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Obituaries and Death Notices: An Essential Checklist

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After a death occurs, you need to notify the deceased’s family, friends and colleagues of their passing and any funeral details.  Obituaries and death notices have traditionally been the means used to accomplish this task.

Historically, families published obituaries and death notices in newspapers that are local to where the deceased lived, but in our modern age, many families are choosing to publish them online.

Family members also historically wrote obituaries after the death of a loved one.  However, there is an emerging trend with people writing their own obituaries.  Emily Philips is a prime example.  She wrote her own, hilariously sassy obituary, that went viral.

Whether you’ve been tasked with writing a loved one’s obituary or death notice, or are considering writing your own, we have a lot of practical advice to help you every step of the way.

We’ve also created a helpful infographic summarizing the main points you need to know about writing and publishing death notices and obituaries that you can easily save to your Pinterest page or share across social media.

Obituaries Versus Death Notices

Technically speaking, there is a difference between obituaries and death notices.

Death notices are short announcements in newspapers that gives the name of the person who died, details about the funeral or memorial service, as well as where donations can be made.  Very few biographical details are included.

Obituaries, on the other hand, contain a detailed biography of the person who died.  Historically, obituaries were written by the newspapers’ staff, and were about important figures in the community.

Nowadays, a family might write their own obituary about the deceased and pay for its publication.  Because an obituary includes a detailed biography, it is much more expensive to publish than a death notice.  But more about costs later on.

These days, the terms “obituary” and “death notice” are used interchangeably.  Don’t be too concerned with using the technically correct term.

Know the Deadline

The first thing that you should do when you are faced with the task of drafting a death notice or obituary for a loved one is to pinpoint which newspaper it should be published in.

If the deceased lived in multiple locations throughout his or her lifetime, you may need to publish the obituary or death notice in multiple local newspapers.

Once you determine which newspapers you want to publish the obituary or death notice in, you need to contact each newspaper and inquire about their publication deadlines, (along with the costs).

Observing the newspaper deadline is critical.  Failing to publish the obituary or death notice on time could mean that you have a disappointing turn out at the funeral service.

It is important to publish obituaries and death notices as soon as possible in order to give family and friends enough notice on the date of the funeral service, either online or in print.  They will need time to make travel arrangements, particularly if they are travelling from another city.

If you are not up to dealing with newspapers, your funeral home would be happy to deal with them on your behalf.

Understand the Costs

Unfortunately, there is no fixed cost for an obituary or death notice.  Every newspaper has its own pricing structure.

Obituaries and death notices can be published for one day, or they can run up and including the day of the funeral.

As a rule of thumb, however, national newspapers and large urban newspapers are more expensive than newspapers with a small circulation.

Another general rule is that the cost to publish death notices and obituaries are calculated on a “per line” basis.  So the more information you publish, the more expensive it gets.  And including a photograph tends to cost extra.  You should also ask the newspaper if a space between words counts as a character.

For example, a 10-line death notice or obituary (with 40 characters per line) running for three days in the Globe and Mail costs approximately $200 (which is about $6.66 per line).  The inclusion of a photo is an additional $160 per day.

As another example, the Toronto Star charges $9.99 per line per day (with approximately 30 characters per line).     

Therefore, the cost of publishing an obituary (or death notice) can add up very quickly. If cost is a concern, you should stick with conveying basic biographical details in your obituary, or publishing a death notice.

Once you have obtained all the information regarding costs and the number of characters per line for each newspaper that you plan to publish the obituary or death notice in, you should draft a publication plan.

List out which newspapers you plan to publish in, your budget for that newspaper, and the number of lines and characters each budget allows you.  But sure to know what your total budget is also.  (And also note the publication deadlines.)

You might chose to spend most of your total budget on one particular newspaper because the majority of people that are likely to attend the funeral read that newspaper.   For example, you might publish a full obituary in one newspaper, but only small death notices for other areas.

Once you have determined the publication deadlines, your budget (and therefore your maximum word count), you are ready to begin writing.

If you are publishing an obituary, as well as a death notice, you will need to draft both.

Checklist for Writing Death Notices

Since a death notice is a concise notice that a death has occurred, it only needs to include:

  • The first and last name of the deceased (or a nickname);
  • The year and location of birth;
  • The date and location of death;
  • Date, time and location of the viewing and visitation, funeral service, and any subsequent reception; and
  • The name of a charity to which donations should be made in the deceased’s name and whether donations are in lieu of flowers.  For example, “Donations to the Heart and Stroke Foundation in lieu of flowers would be appreciated.”

If your budget permits, you could also include:

  • A concise summary of surviving immediate family members (e.g. spouse, children and grandchildren); and
  • A short thought about the deceased.

When writing the death notice, you should omit certain details in order to protect the deceased from identity theft.  For example, you should not include the deceased’s middle name, maiden name, exact date of birth, or home address.

Checklist for Writing Obituaries

In an obituary, it is customary to include the following information:

  • The first and last name of the deceased (or a nickname);
  • The year and location of birth;
  • The date and location of birth;
  • The date and location of death;
  • A general indication of the nature of death (i.e. whether it was a sudden passing or after a long illness).  For example, “after a courageous battle with cancer”;
  • A list of survivors, starting with the deceased’s spouse, children, and grandchildren, followed by siblings and other immediate family members;
  • A list of immediate family members that predeceased the deceased;
  • Date, time and location of the viewing and visitation, funeral service, and any subsequent reception; and
  • The name of a charity to which donations should be made in the deceased’s name and whether donations are in lieu of flowers.  You can also say, “Donations to the charity of your choice should be made in lieu of flowers.”

You may need to consult family members or the deceased’s records to obtain the correct information for each item.

As with death notices, you should not include information in obituaries that can be used by identity thieves who scanned the newspaper.

Additional Information For Obituaries

If your budget allows, you could include further biographical details in the obituary.  As examples:

  • Education (i.e. where they went to school, what they studied, what degrees they received);
  • Career achievements (i.e. where they worked, their position, any notable accomplishments);
  • Military service;
  • Clubs;
  • Hobbies and interests;
  • Humanitarian work;
  • Friends;
  • Descriptions of the deceased’s character; and
  • Special memories of the deceased.

You can find ideas of further information to include by:

  • Speaking with friends and family of the deceased;
  • Speaking with any organizations the deceased work with for his or her career or in a volunteer capacity; and
  • Reviewing the deceased’s résumé or other personal records.

Speaking with family and friends is always a good idea when crafting an obituary.  They will have suggestions for what details about the deceased that they would like to see included.

You might also want to get their input on the tone of the obituary.  More and more people are writing obituaries to reflect their loved one’s personality and sense of humour.  If they were always telling jokes and trying to get a laugh, it might be appropriate to use humour in the obituary.

Look At Examples

Once you have collected all of the vital details outline in the checklists above, it would be really helpful to read some examples of obituaries and death notices in order to get a feel for the style.

Here is an example of a basic obituary:

Jane Elizabeth Doe (Rushmore), 65, of Toronto, ON, died on Sunday May 28th, 2015.    Daughter of John and Patti Rushmore (predeceased), loving wife of Andrew Doe, passed away on May 28th, 2015 at her home in Toronto after a long battle with cancer.  Jane was born in Parry Sound, ON, on January 3rd, 1950.  She is survived by Andrew and their three children Amy, Josh, and Luke.  She is also survived by her grandchildren Olivia and Michael.  Visitation will be held this Thursday at Memorial Funeral Home at 6pm and the burial on Friday at 11am, at Mount Pleasant Cemetery.  Donations can be made in Jane’s honour to the Canadian Cancer Society.    

Number of Characters: 527

Number of Lines: (based on 30 characters per line): 17.5

Number of Days of Published: 3

Toronto Star Price: $9.99 x 17.5 x 3 = $524.48

Here is an example of a longer obituary with additional information about the deceased’s life:

Jane Elizabeth Doe (Rushmore), 65, of Toronto, ON, passed away on Sunday May 28th, 2015.  “Janey” Doe, daughter of John and Patti Rushmore (predeceased), loving wife of Andrew Doe, passed away on May 28th, 2015 at her home in Toronto, ON, surrounded by family after a long battle with cancer.  Jane was born in Parry Sound, ON, on January 3rd, 1950 and graduated from Parry Sound High School, and later received her Bachelor of Education from the University of Toronto.    She married Andrew Doe on May 29th, 1972 and is survived by Andrew and their three children Amy, Josh, and Luke.  She is also survived by two grandchildren Olivia and Michael.  Jane worked as an English teacher at St. Joseph’s High School until her retirement in 2005, using her passion and love for the arts to inspire her many students.  She also loved hiking, swimming, golfing and spending time with her family.  Her beautiful smile and kind heart will be greatly missed by family and friends.    

Number of Characters: 796

Number of Lines (based on 30 characters per line): 26.5

Number of Days Published: 3

Toronto Star Price: $9.99 x 26.5 x 3 = $794.21

Your can use one of the above examples as a template for drafting the obituary or death notice.  You can find further examples on the Internet if required.

The only caveat with the examples given above, and with most examples you find in newspapers and on the Internet, is that they contain personal details that should have been left out in order to protect the deceased from having their identity or property stolen.  For example, the obituaries should not include the deceased’s middle and maiden names, or their exact date of birth.

Have a Friend Proofread Your Work

Last, but certainly not least, once you have a final draft of the obituary or death notice, you should have one or two other people proofread it for you.

In the publishing world, it is well known that it is difficult to proofread your own work – your mind simply doesn’t see the spelling and grammar mistakes anymore because you have been looking at the same words for too long.  It’s much better to get a fresh pair of eyes on the final draft before you publish it.

During the proofreading process, you should ensure that all the spellings of family members’ names are correct.  The last thing you want to do is publish an obituary or death notice riddled with spelling mistakes that are going to offend somebody you know.

Be also careful with using words like “lovingly” and “beloved” lest they make a mockery of a failed or fragile relationship.  For example, “Sheila is missed by her loving husband, Allan” will cause a few raised eyebrows if it is well known that they had an acrimonious marriage.

You should also check your work against the checklists provided above to ensure that you haven’t forgotten some vital piece of information.

That’s A Lot Of Information….

We realize that’s a lot of information so we’ve summarized the main points in this helpful infographic that you can easily save to your Pinterest page or share across social media.

(Click infographic to enlarge)

Infographic: Death Notices & Obituaries

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Share Your Thoughts….

We hope this article helped guide you in the process of writing a death notice or obituary for your loved one.

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