That we acknowledge and celebrate our loved ones through an obituary or a death notice is rooted in American culture.
It’s common to put one either in a paper or elsewhere in the United States, perhaps because our funeral rites last for days, including memorials, vigils, and the funeral itself. Whereas in some cultures, the overall view of death takes little ritual unless that person was famous.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What’s a Death Notice?
- What’s an Obituary?
- Main Differences Between Obituaries and Death Notices
- When to Use an Obituary or Death Notice
Both a death notice and an obituary can be written in a meaningful way to pay respect and give honor to the passing of a loved one. Below, you’ll find some information on the differences between the two, their purposes, and their uses.
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What’s a Death Notice?
In brief, a death notice announces the death of someone. If the family requests publication in a local newspaper, a funeral home will help the family fill out a basic template. But unlike an obituary, the information provided is basic or essential.
Not long ago, people also used to list a decedent’s home address in the death notice so others would know where to visit or send memorial gifts. Now, it’s best to leave out that information to secure against identity theft or other malintent.
What’s an Obituary?
An obituary, on the other hand, is an account of one’s life in detail. While funeral homes and newspapers can help the family write one, it’s now a common practice that a family member tells the story of their loved one’s life.
Initially, obituaries looked and sounded much like a death notice. Now, they are rosy tributes to a loved one where people can learn all sorts of details, insights, and even the deceased’s philosophies.
Main Differences Between Obituaries and Death Notices
The content provided in a death notice is far less than what you’ll read in an obituary. Here, you’ll discover what those differences are and how they came to be.
Death notices provide much less information than an obituary. Commonly, one is published in a newspaper only days before the funeral and include the following:
- Name (and nickname) of the person who has died, including a maiden name
- The date and location of death may be referenced, but the cause of death is optional
- Information about the funeral or service date and location
- Options for gifts or donations in lieu of flowers
An obituary might be printed days before or after a funeral and will include the following additional biographical information:
- Date and place of birth
- Sports and hobbies throughout school and life
- Spouse and date of marriage
- Education, work history, and any military service
It’s not commonplace for a death notice to have a photo, but obituary photos are generally included. While there’s no correct or incorrect photo to use, here are some recommendations to follow:
- Choose a flattering photo
- Make sure the image is in focus
- Avoid group photos
- Current and past photos are both good choices.
Basic family information
Unlike a death notice, genealogical information fills a portion of the obituary.
You’ll commonly find a list of surviving family members, like spouses, children, and siblings. A set of parentheses next to each family member’s name will include their spouses and children, too.
Death notices are often free, simple “notices” for a newspaper article, so things like community impact and affiliated memberships are left out.
However, obituaries can include unique and interesting details, like:
- Devotion to one’s religious organization
- Membership in a VFW, birding club, knitting group, or writer’s guild
- Volunteerism and selflessness
- Neighborliness or being a good samaritan
- Gift-giving to the underrepresented or needy at holidays and more
Personal achievements don’t have to be world-renown to be amazing. Having the winning pickle recipe at the county fair for ten years in a row is a huge accomplishment and deserves its place, too.
I’ve listed a few made-up creative achievements, so you get the idea:
- Artie was a flyweight boxing champion of the Cannonball District from 1966-68.
- Sal invented a roofing device to make reshingling easier.
- Rhea climbed the highest mountain on every continent before she turned 35.
- Elvira was voted “Best Apple Pie” in the neighborhood every year without fail.
- Gene was a closet songwriter for famous country artists, working mostly with new age artists.
- Simon authored three books about dog training that are very popular in the AKC community.
Many well-loved family members will have a few lines written about the impact they made on others.
For instance, perhaps the decedent became a beloved big brother to their spouse’s siblings. Or maybe they influenced their kids to become military servicemen or conservationists.
Often, indications of someone’s character come out without even trying. The deceased’s charm will shine in the obituary’s details, from the chosen photo to their career choice, and the beloved family and friends who grieve their loss.
If you decide to be more specific, check out these creative examples:
- Audrey changed her oil and fixed her own cars throughout her life.
- Joan made quilts for the homeless throughout the year and gifted them during the holidays.
- Chip picked up microplastic at the beach every weekend to bring awareness to his community.
- Dad wrote his own jokes—and laughed at all of them.
Philosophies, poetry, and musings
You’ll have an option in an obituary to recognize someone for being artistic, eccentric, and thoughtful by leaving a tidbit of wisdom.
Did your dad have a great piece of advice? Did your sister write beautiful, meaningful poetry? If you and others found these things helpful over the years, it’s possible to weave them into the story of their life.
Both a death notice and an obituary will list options to donate in someone’s name; however, there will be ample room to explain the reasoning behind that donation in an obituary.
Online memorial domains
Something you won’t find with a death notice is a memorial domain. These are online memorial webpages where survivors, including friends, can express their thoughts and memories as a legacy statement.
After a while, the sites will close down an obituary, but there is the option to pay for it to be kept online for a short time or posterity.
Conversely, an obituary is too long to be published on other online locations such as social media or organization websites, and the like. You’ll even find that even a full death notice is too long here as well. There, a simple “in memory of” or a “thank you” with a name is sufficient.
Death notices are short. They provide only the necessary information to a specific group of people, without offering much more detail than is needed.
For example, you’ll find death notices in the following locations:
- Funeral homes pages
- Company or another organizational newsletter
- Nonprofit website
- Social media pages
- Personal or family websites
Whereas obituaries are lengthy and can be expensive as you’re paying per word, and that’s not including the photograph. If your loved one moved around a lot for work or settled in a new place late in life, like retiring on an island, you’ll want to choose the location of the obituary well.
You should consider:
- Hometown newspaper
- Paper where elderly parents live
When to Use an Obituary or Death Notice
There are some subtle differences between an obituary and a death notice that will determine which one is appropriate in certain print publications and when. See below.
Use a death notice when
Suppose the cause of death is unusual, embarrassing for the family, or anything else that would cause you to pause before exposing private information. In that case, a death notice works because it's vague—without sounding alarm bells from the gossipers.
That means you don’t have to be wordy or express and reveal things about your loved one in a way that you find unnecessary. The notice itself is the polite way of letting people know about your loved one while maintaining a distance from exposing too much information.
Reasons for this can include:
- The decedent’s wishes
- The family’s wishes to avoid more intimate or vulnerable details such as suicide or addiction issues
- The death is considered taboo or uncomfortable, but the notice is out of respect
- Religious or spiritual reasons against a full obituary
- An unusual discovery or circumstance
- If an accident caused a delay in the discovery
- You don’t want to spend the money on an obituary
Use an obituary when
Most well-written obituaries are penned by family members to expose the life and beauty of someone they respected and loved. However, there are occasions when the obituary becomes a memoir of “how not to behave” in life. Most of us have read one or two of these as they seem to spread across the Internet like wildfire.
That said, you'll want to use an obituary in the following circumstances:
- To announce an open invitation for a funeral or memorial event; involve a community
- When they were loved and respected whether by few or many
- If their life was a lesson from which to learn whether good or bad
- To express pride and admiration
- As an homage and final rendering of a life well-lived
As a final note, one result of an obituary is that you'll inadvertently give funeral attendees some memorial gift ideas. If your loved one was outdoorsy, you might encourage people to donate to tree planting organizations of their own volition.
Whether a Death Notice or An Obituary, It’s Up to You
Whether you choose a simple death notice or a detailed, meaningful obituary, there's no right or wrong to how you want to honor your loved one.
- Boak, M., et al. (2008). Internet Death Notices as a Novel Source of Mortality Surveillance Data, American Journal of Epidemiology, Volume 167, Issue 5, 1 March 2008, Pages 532–539, doi.org/10.1093/aje/kwm331
- Crespo-Fernandéz, E. (2005). The Language of Death: Euphemism and Conceptual Metaphorization in Victorian Obituaries. Research Gate. www.researchgate.net/publication/242383248_The_Language_of_Death_Euphemism_and_Conceptual_Metaphorization_in_Victorian_Obituaries
- Rebechi, R., et al. (2018). OBITUARIES IN TRANSLATION: A CORPUS-BASED STUDY. Cadernos de Tradução, 38(3), 298-318. dx.doi.org/10.5007/2175-7968.2018v38n3p298