The important point is to treat all deaths the same way.

The short answer to this question is yes, they should be included.

The rest of the article talks about how.

Overall, treat all deaths the same way, create a policy prior to any deaths, keep it simple, be consistent, involve students in the planning, and let the family know the plans.  

You are likely reading this because you have had a death and you don’t have a policy. So now is the time to create one.

The table of contents for this article includes the yearbook information plus general guidelines for a school memorial policy. Click a link to go to a particular section.

How should memorials be handled in the yearbook?

You don’t want to get competitive about commemoration, so make a policy that you will have an “in memory of” section of the yearbook should you need it that lists the names of any students or faculty who have died with a picture that is consistent with the student photos in the class section with a born and died date.

You can decide to add a line or two that describes what the person was like or even a quote. There is no need to go into details about the death. But if you do it for one, you do it for the others. Don’t write a paragraph for one and one sentence about another.

If it’s a late addition, you can simply list printed names.

Yearbook companies will sometimes push back but they are hardly suicide prevention experts. Again, you will only anger students and family who are grieving a loss and it will do nothing to avoid contagion.

Here is a comment a mom sent me about her daughter’s exclusion from the yearbook pages.

“I am having a hard time putting into words what I am thinking... My daughter was an honor and AP student. She was an amazing runner. Won the top underclassmen award her freshman year and had a lot of friends. She died by suicide in January 2018. Another boy who was also an excellent athlete died of a brain aneurism September 2017. They were both sophomores at the same high school.

The yearbook company wouldn’t publish a tribute to my daughter because of how she died. By suicide. They did, however, publish a page for the other boy. This is wrong on so many levels. I want to contact the superintendent of our county and the yearbook company. What are your thoughts? Should I reach out to the media?”

Message from a bereaved mother to Anne Moss Rogers

Examples of how others have handled memorials well in the yearbook

You can reserve a page for any deaths that year.  If it’s one student who died by suicide, that’s where the memorial recognition goes. If there are more deaths, you add them all to this page. You can add one quote with each name or do other simple recognition but again, keep it simple, keep it consistent.

It’s inappropriate to have pages and pages of memorial pictures of any student or teacher who has died that year no matter what the cause. Because then you set a precedent that can be hard to keep going forward.

In Memorial

We are saddened this year by the loss of these members of our school community:

how to memorialize in the year book

Basketball Coach and P.E. Teacher, Terry Barnard Jr, June 18, XXXX-December 22, XXXX

how to memorialize in the year book

Matthew Janus Harper, Sophomore, January 8, XXXX-September 10, XXXX

Create a yearbook commemoration policy upfront. Make it clear and simple

For the graduation ceremony and the yearbook, keep it simple and consistent.

For a yearbook committee, this would be an important conversation to open up to the group for discussion to get input and then have select leaders that include faculty and students to make a final policy decision on how it will be handled in this year’s yearbook and those going forward.

The time to develop a memorialization policy is before a student or faculty death occurs

Having a policy helps administrators avoid potentially unsafe and sensitive situations by allowing the school to rely on what has been laid out. This kind of policy needs to ensure that everyone feels they can be part of it and that no one ever feels one life is worth more or less than another. Otherwise, it can also become very competitive, with students and parents trying to outdo one another. What’s more, it can help you avoid outlandish requests made by grieving parents who desperately don’t want their child to be erased or forgotten.

Commemoration shouldn’t become a popularity contest, and having a policy helps schools avoid that trap. Having students involved is one way to create a more balanced procedure, one that works for grieving adults and young people.

How to commemorate a death at a school

Commemorating death should be focused on helping students and staff manage and understand their grief as well as projects that inspire post-traumatic growth instead of post-traumatic stress. Suggestions range from nonprofit projects that promote mental health, walks, or other service projects that allow students to work together.

For all deaths, it’s simply not appropriate to erect memorials or plant trees because it’s a school and not a church or graveyard. Trees and gardens can end up looking unkempt and rangy, and erected memorials can often start to look like a cemetery.

What should a school avoid doing for commemoration?

Flying the flag at half-staff, and adding a notice on the school’s outdoor message board is not encouraged. Students sometimes want to do t-shirts and it’s best to use those for an “out of the darkness” walk team in your area instead.

The main thing is to include students in all planning so they know why the rules are as they are and work together to develop a plan that works for them, you, and your school.

An example of a memorial project at a high school for several deaths including a child who died by suicide

Here’s where you don’t take the guidelines too literally.

A high school in the northeast experienced the death of a teen who died by suicide and this was the third death the school had experienced that year. One player had died from a heat stroke on the athletic field and a faculty member had died in a car accident. That’s when they realized they had no policy.

After the teen died by suicide, the students suggested sprucing up an already existing outdoor space that had become a bit unkempt. They did replace the worn-out bench but didn’t engrave it with anyone’s name and the goal was to recreate the space for reflection and meditation.

If you were taking the “no physical memorials” guidelines literally you might nix this project for fear that it would sensationalize the suicide death. But it was in response to three deaths and a place the kids wanted to invest their efforts because the existing area had fallen in disrepair and they thought of a new way to use it for the health and well-being of faculty and students.

What I’m saying is not to be too strict on policy and allow for the kids to have some say-so particularly if the project promotes health and well-being.

One of the ideas students and adults came up with to memorialize a student who had died

Points to keep in mind when creating a memorial policy

The overarching themes are:

  • Create a policy now because it’s likely there will be death at your school at some point
  • Be consistent, treat all deaths the same
  • Keep it straightforward but allow for student creativity
  • Don’t make the school a church
  • Involve students in policy-making and commemoration ideas
  • Never yank down impromptu memorials without first meeting with students
  • Run ideas by the family when you are commemorating their loved one
  • No matter the cause of the student or faculty member’s death, instead of physical memorials or t-shirts, look to plan events or service projects that:
    • Celebrate life
    • Offer connection and hope
    • Raise money for nonprofits
    • Support wellness

No research says that memorials cause copycat suicides, but a lot of the guidelines are based on the fact that sensationalizing or grandiose coverage of suicide by media does. So most memorial guidelines are adopted from this research to comply and due to confusion, administrators decide to go without altogether. But yearbooks rarely have sensationalist headlines like other media does.

The next section has a number of resources to help you develop your own policy. Dr. O’Brien and I have a whole section on both creating a commemoration policy and postvention in our book, Emotionally Naked: A Teacher’s Guide to Preventing Suicide and Recognizing Students at Risk.

What about existing memorials?

At one school in Kansas, the leaders quietly dismantled plaques posted on the school walls commemorating several student and faculty deaths as a result of a fire decades before.

Nothing needs to be removed overnight in secret.

Again, pull together a committee with students and adults to discuss the issue. And remember that by this point, it’s part of the school history and landscape and perhaps you think about grandfathering previous memorials and then state that the new policy and guidelines are for any deaths that happen after a certain date.

Resources for creating a school policy on memorials and commemoration

The book below, authored by myself and Kim O’Brien PhD, LICSW, covers postvention best practices. It offers many examples of how to handle situations that are complicated and difficult after a suicide.

Anne Moss Rogers also offers PD for suicide prevention and postvention for educators.

emotionally naked teachers guide to preventing suicide

Emotionally Naked: A Teacher’s Guide to Preventing Suicide and Recognizing Students at Risk