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27. July 2017 · Comments Off on THE FINE ART OF THE OBITUARY · Categories: General · Tags: , ,

I noticed this title on a sign while going into the public library recently.  Apparently someone was going to lecture on that subject.  I missed the lecture, but the title made me think about  the many obituaries that I have read over the years and decades.  I have been reading obituaries as long as I can remember reading newspapers. I remember sitting in a restaurant reading a paper that I had open to the obituaries page.  The waitress asked if there was anything interesting in the paper.  When I pointed to the page and said that I was checking to see if my name was on it, she almost dropped the coffee pot and asked, “why would you be reading THAT part of the newspaper?”

An obituary serves two purposes. It is of course an announcement of a death if we notice it in time. But after that it continues to have value as an historical record not only of a death that occurred but a life that has been lived.

Obituaries can be accessed online nowadays from almost anywhere in the world.  As such they are of great interest to people doing research on family trees and other genealogical studies.

An obituary should not be confused with a eulogy.  The word eulogy actually means “to speak well” and as such these are the kinds of tributes that are often given at funerals or memorial services, usually by someone close to the deceased, and sometimes by a family member.  An obituary is the formal death notice that is usually published in a newspaper.  To protect themselves from pranksters, most city newspapers accept obituary placements only from funeral homes, though you certainly can submit a self-written obituary through your funeral director, which is what I did for both my Mom and Dad.

So what should be in a well-written obituary?


  1. The vital facts: Full legal name (with nicknames in brackets if desired), especially if the person was better known by such a name.
  2. The date of birth and the date of death, and optionally the place of death (at home, or name of hospital etc) but at the very least the name of the city where death occurred. I can’t stress enough that the date of birth is as important as the date of death and it is missing in many obituaries. Perhaps one didn’t want to disclose the age of the deceased. While such vanity might have its place in life, what does it matter in death? To the genealogical researcher, the date and place of birth might avoid confusion with another person with a similar name.
  3. The deceased’s marital status: whether single, married, widowed etc. at death, and the names of any spouses to which they were married. Again, for historical purposes this is significant. If the deceased was widowed, the date of the spouse’s death is usually put in brackets.  Some people who divorce, consider themselves “single” again and prefer to wipe out any memory of the former spouse.  In some jurisdictions (Ontario for example), “single” means never married, and the Registration of Death form requires that the current or last spouse be listed, even if divorced or widowed. This information does not need to be in the obituary however, and usually a tactful way can be found to deal with former spouses.
  4. The names of the surviving family: Protocol suggests the order in which these should be listed: spouse (if living), children (and spouses if applicable), grand-children and great-grandchildren, then the surviving siblings and other relatives. Often these are grouped together as “many cousins, uncles, aunts) etc.
  5. Information about the life of the deceased: their occupation, significant career accomplishments etc. Here is where some discretion and creativity are in order. It is not possible, nor necessary to cover an entire life in the obituary.  Keep in mind, that newspapers charge for the space that is used, usually by the line.  I recall once seeing an obituary that was three columns wide, and almost half the page deep.  My first thought was, “wow, that must have been an incredibly important person”.   But when I read it, I was dismayed to find that every activity from grade school on was listed, along with every track and field ribbon, every bake sale contest, every place of employment and many other things were listed.  These details might have been important to the deceased and their family, but of little if any interest to the public.  But certainly if the deceased was outstanding in any field or had some notable accomplishment, that might add interest to the obituary and could be listed.
  6. A picture is optional, but is becoming more and more common. The picture should be a head and shoulder shot, and can be a current picture, or an older one that shows how the deceased looked in younger and happier days. As mentioned the picture is optional, and it will add to the cost that the newspaper charges. However – sad but true – it will increase the likelihood of the obituary being read.  When skimming over a page of death notices, I find that my eye falls on those that have a picture. (However, I do check all the names in case there is someone there that I knew).
  7. Finally, the obituary should have information about the funeral arrangements: whether there will be a viewing and when and where this will take place, the date and time of the service, and the place of burial. Also if the family has any preference about memorial donations in lieu of flowers, that should be mentioned.
  8. Creativity makes for a more interesting read. Most funeral homes have a bare-bones “just the facts” template where information can simply be dropped in.  If cost is a factor, then this minimalist approach is fine.  But if you want to put some creativity into it, then you also need to balance that with good taste and avoid vanity, cheesy humour, or empty sentimentality.

Should one write one’s own obituary?  That seems to be more common than it used to be.  I would say that there is no rule about that, but it is challenging to do it well.  I’ve read some very interesting self written obituaries, but I’ve also read some “cheesy” ones too.  As a last statement, you want to leave a good impression and not one that makes the reader cringe. I would say the same thing about videos that people record ahead of time to be played in the funeral or memorial service.  I haven’t decided yet whether I will write my own, but I have left instructions of what should and should not be in my obituary.  But ultimately, it will be someone else’s call.


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