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The death industry is changing, and one of those changes has to do with obituaries.
While the concern on how to write an obituary may not change, not every family may publicize one or have one ready. There are also many other reasons why someone may not have an obituary.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Reasons Why Someone May Not Have or Want an Obituary
- Reasons Why You Might Not Be Able to Find a Loved One’s Obituary Even If It Exists
Here are some thoughts about modern obituaries and how the internet has gradually changed the practice of writing and publishing them.
Tip: Writing an obituary (or choosing not to write one) might be just one of the tasks you're facing for the first time after losing a loved one. For help prioritizing the rest, check out our post-loss checklist.
Reasons Why Someone May Not Have or Want an Obituary
There are many reasons a person may not have an obituary. Let us give you some of the reasons why.
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1. It is not legally required
You don’t have to have an obituary for yourself when you die, and you don’t have to write one for your deceased loved one. You may ask, do you legally have to have an obituary? The answer is no. It is not illegal to have one published or written.
Official agencies learn about a person’s death once the death certificate is certified. The funeral home director will notify the social security administration, and this administration will inform the credit agencies. An obituary is not used at any point in this process.
There may be rare instances when a company requests to see your loved one’s obituary as proof that there has been a death in your family. You might be able to use a copy of the death certificate or funeral program as proof instead.
2. It can be expensive to publish obituaries in the newspaper
Obituaries used to be “news” items. Family members either submitted facts about their family members who died or entirely written obituaries, and the newspaper staff would write or edit the pieces for publication.
As newspapers began to struggle financially, publishers began to look at obituaries differently. Instead of thinking of obituaries as news items to share with the community, they realized that families would pay to have them published in the paper. At this point, some newspapers lost editorial control over the content, and some publications would print obituaries as the family or funeral home staff wrote them.
It may currently cost hundreds or thousands of dollars to print a loved one’s obituary in the newspaper. Since funerals can be costly affairs, some families choose to save money by not submitting the obituary to the local newspaper.
Just because an obituary does not appear in a newspaper doesn’t mean that it wasn’t written. The family may have written one to appear on the funeral home website or within the funeral program.
3. The family didn’t see it as a priority
The period following a death is extremely difficult. While the family grieves the loss of a loved one, they simultaneously have to notify extended family and friends, notify financial institutions and workplaces, and plan a funeral.
Writing an obituary takes time. Even though most funeral homes offer this as part of their service, they can only write the obituary if families provide them with all the necessary information about the deceased.
As time passes, the necessity of writing an obituary may wane. After everyone is informed of the death and the services are complete, there is no longer a reason for writing a formal statement about your loved one’s death.
4. People find out about deaths differently now
In the past, it was common for most people to subscribe to their local newspaper. Some cities had multiple papers and printed morning and evening versions. Since newspaper subscriptions have dwindled since the creation of the internet, this has changed how people can find out if someone died.
Most people learn about the death of those in the community through word of mouth and social media platforms. Some people will announce their loved one’s death by tagging them on Facebook. This way, the family member can inform their contacts and their loved one’s contacts simultaneously.
5. The family writes an obituary but only to be published in the funeral program or online
Just because an obituary is not published in the paper doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. Some families may write an obituary to be published on the funeral home website or to share it online on other platforms. It may be more meaningful for them to have it published on the funeral home website for family members to find, or online on social media to share with those who follow them.
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6. The family may disagree about what items to include in the obituary
When you write your loved one’s obituary, do you include the name of an ex-partner? Do you include the name of other family members that do not have easy-to-write connections with the deceased loved one? Or what if the person died of an overdose, or had a drug addiction?
Family relationships are not always cut and dried, and sometimes family members argue on how to word tricky situations in their loved one’s obituaries. Others may also choose not to share difficult information about their loved one. If a consensus can’t be obtained, the entire project may fall by the wayside.
7. The family is trying to avoid an unpleasant situation
If the family member who died had a violent past, their survivors might feel strange printing a flowery-sounding obituary in the local newspaper. In certain situations, the family may also want to avoid publicizing when and where the funeral may occur, so they can avoid an unpleasant situation if victims or their families attend.
8. The deceased has few family members or friends
In some situations, the deceased’s family may not see the need to write an obituary. In other cases, there may be no one who has the interest or ability to take care of this unnecessary task.
Reasons Why You Might Not Be Able to Find a Loved One’s Obituary Even If It Exists
Obituaries are extremely helpful tools for people who are interested in genealogy. A lot of data can be mined from one short article, such as the full names of the deceased’s parents, the birthdate and death date of the deceased, the name of the spouse, and the children’s names.
Unfortunately, you may not know how to find the obituary you need, so you may have to reach back to another branch on the family tree. Also, there’s no database of obituaries, and they are not official records. They are not death certificates, which can be found in the registry of vital records. Because of the nature of “unofficial” documents, you may have a hard time finding them.
9. Some newspapers do not have online archives
The obituary of your loved one may exist, but it may not be available online. You may need to visit the library near the location where the death occurred to see if newspaper archives are available.
Are you not sure of the date of death? You may first need to find the cemetery where your loved one was buried to obtain that date before looking through newspaper archives.
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10. The names may not match
Names have a way of changing spelling over time, especially for those who have immigrated to this country. Looking for an online obituary may be challenging if your search does not match the exact spelling used in the obituary.
Some of your ancestors may have been known by a nickname or middle name instead of their official birth certificate name. All of these discrepancies may make it difficult to find an obituary.
11. The name may be too common
Finding the obituary of John Smith in a large city may be next to impossible. If you have more information about a person, you may have better luck finding the obituary.
You might need to add items to your search, including the names of other relatives, dates, and even where the deceased graduated from high school or college.
12. You may be looking in the wrong newspaper
Families can choose to put obituaries in whatever newspaper they wish. Even if the deceased lived their last 15 years in Florida and died there, the family may choose to publish their obituary in their hometown newspaper in Iowa.
13. It was never printed in the paper
If the obituary was never printed in the paper, you will have to do some master sleuthing to find a copy. Talk with a relative who may have gone to the person’s funeral to see if they kept a copy of the funeral program in their personal papers.
Finding an Obituary That is Not Publicized
While a lot of people may consider having an obituary central to sharing information about their deceased loved one, that may not always be the case for other people.
Public figures will have obituaries posted in major newspapers depending on their level of fame and legacy, but the same cannot be said of a neighbor that you knew. While you may not have information, perhaps your memories can help fill in the blanks.