Telling the Stories of the Dead Is Essential Work

Various obituaries fill a newspaper spread.
In the age of the coronavirus, obituaries have started to run long—not individually but, tragically, collectively.Source: The Boston Globe

The contest between story and statistic began with the second death. More than eighty-three thousand people have died of COVID222eee野鸡网视频2区-19 in the United States alone—one every minute last month, several hundred a day in some cities. One of the many challenges the crisis has presented is how to count so many deaths; another is how to honor them. It is not safe to gather for individual funerals or memorials, much less for community-wide vigils at city halls or courthouses, the way we have in the past for victims of gun violence or acts of terrorism or natural disasters. Some states have ordered their flags to be flown at half-staff to remember the dead, but there has been no national moment of silence or day of mourning, no collective call to pause and grieve together.

A few television news programs, including “All In with Chris Hayes,” Nicolle Wallace’s “Deadline: White House,” and “PBS NewsHour,” have committed to airing weekly or daily memorial segments, an echo of the way the names of casualties of war were read aloud in decades past, and many religious organizations have added prayers for those who mourn and requiems for those who have died to their regular worship services. But the dead, especially as the pandemic takes an ever-greater toll, too easily dissolve into a plural noun, their identities fading as their number grows. Such is the perverse mathematics of tragedy: the staggering specificity of any one life lost; the overwhelming obscurity of lives lost222eee野鸡网视频2区. In the early days of the virus, it was possible to read about individual cases as they were diagnosed, and then every individual death as it was announced, but, as the virus spread into all fifty states and the death count grew, it became difficult to keep pace.

Already, even though the tragedy is far from over, it is almost impossible to comprehend its scale. If you have ever read some of the nearly three thousand names carved into bronze parapets around the edges of the reflecting pools at the World Trade Center, or seen even a portion of the more than forty-eight thousand memorial panels of the AIDS Quilt, or walked along the granite wall of the Vietnam Memorial etched with fifty-eight thousand names, then you have been moved and sobered by mass deaths that are now dwarfed by our current one. Even just speaking the names of those Americans who have so far died of COVID222eee野鸡网视频2区-19 would take more than three days.

Yet one way of recognizing the dead is taking place all around us, even under our strange and isolated conditions. In the search for plague literature222eee野鸡网视频2区 these last few weeks—the welcome if grim resurgence of interest in Albert Camus and Daniel Defoe, Boccaccio and Thucydides—we have perhaps overlooked its simplest form. The obituary is an ancient genre, sometimes arranged into verse but more often written in prose, originally carved into stone, then recorded on scrolls, and lately printed in newspapers or hosted on Web sites. Although an obituary is still wildly far from complete as a record of a life, it is as close as we come in times like these to squaring the demands of statistic and story; obituaries are a way to memorialize the dead in a few hundred or thousand words, ostensibly reporting the facts of people’s deaths, but also recording the facts of their lives. An obituary may be the briefest kind of biography, but, in the age of the coronavirus, even they have started to run long—not individually but, tragically, collectively.

Individual obituaries are measured in words or inches, but lately their page counts have become notable. , a daily newspaper in Brockton, Massachusetts, went from three obituaries the week of the first coronavirus case in its county to three pages of obituaries four weeks later. In New Orleans, the has seen more than double its usual number of obituaries for weeks now; in New Jersey, went from seventeen obituaries one week last year to a hundred and nine that same week this year. Across social media, users have shared videos of themselves or posted of all the pages of death notices, the into a yearbook of the dead. So drastic is the increase that the news desks of some of these outlets are quantifying the change, confirming for readers that, yes, there are many more obituaries than usual. That increase is not just because of the coronavirus but also because families, unable to gather to eulogize the dead together in person, are turning more frequently to death notices to inform their communities and commemorate the loss of a loved one.

222eee野鸡网视频2区These obituaries appear in many different venues. There are online portals for obituaries, and funeral homes often host Web pages for the dead whose services they handle. But newspapers continue to offer the experience of print and paper, a physical remembrance that can be clipped and placed in a family Bible or tucked into a picture frame, and it is in these pages that the quantity of lives lost feels most visible. So is the reason we lost them. Taken together, these obituaries illustrate some of the trends that scientists and epidemiologists have been warning us of: not only that so many could die but that the elderly would die in larger numbers; that certain professions, from doctors to grocery clerks, were more vulnerable; and that the racial disparities that plague our health system under the best of times would be reflected, or even intensified, by the pandemic. But the obituaries themselves can replicate some of these same biases: for those submitted by private individuals, the time and resources required to produce them and pay for their placement are more easily borne by some families than others; for those produced by professional writers, systemic biases can make some lives seem more newsworthy than others.

222eee野鸡网视频2区Of all forms of obituary, paid death notices are the most threadbare, generally just indicating the name of the deceased and the date of death—a perfunctory, quasi-official public statement originally intended to let heirs and creditors know how to collect their inheritance or debt. Even those are welcome during social distancing, when it is more difficult to spread the word that someone has died. For a nominal fee, survivors can buy extra words, paying for as much additional space as they want in order to share whatever information about the deceased they see fit. Obituaries offer a chance to revel in the distinctiveness of those we knew: the way they cooked their pasta, how they spent their misspent youth, where they went on their honeymoon, or why they never left home.

This distinctiveness is especially stark when so many remarkably different lives have ended because of the same disease. Obituaries are how we know that among those who have died from COVID-19 in this country are of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, who years later had a son born on December 7th; , the daughter of a coal miner and a cook, who died, at the age of twenty-eight, in a health clinic in the Navajo Nation, leaving behind a year-old daughter; and from Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, married for seventy-three years, who died within a few hours of each other, their hospital beds moved close together so that they could hold hands. We know that the virus took in Illinois, born with an immune deficiency, who loved memes and electronic music, and died two weeks after her eighteenth birthday; as well as from Colorado, who came out of retirement to drive an ambulance in New York City and got the virus three weeks later. A parade of ambulances and fire trucks escorted his body to the airport; another was waiting in Denver to carry him home. Obituaries are also how we know about some of the many other deaths caused less directly by the coronavirus, including that of a from Maine, who died from an overdose after nearly a year’s sobriety, when he could no longer attend recovery meetings in person.

in an explanation of the section. “No geographical point united them. Their backgrounds were of infinite variety. They did not die all at once on a bright blue morning.” Still, the Times222eee野鸡网视频2区 felt its series should try to overcome those challenges, and, for the last few weeks, ” has attempted “to convey the human toll of Covid-19 by putting faces and names to the growing numbers of the dead, and to portray them in all of their variety.”

Similar efforts are under way at other papers, including the and the . At the Washington Post, the obituary editor Adam Bernstein manages a small team of three staffers and a few freelancers who together do the work of “getting readers to care about people they’ve never heard of, especially now that we are all stuck at home, yearning for connections with other people, even strangers.” He knows that resources are finite—not just the time it takes to report, write, and edit the obituaries but also space in the newspaper and, perhaps most limited of all, the attention of readers. The news desk produced a feature in early April called “,” which told the story of the first thousand Americans known to have died of the coronavirus. Eighty thousand more deaths and counting later, that kind of comprehensive coverage is beyond any newspaper, but Bernstein estimates that the Post’s obituaries desk has continued to produce roughly twice as many pieces as it normally does. This is not only because of the coronavirus but, as Bernstein is quick to note, because deaths of all other kinds continue in the midst of the pandemic. “The workload is daunting in the best of times,” he says, “but this has turned into a deluge.”

For Bernstein and his colleagues in the Society of Professional Obituary Writers, of which he is the president, no deluge can distract from their craft. Bernstein has always considered obituaries the best kind of feature writing on the tightest deadline with the highest stakes, but when he first started writing them, twenty-one years ago, few journalists would have agreed. Newspaper obituaries are as old as newspapers, and readers have always loved them, but there was little obvious admiration for them within the profession. They very rarely break news, the veil of neutrality can easily slip into approbation or judgment depending on the subject, and the obits desk was assumed by many to be the last stop before retirement or oblivion. But eventually the section came into its own, celebrated in Marilyn Johnson’s “,” and in the more recent documentary “Obit,” directed by Vanessa Gould, which follows the obituary writers at the Times.

Both the film and the book bring into focus what readers have long cherished about the form: the opportunity to celebrate one’s own good fortune at still being alive, to keep tabs on death—who it comes for, at what age, and how much we have in common with the deceased—and also to trace an immensely compact narrative arc. So much of the news is ongoing and unsettled, but obituaries by definition have a kind of alluring finality. The best of them read like short stories, introducing us to memorable characters and confronting us, in ways that can range from amusing to moving, with the diversity of human experience.

All this helps explain why so many readers have been drawn to the obituary section during the coronavirus pandemic, finding in its swelling pages some of what has been missing from everyday life: an intimate connection with other people. It is the tragic version of what life on its best days used to offer us, chance encounters with strangers and the joyful serendipity of learning a little about their lives. But, of course, these growing obituary sections also quantify the fear we all feel, and the grief that is creeping closer to all of us. Local newspapers, especially, have provided a home for this coverage, memorializing lives large and small. As more and more of those papers have disappeared, people have rightfully lamented the loss of investigative journalism and community reporting, but obituary desks were some of the first to be scrapped when the news industry started to constrict, and there are far fewer venues for a service whose importance has seldom in our history been more obvious. So many lives that never made the front page used to get at least a little space closer to the back; now even that foothold in the historical record is imperilled.

Social media also provides a space for grieving, and it is there that some of these local obituaries have been shared over the past few weeks, spreading from one state to all fifty, from one small network to national attention. To some extent, obituaries are popular now for the same reasons they have always been popular: a curiosity about lives both everyday and extraordinary, plus a certain actuarial self-interest. But they are also serving as a kind of admonishment, a record of the dead that doubles as a warning for the living. Look, the dead say from their obituaries, we are not numbers; we were real people, like you and those you love.


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