How Long is Too Long for an Obituary?

If a loved one has died, you may be asked to write an obituary. It may seem like a daunting task, and many people wonder if they’ve written enough or rambled on for too long.  

How long should an obituary be? The average is about 200 words, with some reaching more than 400 and others as brief as 50. On the other hand, there have been some famous examples of extremely lengthy obituaries. The New York Times has published some very lengthy obits over the past 40 years, including: 

  • Pope John Paul II: 13,870 words. The longest obituary ever published by the New York Times belongs to the second longest-serving pope in modern history. Well-loved and accomplished, he earned an obituary that included the following excerpt: “More than outgoing, he was all-embracing — a bear-hugging, larger-than-life man of action who had climbed mountains, performed in plays, written books and seen war, and he was determined from the start to make the world his parish and go out and minister to its troubles and see to its spiritual needs.” 
  • President Richard Nixon13,155 words. Nixon was a controversial president. His lengthy obituary delved into the Watergate scandal and its impact on the American people. “Almost constantly in the public eye from the time he entered politics in 1946, he propelled himself into a career that culminated a generation later when he became the first President to travel to Communist China and the first to resign from office. Over the decades, he evoked conflicting emotions among millions of Americans.” 
  • President Ronald Reagan: 11,411 words. It’s not surprising that President Reagan’s obituary should be so long since he was a movie star in addition to being an extremely popular president. In part, it read: “To a nation hungry for a hero, a nation battered by Vietnam, damaged by Watergate and humiliated by the taking of hostages in Iran, Ronald Reagan held out the promise of a return to greatness, the promise that America would ‘stand tall’ again.” 
  • Publisher Arthur Sulzberger: 8,790 words. When Arthur Sulzberger died in 2012 at the age of 86, he was a legend in the publishing industry, having spent 34 years as the publisher of the New York Times. “By the 1990s, when Mr. Sulzberger passed the reins to his son, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., first as publisher in 1992 and then as chairman in 1997, the enterprise had been transformed. The Times was now national in scope, distributed from coast to coast, and it had become the heart of a diversified, multibillion-dollar media operation that came to encompass newspapers, magazines, television and radio stations and online ventures.” 
  • President Gerald Ford: 7,674 words. President Ford’s obituary was quite lengthy, in part because it contained quite a bit about his controversial pardon of President Richard Nixon. Here’s an excerpt: “Mr. Ford ran for president of the senior class in 1931 on, as he later used to recall with a laugh, the Progressive ticket. He lost, but he was never to lose another election until he sought a different presidency 45 years later as more of a conservative.” 

That kind of length is impractical for most people, even those who have led very interesting lives. A long obituary can also be costly, as newspapers typically charge by the line. Families can often save hundreds of dollars by choosing an online obituary.  

At Skylawn Memorial Park, we host online obituaries complete with photos, videos and online guest books for the families we serve. Call us at (650) 227-3142 for more information. You can also view our existing obituaries by visiting the Obituaries page on our website.

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