What Are Obituaries? And Why Do They Matter?

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Obituaries are far more than a collection of details about someone who’s no longer here. Obituaries can give a glimpse into an “ordinary” person’s life and show that they, too, were extraordinary. All he or she may have been “extraordinary” for may seem minor — but everyday heroes should be celebrated no less. 

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Whether you’re entirely unfamiliar with what obituaries are and you find yourself needing to write one, or perhaps you’d simply like to familiarize yourself, we’ve got you covered. Below, we discuss what exactly an obituary is, their purpose, what’s typically written in them, and where they’re published. 

What’s an Obituary? 

An obituary is a public, written piece announcing someone’s death. As we’ve discussed briefly, an obituary also serves as a way to give a window into any given person’s life. It’s an important way to showcase who they were as a person and honor them (and their family) accordingly. 

An obituary also serves as a means of providing additional information about arrangements for celebrating someone’s life with a funeral, memorial, or some other type of ceremony.

Depending on the details provided in an obituary and where it’s published, information may be incredibly specific, or certain details may be kept more vague. Much of this depends on the deceased person’s wishes or the wishes of their family. 

Difference between a eulogy, elegy, and an obituary

You’ve likely heard these three terms before when it comes to end-of-life and death planning: eulogy, elegy, and obituary. They all sound pretty similar — so what exactly is the difference, and what purposes do they serve? 

Here’s a quick guide to the three:

  • Eulogy: A eulogy tells a story about a person’s life in the form of a speech. A eulogy can get pretty specific and shares details about a person — such as his/her upbringing, career, goals, achievements, short stories, and other highlights.
  • Elegy: An elegy is a poem or song written and performed to express a person’s grief and honor a loved one who has passed away. A traditional elegy is typically somber and serious, and may even air on the side of sadness. 
  • Obituary: As described above, an obituary is a public announcement of a person’s death. However, it has a few key facts that some of these other forms may not. It is also typically published in a newspaper or an online platform. 
ยป MORE: Grief is a form of remembrance. This complete post-loss checklist is your guide to honoring their legacy.


What is the Purpose of an Obituary? 

An obituary gives a glimpse of a deceased person’s life and spirit and can serve as a pertinent source of information for funeral or memorial arrangements. When writing an obituary — either writing your own obituary or writing an obituary for someone else — there are a few guidelines to consider for what an obituary should include. 

Basic biographical information

Most obituaries begin with a simple sentence that details when the person died, a phrase that briefly describes who they were, and how old they were. 

For example: On Wednesday, May 9, 2020, Jane Smith, loving wife and mother of two children and grandmother to four children, passed away at the age of 86. It really can be that simple. You can find more tips for writing a great obituary here

Details about their family

When writing an obituary, it’s typically expected to include details about the deceased person’s family, both surviving and predeceased. How do you know who’s who? And in what order should you include these individuals? How many people is too many? You may have a lot of questions, and that’s OK! 

While there isn’t a finite “right” or “wrong” way, it’s typical to list surviving family members first. Surviving family members are individuals who are still alive in this person’s family. Then, you can list predeceased family members, which includes individuals in this person’s family who have already passed away.

The following order is detailed further in one of Cake’s guides to obituary etiquette. This will likely come in handy if you find yourself with more questions about writing an obituary, particularly the section about family.

 To simplify this section, it’s usually expected to use the following list:

  • Spouse: You should always list the spouse or partner first, and it’s common to also list their current city.
  • Children: After you list the spouse, list children’s names. It’s typical to also list the names of the children’s spouses as well. If the child has an ex-partner instead, it may depend on the relationship if you choose to list this information.
  • Parents: If the person did not have children or a spouse, it’s typical to list their parents. 
  • Extended family: If you have space, you can include additional family members such as grandchildren, grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, etc. 
  • Friends: Friends are often as close as family — if not closer — to some people. However, it’s expected to list friends’ names after immediate family.
  • Pets: Pets are much like family, and it would likely make the deceased person happy to include this information. This should come last, however.

Details about their death (optional)

Whether you’ve never read an obituary in your life or you’re more familiar, you may notice that some obituaries include details about the person’s death while others do not. There isn’t a right or wrong answer for including details about a person’s death, and it simply comes down to your (or the family’s) preference.

 For example: Jane passed away due to natural causes. Or: Jane passed away after bravely battling cancer for many years. 

Depending on where you’re publishing the obituary or how you (or the family) are dealing with the person’s death, it’s completely acceptable not to include details about their death. It’s likely that your guests and immediate loved ones will find out the details in a more intimate setting and on your terms. It may also be poor taste to include the details of a person’s death if it was particularly upsetting or if it involves an ongoing investigation.

Details about their life (encouraged)

Easily the most meaningful part of an obituary is the opportunity it provides to highlight even the most “ordinary” among us. An obituary can serve as a way to describe the unique, quirky, or lovable qualities about your (or another person’s) loved one. You can use this as a way to tell a story about your loved one, describe how they served their family or their community, or some other interesting narrative. 

On the other hand, if he or she led a pretty “uneventful” life or you don’t have a ton of hard facts, including some of his or her values or dialogue can add flair and personality to a sometimes sorrowful piece. It’s also quite possible — and perhaps encouraged — that you (or someone else) writes a funny obituary for this person. 

Details about their funeral or memorial arrangements

Another important purpose of obituaries is to detail funeral or memorial arrangements. If this seems like an odd thing to detail to the general public, there’s a way to do it so that you can still keep a handle on the guest list. 

It’s more than acceptable to allow the general public to come and show their support. You open the service up to this possibility if you list the date, time, and location of the service in the obituary. On the other hand, you can choose only to include the date of the memorial service. From there, you should also include a point of contact at the funeral home or within your family if someone would like to inquire about attending or to show their support. 

Obituaries can also allow you to let loved ones or other contacts know where they can send flowers or other support. It’s also fairly common to ask for donations in lieu of flowers. For example, a deceased person may have been involved with a charitable organization or been particularly passionate about a certain cause. This would be a great way to honor their memory and help others in need at the same time. 

If you're hosting a virtual or online memorial, like with a service such as GatheringUs, this is a great place to share the link or how to join. Online funerals are easy to open to the public if that's what you wish. 

Of course, these guidelines are not exhaustive, and you’ll have to make a few stylistic choices. These choices may simply depend on how long you plan for the obituary to be, and if the outlet you’re publishing it on will charge per word. It’s understandable to want to be brief and reserve these funds for a different aspect of the arrangements. 

Where Do You Publish an Obituary? 

There really aren’t specific rules for where you should or should not publish an obituary. It’s traditional to submit obituaries to newspapers that are local to the person’s most recent home or an area local to where he or she spent most of his or her life.

Other printed — or even digital platforms — may include other community publications or magazines, industry publications, church or religious newsletters, alumni publications, or volunteer newsletters, to name a few. You’ll likely find more helpful tips in this article from Cake about how to submit an obituary to a newspaper or site

If you’re writing an obituary or helping someone else with end-of-life planning, you may also choose to look on the internet for relevant places to publish the deceased person’s obituary. This can simply include a few social media accounts affiliated with the person’s family, friends, business, or social groups.

Of course, once one of these accounts publishes the original, it can easily be shared among the deceased person’s contacts and loved ones. For more information on what a digital afterlife is, you can find tips in this article

If you’re uncertain about finding the right resource in the deceased person’s area, it’s also acceptable to contact the respective funeral or memorial home. These places should have the right connections to local or even more reaching publications. 

Some people include requests for their obituary (or even a pre-written obituary) as part of their estate plan and will. To do this yourself, you can create a legal will online in minutes with Trust & Will. Specifying where your obituary is published and what it says might be important to you. 

Obituaries Are More Than You Think

You may now have a better understanding of what an obituary is and what it can be. Obituaries can serve as a way for you to both thank and honor a deceased person for the world (or a lot of people) to see. 

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