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Whom to Include in the Obituary

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Writing an obit can be fraught with potential missteps, unintentional omissions, and political ramifications.

Among the many decisions to make when a loved one has died is one that is full of potential missteps, unintentional omissions and political ramifications within the family: who should be included as survivors in the published obituary?

Not too long ago, obituary mentions were generally limited to next of kin and blood relatives. These days obit protocol is going the way of the rest of the world and what’s acceptable: pretty much anything goes.

A breakthrough came as attitudes have evolved about gay individuals and their families. Now it is routine for a deceased's partner to be identified as such, just as spouses are included. And why shouldn’t they be recognized for their devotion, commitment and the life that was shared? With all the grieving and sadness at hand, it’s a painful time to inflict further hurt.


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I’ve also seen children’s obituaries – the very hardest to write, I’m sure – that mention being survived by "two moms" or "two dads." Their heartbreak is no less worth recognition just because they are gay – and that happens to be the reality for many children growing up in this century.

Obits now also often include devoted caregivers, life-long friends, fellow travelers and even pets. It’s not unusual to see obit photos that include a pet with the deceased owner.

A couple of years ago, an obit ran in the Atlanta paper that included the deceased’s "multi-decade sweetheart" as well as "his devoted friend," the girlfriend who preceded the sweetheart. Very inclusive, to say the least!

I recently led a workshop on gathering and recording information about your final wishes so that your friends and family don’t have to guess what you would like when it’s too late to ask. It’s really the ultimate gift – the peace of mind that comes with knowing that your final wishes are written down – and was asked several questions about who should be included.

One of the most telling was: "Do you have to include the spouses of your children, and how do you do that?" Generally, the grown children of the deceased are named and their spouses' names are put in parentheses. For example:

She is survived by her son Thomas (Elizabeth) of Pittsburgh, and her daughter Suzanne (George) of Jacksonville, Fla. and four grandchildren.

You could also say:

She is survived by her son Thomas, his wife Elizabeth and their two children – Samuel and Zachary – all of Pittsburgh; and her daughter Suzanne, her husband George and their son, Michael, of Jacksonville.

And this brings up another question: grandchildren are not always named. You might say: She is also survived by three grandchildren. Or: She is survived by three grandchildren: Samuel, Zachary and Michael– leaving it up to the reader to guess which kids go with whom.

A friend of mine recently asked me what it meant that she and her husband were left out of his brother's wife's obituary. Can you follow that? Neither she nor her husband were blood relatives, but were related only by marriage. The obituary, which mentioned survivors such as her parents, siblings, child, etc. could have also read: She is survived by her brother-in-law, William, and his wife, Amy; and her sister-in-law, Clare, whose husband Richard is deceased.

You see how that gets a little tangled and difficult to unravel without a family member to guide you?

Sometimes it’s just easier to say: She is survived by loving in-laws, nieces, nephews and a host of long-time friends. It’s also less costly! If you’re publishing an obit in a newspaper, they generally charge by the line so brevity is not only more expedient but less expensive.

Something else I’ve noticed in recent obits is this: He was a Friend of Bill, indicating that the deceased was a member of Alcoholics Anonymous, founded by Bill W. (who was finally fully identified in his own obituary in 1971 as Bill Wilson, founder of AA).

It’s a difficult yet poignant clue to yet another facet of someone’s life – as are the many newly acceptable details and people included in obituaries these days, whether everyone is listed by name or not.

 

Susan Soper is the author of ObitKit®, A Guide to Celebrating Your Life. A lifelong journalist, she has written for Newsday and CNN, and was Features Editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she launched a series called "Living with Grief." Find her on Google+.