How do guest book messages compare to condolence letters? And should you write both?

Many of us, following a death, have signed guest books online, at perhaps or on a newspaper or funeral home website. And many have also sent handwritten condolence notes or cards. Is it better to share condolences in the online guest book for the deceased, or should you mail a handwritten letter? Should you do both? Condolence expert Robbie Kaplan offers advice. In the end, it may be the message more than the method that makes a difference...


Do you remember when guest books were the bound kind? We were asked to sign them at funeral and memorial services. Our signatures provided a record of attendance and the book became a keepsake for the bereaved.


Guest books have taken on new meaning with online obituaries. When you access an obituary there is usually a virtual guest book. You can add your message and even include photos. An online guest book gives the bereaved instant access to condolences and it allows new and old friends, neighbors, classmates, coworkers, community members, acquaintances and even strangers to reach out to the bereaved.


Online guest books also provide a place for people to come together to mourn public figures. In the past, if you were moved by the death of an actor, newscaster, author or someone else you admired, you had nowhere to express your grief. Now, you can share memories and condolences in the virtual guest book.


How do guest book messages compare to condolence letters? And do you ever write both?


I’ve read guest book entries that are long and heartfelt, as well as short and simple ones. Guest book messages provide quicker and more direct access to the bereaved. You can sit at your computer, compose, then copy and paste. Or, you can type directly on the guest book entry form.


What you say in a guest book message and condolence letter might be very similar. I believe more time and thought is often given to a handwritten letter than to a virtual message. But you can take your time with guest book messages too. You might write the message, let it sit, and then work on it some more. Given the extra time, you may think of more memories and stories to share.


Once you’ve posted a message in an online guest book, whether you choose to follow up with a condolence letter depends on your relationship with the deceased and the family. If you do write both, you might choose to send your letter at a later date, and your letter would most likely have a different tone. It just might be more of a “thinking of you” letter with additional thoughts and memories of the deceased.


Most messages whether in a guest book or handwritten letter, are sent immediately following a death. While there is no rule of etiquette that a condolence letter should follow a guest book entry, sending a letter would be a very thoughtful gesture. Grieving takes place in the weeks and months that follow a death, and contact during this period provides support and comfort to the bereaved.


Robbie Miller Kaplan is an author who writes from a unique perspective as a mother who has lost two children. She has written How to Say It When You Don't Know What to Say, a guide to help readers communicate effectively when those they care about experience loss, now available in three individual volumes: "Illness & Death," "Suicide" and "Miscarriage." Additional titles are available as e-books: "Death of a Child," "Death of a Stillborn or Newborn Baby," "Pet Loss," "Caregiver Responsibilities," "Divorce" and "Job Loss." All titles are in Amazon's Kindle StoreClick here to order.


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