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Writing obituaries

Obituaries are hard to write.

But an obituary is something many people will need to write at some point in their life. And it will often be for someone deeply loved and admired.

Capturing a person’s life in a short tribute is challenging. After all, how does one represent the joy a person has brought to others? The knowledge they’ve created and shaped? The hope they’ve instilled and the lessons they’ve left? The lives they’ve touched and the profound void that remains after they are gone?

How do you honor them with the respect they deserve without being overly sentimental? Especially when they are someone who may have had a substantial impact on your own life.

I’m certainly not professing to have all the answers or even the ability to write a good obituary. Nevertheless, here are some elements I generally try to incorporate into obituaries, an inevitable part of forming deep and enduring connections over my 25 years of running Mongabay:

🌿 Research a person’s life and achievements: Include accomplishments and personal anecdotes. Provide contextual background to present their life in a broader perspective.
🌿 Begin with a compelling introduction: Capture the essence of the individual with an intriguing fact, a notable achievement, or a poignant moment. Highlight the significance of the person’s life.
🌿 Reflect on the person’s humanity: Include both their strengths and weaknesses, triumphs and trials.
🌿 Consider structure and flow: For example, chronological or thematic.
🌿 Incorporate quotations and anecdotes: Add authenticity and a personal touch.
🌿 Reflect on impact and legacy: Highlight the enduring influence of the person and how they will be remembered.
🌿 End thoughtfully.

Here are five obituaries that I have found myself revisiting long after writing them:

🌳 Danilo Villafañe: a guardian’s farewell (2023)
Villafañe, an Arhuaco Indigenous leader renowned for his efforts to protect the “Heart of the World” in Colombia’s Sierra Nevada, died on Christmas Day while trying to rescue two women who were drowning.

🌳 Indonesian investigative reporter and journalism advocate Tommy Apriando (2020)
In a country where environmental reporting is potentially deadly, Apriando wasn’t afraid to speak truth to power. He took on politicians who used their connections with oligarchs to enrich themselves, exposed abuses by extractive companies, and told the complex stories that underpin entrenched land conflicts.

🌳 Conservation biologist and wildtech journalist Sue Palminteri (2020)
Whether it was radio-collaring elephants across the African savanna, competing internationally in tennis, tracking saki monkeys through the Amazon rainforest in the sweltering midday heat, or evaluating the practicalities of implementing technological solutions to conservation challenges, Palminteri fully embraced all she pursued with rare tenaciousness, passion, and grace.

🌳 Conservation biology loses a leader: Navjot Sodhi (2011)
Navjot’s contributions to conservation biology were substantial. He authored or co-authored more that 100 academic papers in journals ranging from Nature to Science to Auk; wrote or edited six books; and mentored a generation of young scientists who are already making significant contributions to science. At times, his work was provocative, in one case raising the ire of Singapore’s government when he ranked the city-state dead last on environmental performance among 178 countries. That paper might have cost a lesser scientist his visa.

🌳 A farewell to the Yangtze’s ghost, the Baiji (2006)
In the quiet flow of the Yangtze, a silent departure occurred. The Baiji, China’s exclusive river dolphin, known scientifically for its distinction and affectionately for its grace, has succumbed to the inevitable, declared “functionally extinct.” This term, clinical yet profound, marks the end of a lineage that navigated the waters of the Yangtze for over 20 million years, a testament to evolutionary success until its recent decline.

By Rhett Ayers Butler

Rhett Ayers Butler is the Founder and CEO of Mongabay, a non-profit conservation and environmental science news platform. He started Mongabay in 1999 with the mission of raising interest in and appreciation of wild lands and wildlife.