Among the funeral arrangements and other painful tasks for his mother and father, Alyssa and Rob Black, was choosing the details about their son to share with the world in his obituary. They wrote about his adventurous spirit, his beloved dog Biggie and his dream job at a local microbrewery.
Then, toward the end, they included a sentence that stretched past the borders of their particular tragedy. Responding to Vermont not having a waiting period for gun sales, his parents wrote: “In honor of Andrew R. Black, we ask that you work for legislation that imposes a reasonable waiting period between firearm purchase and possession to provide a cooling off period to guard against impulsive acts of violence.”
Obituaries were once just a few thoughtful lines in local newsprint, the final small gesture of remembrance for neighbors, friends and family. Now that they have migrated online, and thanks to the warp-speed tempo of viral sharing, obits have a reach far beyond local newspaper circulation. And for some families — and even the deceased themselves — they have become a way to rearrange private grief into a message of social significance.
Issues like drugs, gun control, bullying and body image have all been addressed in recent years in the fine print of obituaries that went viral. The human toll adds a potent jolt to the message.
That wasn’t the Blacks' plan, but it was the effect. Vermont legislators have fielded calls from constituents about the obituary and its call for a gun purchase waiting period since its publication, NBC 5 has reported.
“None of this was our intention,” Alyssa Black told the Free Press. “We were just trying to reach people like us."
Some of the obituaries that have gone viral in recent years have a wry or bitter edge. But many offer a space for both personal catharsis and public call to action. Obituaries have played a particularly integral role in the opioid crisis, which has cut down so many otherwise healthy young people. They have become places where those left behind can chart the cost and spotlight the depths of the crisis.
In April 2015, a 24-year-old from Manchester, N.H., named Molly Alice Parks was found dead on a restroom floor with a needle in her arm. Her grieving family did not hide from the facts.
“She fought her addiction to heroin for at least five years and had experienced a near fatal overdose before,” her April 2015 obituary read. “Molly’s family truly loved her and tried to be as supportive as possible as she struggled with the heroin epidemic that has been so destructive to individuals and families in her age bracket.”
Her father, Tom Parks, told The Washington Post at the time that the honesty was important to convey.
“I see a lot of obituaries from families that are losing 20-somethings, 30-somethings and 40-somethings, and they’re all saying they died suddenly,” he said. “But that’s not the truth, and we know that because we just went through it.”
A similar candor and gravity appeared in the obituary for Madelyn Ellen Linsenmeir, a 30-year-old from Burlington, Vt., who succumbed to her addiction in October.
“It is impossible to capture a person in an obituary, and especially someone whose adult life was largely defined by drug addiction,” it read. “To some, Maddie was just a junkie — when they saw her addiction they stopped seeing her."
Obituaries have tackled other issues in their short word counts. Sadie Riggs was 15 when she hanged herself in Bedford, Pa., in June 2017. Her family used her obituary to specifically highlight the bullying that they say drove the young woman to her death.
“For a young lady so excited about going to the High School things sure went terribly wrong for her,” the obituary bluntly said. “For the bullies involved, please know you were effective in making her feel worthless. That is all between you and God now, but please know that it is not [too] late to change your ways.”
Before Ellen Bennett died after a bout of fast-acting cancer in May 2018, the 64-year-old resident of Victoria, B.C., asked her friends to include a message about “the fat shaming she endured from the medical profession” in her obituary.
“Over the past few years of feeling unwell she sought out medical intervention and no one offered any support or suggestions beyond weight loss,” it said. “Ellen’s dying wish was that women of size make her death matter by advocating strongly for their health and not accepting that fat is the only relevant health issue.”
It’s possible that Andrew Black would still have taken his life if Vermont had a mandatory waiting period. His parents, however, who say they are gun owners themselves, argue that had their son not been able to walk out of a gun store armed, he would have had time to move out of the depression.
“It was way too easy for this 23-year-old kid to go down and buy a gun. If nothing but 24 hours to just cool down and realize that it wasn’t the answer,” his father told NBC 5.