Etiquette for Writing an Obituary

by Rebekah Richards

An obituary provides notice that a loved one has passed away and informs the community of essential information such as the date and time of the funeral. It also celebrates the life of the deceased by highlighting her accomplishments and legacy. Writing an obituary can be challenging, especially when you're dealing with sensitive issues.

What to Include

The contents of an obituary depend on the length, which may be determined by the family's budget or the newspaper's space constraints. In general, however, obituaries state the name, age, residence and date of death of the deceased. They also include the most important events in the person's life, such as his education, marriage and career. Obituaries then typically list the surviving relatives as well as the time, date and location of the funeral service or visitation. The obituary may also include a request that donations be sent to a particular charity in lieu of flowers. Families sometimes write two obituaries: one for the newspaper and a longer version to be posted on memorial websites.

Cause of Death

Including the cause of death in an obituary can be a sensitive issue, especially if the circumstances were unusual. You don't have to list the cause of death if it makes the family uncomfortable. For example, some families may prefer not to publish that a loved one committed suicide. However, if a person has passed away unexpectedly, listing the cause of death in the obituary may reduce the number of people who ask what happened.

Listing Relatives

Obituaries typically list surviving relatives, which can be tricky if the deceased has a large or mixed family. It's not a legal document, so don't feel compelled to list the exact relationship of each person; if the deceased considered a stepdaughter a daughter, for instance, list her as you feel appropriate. Don't mention that adopted children were adopted. If you're not sure you can list everyone without risking an accidental omission, or you don't have the budget for everyone's names, list the number of grandchildren or use a phrase such as, "many nieces and nephews," or "several great-grandchildren."

What Not to Include

Some information should never be included in an obituary. For example, the street address of the deceased should not be published for security reasons. In addition, it's usually better to choose a recent picture of the deceased instead of an old photo, which readers may not recognize. Finally, don't include anything that might be too personal or embarrass the family. For example, it is not appropriate to list the deceased as a member of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Ensuring Accuracy

The days after the death of a loved one are busy and stressful, but it's important to have at least one family member look over the obituary before it's published to check for accuracy and ensure you've handled any sticky issues satisfactorily. In addition, ensure someone else proofreads the obituary; for example, you don't want to mar an otherwise perfect obituary by writing "internment" instead of "interment."

About the Author

Rebekah Richards is a professional writer with work published in the "Atlanta Journal-Constitution," "Brandeis University Law Journal" and online at tolerance.org. She graduated magna cum laude from Brandeis University with bachelor's degrees in creative writing, English/American literature and international studies. Richards earned a master's degree at Carnegie Mellon University.

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