neighborhood. My eldest daughter had her first piano and ballet lessons at their business. I had my flute lesson there, too. The last time we met each other was some time last year.

The rest of the family is now isolating themselves. Although we’re neighbors, we cannot visit them so we can only send our deepest condolences through social media. They didn’t even have a proper farewell, and they’re not allowed the chance to be consoled by the people who truly care for them. This disease is robbing our humanity.

On her message to me, his wife wrote this:

Dearest friends and family,

Thank you for your sincere wishes, thoughtful prayers, and uplifting encouragements. It means the world to us as a family.

He was a righteous man who feared the Lord and loved Jesus Christ with his whole heart. Words of encouragement and inspiration flowed naturally from his mouth to everyone regardless of their status and background. By reading your messages it’s clear that the love is mutual from all of you. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts.

It was neither lengthy nor fancy, but it was an obituary in its own way. It was heartbreaking and honest about someone who was gone too soon, about his family who is devastated. It surely was a beautiful obituary.

Now we can only pray for strength for them to endure this difficult time, and grace for all of us to be freed from this pandemic.



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