Obituary Writing

Obituary Writing

Obituary writing, a very particular form of creative writing, whilst based on facts, is as far from a straightforward biography, even a potted one, as Perrier is from Dom Pérignon. There is no pretence of comprehensiveness. Rather, facts and dates, rumours and stories are cunningly chosen and woven together to create a portrait of the recently deceased. Obituaries have a bitter-sweet quality to them and  may bring a wry smile to the reader’s face as  he or she is implicitly invited to reflect upon the passing of time. The resulting reflection is infused with nostalgia for those good old days, fast disappearing, when people of such ilk prospered with panache upon this earth.

Deceptively simple, obituaries, with their numerous writing constraints can provide valuable hands-on writing experience for English Foreign Language (EFL) students. The short sequence on obituaries that we offer to our second-year undergraduate students at Paul-Valéry University takes the form of one lesson (1h30) followed by a writing workshop (1h30). I have posted the full content for anyone who is interested in the concept and would like to use/adapt the material themselves. If you do find this at all useful it would be great to hear from you. This year’s students wrote on a whole variety of people including Richard Winters (an officer of the US army who led the Brécourt Manor Assault in 1944), Saddam Hussein, Simone Veil, Coco Chanel, the Chinese Empress Wu Zetian and Caligula. This last was written by four students (two art students, one philosophy student and one communication sciences student) and here is the beginning of their text for your enjoyment:

Caligula, who has died aged 29, wasn’t the nicest emperor that ever lived. He had a big neck fetish and as he used to say to his wives “Your pretty nape will be cut as soon as I give the order”. He was born into a wealthy but tragic family.

To begin with students are invited to study four short excerpts from The Telegraph obituaries and draw their own conclusions concerning the genre. Before settling down to write in their turn, their conclusions are shared with the whole class so that everyone is clear concerning the writing constraints inherent to this genre:


Lesson Plan (1h30)

  • Read the following texts taken from the British newspaper The Telegraph
  1. Denisa Lady Newborough (b.1913, d. 1987)

Denisa Lady Newborough, who has died aged 74, was many things: wirewalker, nightclub girl, nude dancer, air pilot. She only refused to be two things – a whore and a spy – “and there were attempts to make me both”, she once wrote.

She was also a milliner, a perfumier and an antiques dealer; but her real metier, in early life at least, was what she called ‘profitable romance’ ‘I have never believed that jewels, any more than motor cars, can be called vulgar just because they are gigantic.’

Her admirers included the Kings of Spain and Bulgaria, Adolf Hitler (whose virility she doubted), Benito Mussolini (whom she described as a ‘gigolo’) and Sheikh ben Ghana (who gave her 500 sheep). When she lived in Paris, she had no fewer than five protectors – all ‘shareholders’ as she termed them – and persuaded each, who was ignorant of his fellows, to part with a flat or a house.

Denisa Lady Braun was born on April Fool’s Day, 1913, in Suborica, Serbia. In her early teens she ran away to Budapest, where for a time she slept under bridges with tramps. Then, styling herself ‘Baronne de Brans’, she became a nude dancer and mistress of boyars, including a pair of twins. A decade of adventures followed, in Sofia, Bucharest, Paris, St Moritz and Berlin….

Lady Newborough was a great beauty and she was charming and funny. By conventional standards, her morality matched her flaming red hair, but she remained as proud of the one as of the other.2. Big Daddy (b. 1930, d. 1997)

Big Daddy, the fighting name of Shirley Crabtree, who has died aged sixty-seven, was the star attraction of the professional wrestling circuit during its televised heyday in the 1970s and 80s.

Weighing in at twenty-eight stone and clad in spangled top hat and overburdened leotard, Big Daddy was a portly avenging angel in a comic-book world of heroes in white trunks and villains in black masks.

At its peak, wrestling drew Saturday afternoon audiences of 10 million, attracted not so much by the finer points of the hammerlock and Boston Crab as by its unvarying rituals…

His arrival (in the ring) was accompanied by chants of ‘Ea-sy, ea-sy’ from stout matrons in the crowd, in manner of the guillotine. For Big Daddy’s vast belly easily held opponents at bay before he despatched them with his speciality – the ‘splashdown’. This was a manoeuvre in which he mounted the ropes, leapt on top of his stupefied opponent, and squashed him flat to the canvas.

These antics brought Big Daddy notable fans, among them the Queen, whose interest in the sport was first recorded in Richard Crossman’s diaries, and Margaret Thatcher, who found the wrestler a useful topic of conversaton in Africa, where he was a household name.

3. Tommy Gould (b.1917, d. 2001)

Tommy Gould, who has died aged eighty-six, won the Victoria Cross, the only Jewish recipient of the Second World War, while serving in the submarine Thrasher in February 1942…

As a VC hero, Gould was interviewed by the Marquess of Donegal, who asked him what he was thinking while busy with those bombs. ‘I was hoping,’ Gould replied, ‘that the bloody things would not go off.’

4. Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (b.1929, d.2000)

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins who has died aged seventy, was a performer whose bizarre and frenzied act caused a sensation in the early days of rock and roll; even more than Little Richard, he epitomised the wild and ungovernable aspect of the music…

Hawkins projected a crazed and dangerous persona on stage. He would be carried on in a coffin, dressed in a Dracula-style cape, and throughout the proceedings make use of such props as a rubber snake, a large plastic tarantula, various voodoo objects, and a cigarette-smoking skull named Henry…

It is entirely typical that he should have issued elaborate instructions regarding the disposal of his ashes: ‘Fly over the ocean and scatter the dust so I can be little particles in everybody’s eyes. Drive everybody crazy for the rest of their lives.’

5. Chris Dale (b. 1962 d. 2011)

Chris Dale, a 6ft 6in mountaineer with a passion for solo climbs among the hardest peaks of Scotland, Wales and the Alps. He was an equally enthusiastic cross-dresser who went by the name of Crystal…

In recent years injury prevented him from guiding and he found employment introducing disadvantaged children to the outdoors and in a climbing shop. He belonged to the sport’s tradition of modesty and never boasted of his exploits: his Facebook page listed his interests as ‘fluff, pink things, sparkly stuff and mountains’.

  1. What genre of writing do they belong to?
  2. Note down points that these texts have in common (grammar, style, structure, tone…


The first obvious thing that students pick up on is the form of the title.

Secondly, the fact that they are not chronological. They begin not with birth but with death.  They are retrospective and incomplete (a link here can be made with flash fiction which they may have already studied. Both forms privilege excision over agglomeration).

The first sentence is structured in the following manner (see the four texts):

Name, who has died aged X, was…. many things, the star attraction, won…, was a performer, a 6ft 6in mountaineer…? – check use of articles with them.

The teacher may like to have students reflect upon what vocabulary, expressions, structures will be useful for writing other obituaries, asking them to find synonyms and expressions

Eg. A pioneer of … was an expert in…

was best-known for,

was a household name

a distinguished statesman,

one of the most respected and best-known scientists of his/her time,

an unrivalled, an eminent,

He/she epitomised/ was the perfect example/ of the wild and ungovernable aspect of music

He/she liked to describe himself as…

These antics/adventures/exploits/performances…brought X notable fans/many fans/fame/ fame and fortune/ riches…happiness?

He/she caused a sensation/riot

It is entirely typical that he/she should have…

In recent years/the last years of his life/ towards the end of her life/…

He never boasted of his exploits/adventures/braveness/kindness/courage/skill

A man of quiet discretion and reserve

Thirdly: tense usage. Present perfect in the first sentence to report on the death and then simple past for chronology.

What is conveyed by this use of present perfect? The recent nature of the death. The person has just died. Obituaries are not usually written years after. Perhaps also implies a link between the past and the present that has not yet been severed.

Structure – Denisa follows a chronology

(Description of what she was, her metier)

When she lived in Paris,

was born ON, IN

in her early teens/in her late teens/as a young woman/in her prime/

where for a time

A decade of adventures followed/ Had an XXX career that spanned XXXyears, spent the majority of his service in…

Physical description (incomplete: distinctive characteristic: flaming red hair, vast belly, 6ft 6in, can you think of other examples?)

Big Daddy

Description of what he was

Physical description

Description of wrestling at its peak/in its heyday

Description of Big Daddy wrestling.

NB in obituaries we are often are told what father did, or information concerning family eg. The oldest/ youngest of five brothers

Finish with a quote? ‘that the bloody things would not go off’ – effect of this? Humour? As if the person is alive talking directly to us. Cf use of anecdote. Encapsulates their personality.

‘Drive everybody crazy for the rest of their lives’

Sums the person up: ‘Fluff, pink things, sparkly stuff and mountains’ (Chris Dale)

  • Now read the following text by Kate Summerscale (The Queen of Whale Cay) and compare with what you noted.

A Telegraph obituary is formal in structure: it is anonymous, written in the third person and without overt commentary; it is topped, tailed and interrupted by facts and figures – the age at death, dates of birth, marriages, divorces, education, appointments, honours. This frame lends authority and authenticity, licensing the anecdotes, eccentricities and asides for which the Telegraph obituary is prized. In form, the obituaries imitate the unselfconsciousness of the figures they celebrate; in truth, they are mischievous and knowing. But the teasing is laced with affection – at the heart of these pieces is a lament, for a century and a spirit which is passing…

An obituary aims to encapsulate how a person looked to the world, not how the world looked to them. It never presumes to enter the subject’s head or heart, and so renders no interior life. It does not deal in meaning and motivation.

  • Now write your own obituary (about yourself)

This is much easier said than done. All I would say personally is that I would certainly like to use the expression ‘strut and slay’ in there somewhere.

Extra material :  The Guardian’s Other Lives, which rather than focusing on ‘the great and the good, the famous and the infamous’ gives people the opportunity to celebrate the lives of their loved ones.


NEXT WEEK’s Homework

For next week’s Writing Workshop you must

  1. Choose a person and prepare a time-line of facts concerning them that you should bring to the lesson with you. DO NOT write their obituary. You will do this in class next week.
  2. Look up the following verbs and check you know what they mean and the past tense of them:

be born, live, grow up, move, have, go, work, study, get married, buy, sell, write, direct, get divorced, fall ill, be buried,

  1. Be prepared to explain why you have chosen this person and what he/she means to you.
  2. Using the verbs (you can of course add others) you will be obliged to present the person ORALLY to your group from your time-line of facts.


Writing Workshop (1h30)

Before you do today’s writing task do the following exercise which contains some common mistakes. Correct the errors you find. You can find the answers on p.27 of your brochure.

1a) He was became a father at the age of thirty-three.

  1. b) Her death was a very sudden.
  2. c) She was dead before her husband.
  3. d) He should had issued instructions for the scattering of his ashes.
  4. e) She was renowned academic and teacher.
  5. f) He issued instructions regarded his pets.
  6. g) He never boasted about his exploits.
  7. h) She was always clad in white
  8. i) He did die age seventy-seven years.
  9. j) She born in the twenties.
  10. k) She was performer which was much admired.

The students then work in groups of 4 :

  • In your groups each member presents the person that he/she has worked on at home. Give a brief biographical outline and explain your choice.
  • Once you have listened to everyone’s choice of person you must decide which person you are going to work on together.
  • Now write a 250-word obituary for the person that your group has chosen WITHOUT writing the name of the person. Refer back to the work you did last week concerning typical features of this sort of writing (genre constraints).
  • Change texts and read the text of another group. Don’t forget to fill in the feedback grids for the other group.

NB Stephen Hawking’s BBC obituary “It shows,” he said, “that one need not lose hope.”


Quetteville, Harry de, and Daily Telegraph (London, England), editors. Thinker, Failure, Soldier, Jailer: An Anthology of Great Lives in 365 Days. Aurum, 2012.

Summerscale, Kate. The Queen of Whale Cay. Penguin Books, 1999.

Image by Allison Lily Guiraud, 2018



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