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April 12, 2018 Beyond The Dash

Should an Obituary Include Cause of Death?

Informative, none of their business, or just plain weird?

Should an Obituary Include Cause of Death?
Cause of death is a private matter to some families; to others, it is an important part of the life story. (Shutterstock)

An obituary is the final record of the life of someone who has passed away. It should be their life story, death announcement, and final tribute. 

Some families try to keep the obituary purely factual: birth date, death date, occupation, predeceased family members and survivors. Other families will outline their loved one's character, passions, relationships and accomplishments. There is no one right way to pen an obit, but stories that share the unique personality of a special person tend to resonate the most— both with readers who knew the deceased person, and those who didn't.

There are several schools of thought regarding including cause of death in a public obituary notice. Today we're exploring the reasons to include—or exclude—the cause of death in an obituary story.

How much do people really need to know?

Especially when the death was sudden or unexpected, folks will be curious about the cause of death. It's natural to want to know, and sometimes finding out how someone passed away is a crucial first step to the grieving process.

For or against 


Cause of death is part of the public record

Cause of death is not legally private information, and can be accessed on the Death Certificate. However, the information on the Death Certificate is the medical reason, and not necessarily informative for those who don't already understand the context. 

Cause of death forms part of the life story

Though a person's death shouldn't be the focus of an obituary, it does conclude the story of their life. Death is a part of life, and including the cause or manner of death can be seen as the completion of the full story. 

Cause of death can influence change in the world

Depending on the manner of death, the writer of the obituary may wish to use the story as a call to action. Obituaries can be a tremendously impactful medium to drawing attention to social issues, such as mental health, gun violence, racial issues or drug abuse. In this type of obituary, cause of death is directly linked to a cause, movement or political statement.

Cause of death spares the family of having to notify everyone

When the cause of death is noted in the obituary, it spares those who were closest to the deceased person from having to explain again and again. Especially when the cause of death was not already obvious, folks will ask what happened. The burden of having to repeatedly state what happened typically falls on direct family members, close friends, and those closest to them. This is avoidable if cause of death is made public in the obituary or death announcement. 


Cause of death is private

Depending on how the deceased person passed away, the family may wish to keep the cause of death as private as possible. Though members of the public could access the cause of death on the Death Certificate, most people wouldn't bother to do this level of research. The official cause of death can be kept discreet depending on the wishes of the family. 

Cause of death isn't relevant to the sharing of life stories

Obituaries should focus on the life, achievements and qualities of the person who passed away. The manner or cause of death isn't always necessary in telling the full life story. Especially when the deceased person suffered from a long or terminal illness, including the death in the obituary can be an irrelevant detail that detracts from their story.

Cause of death harms the memory of the deceased person

Death can happen any time, in any way. Sometimes the manner of death didn't match the life or character of the person, and is out of place in an obituary. When a violent crime or avoidable accident led to the death, it might be more appropriate to leave it out. 

Cause of death would have embarrassed the deceased person

Some folks keep their medical and health issues private. All obituaries should reflect the values of the deceased person, as well as relate their life story. If the person of honor would have preferred to keep the information private, it should be excluded from the the obituary. 

A personal decision

Whether or not cause of death should be included in an obituary is a decision to be made on a case-by-case basis. Use these points for and against to help you and your family make the right decision when writing an obituary. 

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