What Are Obituaries? Definition + Purpose Explained

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Obituaries include far more than a collection of details about someone who has died. Obituaries can give a glimpse into the life of the deceased.

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Whether you’re entirely unfamiliar with how to write a great obituary or would simply like to familiarize yourself with obituaries, we’ve got you covered. Below, we discuss obituaries, their purpose, the words typically written in them, and where people publish them. 

What’s an Obituary? 

An obituary is a public, written piece announcing someone’s death. An obituary also serves as a way to share the high points of a person’s life. It’s an important way to showcase people and honor them (and their families) 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 vaguer. Much of this depends on the deceased person’s wishes or the wishes of their family. 

Short obituary example

Archibald “Arch” Larson passed away at the age of 83 on May 28, 2021, in Boulder, Colorado. He will be deeply missed by his family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers. He is survived by his wife, Gina, his daughter, Phoebe, his son, Larry, and his many granddogs. Arch attended Colorado State University (CSU) where he studied to become a chemical engineer. He was beloved by all of his former colleagues. His coworkers at Trader Joe’s, where he worked for the past 12 years after coming out of retirement, loved seeing his smile every day. A funeral service will be held for Arch at St. Joseph’s Church on Rose Lane on Saturday, June 22. All are welcome. In lieu of flowers, Arch’s family requests that donations go to the American Cancer Society.

Differences 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 share 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 err on the side of sadness. 
  • Obituary: As described above, an obituary is a public announcement of a person’s death. 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. 
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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 a funeral or memorial arrangements. When writing an obituary — either writing your own obituary or writing an obituary for someone else — take a look at a few guidelines so you know 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, mother of two children, and grandmother to four children, passed away at the age of 86. 

It really doesn't have to be more complicated than this. Read more tips for writing a great obituary

Details about the family

When writing an obituary, it usually includes 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 okay!

While there isn’t a definite “right” or “wrong” way to include them, you usually want to list surviving family members first — individuals still alive in this person’s family. Then you can list deceased family members, which include individuals in this person’s family who have already passed away.

Cake’s guides to obituary etiquette will likely come in handy if you find yourself with more questions about writing the section about family in the obituary.

 To simplify this section, try using 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, it may depend on the nature of the relationship to determine whether you list this information or not.
  • Parents: If the person did not have children or a spouse, it’s typical to list the deceased's 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. However, you should list friends’ names after the immediate family.
  • Pets: People often consider pets as family. It would likely make the deceased person happy to include this information. Pet names should come last.

Details about the death (optional)

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) have dealt with the person’s death, it’s completely acceptable not to include details about the 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 in 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 the deceased's life (encouraged)

The most meaningful part of an obituary involves the unique, quirky, or lovable qualities of your loved one. You can use this as a way to tell a story about your loved one, describe how he served his family or community, or another 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, adding some of his or her values or dialogue can add flair and personality to a sometimes sorrowful obituary. It’s also quite possible for you or someone else to write a funny obituary for your loved one. 

Details about the funeral or memorial arrangements

Obituaries also detail funeral or memorial arrangements. If this seems like an odd thing to detail to the general public, you can do it in a way to 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 his or her 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, share the link or show people how to join.

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

Who Typically Writes the Obituary?

When facing death — whether it's the death of a friend, family member, or acquaintance — you may dread the task of writing the obituary. But don’t worry. Perhaps your reluctance has to do with the fact that you feel you didn’t know the person well enough. Or maybe you don’t feel confident in your obituary-writing abilities.

With different formats for obituaries and guides available for how to write a great obituary, the process should be easy. As far as who should write the obituary, ideally, it should be someone who’s closest to the person who has passed away. That being said, you can all pool your talents, resources, and information about the deceased person (as well as information in this article).

If the writing task falls on you, you can always involve others to help you fine-tune and edit it. Likewise, if a friend or family member becomes the writer, offer to help with the editing. If you feel the obituary doesn't have enough details, you can also ask around to help fill in the gaps.

Where Do You Publish an Obituary? 

You can't point to specific rules for where you should or should not publish an obituary. It’s traditional to submit obituaries to newspapers local to the person’s most recent home.

Other printed or 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, you can easily share it among the deceased person’s contacts and loved ones. Learn more in this information about a digital afterlife

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 prewritten 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 you want your article published and what it says might be important to you. 

How Much Does It Cost to Publish an Obituary?

The cost of publishing an obituary can range from entirely free to a few hundred dollars, depending on where you publish it. Of course, publishing an obituary on social media, such as Facebook, would be free. You may also have some other community forums or blogs you’re part of that might be free as well.

Some people choose to publish obituaries the traditional way, such as in a newspaper or community bulletin. According to the Neptune Society, it can cost between $200 and $500 to publish an obituary in a newspaper. Some publications charge by line, while others charge by word count. In most cases, the cost will increase the more content you add, such as photographs.

Once an obituary is published online, it will likely be free to share. If you believe you must ask permission from a source or family member, be courteous and do so. For example, instead of sharing an entire obituary on your social media account, you can pull a snippet from the official obituary or summarize it in a more personal way.

Does Everybody Need to Publish an Obituary When They Die?

Whether you're planning for your death or the death of a loved one, you don't have to publish an obituary. There are no legal or financial obligations to publish an obituary. Rather, obituaries serve as a way to notify loved ones that someone has passed away. 

If you don't feel that an obituary would serve you or a loved one, there are some alternatives that are inexpensive or free.

  • Death announcements: These are a printed alternative to obituaries. You can contact a local stationery store for printing or shop online. Nice death announcements include a stylized card with abbreviated information that would be found in the person’s obituary, as well as an image. You can mail them to friends and family and the deceased person’s contacts.
  • Social media posts: Social media posts are a free alternative to obituaries. In fact, most platforms give you as much if not more freedom for what you can include and how long it can be. Get creative with photographs, videos, and more, if you choose.
  • Posts in forums/blogs: Most forums and blogs are also free. They might be another great place for you to honor your loved one with an “obituary” or announcement — especially if your deceased loved one was also part of this group. It’s also likely that these platforms will not have limitations in terms of word count or images. 
  • Unconventional announcements: There are also some unconventional announcements that can serve as an “obituary” for your loved one. You can dedicate memorials to them around where they lived or even request an announcement be made at one of their favorite sporting events. If your loved one was an unconventional kind of person, they’ll likely appreciate this gesture. 

One of the biggest takeaways we’d like to reinforce is that you shouldn’t feel obligated to write about, share, or announce a death before you and your family members or friends are ready. Give yourself the time you need. Reflect on your own before you share this news with the world. 

Obituaries Offer More Than You Think

We hope you have a better understanding of what an obituary is and how it can be useful to you and your family. Obituaries provide a perfect outlet to honor your loved one, publically share a glimpse of their life, and thank them for being a part of your life.

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