Cause of Death in an Obituary Issue

First, let me say I mean no disrespect to anyone who has died or the relative of anyone who has died. I’m just trying to understand why it works the way it works.

Every now and then I scan of the Obits in my local newspaper. Most of them are basically the same, a glowing description of the deceased with no bad points mentioned, a list of the surviving family, and directions where and when the funeral or memorial service is going to be held.

Obits are typically written about older people who one can safely assume died of natural causes, but that’s not always the case. There was one recently about an 18-year-old boy from a local high school who I had heard had committed suicide. His 10 paragraph Obit didn’t mention the cause of his death, and if I hadn’t known how the boy died I would have no idea reading his Obit. I knew he played high school football, I knew he had a family and a girlfriend, I even knew he had a dog, but there was no mention of how he died, and that seems a little odd to me.

Now before you say it’s because it’s none of my business I get that, and people have a right to keep certain information private, but if you’re going to spend a quarter of a page talking about everything there is to know about a person’s life it would be nice to know why they are no longer with us. For example, if someone dies after a long battle with cancer that’s one thing versus someone speeding through town intoxicated and slamming into a tree, even though the result in both cases is the same. Maybe their death is a cautionary tale, or maybe it’s just a sad fact that everyone dies sooner or later.

We live in a society where personal information is often shared with the public, just look at what people post on Facebook and Twitter. On the other hand, Obits make the reader come up with their own reason why someone died or have to ask around to see if anyone knows.

I guess my question is if it’s standard practice for someone to leave out the cause of death in an Obit, why is that the case? Is it a religious thing? Is it a United States thing? Are they embarrassed about how the person died? I don’t need to know all of the gory details, just the simple fact about why they are no longer living. Am I wrong? I agree that the family should decide, but why do families typically decide to leave that information out?

It’s usually mentioned in a quasi-coded format. In the one you mentioned with the suicide, did it say something like 'in lieu of flowers, please make a donation to the American Psychiatric Association"…or something along those lines? A reference to them dying too soon (ie “gone too soon”) is also common for suicide.

If the person met their demise by way of a sudden (often violent) accident, they may mention that it was “sudden” or “unexpected”.

There’s lots of other ‘codes’, but the key thing too look at is where the family requests you donate money ‘in lieu of flowers’. Psych facility? Cancer center? Rehab/addiction institute?

It’s nobody’s business but the family’s, and there’s no cause that could make an untimely death less tragic. In other words, there’s no point to stating it.

I think leaving it to the gossip mill is likely to do more harm than good.

Another one, if they were an alcoholic (whether or not it was the cause of death) you’ll often find “Bill W” named along with the the surviving friends and family.

I know that codes are sometimes used and I can usually pick up on them when I see them, but why not just come out and say how the person died? I don’t need to know that a person was an alcoholic unless it led to their death, and if it had nothing to do with their death why are they telling me?

You’re publicly broadcasting that someone you love died, but those not in the know have to guess how they died since it’s really none of their business?

That’s it exactly.

When my father died, we didn’t know the cause, and there was a potential lawsuit against his doctor that required us to keep some information private. The paper wouldn’t publish the obit without a cause of death, or accept a cause of death such as “his heart stopped” because that was, in that editor’s opinion, descriptive rather than causal. This created a tremendous amount of stress for our family. I’m on the side of none of your business.

Most obits these days are written by the family, and they can give whatever cause of death they want. Or leave it out, if they wish. Or even be brutal about it (see link).

In the old days, the code was “after a long illness” = cancer. “After a short illness” = heart attack.

This strikes me as a not very accurate way of determining something.

That’s one brutally honest Obit, and I applaud whoever wrote it. After reading it I feel like I really knew who Michael was as a person, and why he’s no longer with us. I think his family very much felt it was my business to know how he died.

Or, just accept the fact that sometimes the family doesn’t want to make that piece of information public.

Unless it’s a family member, or a friend, of yours, you said it yourself…it’s none of your business. If you feel bothered that people write obituaries and don’t include that, then maybe don’t read the obituaries – they aren’t there for a source of entertainment for the general public.

Ironic. My dad lived a couple of decades after his first heart attack, but died a month after his cancer showed its first symptom.

First off, the death notices the newspaper and funeral homes publish are written by the family, so they’re the ones who decide what to include or exclude. The stories written by news organizations usually include a cause of death, if it’s known at the time the story is written.

And what would you say about a terminal cancer patient who took an overdose of pills? Is the cause of death suicide, or the cancer that drove them to it?

In that case, the cancer didn’t kill them. I didn’t suggest they had to say why the person died, just was curious why most people leave it out. I now know it’s because they don’t want people outside of family and close friends to know, and that’s their right.

Agreed – it seemed evident that they disagreed with the deceased about his stances regarding COVID, and that they wanted to make the cause of death (and the contributing factors) clear to the reader, as a cautionary tale.

Mike didn’t like going to funerals or any services related to death, and attended very few. Out of respect for his feelings, it does not seem appropriate to make him start going now.


Obituary (written by a newspaper) style guides say that listing the cause of death is optional, but they try to indicate the cause of death if at all possible. Yes, funeral notices are written by family, and unless they want people to contribute to some organization, they may have all kinds of reasons for not mentioning the cause of death.

I once came across a Facebook page organizing a memorial event for someone I had briefly known somewhat, who died at the age of 29, and nothing about the cause of death was mentioned. Neither in the “family placed obituary” of the local paper.

Then, two or three years later, his mother, who apparently was a member of some kind of high society social club, was interviewed by that club’s historian. The interview was posted online. It was pretty long–45 minutes or an hour long. She recounted her life, and mentioned her children at various points, talking about this particular son by name several times, but she did so in the present tense, never indicating that he was dead. It was truly bizarre. So clearly his death was not something she wanted to talk about. (The Facebook event didn’t involve her–just his friends.)

I knew this guy had been addicted to drugs, so even though it was never publicly stated how he died, it really could only have been one of two things: suicide or drug overdose. If it had been an accident, they probably would have said so.

Even if they don’t put any coded language into the funeral announcements, digging around can often give you a good idea of what probably happened. Sometimes people have these online memorial pages, where they put a typical funeral notice, and then a page where people can leave condolences. These comments, too, can often indicate how the person died.

Suicide is not ever given as a cause, is it?

A long acquaintance of mine died, and there was no mention of a cause of death either in the death notice, or at the memorial service, no mention of a long or short illness, no mention of a specific organization for donations, no clue at all. It turned out the family had no problem talking about the cause of death (heart failure) to anyone who asked, they just didn’t feel like telling complete strangers about it.