Obituary etiquette: Who qualifies as a "survivor"?

Q. Are there any guidelines about mentioning survivors in an obituary? Should an ex-spouse of the deceased be listed — and if so, what wording should be used? How about step-parents and step-siblings, or in-laws?

 

Most of us think of “survivors” as closest kin, but that leaves a lot of leeway in these days of blended families and serial marriages.  In practice, a survivor can be anyone the grieving family says he/she is, and it can get very complicated. Some obituaries mention ex-spouses, ex-in-laws, step parents and/or siblings — and others do not. I’ve seen obituaries that say something like, “Survivors include one child (name), from her first marriage to (name). She was married to her second husband (name) in 1981. He survives, as does their daughter (name) and four grandchildren.”

 

Other obits list a spouse and children from a second marriage, followed by children from a first marriage, and the deceased’s siblings. Sons-in-law and daughters-in-law (and even their parents), and in some cases friends, may be included. Not so infrequently, the deceased’s faithful dog is listed by name, too.

 

The decision to mention an ex (or not), may involve issues such as whether the ex and the deceased had children together. The relationship between the ex and the deceased -- and the new family--is a factor, too. Some get along fine with each other. I know of a few cases where the ex and the deceased’s new family became close friends. However, a bitter divorce (or insecurity on the part of a new family or the old one) can lead to ongoing resentment and acrimony. At such times, the obituary might read, “His/her first marriage ended in divorce.” Period. Or a previous marriage might not be mentioned at all.

 

There are many variations in wording when listing survivors, such as “Devoted husband/wife of ---, beloved father/mother of ---.” And the list continues on through grandchildren and siblings. Another option might read, “He/she is remembered with love by (list of survivors)—or, “He/she is survived by—“ or “He/she leaves ---“ or “He/she was the devoted father/mother of ---, loving spouse of ---, brother/sister of---.”

 

When the time comes, the obit departments of newspapers or other publications can help you compose an obituary if you wish.  Funeral homes can usually offer guidance, as well.

If you have a question for Florence, please email her at fisaacs@florenceisaacs.com.

 

Florence Isaacs is the author of several books on etiquette, including My Deepest Sympathies: Meaningful Sentiments for Condolence Notes a.... She writes two advice blogs for Legacy.com: Sincere Condolences and Widow in the World, a new blog for bereaved spouses and partners.

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