The longtime obituary editor of The New York Times retired recently from that position. She explained that an obituary tells the story of a person’s life. You may be called on to write an obituary for a family member or on behalf of your firm. This is a difficult time, which perhaps explains the dismal statements trivializing people’s lives that regularly appear.
Focus on What Is Important
Compare the editorial obituaries to the paid-for notices. Editorial obituaries first tell the reader what was important about that person’s life. Paid notices usually bury that information.
Here are examples of verbiage you should avoid:
- The decedent’s mother’s maiden name, unless the mother was famous under that name
- The street where the decedent was born with no indication this influenced or had lingering meaning to the person’s life
- The decedent’s elementary or high school unless there was a lasting, important connection into adulthood
- Whether the person died at home or in a hospital unless there is something significant about that fact
- That the person died “peacefully,” a meaningless word here; as opposed to what — violently?
All of these things appeared in the first paragraph of an obituary for an elderly person. The third or fifth (!) paragraph finally told the reader about the wonderful things the decedent actually did with that life.
Consider what the decedent would want people to know. What accomplishment was that person proud of? What do readers of that announcement need and want to know? Here’s an example of one way to do it.
The law firm of Attorney, Lawyer, and Barrister joins the family of Arnold Attorney in mourning his death on [recent date.] Attorney, one of our founders, died at age 68 after a short battle with pancreatic cancer. We will miss his wisdom, his guidance and his humor.
Attorney was a leader in municipal planning. He was a pioneer in advising numerous state municipalities on how best to regulate planned unit developments. He authored many professional articles and was an adjunct professor at Mid-City Law School. Additionally, he was a board member of Mid-City Big Brothers.
Attorney is survived by his wife, Andrea (Smith) Attorney, children Thurgood (Maria) Attorney and Antonin (Susanna) Attorney, and grandchildren Ruth, Sandra and Felix.
Services will be held at Usual Chapel, address, on Date and Time. Contributions in Arnold’s memory may be made to the Mid-City Big Brothers Endowment Fund.
If you are writing on behalf of the family, the first paragraph might simply say, “Arnold Attorney, founder and managing partner of the Mid-City law firm Attorney, Lawyer, and Barrister, has died at age 68 after a short battle with pancreatic cancer.”
Preparing for the Inevitable
Newspapers pre-write obituaries for famous people so that an accurate, informative article can issue quickly. These are regularly updated. Yes, it’s morbid, but consider writing your own obituary and letting family and possibly firm members know where to find it.
As attorneys, we are knowledgeable about and counsel clients about how to prepare for death. If you are the estate planner or a family member, it’s not out of line to have the discussion about how the person wants to be publicly remembered.