Writing a Memorial


—Bite-sized advice for better business writing—

Writing a Memorial

“That’s all, folks!”

— Tombstone of Mel Blanc

All things come to an end: employment, projects, business partnerships, work groups, and even, sadly, the lives of colleagues. Nothing can remove the inevitability of endings, but writing can give us a moment to reflect, find closure, and move on.

How can I write a fitting memorial?

Remember that the memorial is about whatever has ceased to be, but it is for those who need to carry on. Whether you are honoring a longtime colleague who is retiring or lamenting the dissolution of a favorite work team or eulogizing someone who suddenly passed, your words are about the topic but for the audience.

To write an effective memorial, follow these tips:

1. Do your research.

Get your facts straight. Dig to find the meaningful anecdotes. Speak as a person within the tribe who is suffering the loss, rather than someone randomly tasked to say a few words.


Now I didn’t really know Randy, but judging from his attendance record, he was here a lot. And you can’t really do your job if you don’t show up. Which Randy apparently did. A lot.


Just last Thursday, I did the all-call before turning on the alarm, and then, as always, it was Randy on the phone. “I’m still here!” he would say. “I’m still here!” You were always here, Randy, working late. I don’t know how this place is going to keep going now that you aren’t.

2. Evoke memories.

The purpose of a memorial is memory, so tap into as many of these as you can. Recount events that others experienced as well. Your audience will nod and smile with recognition. Then recount events that only you know about. Your audience will catch their breath, feeling that they are being reintroduced to whatever it is they are memorializing.


Randy started working here more than twenty years ago. He did a lot of things over those twenty years. He suggested a lot of changes. At first we didn’t like the new guy. Then we got to liking him.


I remember when Randy started twenty years ago, he said, “What’s with all these folders and printouts and staplers?” I said, “Well, we’re a publishing company.” He smiled and said, “Publishing is all digital, now. We’ve got to get with the times.” I gritted my teeth and shook my head, but he was right. How right! How many times did Randy make me grit my teeth and shake my head, but, you know, he was right maybe 80 percent of the time. And our business is better because of it.

3. Be a storyteller.

Stories feature people (characters) in a place and time (setting) facing down difficulties (conflict) using a series of actions (plot) for a purpose (theme). Don’t just string events together in chronological order. Shape the events into a narrative arc.


Randy worked first as an assistant editor. He wrote a new assistant editor handbook with all the procedures. Then he got promoted to managing editor and got a pay raise. He kept working. Then he became a developmental editor. He learned as he went.


As an assistant editor, Randy seemed to vibrate in his seat. He had such ambition, but he was stuck checking index numbers. Every time he opened his mouth, he’d want to talk about the novel he was working on, but he still kept his nose in the index and corralled those numbers. I knew then that this kid was ready to move up. I promoted him to managing editor. Randy had gained so much knowledge, but his enthusiasm wasn’t dimmed even slightly. If anything, it burned brighter because of what he could now do.

4. Use senses to describe.

Don’t just tell your audience about the subject. Show them. Whatever they see, they will believe. Whatever they touch will evoke emotion. Whatever they smell will evoke memory.


Randy had a few favorite sweaters that he cycled through during the winter. He kept them fresh with cologne. He had different types depending on his mood on a given day. Sometimes it was hard to breathe in his office. Randy wasn’t affected. He just kept working.


Do you remember Randy’s yellow and black striped sweater? He looked like a bumblebee floating down the hall. And he seemed laden with nectar–scents of Old Spice and Stetson and Axe, like the different flowers he’d visited. He cast an olfactory aura that spread from him just like his enthusiasm and cheer. It enveloped everyone.

5. Use gentle humor.

Make sure that anything you joke about, you do so out of love. Direct some of your jokes at yourself as well as your topic. Then turn the joke around to praise the topic.


I used to tell him, “Randy, you’re a caffeine addict!” He would say, “No such thing!” But he really was. He would drink regular coffee all day. I could just see him start to shake because of it. It made him more paranoid, which is saying something. The guy had an anxiety disorder. And the fact he could do so much with such focus shows that he had an addictive personality. He would say, “Well, at least it’s coffee and not cocaine.”


Randy loved coffee, as we all know. He would say, “It smells awesome when you brew it, and it tastes good when you drink it, and it smells awful on your breath afterward.” True. But you know, wrapped around Randy, all those coffee smells just started to smell like success. Because whatever he tackled, man, it got done–and then some. I once asked him to proofread a report for me. An hour later, he turned it back over, completely rewritten. And damned if it wasn’t sooo much better! He would say, “Coffee makes me Superman!”

6. Bring closure.

After evoking memories of how things had been, provide a bridge to how things will be for those who go on. Don’t just leave your audience hanging in a place of despair. Give them a reason to hope.


Well, Randy is gone. That’s that.


Randy is gone, yes, but I learned from him. And I know you did, too, Joan. And you. We have to go on without him, but, you know, we aren’t really going on without him. Because he improved this place, and he improved us, and that means that, just by doing what we do day by day, we still have him here. That’s a remarkable legacy to leave behind.


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