Writing an Obituary or Autobituary

by Jerri Haaven, Certified Grief Recovery Specialist and Celebrant


 Photo by John Jackson (no changes were made) 

Four years ago I engaged in the difficult task of writing my dad’s obituary. I found out how difficult it can be to tell the story of a loved one in a few lines. Our “What to Include” (see below) provides suggestions of basic information to cover in an obituary.


Why leave your life in the hands of another to write? Consider writing your own obituary, which has recently been coined an “autobituary.” This can be a reflection of your life – the serious, the mundane and even the funny.

One such autobituary written by Delaware resident Walter Bruhl Jr., has gone viral. He wrote a humorous depiction of his life. The autobituary was a gift to his family who found it after he died. His grandson is quoted as saying (when hearing the autobituary read), “…I laughed and cried the whole time.” More laughter began as the following instructions to the family were read: “Cremation will take place at the family's convenience, and his ashes will be kept in an urn until they get tired of having it around. What's a Grecian Urn? Oh, about 200 drachmas a week."

What to Include in an Obituary or Autobituary

Start with the essentials:

  • Full Name of the Deceased
  • Age
  • Date of Birth
  • Date of Death
  • Place lived at time of death
  • Survivors:
    • Spouse/Partner/Fiancé
    • Children (and first name of spouse, if applicable)
    • Grandchildren / great-grandchildren (in birth order)
    • Siblings (and first name of spouse, if applicable)
    • Pets

Now, add interesting or well-known facts about the deceased:

  • Career Highlights
  • Achievements or Awards
  • Military Service
  • Hobbies
  • Special characteristics
  • Anecdote especially for the autobituary

Include whether you’d prefer a monetary donation to be designated to the deceased’s favorite charity, or to the family in order to help offset funeral or cremation costs.

Be sure to let readers know details of a memorial service. If cremation has been a choice and public may attend a service, inform readers of details unique to the memorial service such as scattering ashes at a garden gathering or by water where the deceased wished to be scattered. Or perhaps the gathering will be at home where a keepsake urn with the deceased’s ashes will be displayed along with photos and remembrances.

Whatever information is relevant to the public, include in the obituary. Invitations to memorial services such as ash scatterings are often done privately.

Obituary Costs

After spending what seemed like hours crafting my dad’s obituary, I submitted it to a large newspaper in Minneapolis and asked to have it run for about a week, beginning on a Sunday. I also requested that a picture of him along with the image of the American Flag be included. As the customer service person tallied up the final cost, I about keeled over from shock. The cost was well over $1000 for about 26 lines of text. The flag alone contributed to about six of those lines.

I found myself filled with anxiety at having to cull my dad’s life into smaller, bite-size pieces and was upset that I couldn’t tell his story the way I wanted to. I eventually got the cost down to about $700, and his obituary ran in the paper for about three days, beginning on a Sunday – usually the highest average readership of a paper.

Obituary writing is not for the faint of heart. According to the Funeral Site, for example, newspaper obituaries range in price from free to over $600. The average price is $298 for 20 lines and a picture. Smaller papers are much less expensive, and sometimes will charge a simple flat rate. Given the costs associated with such an important task, it might be wise to write a few variations of it until you are certain you’ll be happy with the one that is published. The website Legacy.com provides a number of ideas for what to consider when writing an obituary.

Lastly, who says obituaries have to be sad?

Jerri Haaven is a freelance writer, and a certified Grief Recovery Specialist and Celebrant. When caring for her dad, who suffered from dementia and COPD, Jerri struggled with the negative side effects of his illness. She developed positive outlets to express herself and recover from her loss. Today as a certified Grief Recovery Specialist and Celebrant, she uses her skills to help people who are in the midst of their own personal story of grief and loss.

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