What to write when an employee dies

Writing an article that captures the essence of the person who passed away requires more than checking the human resources file. Here’s what to do.

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Tributes to famous people, especially if they are ailing, old or addicted, are prepared well in advance. I remember writing my first obituary at journalism school, about Barbara Walters, still going strong decades later.

Since then, I’ve written many short ones for company intranets, mostly about regular people whose lives mattered deeply to a much smaller group. I’ve tried to keep them simple, classy and personal, without the over-wrought expressions you hear too often at funerals or read in newspaper memorials.

The person who has passed should be honored as the unique and special individual they were. That means more than checking the human resources file to list the jobs he held or achievements for which she will be remembered. It means talking to co-workers closest to the deceased. Some will be too shy or stunned to talk, especially if the death was sudden, so you may have to make a few calls to find someone who can provide the insight and information you need for a tribute.

If you ask general questions about what they liked about the individual, you will get general answers. Things like he “worked hard and played hard” or she was “smart, organized and kind.” Lots of people can be described this way.

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