By Thomas A. Parmalee

Petra Lina Orloff has never given a second thought to finding Prince Charming as she knows exactly where to find him – in the pages of a book.

The founder of Beloved, which offers professional writing services to funeral homes that want to provide families with the best obituaries and eulogies for deceased loved ones and animal companions, is happily single (with four cats)  and closing in on 50 – although you’d be forgiven for thinking she’s in her 20s if you follow her on Instagram.

The thought of settling down or starting a family never once crossed her mind.

“I have had 48 years of training, and I keep getting better at writing – and I have constructed my life without children or a family in order to do the things I love best,” said the lifelong Detroit area resident. “While it may seem selfish, it allows me to give more to people in the ways I enjoy giving … that was a choice I made very early on in my life: no family, no kids.”

But that doesn’t mean Orloff doesn’t have a soft spot for romance.

In fact, she’s currently working on a historical romance novel, which she expects to make an entire saga. She’ll publish it under her own name, which is a big deal given that much of her work has been as a ghostwriter.

“I’ve been able to ghostwrite because I’m very adept at different voices and styles,” she said. “I can create very unique personalities and voices for the people who I write for, and that has kept me going as a ghostwriter.”

Petra Lina Orloff
Finding Her Passion

Writing has always come naturally to Orloff, and so it should come as no surprise that she eventually discovered she had an unmatched talent to write obituaries and eulogies.

“I just fell in love with books as a child, and I was devouring books all the time,” she said. “I remember very clearly going up to my first-grade teacher, and I remember saying that one day I would be a writer. I’m not even sure I knew it was a profession – I just knew it was something I wanted to do.”

Her home, she said, was the library. It was a delightful treat to go there and be surrounded by cascading waterfalls of books.

She remembers books being expensive, but as a child, she could go to the library and get whatever stories she wanted. For her, books were a valuable commodity.

“And they still are. For me, nothing has changed,” she said.

As a child, she would stay at home and write stories, filling up notebooks of devious tales.  She began publishing professionally – writing and getting paid for it – at age 14.

“When I was 17, I began writing marketing and PR pieces for businesses, and I pursued that throughout college,” she said. “Throughout my undergraduate and graduate school career, I was doing all this freelance work on the side as well as pursuing my studies.”

While she was a freshman in college, there was a professor of Victorian literature who Orloff “absolutely adored.” She became her model of what she wanted to be – a writer and a teacher.

“I knew I wanted to be a professor of English, so I proceeded in that route but still maintained my journalism and PR major,” she said. The idea was to have something practical in her arsenal “just in case,” she said.

Ultimately, however, Orloff earned her Ph.D. and began teaching right away, spending 14 years at the university level, including Wayne State University. She has also lectured in Canada, across the United States, Germany and Scotland.

Founding Beloved

Over the years, Orloff found herself being asked to write the occasional obituary for a client or friend. She received nice feedback on her work, but she kept herself plenty busy writing about a whole variety of topics – and so she didn’t give obituaries per se much thought.

But then her father, Frederick Conrad Orloff, died at age 59, and suddenly writing his obituary took on a new meaning. She wrote a heartfelt tribute for her dad.

The obituary was published in her small-town newspaper, the Cheboygan Daily Tribune.  “It was a long, creative piece,” she said. “I don’t think they had much news.”

Two weeks after her father died, the memorial service was held.

Around that time, she found herself standing in line at a Walmart in northern Michigan. “A woman started talking about something she read in the newspaper to another woman right in line in front of me,” she said. “Then, she pulled out my father’s obituary and showed it to the other woman. It made me so happy, not to be the author of that particular piece, but that my father was being remembered and shared by strangers.”

She found a whole new appreciation for the power of good writing. “People think that because they are literate, they can write,” she said. “But the power of good writing is memorable – and it never leaves you.”

After that experience, she continued to write about a variety of things but increasingly gravitated toward writing obituaries. “I just sort of opened up to it more, and they came in. And I wrote a lot of eulogies, too,” she said.

It wasn’t until 13 years after the death of her father, however, that Orloff founded Beloved in 2017, which provides professionally written obituaries and eulogies for a network of funeral homes.

It was simply time to serve funeral homes and grieving individuals at a higher level given how important they are to remembering a loved one, Orloff said.

“I was reading more and more about dying a good death, the good death movement and the celebratory life movement, and it just got me thinking that this is part of that,” she said.

Spending quality time to write an obituary or a eulogy for a loved one “is part of the new way of looking at the way we remember and memorialize people,” she said.

Orloff also had begun to discover that there were more like-minded people who were interested in remembering someone in a very positive way after their death. A great obituary, she said, can provide a jumping off point for family and friends to reconnect after someone’s death as they move through grief. It should not simply be a biography of someone who has died, she stressed.

The bulk of the obituaries Orloff and her network of writers work on are through funeral homes, although some requests come directly from grieving family members, she said.

Petra Lina Orloff, the founder of Beloved.
The Process

In terms of crafting an obituary or eulogy, she has found that talking with two or so survivors or close friends of the deceased tends to be a good number. Or, she’ll talk with the person who is planning their own funeral who may be thinking about what they want their obituary to read like ahead of time.

“I have a 20-minute phone call,” she said. “I don’t do Zoom because I feel like that might put a little more pressure on the family in terms of being camera read and so on.”

After that conversation, she’ll draft an obituary or eulogy and send it to the family. Based on their feedback, she may revise what she wrote, but those revisions are typically minimal, she said.

The turnover time varies.

“I’ve been called at 2 in the afternoon and have been told, ‘We need this by 2:45 p.m. because we need to put it in the newspaper,’” she said. “So, I’ve been on those crunch deadlines and been able to produce. But generally, it will take me a few hours … I let the conversation sit with me for a while.”

As far as how everything comes together in her mind and how it ends up on paper, it’s a bit of a mystery even to Orloff.

“I can’t describe how it happens, but everything comes together in my head and there it is … I write it in my imagination before I write it on paper,” she said. “I never sit down to a blank screen, because in my head, it is already composed.”

Such a supreme talent probably comes from a lifetime of “thinking in stories” and turning every experience she’s ever had into one, she said.

“Whether I was telling it out loud or writing it down, to me, it always comes out as a story – even the smallest, most mundane moments are moments of storytelling for me,” she said.

Sometimes, it can be challenging to write an obituary or eulogy.

“A family may be too aggrieved …. it may be a child who has died, and they cannot talk,” she explained. “So, I may just get a few notes from the funeral director. At that time, my first and foremost thought about writing an obituary or eulogy is that it is not only about the person who died – it is about the people who remain. So, I am writing to the family, writing to the friends and thinking about what these people need to hear.”

As to why more funeral homes don’t leverage professional writers as families craft obituaries and eulogies, Orloff thinks it may be because funeral directors have prided themselves on doing it on their own for so many years.

“So, there’s been a lot of resistance” and some firms have also struggled to determine how to fit it into their pricing, she said.

“My service sometimes has gotten placed into packages, and sometimes the option has done well and sometimes not,” she said.

But she’s found it telling that for the firms who have offered her services – even if they have not become a big seller on an itemized price list – they still call her when the loved one of a staff member dies.

In addition to helping celebrate the lives of those we’ve lost, Orloff also has enjoyed helping other writers – many of them academics – supplement their income. She knows many people who have left teaching simply because it does not pay enough, she said.

“I know people who are the heads of departments in liberal arts that need a second job because they cannot afford to pay their bills based on their salary,” she said. “My idea was always to help keep them in the classroom or keep them doing what they love and find them something that could supplement their income.”

While she may rely on other writers with all the obituary and eulogy requests that come in, she still personally looks over and edits every assignment Beloved is given, she said.

Petra Lina Orloff.

Most of Orloff’s business comes directly from funeral homes. Families are more likely to want and appreciate her services when it comes from a trusted recommendation from a funeral home rather than an online search, she explained.

“Funeral homes can buy in bulk from me, so they get lower pricing,” she said.

For instance, they can buy a bundle of 20 obituaries and use Beloved’s services for whichever families they want over the course of a quarter or a year. Or, they may decide to include it in certain packages or offer it to families as an itemized item. “Some may just pay for my services out of pocket if it is a very special situation or customer,” she said. “I mostly get that when it is children that pass away … they want to give something to the family.”

She encourages what she offers to be included in a package as she thinks it fits in nicely with that model. “This is a tribute … and people often get them printed and framed,” she said. “They keep them forever. This is not just something I see shared on social media or read at a funeral and then it is done – this is something I see people really get behind.”

If a funeral home is buying only a single professionally written obituary or eulogy, Orloff charges a $350 flat rate, she said.

“But if they buy more than that, the cost decreases incrementally,” she said, noting that a package of 50 obituaries has been her maximum order, although she’d be happy to take on more.

In addition to writing obituaries and eulogies, Orloff also conducts workshops for funeral homes – either virtual or in person – about how they can write better obituaries on their own.

“I go in and tell them how I do it,” she said. “Mostly, the questions I ask and the manner I go about it and the way I get information.”

The questions she asks family members and friends are not always typical, she said.

“I care about diving deep,” she said. “And I have developed a really good rapport with people … the more I speak to people, the better I get at it.”

Some useful questions to ask include:

  • What did you think when you saw your husband (or wife) for the very first time?
  • What was it like to hold your son (or daughter) for the first time?

“What I like about those questions is it brings people back to a very happy spot, and they get to remember that moment and relive it,” she said. “When people start smiling and stop crying, their tone gets a little softer … and that is the beauty of those kinds of questions.”

She may also ask how a couple’s parents took the news of their engagement. “You just want to go straight into the heart or into the soul,” she said. “It elicits the best information – and people enjoy it.”

These questions also tend to work well because often, when someone dies, the survivors are simply tired of dealing with an illness or all the struggles that go along with old age or failing health. “They want to remember that person differently, and I allow them to do that,” she said.

Just as she trains funeral directors to ask questions and write obituaries, Orloff does the same with her stable of writers. “We have a grief counselor we work with who talks to us regularly about what people are going though as they grieve,” she said. That type of wisdom helps her and the writers she employs ask better questions, she said.

Another area she’s increasingly helping people with is how to leverage artificial intelligence in writing obituaries and eulogies, she said.

“I love AI and I hate AI,” she said. “If you do not have 48 years of storytelling experience, you can coach AI to write well for you in a voice that is your own, and that is one of the things I go over when I talk to funeral directors,” she said. “I teach them to use AI to write these things and to write them well. Not bland and oblique and stale and neutral, but ‘Here is how you train this system to write something better than you can do – and do it quicker using the questions and interview template I’m giving you.’”

That can be a game changer for funeral home owners who don’t want to use her services for every single obituary but who aren’t writers themselves. “They are pulled in so many different directions,” she said. “If you are not a writer, you should be using AI, but you should be coaching it to write well,” she said. “Don’t just use it to spit out neutral, basic, bland content.”

With all that said, Orloff knows that what she can provide to funeral homes is “head and tails above AI.”

Moving forward, Orloff would like to continue to grow Beloved and work with more funeral homes.

“My ideal client is someone who values their families enough to provide this service,” she said. “Someone who sees the worth of the obituary and eulogy as a special service.”

She added. “There is only one me hiring writers and going over their work, so you can’t get this service from anyone but me. I truly believe I write the best obituaries in the business.”

Want to know more? Contact Petra via email or visit Beloved.

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