The difference between an obituary and a death notice

5 min read

Important facts about obituaries and death notices

  • Death notices detail just the essential information about the person who passed.

  • Some newspapers run death notices for free, but many charge either a flat fee or a cost for each word or line.

  • Obituaries are longer profiles, meant to not just inform the general public of an individual’s passing, but to celebrate their life and achievements as well.

  • Obituaries and death notices can be published by alumni organizations, religious or community institutions, and professional organizations, or online.

Sharing the news that a loved one has died can be a very difficult challenge. Calling people takes time and deep reserves of emotional energy that may be in short supply right now. 

Many of the people who might need or want to know of your loved one’s passing are not necessarily close relations or dear friends; they may be long-ago friends, distant cousins, or casual or professional acquaintances who will want to come to a funeral and pay their respects. Fortunately there are ways to get the word out that are less taxing than picking up a telephone. 

Death notices

In addition to classified ads for jobs and apartments, your local newspaper likely runs classified death notices. These usually run within a few days or a week of your loved one’s passing, and they are brief notices that detail just the essential information about your loved one, including their full name, a maiden name if there is one, where and when they died, the particulars of a funeral and/or memorial service, and where donations may be made in their memory. 

A death notice may also include other information like the person’s year and place of birth or former place of employment. The notice, though, is meant to be a very short summary of the most basic details.

Some newspapers run death notices for free, but many charge either a flat fee or a cost for each word or line. At some publications, prices can vary according to what day of the week the notice is to appear or how many days it appears. 


Obituaries are longer profiles of the person meant to not just inform the general public of their passing, but also to celebrate their life and achievements. As such, they usually delve into detail about their biography and their accomplishments. Obituaries often include incisive and poignant anecdotes about the departed and reflections on the kind of person they were.

For people who are famous or important, newspapers will often have prepared an obituary for them in advance. The piece is written like a reported story, with quotes from people who knew them. These obituaries are published at no cost to the family, and if you believe your loved one has made a significant contribution to society or history, you may be able to talk to a reporter at the newspaper about writing a piece about them. Do not be surprised if you make little headway, however; larger publications especially may be difficult to convince that a reported obituary is fitting for anyone who was not already on their radar.

If you need help in crafting a death notice or an obituary, ask a friend to help out, particularly one who is good with words.

If your loved one was not a public or historically significant figure, most families still choose to publish an obituary in a local newspaper in one or more of the places where they lived. The family typically writes this obituary themselves and highlights the things they want the world to know about their loved one. Like death notices, obituaries generally include details of a funeral and/or memorial, and where memorial donations may be made. 

These obituaries cost money to run, and can often get rather pricey depending on the length of the piece. Many families opt to create a shorter version of the obituary, or just a death notice, to run in the newspaper, and save the longer version for publications that either do not charge or that have much lower rates, like the publications sent out by alumni organizations, religious or community institutions, professional organizations, or any other group your loved one may have been associated with. There are also websites where you can publish an obituary of any length either for a small fee or for free, and social media may also be a fitting place for a full-length obituary.

Making things a bit more complicated, some newspapers and others use the word obituary exclusively to refer to those obituaries written by newspaper staff for public figures, and thus they call all obituaries written by the family, no matter how lengthy, death notices. Make sure you know which version you are dealing with when talking to a newspaper. These details should be available on a newspaper’s website, along with the applicable rates.

Obituaries and death notices are not required—but notices to creditors may be

You are under no legal obligation to take out a death notice or obituary. Think of the latter as a final gift to your loved one—a celebration of who they were and the legacy they created. The former is more of a courtesy to give people information so they too can honor and memorialize the dearly departed.

In addition, a death notice can serve the purpose of informing any creditors who are unknown to you about your loved one’s passing. In many states, you may also be legally required to publish a “notice to creditors” during the probate process, in order to make sure that these unknown creditors have an opportunity to file a potential claim against the estate. This notification is totally distinct from the death notice, and is purely about the estate. If you are uncertain as to whether you will need to publish a notice to creditors and what it should contain, it is a good idea to consult an estate attorney in the state where your loved one lived.

Dealing with the loss of a loved one can be painful, and the particulars of notifying others can be arduous. If you need help in crafting a death notice or an obituary, ask a friend to help out, particularly one who is good with words. Make sure you have the support you need as you go through the process of sharing your loss with the world.

You may be eligible for free bereavement support. Empathy can help with everything from funeral planning to estate administration, with step-by-step guidance and real-time expert support. Many people get free premium access to Empathy as a benefit with their life insurance claim. We partner with New York Life, Guardian Life Insurance Company, Bestow, Lemonade, and other leading carriers. When you make your life insurance claim, talk to your representative about whether Empathy is a benefit they offer.