The pandemic that has claimed more than 80,000 lives in the United States has put new focus on a time-honored but frequently overlooked side of the newspaper business. At a time when social distancing has forced us to abandon many of our usual grief rituals, obituaries and paid death notices have turned into important proxies for mourning. And their sheer volume on the printed page is a stark reminder of a disease that might otherwise be invisible for many readers.
“Seeing death notices online is not the same as paging through page after page after page of faces staring out at you and realizing that all of these people were alive until just a few days ago,” said Marquard, who scans these classified pages for story subjects.
The impact of covid-19 is most dramatically seen for many papers in a rise in the number of death notices, the paid ads written and submitted by families and funeral homes, which often run alongside staff-written news obituaries. On May 3, the Boston Globe ran 23 pages of them, compared with seven pages during the comparable date a year ago. Not all of these deaths were from covid-19, but to see that jumbo-size section was sobering for many readers nonetheless.
At the Chicago Sun-Times, though, the striking change hasn’t been more submissions of death notices but ones that are longer on average, with more details from the lives of the deceased, said Mary Hoffman, director of classifieds. Some almost feel like substitutes for eulogies yet to be delivered now that so many memorial services and funerals have been postponed. One Chicago death notice listed the name of every cat the deceased had ever owned.
The scale of death in this moment reminds some journalists of the aftermath of 9/11, or, for John Pope, a longtime obituaries writer, the early 1980s when there was a terrifying epidemic “that people do not understand and they were scared to pieces about it,” he recalled.
“When I was writing about AIDS, the people whom I was writing about didn’t know who might be next and whether they would be struck down,” said Pope, who contributes to the Times-Picayune in New Orleans. “With covid, there is the same sorrow and anxiety.”
While there were conspiracy theories that were floated during the AIDs epidemic, the pace and volume of misinformation about covid-19 is unlike anything seen before. In this fraught political climate, with some promoting skepticism about the severity of the coronavirus epidemic, Maureen O’Donnell, an obituary writer at the Chicago Sun-Times, has received notes from readers questioning whether her story subjects really died of covid-19. “Our role,” she maintains,” is to bear witness to what’s happening in our country.”
In many newsrooms, including the Globe, The Washington Post and the Seattle Times, reporters from different sections have been reassigned to the task of capturing stories of the dead. The Seattle Times, which covers one of the first communities hit by covid-19, had no full-time obituary writer. While the newsroom rallied to cover the scientific and economic facets of the virus, “we wanted to give more prominence to the human toll this was taking,” said Seattle Times assistant metro editor Gina Cole.
“We're keenly aware as we cover the pandemic, and in general, [that] we are recording history here, and there’s a responsibility that comes with that,” Cole said. “This project is a big part of what we’ll look back on and a big part of recording that history.”
Obituary writers have long viewed their work as a craft intended to capture the totality of the lives of newsmakers or local people of note. At the very least, the existence of an obituary shows that a person’s life mattered enough to warrant a write-up. Some can capture the story of an entire community, or a historic moment — like the one about a traditional Irish musician who spent his teenage years repairing London during the German blitz in World War II — or perhaps even prompt the rest of us to reflect on how we are living.
Obituary writers have always had to make difficult decisions, picking and choosing whom to write about among so many dead. Fielding requests to write about covid-19 victims, O’Donnell has tried to capture a range of lives, from Emilia Pontarelli, an Italian deli matriarch in Chicago, to internationally acclaimed singer-songwriter John Prine.
“That touched a lot of people because he was an American treasure, a beloved troubadour, so that creates a sort of virtual wake where a lot of people post about that and talk about how they’ve listened to his music for decades and shared it with their children,” O’Donnell said.
Pope has also tried to write about a cross-section of society, like a 63-year-old community college educator who started a resource center for women and quietly supported needy students for decades, paying for bus passes and textbooks out of her own pocket.
“I’ve never had so much response online to an obituary as I’ve had to this one,” Pope said. “There’s so much love for this woman. And it’s not about me, but [I’m gratified] if I was able to provide an outlet for these people to show how they felt about Melanie Deffendall.”