Obituaries

The last thing, literally, any of us wants to think about is writing obituaries.

Even if we have very elderly or very sick loved ones and know that the time is near, it seems eerie and sacrilegious to think about preparing an obituary while they are still living, perhaps even tempting fate and hastening death!

None of us, hopefully, will have to write a lot of obituaries. I’ve written them for my parents, but they or their siblings wrote them for my grandparents, and the rest of my relatives have nearer loved ones to whom that task will fall.

Yet in the process of compiling the new Babson Genealogy I have been reading hundreds of obituaries and have gained new respect for the art and science of a well-written obituary.

As I see it, obituaries fall into at least four categories:

First, no obituary – just a death notice leaving one to wonder whether the departed had no one to write the obituary or whether the survivors simply felt “the least said the better.”

Second, the “book” obituary containing everything the person did in an entire lifetime – profession, education, charitable work, awards, world travel, hobbies, and more.

Third, the “just the facts” obituary – when and where born, names of survivors, short notes like “she worked as a checker at Wal-Mart” and the like. These usually will give names of surviving children, but only state the number of surviving grandchildren without naming them, or just give their first names without identifying the parents of Johnny, Jimmy, and Jane.[1]

Fourth is the ideal obituary, from a genealogical standpoint, at least. This gives all of the pertinent facts of birth, marriage, death and burial, full names and relationships of all survivors including their towns of residence, names of predeceased near relatives – spouses, parents, children – and biographical information that pays loving tribute to the person’s life, not necessarily to their resume.

For this type of obituary someone has to put some effort and thought into gathering information ahead of time. Looking back, the obituaries I wrote for my parents were “just the facts” types, despite having had plenty of time to think about it – Mother was 99½ when she died, and Dad 97, so no excuses that it was unexpected. Yet as I hastily typed the facts for the funeral home administrator on the days that arrangements were made, my brain was just not up to the task. It’s not that I did a bad job, it’s just that I might have done better if I could have found a way to prepare.

As for my own obituary, I won’t be writing it, but I will be leaving hints.

Note

[1] Of course, newspapers limit space and/or charge by the word for obituaries, which usually precludes naming all eighteen grandchildren, but times are changing with digital editions of newspapers, funeral home websites, and even dedicated websites just for obituaries.

Alicia Crane Williams

About Alicia Crane Williams

Alicia is the lead genealogist on the new NEHGS study project, Early New England Families, 1641-1700. Prior to joining the NEHGS staff, she compiled and edited numerous important genealogical publications including The Mayflower Descendant, the Alden Family Five Generations project, and the Harlow Family : Descendants of Sgt. William Harlow (1624/5-1691) of Plymouth, Massachusetts. Alicia has served as Historian of the Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants, Assistant Historian General at the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, and as Genealogist of the Alden Kindred of America. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Connecticut and a master’s degree in History from Northeastern University. In October 2016, Alicia was elected a Fellow of the American Society of Genealogists.

47 thoughts on “Obituaries

  1. Alicia, your footnote is key to writing the modern obituary. I was shocked some years ago to discover the cost of running obituaries in newspapers and worked diligently to keep the word count to an affordable level. I was recently in the sad position of writing an obituary for my sister, and I threw financial caution to the wind. I think it was the genealogist I have learned to be over the past ten years: I wanted to get down the details for someone researching the family in the future.

  2. For more on this subject do see the (fairly) new film “Obit” a documentary about The New York Times obituary writers!

    1. Pam, will do. Reminds me of the Mary Tyler Moore episode when she had to rewrite all the obituaries that the tv station had in its advance stockpile for when prominent people died.

  3. Your comment that about writing an obituary early might tempt fate and possibly hasten death, made me think of my maternal grandparents. The family had to fight with them to make out wills, because they were sure they would die shortly afterwards( neither did). Now a days, it is not unusual for young people to have wills and with time maybe we will feel differently about writing our obituaries while we are living.

    1. I wonder when this attitude became so prevalent. In my research, I routinely come across wills that were written years before death. Then there are the letters amongst family members frankly discussing their potential deaths. They seemed much better acquainted with death than we do, recognizing its inevitability. Perhaps the separation of even ordinary death from day to day events through hospitalization, and a growing expectation that modern medicine could intervene changed our attitudes. I agree wtih you, Nancy, that in recent years there seems to be an increasing awareness of death, and a willingness to prepare for it though such things as advance directives, wills, and, as my grandparents did, making arrangements for burial or cremation.

  4. It startled me when I realized that in all of the emotional and physical upheaval when my parents died (separately), neither my brothers nor I thought about obituaries. I because much of the responsibility fell on my shoulders and I hadn’t put it on my list of thing to do, and my brothers because they thought that somehow newspapers automatically wrote them!

    When our mutual (and much loved) step-aunt died, I was blessed to have a cousin who took care of the immediate arrangments. I wrote the obituary, but as you pointed out, there were monetary constraints. I packed as much as I could into the space alloted, giving enough of her history that any future researcher would be able to track down the rest. She had no children of her own, so that shortened the word count somewhat. We decided that a fitting ending would be to have her joining her best friend, my mother, at their favorite fishing spot, as they did in life.

    Later, I realized how many of my relatives do not have obituaries, or whose obituaries are abbreviated, often submitted by funeral homes using the limited (and sometimes erroneous information) available to them. Now I am thinking of writing memorials for my relatives that can be added to one of the gravesite websites that have become such a resource to genealogists.

  5. I have found a number of distant cousins as the result of what you describe as an ideal obituary. It’s otherwise difficult to match up living people given the (appropriate) privacy limitations of more recent vital and census records.

    However, family dynamics can result in descendants being entirely omitted from an obituary so even the ones with what appear to be all the descendants’ names should not be treated as “the whole story”.

    For instance, I have a friend who is estranged from some of her siblings and when they got together at the funeral home after their mother’s passing, tensions were high and the others did not want to listen to my friend about what their mother’s wishes had been (she was the only one with the first-hand account) and when things became too emotional, she said “fine, do whatever you want, you don’t even have to mention me at all if you don’t want to,” and they didn’t; she is not named as a child in her mother’s obituary at all. When I heard that, my first thought was the confusion that may be caused by that obituary both currently and in the future.

  6. My mother wrote her own obituary, but she always was an innovative thinker! She started thinking about it after her own mother died, and encouraged her siblings to do the same. But somehow none of them did – I think they were superstitious and didn’t want to tempt fate. My sister and I plan to write our own obituaries also.

  7. Thanks for your post! I spent a couple of months recently taking care of my parents–broken leg for my dad and mini stroke for my mom. While I was home with them, I had a dream one night that I opened a newspaper and saw my dad’s obituary. I saw his photo and marveled that his obit spanned every column of the page. It was in a somewhat jagged arrangement–like the printer had to make it fit and that’s how it ended up best for the newspaper. I tried to find a death date but could not. When I woke up, my first thought was, “Wow. That must have been really expensive!” My dad was quite interested in my dream and was sad to learn that I could not see any dates. He and my mom are both OK with death and look on it as going home and also a new beginning. I am glad to learn that perhaps such an obituary won’t be as costly as it used to be with everything being digital these days. I also feel inspired to get a start on what may eventually fall to me anyway…. Thanks again for your post!

  8. As a genealogist, I appreciate informative obituaries, but as someone who has had her identity stolen (not from an obituary, but still….), I shudder at the thought of exposing anyone in my family to such an experience. The middle ground, with full information on the deceased and limited information on the survivors, would be my choice!

    1. dimple, yes it is a balancing act. The one thing that might be gleaned from an obituary that could be used for identify fraud is mother’s maiden name of the survivors. However, there are so many ways today that information may be found, that the risk should not be any greater. Of course, no full dates except for the deceased and no full addresses.

  9. When my mother died, as an only child, I had write an obituary with the urgency pressed upon me at the funeral home. Not a good time to give thoughtful consideration! After the obituary was published in the paper, I knew I had done a bad job of it, and have felt guilty about it all these years, especially since she was an avid genealogist. At that time I had not been interested in genealogy as I am now. I agree with Alicia’s idea to at least write some notes – either for your heirs or for yourself if you may be the one who is called upon to write. Mea Culpa!

  10. I plan on writing my own obituary, as well as my husband’s. I want them to be informative and well-written. I am choosing the photos, as well. You should write another essay regarding the photos people choose for obituaries. I sometimes think: “Couldn’t they have chosen a better photo?” Sometimes the quality is very poor. Sometimes the photo is of a person in the prime of their life, so no one reading the obituary recognizes them as the 90-year-old person who died. Other times, the photo is ridiculous. One obituary I saw had the man dressed as Santa Claus!

    1. Margaret, good point. I think the young photos are because people want, or think the loved-one, wants to be remembered as they were in their prime. Sometimes, that is the best picture of them for their entire lives, or it might be their standard business photo. Often it is just a snapshot taken with a family gathering because that is all the family has. I asked my parents to have their photo taken by a professional for their 50th wedding anniversary as a present to us kids. By the time they died they were up to their 70th anniversary, but at least I got them documented together. Since Dad took all of our family photos, having one with both together is very rare.

  11. Obituaries are becoming more important as more people want their ashes spread over the water or on a mountain, etc., leaving no gravestone. If someone dies in a town not necessarily connected with his or her life, a death certificate becomes difficult to find. Spend the money, write the obit!

  12. I worked many years for a daily newspaper in a small town (where obits were published for free.). From time to time it was my responsibility to write obituaries. The information came from forms we provided to mortuaries, and if we had questions about the information, we’d phone the person who had filled it out. Those were straight-forward obits, no room for beloved pet’s names or survivors’ fond memories. Through time, obituaries have changed — and I think for the better. Also, I know from experience the great importance of really reviewing what you have written. I was interrupted while writing my mother’s obit and forgot to include her surviving sister’s name. Another bit of advice — check your facts! One obit I’ll never forget came from information that had been submitted with a typo. It said the funeral would be at 11 p.m. The copy editor assumed (but didn’t check) that it was meant to say 1 p.m., when instead the service was to be at 11 a.m. How many people missed the funeral? I do plan to write my own obit and that of my husband — I’m quite aware that even our children are confused about details of our lives.

  13. In a lengthy 1901 obit for a relative who died in New Ipswich, NH, the parents, grandparents, siblings, and children were identified as to name and location, as well as cause of death, education, church positions, and business career. It also included his lineage. “He was the sixth generation of the decendants of George Marsh, who left Hingham, Norfolk Co, England with others in 1635 for the “New World, where they would enjoy freedom to worship God according to their own conscience more fully than they were allowed to do in England and landed in Charlestown, Mass.” The family must have been proud to be among the early settlers. They were also Congregationalists.

  14. Are use obituaries in order to resolve the maiden name of a collateral relative. If a recent relative passes away I go to GenealogyBank and plug in the certain words and many times I am able to put a maiden name to a lady who has died that was a collateral relative. Very satisfying to do that.

  15. I have written my obit because I do not trust anyone else to get it right.

    An obit may be the only written record of a person so it is important for future genealogists. The obit should make the person memorable. And, yes, I mentioned my colonial and gateway heritage and my strong sense of the past.

    In the newspaper of the small town where I was born, I read two obits written by two different women, both claiming to be his spouse. I am still puzzled…..

    Everyone deserves an obit; and it is so sad when NO obit is written. A woman I knew casually was not remembered with an obit, neither by her husband, nor her friends and she had been a very accomplished woman. So sad. Their oversight still bothers me.

    1. Caith, Skeletons do sometimes come out of the closet! It is sad when no obituary is published, but there are many families that just do not believe in them (or in spending the money). The Internet will probably solve a lot of those problems. I just verified that a baby was born before a marriage through the mother’s Facebook page posting of her marriage photo, complete with baby!

  16. As I mentioned above, I have written newspaper’s obituaries from forms provided to mortuaries and filled out by survivors. There was no charge to publish them, but even then, the mortuary staff told me, about half of their clients didn’t want to submit one. So when you don’t find an ancestor’s obituary, don’t assume that the person didn’t die in a certain town. And if half didn’t submit information 20 years ago, I’m sure the high costs now (my sister’s this January was almost $1,400 in an Oregon paper) mean that even fewer are printed.

    1. Linda, wholly cow. I didn’t include my parents in the Boston Globe because it was something like $200. They had long outlived all their friends and peers, so the notice in the local town weekly and the regional daily were enough, but when it is for someone who has a lot of friends and family in a wider setting, that is a big burden.

  17. My father’s obituary omitted the son and adopted step-children from his first marriage. I have the feeling it’s not an uncommon occurrence for a widow to neglect to mention her husband’s earlier children in an obituary, but I still think a little less of Mom for doing this. My Dad’s son was deceased at that point, but I believe Dad’s adopted step-children were still living, and possibly hurt by this, although they were probably more hurt by my father’s leaving their mother and failing to maintain contact with them. I wish I could have reached out to them and said, “Sorry for the neglect of my parents – I want to get to know you!”

    1. Margaret, things can get sticky, indeed. When I have the chance, I try to find obits of as many people in the extended family to compare. Surprising things sometimes turn up.

  18. I just had to write my Dad’s obituary in March. I too threw caution to the wind, not only as to cost, but it was time for the truth to set everybody free. This meant including Dad’s real father in the obituary and naming the relationship and including Dad’s paternal siblings. My brother teased me that I had lobbed a bomb but, after 83 years, it was time. We waited for the fall-out, but all we got was positive feedback. Dad’s maternal brother was glad to know the truth after wondering for a life-time (my father looks just like his real father) and Dad’s surviving paternal siblings contacted us to let us know how pleased they were remembered and wanting to start seeing each other as a family. Since my father’s adoptive father (legally) was the father the registrar insisted go on the death certificate, this obituary is the only record of the truth.

    My own obituary is all written and in the funeral folder, but it is the will that is the genealogical goldmine. Every single family member is named and identified and money is left to my siblings to put flowers on the graves of every ancestor through our 3xgreat-grandparents listing their gravesites, parents, and the places they came from. It makes me smile to think someday a descendant of our parents will break the silence of the NEHGS reading room yelling “Eureka!”

  19. One way to avoid high costs in large papers like the Globe, is to have a very brief facts only announcement, with a website address to the funeral home’s longer article. A few months before my very elderly husband passed away a yr ago, I took notes as I asked him to fill in some gaps in my knowledge of his life. He guessed what this was for and asked with a smile, “So does this mean I’m writing my own obituary?” My response, “Well, no…well, sort of…” then laughing, “I guess you’re right!” He proceeded to give a detailed biography which gave me plenty of info for an obit article of a man who was an organist, pianist and choir director for over 75 yrs. in area churches. The larger papers were sent the facts only version with the address to the funeral home’s website for the whole article. Btw, I also found a pristine tape of his playing the day after he passed, and used it for the funeral. People smilingly said, “He practically planned and did his own funeral!” 🙂

  20. 1-There is a wonderful book called “If you Lived Here, I’d Know your Name,” by the obituary writer in Haines, AK – a former New Englander. 2- As I push through my eighth decade, I have noticed a few things about obituaries, one in particular: some men honorably mention the mother of their children though obviously they have moved on. That always impresses me. 3-My own obit and picture are in a file at the older son’s – however, a will – MUCH harder!!!

  21. My mother was visiting her brother in a small town in another state when she died. I wrote a fairly detailed obituary, which was published there. I was very distressed to find that the funeral home director there decided that the price of publishing obituaries in the newspaper in the large town where she resided was ridiculous. Without consulting any relative, he had published only the announcement of her memorial service, and only on one day. We had a funeral where she died, and people who knew her from grade school 75 years earlier attended. At the memorial service three days later, some of her best friends were not there because they missed seeing the two sentence announcement.

    1. Linda, It is hard to get everybody on the same page in an already confusing situation. No way to anticipate what can be overlooked. In this day and age people are not even subscribing to the newspapers!

      1. But, some newspapers are increasingly archiving Obits; and ancestry.com is on the bandwagon (and will do anything for a dollar). LOL

  22. We recently had to write the obituary for a family member. What with my interest in genealogy and family history, and my having working for a local newspaper in the past, I made sure the obit included the information that genealogists would want to learn from an obit, and would have the style and format the newspaper would require. I know genealogists 100 years from now will be glad someone took the time to make sure this information was recorded — and it also saved the funeral director and the newspaper staff a lot of work. Yeah, it was kind of pricey — but well worth the cost.

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