Image for Tell Your Story with the Verve of a Lively Obituary

The best obituaries tell the story of someone’s life. Richly researched obits also reflect true human interest.

As a young newspaper reporter, I learned that the rote task of writing an obit of someone who died could be transformed into an illuminating window of a life – and feature stories that appeared on the front page, not the page next to the classified ads.

There is nothing magic about turning an obituary into a celebration. Mostly, it just takes curiosity, a willingness to ask questions and the patience to listen.

The lesson of good obituary-writing can be applied to all forms of content creation. People like to learn about other people and their experiences. Humanizing your content can make it livelier for the people you want to reach – and less like an obituary with just dry, basic facts.

Some of my best obituary-turned-feature stories included unusual anecdotes, unknown achievements and personal passions. The stories assemble the equivalent of a scrapbook of a life, leaving readers with a sense of the unique qualities of the person in the obituary. Those are the same qualities you want to fold into your content so it is readable, relatable and memorable. A dash of good humor works, too.

Obituaries have next to nothing to do with death and absolutely everything to do with life.

Wakes and memorial services celebrate the lives of ones who pass, but the well-done obituary provides a capstone that marks why the person can and should be remembered, why they mattered. That’s the perfect analogue for most content – to say something worthwhile and worth remembering.

People’s lives, whether they lived in mansions or on the streets, consist of a continuum of stories, some small, some momentous, some fleeting, some lifechanging. Those moments easily perish unless someone digs to discover them from family members, friends, colleagues and even enemies. Ask and listen to retrieve fragments that can blossom into stories. Don’t stop with just highlights. Probe deeper to find what was behind those highlights. Get details that put the person in a specific place and time, which makes their stories even more authentic.

Obits aren’t a writing style to emulate, just a model for how to acquire and apply fresh information and insight to enliven your content, especially if it’s old and stale. Obituaries are about individual people. Creating content that is personalized like an obit will enhance its appeal.

The obituary analogy to brighter content has another lesson – don’t be intimidated to ask. As a 20-something reporter, I was initially fearful of contacting the relatives of a deceased man or woman or child. A local funeral director encouraged me to make the calls, which yielded reams of warmly remembered details. They were grateful for someone’s interest and even more grateful when the story of their loved one was shared, sometimes on page one. Content creators must be observant, with sharp interviewing techniques in their toolkit.

Margalit Fox, who writes obituaries for The New York Times, says, “It’s counterintuitive, perhaps, but obituaries have next to nothing to do with death and absolutely everything to do with life.” Writing obituaries is like being thrown into a room of colorful strangers and going person to person to hear their individual stories about hobbies, holes-in-one and pets, as well as milestone events that influenced their life journey. It is the rhythm of an obituary that animates a life story.

Monique Heller wrote the obituary for her 82-year-old father, which profiled his funeral with a Mack truck carrying off his coffin and candid, chuckle-inducing remembrances of her dad as a hoarder and penny-pinching prankster. What came through was a story about a man with a soft spot for dogs, a disdain for fashion, a consummate napper, a self-taught chemist, a volunteer firefighter and a Navy veteran. Informative, funny and loving. Joe Heller’s final send-off became an online sensation, which the Times called the “best obituary ever”.   

So, if your content is deadly, practice the skill of the obituary writer and find life by looking for it.