So you want to be an obituary writer?

02/27/2020

Obituary writing is widely regarded as a morbid profession, born from the notion that obituaries are about death. While this is true in a sense, there’s a difference between an obituary and a simple notice of death, and what separates the two is that the former tells a story about a person’s life. And, as is the case for most creative things, the devil is in the details. Namely: an obit should not only reveal what a person did during their lifetime, but who they were, how they lived, and what they meant to the people closest to them. 

illustration for obituary writing

“Obituary writing requires the ability to reframe tragedy…” Illustration by Josh Quick

Maybe I’m something of an anomaly, but I’ve had a strange fascination with obituaries and the people who write them for as long as I’ve had an interest in writing professionally. It always seemed to me to be a great honor to commission a final tribute, preserve a person’s life story, and create tangible closure for the family and friends of the deceased. 

For those reasons and more, obituaries hold weight. In an interview with NPR in 1987, Philadelphia Daily News obituary writer Jim Nicholson speaks to the indelibility of obituaries:

The greatest investigative piece I ever wrote when I thought I was really important never survived more than a few weeks in terms of being kept around. But these obituaries, they’re laminated. They’re put under glass. They’re hung on walls or in family Bibles. In fact, they’re even put into the inside coat pocket of the deceased. And, yeah, they’ll be around long after you and I are gone.”

Nicholson passed away earlier this year, leaving behind a legacy that could also be described as indelible. He had an impressive career, spanning ten newspapers, three magazines, and a radio station. With that mind, it may seem like the profession in question should be reserved for the veterans of the craft—and sometimes it is—but in many cases, initiating a career as an obituary writer comes down to offering your services on an one-off basis or applying for a job at a local publication. 

How to become an obituary writer

Obituary writing requires the basic skills of a reporter. According to information via the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, a bachelor’s degree in journalism, communications, or English qualifies you to compete for jobs in this field. Like any writing job, obituary writing requires strong researching, interviewing, fact-checking, and editing skills, in addition to interpersonal aptitude. As an obituary writer, you will likely have to mine the recollections of friends and family during a sensitive time, and that it in itself requires a strong sense of tact. 

Many obituary writers get their start while they’re already employed at a publication. Obituary writing isn’t necessarily a full-time job, so if you’re working as a reporter at your local paper, for instance, you may be asked to take on obituaries in addition to your other duties. 

For anyone hoping to break into the craft independently, your best bet might be to offer your services directly to consumers. You can do this by creating your own website and building a relevant portfolio. To start, offer your services to people you know. This will help you build rapport within your own community. Finally, consider registering with the Society of Professional Obituary Writers. For a yearly fee, the organization will list your profile and website. Members of SPOW also gain access to international conferences, awards, and other relevant events. 

What an obituary should include

You’ve managed to secure a gig. Now what? Take a cue from narrative writing and start with the Five Ws: who, what, where, when, and why. Who were they? Who were they survived by? What did they do for a living? Where did they live? When did they die? 

Obituary writing requires the ability to reframe tragedy into a compelling—and honest—narrative. This is why it’s important to move beyond those general questions as well. Did the deceased have a nickname? Did they have any favorite foods, activities, or places? How were they affected by historic events? What sorts of achievement were they known for? 

And what if you’re writing about someone who’s led a quiet life? In an AMA for Reddit, Linnea Crowther, of Legacy.com, writes: “I think there’s something interesting and worth writing about in every life. Whether you’re an international superstar full of amazing stories or someone who’s lived a very quiet and simple life, there’s something to say about that life. Sometimes it takes a little more work to uncover that really interesting thing, but that’s what we do, we dig into someone’s life and figure out how to express the nutshell of their legacy.”

Modern obituaries pay tribute in so many unique and interesting ways. They can be tearful and touching or funny or can serve to bolster a grander purpose. They can also be all of the above. To learn more, I recommend some not-so-light light reading. Check out my favorite source for obits and death-related think-pieces here.

Want to read more by this author? Check out her observations on working a job you don’t love, writing on a plane, and facing rejection creatively

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Zakiya Kassam (Guest Blogger)

Zakiya is a writer. She has her degree in journalism and her articles have been published in The Globe and Mail, This Magazine, Toronto Star, Format Magazine, and NOW Magazine, amongst others. Find her on Twitter: @zakkassam.