Speaking In Code?

Dear Funeral Director:

A nurse friend once told me that if an obituary says that a person “died suddenly” or “unexpectedly” it is a polite way of saying the person died of an overdose or suicide. Is that true? Is there any other coded language you write in an obituary?

Shari M.,
Stamford, CT

Dear Shari,

Not that I’ve ever known… In my opinion it’s more code for: THE FAMILY WANTS THEIR PRIVACY.

The death could certainly have been a suicide or an overdose, but it could have just as easily been due to an accident, a sudden heart problem, an aneurysm, sleep apnea, etc. Sometimes people pass away at a ripe old age and the family writes in the obituary that it was “sudden” or “unexpected” because their loved one was just fine … I guess my point is that you never really know and that you should never assume. Part of my job is to help write obituaries with the family when I arrange the services with them. I always tell them one thing – “that it’s their loved one that they are writing about and that the death notice should say whatever they want it to say”.

Some deaths do strip the deceased of their dignity; and the living that are left behind may feel shame or feel as if the person’s death reflects badly on them. This may help explain the usage of this language and how they relate to certain circumstances, but in reality it’s no different than families specifying “after a long illness” or “succumbing after a brave battle with cancer” or “following surgery”, but again, it’s all up to the preference of the family. Some families can be blatant about their son’s drug habit in an effort to make sure they do their best to prevent another young person to be lost in that manner; other families are more private about their daughter’s depression, or their son’s cancer… you can never predict with people because they are all unique in the way they process the grief. My job is to work with them during a very difficult time and help them through the process in a dignified and respectful manner. It is always best to let the family decide what’s written about their loved one.

Very interesting question, thanks for sending this in.

Gerald R. Bosak Jr, LFD

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