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How to write an obituary

  • Article by: Katy Read
  • Star Tribune
  • January 16, 2014 - 8:42 AM

“Harry Weathersby Stamps, ladies’ man, foodie, natty dresser, and accomplished traveler, died on Saturday, March 9, 2013.”

So began an obituary (www.bradfordokeefe.com/obituaries/Harry-Stamps/#/Obituary) so colorful that it became a hit on social media, where some described it as the “best obituary ever.” With its warmly funny detailing of an 81-year-old Mississippi man’s likes and dislikes, opinions and habits, quirks and virtues, the piece paints a vivid portrait of Stamps — without even mentioning his former career (government and sociology professor) until the fifth paragraph.

Among the obit’s many revelations are that Stamps made signature bacon and tomato sandwiches (and was particular about ingredient brands, right down to the black pepper), grew camellias, composted pine needles, supported Hillary Clinton, habitually wore a grass-stained Mississippi State University baseball cap and hated daylight saving time. He taught his two daughters “to fish, to select a quality hammer, to love nature, and to just be thankful.”

Not everybody can write an obit that goes viral (or can afford one as lengthy as Stamps’, frankly, if paying by the line). But Stamps’ death notice shows how small personal details can add depth and charm to an account of a loved one’s life.

Every obituary, of course, needs the basics: age, date of birth and death, city of residence, name of spouse or partner, information about the funeral, visitation, burial. Other important details include the deceased person’s place of birth, work history, notable accomplishments, education, military service, activities and memberships, relatives and special friends. Many obits include information about how the person died and an organization where people can make a memorial contribution in lieu of flowers.

But if you have the space and budget for it, it’s nice to try to capture a bit of the loved one’s personality. That might mean including anecdotes, characteristic quotes, perhaps even acknowledging a few (forgivable) flaws.

"I love to see families reveal little idiosyncrasies about their loved one -- those memorable snippets remind us there can be smiles and laughter, even in the saddest of times," said Irene Allen, a Star Tribune obituary sales representative. "For example, 'Had no particular worries while waiting in long lines, but felt oddly compelled to begin bagging her groceries as soon as they were scanned' -- and there you have an image of a fairly laid-back person who kicked into high gear if she thought she was holding anyone else up."

An obituary from 2005, though not as widely known as Stamps’, also captured the subject’s personality and flair.

“A Character with a capital ‘C’, she was known as much for her style and grace as she was for her good looks and sense of humor,” read the notice for Ruth Duvall Clark of Tarboro, N.C. (www.connect.legacy.com/profiles/blogs/collards-and-caviar-an-obituary-with-flair) “She loved Tarboro as much as New York and collards as much as caviar. She made the best caramel cake and cracklin’ bread in the South, played a wicked hand of bridge, and did the crosswords in ink. She danced like a teenager long after she was one and never met a Chanel pocketbook she didn’t like.”

So when you compose an obituary, along with the big things you might consider adding a few little things — the minutiae that made that person special. What were his favorite activities? What old sayings did she like to quote? These sorts of details help create a three-dimensional portrait of an individual.

Katy Read • 612-673-4583

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