Writing an obituary is no small task. How do you sum up someone’s entire life accurately and respectfully? It’s such a complex art form that there are people who have made whole careers out of obituary writing. Learning how to write an obituary takes time, and you want to be sensitive to the information surrounding the deceased.
An obituary is a formal death announcement. It usually appears in a newspaper or on an online memorial page. While they might be intimidating to write yourself, an obituary doesn’t have to be a somber read. It’s a celebration of someone’s life and accomplishments.
Tip: Writing an obituary is just one of the tasks you might be responsible for after a death. If you need help figuring out what to do next, check out our post-loss checklist.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Should You List How the Person Died?
- Is It Necessary to List Their Age?
- What’s the Order for Survivors or Predeceased Family?
- Do You Have to Publish the Location of the Memorial Service or Funeral?
How do you know what exactly to include in an obituary? How do you list key information in a way that honors the deceased? There’s such a thing as proper etiquette to obituary writing. It isn’t something you’re likely to know about if this is your first time writing an obituary.
In this guide, we’ll answer all of your obituary etiquette questions so you can write a shining announcement for your loved one. Like most things in life, it’s important not to get too distracted by the details. Always follow your best judgment and the deceased’s wishes when writing an obituary.
There is no single “right” way to pen an obituary. However, one of the biggest questions is whether or not to list how the person died. As you might expect, there are a lot of different opinions about whether this should be included.
The cause of death is not legally considered private information, and it usually is found on the death certificate. However, the death certificate doesn’t give a full picture, and many people might wonder how the deceased came to his or her end. Because of this, many families choose to include it in the obituary.
Sharing this information can help distant friends and families know the cause of death, aiding the grieving process. It also shields the family from having to repeatedly share the cause of death to extended family and acquaintances. Finally, how the person died is a part of his or her life story. Since death is a part of life, it’s understandable why many don’t shy away from including it.
On the other hand, many families prefer to focus exclusively on the life of their loved one. The obituary doesn't necessarily need to include the cause of death. In some cases, the cause of death could harm the reputation of the deceased or the family. It also might not be an accurate representation of a life well-lived. Whether you list how the person died is a personal decision that’s left to the family.
If you do choose to share how the person died, it’s common to list the date and city of death. You might also include whether they died in a hospital or medical center. This information is included first, and it’s followed by his or her accomplishments.
Another common question is whether it’s necessary to share the age of the deceased. This is a customary part of obituary etiquette that helps readers put the person’s life in context. The age is usually listed with the date of death next to the first name and any nicknames, if applicable.
While listing the age is common, it’s not a requirement. If it’s not an important part of the deceased’s story or against their wishes, it doesn’t need to be in the obituary.
Finally, it’s common to list the birthdate of the deceased. Again, it’s all about sharing a full story of a loved one’s life. The age at the time of death tells a lot about a person’s life in many instances.
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For obituaries, it’s etiquette to list survivors or predeceased family members. A survivor is a relative of the deceased who is still living. A predeceased family member is a relative who has already passed away.
There’s a bit of confusion around who exactly is included in the definition “survivor.” Most think this refers to closest kin, but that’s still not always clear. In the case of blended families and ex-partners, it’s at the discretion of the writer. Often, it will come down to the relationship the deceased person had with his or her ex-partner.
How should you include survivors or predeceased family? What’s the order? Again, there are no set-in-stone rules. However, there is an order in which to include key family members. Because there can be limited space in your publication, sometimes you need to prioritize according to relationships.
In general, you list the closest members of the family first. Start with the spouse. Next, list children in the order they were born as well as any of their spouses. Here is where you might include ex-partners, especially if they had children with the deceased. Then, list any additional family in order of birth such as parents, grandparents, grandchildren, siblings, nephews, or nieces.
Because all of that can be hard to follow, here’s a simple breakdown:
- Spouse: The spouse or partner is always listed first, along with the city where the spouse lives.
- Children: After the partner, children’s names are listed along with any of the children’s spouses. If the children are with an ex-partner, the ex’s name might also appear depending on the relationship.
- Parents: Parents are also prioritized, especially if the deceased person did not have kids or a spouse.
- Extended family: Next, if space allows, include additional family members such as grandchildren, grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, and so on.
- Friends: It’s increasingly common to see close friends listed on obituaries. They would be after the family.
- Pets: Finally, pets often feel like family to many people nowadays. If the deceased was fond of his or her pets, write them into the obituary as well.
It all comes down to the individual, their relationships, and the amount of space available to write the obituary.
Obituaries published in a newspaper, online, or on social media typically have information for the memorial service or funeral. If the service will be open to the public, it’s normal to publish the location and time.
When publishing the location of the memorial service or funeral, include the name of the person who will be officiating the service. Write if the funeral will involve an open casket or viewing. Include contact information for the funeral home for more information or special arrangements.
If the memorial service or funeral is going to be a private affair, it doesn’t need to be published with the obituary. However, it’s customary to include how the service will be “private” or “for immediate family” in the obituary.
Master Obituary Etiquette
Most people don’t have extensive experience reading or writing obituaries. Because of this, it can be confusing to know the right way to present information. Whether you’re writing an online memorial or publishing an obituary in a local newspaper, you should honor the deceased with the proper format.
The obituary tells the story of someone’s life, so make sure to present the full picture. This often includes listing the cause of death, age, relatives, and funeral information. Now that you know what’s expected, you’re ready to master obituary etiquette.