The Death Announcement
For many, announcing the death of a loved one is more than just identifying the deceased and surviving family members and providing details of the funeral service. It is a means by which the immediate family may express their feelings or simply bid a final farewell.
Traditionally these announcements appear in newspapers as obituaries or death notices. The sixth edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary (1976) defines obituary as “notice of the death(s) especially in a newspaper; brief biography of deceased person.”
The short account containing brief information about the deceased, survivors and the funeral service is often referred to by funeral directors as the death or funeral notice. A more detailed account of a person’s life usually written by a newspaper or third party on behalf of the family is generally considered to be an obituary. Quiet often when obituaries are not written, the death notice is used to elaborate upon the life of the deceased and to pay tribute.
Although every death notice contains basic elements common to all, each is different. Not so much in what is said but in how it’s said. Each family has their own unique expressions, language and writing style which personalizes the way in which they commemorate and remember their loved one.
The importance of the death notice should not be understated. In addition to its value to the family, it is an essential link to the community and should include information required by the public to assist in their desire to support the family and pay their final respects. What basic information should the notice contain?
Identity of Deceased: As notices in newspapers appear in alphabetical order, the surname of the deceased will appear first, followed by given names or initials. If the deceased is not well-known by a given name, a nickname or an abbreviated version of a given name may be added in brackets. A woman’s maiden name is also placed in brackets if she has taken her husband’s surname.
Titles, degrees, professional and political designations, awards, etc. are also included with the name. For example, if the deceased was a university graduate and professional, the appropriate designations would follow the name (i.e., B.A., B. Comm., LL.B, et cetera). Commendations or wartime contributions are also noted for both men and women (i.e. Veteran WWII, Royal Canadian Air Force).
If a person worked in a particular job or business for a long period, this level of commitment may also be mentioned. For example, “Served as an orderly for 40 years at local hospital,” “Well-known businessman and retailer,” or if married for a long time “Devoted husband of 60 years.”
Identity of survivor: Even though the public may not know the deceased personally, they may be close friends with other family members; therefore, listing those who are “left to mourn the loss” or “celebrate the life” of the deceased should also be included.
Although there are no strict standards, it is generally accepted that the immediate family is named first, starting with the surviving spouse or companion, children and their spouses, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and, if applicable, parents and in-laws. If there is a large family the names of the grandchildren and great-grandchildren are not usually listed but are specified numerically. Siblings along with brothers- and sisters-in-law are also named. Some mention nieces and nephews and close friends, especially where there is not a large immediate family.
Whenever any of the individuals listed do not live in the community in which the funeral is being held, their place of residence is usually noted.
Quite often a list of survivors includes predeceased relatives such as parents, children and siblings. The year of their death is sometimes mentioned. On rare occasions, the name of pets or reference to a pet is included among the survivors.
Date, location and cause of death: Most death notices and obituaries record the date and location of death but not always the cause. The cause, however may sometimes be inferred through phrases or requests included in the notice.
Other than its importance to the genealogists, the date of death is of value to the public in gauging how they should respond. This may include a visit to the funeral home or attending the funeral service, if it was a recent death, or dropping the family a note if the death had occurred some time earlier.
Hospitals, public or private nursing homes and the home of the deceased or an immediate family member are the most common locations where death occurs. Others include death at sea, on the highway, in a cabin or country home and while travelling. Usually specific names of hospitals, nursing homes and similar institutions are mentioned in the notice. Hospital units such as palliative care (PCU), intensive care (ICU) and cardiac care (CCU) are also noted along with special thanks to the nurses and doctors.
Families like to personalize the final moments of a loved one’s life by adding phrases such as “in the presence of her loving family at home” or “surrounded by his family”.
Phrases such as “passed peacefully away”, “died suddenly”, “passed peacefully away but suddenly”, “died tragically”, “passed peacefully away after a courageous battle with cancer” all give the reader some insight into how a person died. The selection of in memorial donations to a foundation dedicated to the research and treatment of a particular illness may have also been influenced by the deceased’s personal experiences.
Funeral service: The type of funeral service selected will dictate how this part of the notice is written. With traditional earth burial families may designate special visiting hours (i.e. 2-4 p.m. and 7-9 p.m.) or have a full day visitation from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. special hours infer that the family will only be in attendance during these hours. The visitation period will usually stretch over 2 to 3 days, followed by a church or chapel service and interment. The dates, times and locations of all these services will be noted.
There are more options when choosing cremation. Most families will mention cremation in the notice using such expressions as “at his request cremation has taken place” or “the funeral service will be followed by cremation”. Other wording such as a “memorial service”, which is a service without the body present, or “private interment at a later date” are also used when cremation is chosen.
Donations: Many people like to express their support to the family in a tangible way by sending flowers, leaving sympathy or prayer cards or giving donations in memory of the deceased. To guide the public in that regard, most families will specify their preferences about flowers: “flowers gratefully accepted”, “in lieu of flowers…” and/or suggest a favorite charity of the deceased such as a medical research foundation, academic or church organization or other local charities. Some families will not make specific suggestions but simply state “a charity of one’s choice”.
Special Notes: As mentioned above, the death announcement is used by some families to bid a final farewell. This may be in the form of a short poem, verse or a simple phrase: “Forever loved”, “We love you Mom”, “Always remembered” or “Rest in Peace”. A special message for a special person.
Website: Many funeral homes now have their own website or use a third party site on which to display the death notice. In addition to viewing the notice online the public may leave a message of condolence or sign a memorial guest book. To ensure the public are aware of this option the funeral home will place their web address at the end of the notice and invite the public to visit the site by using phrases such as, “to leave online condolences please visit www. name of funeral home.com”.
Geoff Carnell, President of Carnell’s Funeral Home and Crematorium in St. John’s, is the President of the Canadian Independent Group of Funeral Homes and Past President of the NL Funeral Services Association and the Funeral Services Association of Canada. He is also the author of “When The Sun Sets: A Guide to Funeral Service.”
Readers who may have questions or would like copies of previous articles are encouraged to call Carnell’s Funeral Home at 722-2730, or write to Geoff Carnell, Carnell’s Funeral Home, P.O. Box 8567, St. John’s, NL AlB 3P2