Fighting with Angels: Why Language is Essential in Obituary Writing

Because I do so loathe euphemisms and silly death-denying language, I love this piece by the lovely Jen Aitken about the necessity of doing better with your obituary writing. More of her work can be found at Last Words Obits.

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strawberries and mold

Like the mouldy veggies in the bottom of your fridge, obituaries are a petri dish for stale language way beyond its best before date. While I adore the intention, I’m bored of the same old phrases.  It’s tough slogging through mediocre writing to find a few good lines in the obit pages. “What an awful thing to say!” you’re thinking, “These obits mark the life and times of dead people near and dear to many!” They do indeed…which is why you should do them justice and write well. Snap. To clarify, a bad obit is not about a dull life: it’s about poor writing. Much of that comes down to word choice.

Short-Attention-Span1Here are some ground rules: a good obit should be around 200 words. Why? Because it’s expensive to post in print media, and readers have short attention spans. Obituaries aren’t a forum in which to testify, and lengthy stories belong in a eulogy. This is précis writing at its finest! Every. Word. Matters.

Euphemisms are substitute words used to avoid saying something that makes us feel awkward. Euphemisms to hide “dead” are the grand-daddies of them all. “Sleeping with the angels, succumbed, crossed over, gone with Jesus, achieved greatness, eternal rest, having gone to one’s reward, no longer with us, gone, lost, passed on/away/over/to the other side”: apparently, people are uncomfortable with death. But we can’t sanitize the truth.

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Here’s the deal:  grief isn’t made better by naming death “passing.” Call it what it is and move closer to being at peace with death and dying. Remember, obituaries are true stories, and euphemisms are a way of skirting that – plus they use a lot of our 200 words to say one small word. Died: see, it’s ok.

Dog down! Roger, copy that!  Military lingo is so ubiquitous in obits that many read as though they were written on the battlefield (and Pat Benatar will tell you, it’s “love,” not “death” that’s a battlefield). My point is that death isn’t a war. When we “battle,” “fight,” or “struggle” “valiantly” and “courageously,” we’re setting up death as something evil that we can “beat.” Death isn’t failure. It’s inevitable. People don’t “lose,” they simply die. Avoid the military jargon.

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In obituary writing, authentic is the new flowery. The most potent impact you can make is to write the way you speak. When you do, the content comes from the heart – people will relate and be sucked in like margaritas on a Friday night. Also, you’ll likely avoid my contempt, but that shouldn’t be your motivation.  Instead of the stale, “lovingly remembered by her adoring family” (you just lost 6 words and my attention by the way), I’m looking for, “Jim ran with a tight crowd of yahoos.” Yes, 8 words, but intriguing. Think this is obvious? When faced with raw grief, even the most counter culture creatures can revert to the sentimental and formulaic. Keep it real.

Obituaries are the last words written about someone: no do-overs, so they better count. Honest, succinct language without the baggage of euphemisms and military lingo will get you started. The words you save will be needed for the next task of telling their story. It’s going to be great. This ain’t your grandma’s obit, well, maybe it is, but you’re going make people wish they knew her when…you’re going to do her life justice.

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  • A

    Thank you for your comments on the use of “struggle”-like jargon to describe death. I’ve been in healthcare since my teens and have seen death on a semi-regular basis ever since, and this has always bothered me. People who are dying aren’t losing, they aren’t failing, and while the challenges they may face during that time are difficult, it is not a battle. It is simply nature taking its course. I fear that our terminology of “heroically fighting” and “struggling against” puts pressure on the dying to act in certain ways that could be contrary to how they feel, or to try miserable treatments that have little chance of helping them. I fear that this can make their lives more difficult than they need to be.

    In no way would I want to trivialize what some people endure while dying or while being treated for horrible diseases. I can understand why words such as bravery and courage come to mind when watching someone go to chemotherapy again and again, when watching them trying to cope with the side effects. I still find it difficult to hear it turned into a fight or battle that will be won or lost.

  • Bob

    Is “died unexpectedly at home” code for suicide? That’s what the obit said when my friend shot himself and I’ve seen that phrase in other obits too.

    • L.

      In the consrvative small town where I grew up and read the local paper daily “died unexpectedly at home” when not followed by a cause like a heart attack was well known code for suicide, “died alone at home” was also used, I don’t know if there is a precedent for it but it was common knowledge that was what was meant

  • Diane Lingenfelter

    Thank you for being real! By negating death we negate life. It’s all part and parcel. I have been at more funerals where there is laughter and tears. Think obit writing should contain both – well, that’s essentially what has been said here. Thank you for your levity and sophistication.

  • Chanster

    My father “died unexpectedly at home” from a heart attack, so I don’t think it is necessarily code for anything except someone dying at home in a way people didn’t expect.

    • Tim Spofford

      I doubt it’s code for much of anything, at least not reliably. Around here (Oregon), suicides often happen at the end of rarely used logging roads. “Died unexpectedly at home” would be, well, odd. And how many people who keel over while shoveling their sidewalks will be presumed, per the “code,” to have intentionally killed themselves? (Personally, I have enough anxiety about a snow related heart attack – not about dying but I’m told they HURT – that at 71, my heavy snow shoveling days are behind me.)

  • well I always wanted the good and bad from the deceased! Since we are not always GOOD or not always BAD!

  • Jack O’Dowd

    One of the best opening lines of an obituary that I’ve read was Amiri Baraka for Miles Davis: “Someone called me and said you died, Miles. Yeah, that cold.”

  • kirrogirl

    I hope that someone humorous enough to run with a tight band of yahoos isn’t reduced to some lame euphemism. I loath indirect and unnecessary talk, and hope that anyone writing for me would load up those 200 words with dry humor so deftly disguised that a regular reader would miss it. at the least, a good fart joke, fuck it 🙂

  • ricardo

    Similar to obituary writing, writing a eulogy or memorial speech need careful choice of language.

    I’m the admin of the site http://inspirationaleulogy.com, which has some additional advice on how to give a funeral speech, where to find eulogy examples and eulogy templates, and where you can find appropriate poetry and verses.

    Information on how to write a eulogy

  • Elga

    The word that bothers me most in obits and death notices is “unexpectedly.” NOBODY dies unexpectedly, unless the person who died was considered immortal, and I haven’t come across anyone like that in the 60+ years since I was put on this earth. By definition of the word “expect”, it is expected that we will all die, sooner or later, younger or older, of natural or unnatural causes. Our deaths may be sudden or untimely, but NEVER unexpected. Why this word continues to be used is beyond me.

  • How about “survived by”? Sounds like everyone was in a shipwreck and the deceased is the only one who died.

  • Rachel Black

    Thanks. Your post really helped me with this challenging task. I think I managed to write an engaging obit.