How to Read an American Obituary


Over the course of your time in the United States, someone will die.  Your neighbor, your neighbor’s relative, or maybe the relative of a co-worker.  What should you do?  What should you say?

I have written about American death and dying in the past: caring for a dying loved one, hospice vs. hospital, funerals, what to saymemorial service.  Today, I’d like to take a closer look at the obituary, or death notice, which will appear in the newspaper.  This will give you much valuable information about the person you knew or about his/her loved one.

The following death notice appeared in my hometown newspaper this week.  It was emailed to me by my sister who still lives in the area.  The man who died was the father of our high school classmates.


GRIFFIS, DR. ROBERT C.;(1) of Rochester Hills;(2) passed away on Thursday, November 7, 2013.(3) Loving husband for over 64 years to Doris;(4) dearest father of Carl (Etta), Edward, Robert (Barbara), Thomas (Mimi), and Patty;(5) proud grandfather of six grandchildren.(6) Robert also leaves behind his dear cat, Kacey.(7) Robert served his country in the Navy during W.W.II.(8) He graduated from Case Western Reserve with a Doctorate in Chemistry(9) going on to work for General Electric and Ford Motor Company.(10) Robert volunteered for over 20 years making harnesses at Leader Dogs for the Blind of Rochester, MI.(11) Visitation will be Tuesday, November 12, 2013 from 1 p.m.(12) until the time of service at 3 p.m.(13) at Pixley Funeral Home, 322 W. University Dr., Rochester, MI 48307.(14) In lieu of flowers, please send memorial donations to Leader Dogs for the Blind, P.O. Box 5000 Rochester MI 48308.(15) Please visit  (Published in The Oakland Press on Nov. 10, 2013)

From this obituary, you will know the following information.

1.  the name of the deceased person (last name, title is optional, first name and middle initial)

2.  the city of residence at this person’s death

3.  the date of death

4.  the name of the widow (length of marriage is optional)

5.  names of children (with spouses of those children in parentheses)

6.  number of grandchildren (names are optional)

7.  name of beloved special friends (note: many Americans consider pets as members of family, but his is unusual in an obituary)

8.  status as a veteran of foreign wars (VFW)


9.  educational status

10.  career employment

11.  community service (notes: a. many Americans volunteer in their spare time, b. this is the second mention of a special commitment to animals)

12.  the (2-hour) time period you can visit with the family members (note: this is often the afternoon/evening before the funeral)

13.  the time of the funeral service

14.  the location of the funeral service

15.  the charity you may make a donation to in the name of the deceased person (note: Americans sometimes tell you to save money on flowers by sending it to their favorite charity instead; you may do one or both, according to your wishes)

16.  the website of the funeral home (note: nowadays, you can write a kind note about how you knew the deceased person; it is a kind thing to send the family a personal note or card in the mail.)

Death and dying are very tricky issues in every culture.  If you have questions about a recent death in the United States, please share them with us here. 


Alan Headbloom

Alan advises Americans how to be global citizens and expats how to fit in to Michigan culture without annoying their native coworkers and clients. He also tweets and blogs at the intersection of language and culture. Over decades, he's traveled, studied, or lived on six continents, putting strange foods into his mouth and emitting strange sounds from it. His use of English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Swedish, Hausa, and Japanese all improve with alcohol use. He gives invited public presentations on culture and unsolicited private advice on English grammar and usage; the latter isn't always appreciated. Visit his website for information on consulting, coaching, or speaking engagements.