Remembering the Dead: Obituary Writers Restore Humanity to Covid-19 Crisis

Telling individual stories in the face of unyielding mass casualty

The obituary section of newspapers has grown significantly as the coronavirus crisis spread worldwide. - Credit by Photo Illustration: Dianna McDougall; Sources: The New York Times, Getty Images
Headshot of Scott Nover

Key insights:

Emilia Pontarelli, the matriarch of Tony’s Italian Deli, an institution in Chicago’s Edison Park neighborhood, was 93 when she died last month of Covid-19.

But her life had many twists and turns before then: As a young girl in Italy, Pontarelli challenged a Nazi soldier who stole her pet goat for dinner. In her 90s, Pontarelli challenged her son-in-law to an arm wrestling contest to show how strong she still was. 

Pontarelli’s story, how she lived and died—her last words to her family were communicated over FaceTime—was told by a woman who had more than once shopped at Tony’s.

“I knew that this was a place that thousands of people rely on for good food,” said Maureen O’Donnell, the obituary writer for the Chicago Sun-Times. “What I didn’t know was she was the kitchen wizard behind the recipes—that the things I was buying belonged to a woman I was ultimately going to write about.”

O’Donnell took readers into the last days of Pontarelli’s life, detailing what happened when she got sick: how the priest delivered his benediction by proxy, how Emilia eventually lost her energy to speak. These details tell an intimate story of the pandemic: how people ail, how they die, how their families cope even as the crisis continues.

O’Donnell isn’t alone in showing this side of the coronavirus, as America’s obituary writers go to work in newsrooms across the country to provide accurate accounts of individuals’ lives. The journalists who do this work are seen, and see themselves, as storytellers able to convey ideas of community and shared humanity. It’s a crucial burden right now, at a time when we are physically separated from one another—even the ones we love.

“Obituaries are a history of a community, and they tell the story of all the threads that tie us together—and they also tell how we’re all connected,” O’Donnell said. “An obituary can kind of knit a community together, whether it’s a small community newspaper or a big city newspaper. You’re sharing a history of the town.”

As the coronavirus pandemic ravages the world, the casualties are mounting, crowding the pages of print newspapers. There are only so many obituary writers and far too many dead, so not everyone gets a reported obituary. Everyone can, however, pay to put a loved one’s name in the paper. On Sunday, The Boston Globe printed 16 pages of death notices—which are paid obituaries, written by families or funeral homes and submitted to the newspaper. The Hartford Courant printed 12 pages of notices in one day; The Star-Ledger in New Jersey printed nine pages; New Orleans’ Times-Picayune and The New Haven Register each printed eight.

“In 40 years of being a journalist, I’ve never seen anything like this,” O’Donnell said. 

In recent weeks, news outlets of all sizes have been overwhelmed by the body count. From the three-person community newspaper to the obituary desk of The New York Times, news outlets are trying to bring humanity back to a crisis all too often defined by numbers.

Obituaries are a long-standing tradition. Humans have been publicly recording deaths at least since ancient Rome: The Acta Diurna—stone message boards that were posted daily—served as a place to announce births, marriages and deaths. In 17th-century Britain, newsbooks—a predecessor to the modern newspaper—announced the deaths of aristocrats and other famous individuals.

Death notices and obituaries became a sizable part of American media culture in the early 1800s, accelerated by the advent of the penny press, cheap newspapers that more closely covered local happenings, Janice Hume writes in her book Obituaries in American Culture. In the 1850s, the introduction of the telegraph hastened the reporting process and gave newspapers the ability to cover deaths in far-off places.

“An obit is so much more than a news story,” Hume said in an interview with Adweek. “It really is a little synopsis about what we value about somebody’s life. In a democratic society where individuals are important, those obits serve an important cultural function, as well as a practical function for the families and loved ones of the people who died.”

In her research, Hume, now the journalism department head at the University of Georgia, read 8,000 obituaries penned between 1818 and 1930. She said “for better or worse,” obituaries reflect the values of the time in which they were written.

“In the 19th century, we tended to remember people more for attributes of character rather than degrees and jobs,” she said. “So men would be remembered in the 1800s for being brave or gallant or hospitable, and the women were remembered for being pious and obedient.”

After the Civil War and the Industrial Revolution, there was less euphemistic language around death (such as people being “removed by the omnipotent author”), with obituaries focusing more on wealth and work than individual character, she said.

But before the obit’s contents comes the choice of whether or not to write one about a person at all, she noted. “The most important ethical issue in an obit or an obit page is inclusion.”

Even when obit writers have put the spotlight on people of color, the language they use can offer hints about the preoccupations and biases of the time, said Kathleen McElroy, the journalism school director at University of Texas at Austin, who researched the issue. She said that, in her study of obituaries of figures involved in the Civil Rights Movement, many harped on motifs of violence toward blacks and white oppression.

This puts a particular responsibility on obit writers to proportionately cover those affected, and consider how they represent people of color, especially as black people make up a “disproportionately large share” of Covid-19 fatalities in 18 states and Washington D.C., according to Mother Jones.

“An obituary is as much about the present as it is the past,” McElroy said. “Obituaries are shaped by the moments they’re written in.”

The New York Times has made efforts to correct its own history regarding obits when it created Overlooked, a pseudo-revisionist history project aimed at writing obituaries for those whom the paper of record excluded at the times of their deaths.

“Since 1851, obituaries in The New York Times have been dominated by white men,” the Times wrote. “Now, we’re adding the stories of other remarkable people.” Since its creation, the publication has written obits for groundbreaking figures like investigative journalist Ida B. Wells, novelist Charlotte Brontë, novelist and poet Sylvia Plath, and mathematician Ada Lovelace.

Newsrooms, as always, are tasked with deciding who they spotlight. And some organizations have more resources to do so than others. The New York Times and The Washington Post, two of the few remaining newspapers with a multi-person obituary desk, cover both national figures as well as local people of interest (most other newspapers solely write about their regions). With the recent deluge of deaths, these teams have tough decisions to make about who gets included and who doesn’t.

The attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, led The New York Times to try a different approach to obituaries. They attempted to write short obits for each person who died in the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and on United Flight 93. The Times metro desk ended up writing more than 2,400 Portraits of Grief, as they were known, out of the 2,996 victims of the attacks.

They told the story of Kazushige Ito, a planning specialist for Fuji Bank who went to 20 operas in one year; John Patrick Gallagher, who played hooky from work the Friday before the attacks so he could take his 2-month-old son to the Bronx Zoo; and Alayne Gentul, a human resources director who saved 40 people by going up seven stories to help evacuate the second tower.

“Community newspapers always wrote obituaries of common folk—people that weren’t necessarily newsmakers. And these weren’t just paid obituaries. These were the stories of their neighbors,” said McElroy. “So after 9/11, the Times decided, ‘We’re going to tell the story of the cab driver, the person who worked on the 50th floor.’”

McElroy, who worked in various editing roles at the Times before becoming an academic, said it’s “one of the improvements of journalism in this century that we are telling the stories of more people.” A deputy sports editor during 9/11, McElroy wrote two of the Portraits of Grief. “When it happened, there were no departments—just people working on this big story,” she said.

Similarly, the Times newsroom has come together to cover the Covid-19 story and doubled the size of its obits staff, moving four writers from elsewhere in the newsroom to write obituaries.

Covid-19 is a “whole different order of magnitude” than Sept. 11, according to Bill McDonald, the obituaries editor at the Times, because there isn’t a finite death toll. In New York City alone, excluding the rest of the metropolitan area, nearly 15,000 people have already died of Covid-19. Many of their stories have been included in the Times’ project addressing the deaths caused by the pandemic, called Those We’ve Lost.

McDonald and his counterparts at other news outlets know it’s a Sisyphean task to try to keep up with the death count, but they also know obits serve a crucial function. “We’re sort of now recording the death toll,” he said. “We’re sort of tolling the bell—the town crier in medieval days, listing the names of the dead.”

Communicating these stories is more important than ever, particularly as the bodies stack up in morgues and in unmarked graves outside of New York City.

“If you go back in history, it tends to be seen as a sign of breakdown in society when bodies go unburied and deaths go unmarked or unchronicled,” said Hillel Italie, the arts and entertainment obituaries editor for the Associated Press who also works as the wire service’s books and publishing reporter. “It’s a sign really of a civilization … saying this moment really matters, and these people who were lost should not just be a number. They had lives, they had people who cared about them, they made a difference.”

Adam Bernstein, the obituaries editor at The Washington Post, has an even smaller staff than the Times right now as they have not had extra help from elsewhere in the newsroom: Bernstein has three full-time writers and a small corps of freelancers, on whom he has leaned more and more heavily in recent weeks. 

The Post, like the Times, writes obituaries for people of national and international prominence as well as those with interesting stories in the community. The Post also does “small community obits” for anyone who has lived in Washington, D.C. for at least 20 years and has spent more time there than anywhere else.

Bernstein said that obituaries are crucial in bringing the pandemic to life. “People are looking for insights beyond the numbers,” he said. “And so each story—even the more humble obits—I think connect with people on a deeper level now, especially now that we’re all stuck at home. There’s so much less human connection now that we’re thirsty for it in one form or another. And through newspapers, through magazines, people are really finding a connection through some of these obituaries in a way that they may not have earlier.”

Frank Sesno, who directs George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs, is a former CNN anchor, White House reporter and Washington bureau chief. He said that the power of the obituary during this pandemic is both to “mourn and warn.”

“One of the things I have found missing in this story—in the coverage of this story—are the humanizing elements of what people are experiencing and going through,” he said.

In New Orleans, a city where even the funerals can be loud, raucous affairs, so much has changed. 

It’s “weird quiet,” said longtime journalist John Pope. “It’s so very quiet.” The music has mainly stopped—especially after Ellis Marsalis, patriarch of jazz greats, died from pneumonia after exhibiting Covid-19 symptoms on April 1. 

“For Ellis Marsalis, there should be a Second Line! Well, that’s not happening,” he said, referring to the traditional jazz funeral Marsalis would have surely had if not for the social distancing policies restricting gatherings in the Big Easy.

In four decades at the Times-Picayune, Pope has worn many different hats: He’s been a general assignment reporter and covered medicine, higher education, arts and entertainment. He was part of the newsroom that won two Pulitzer Prizes for coverage of Hurricane Katrina. But he’s perhaps best known as the foremost obituary writer in a city with no shortage of color or personality.

New Orleans has been hit hard by the coronavirus, accounting for about a quarter of Louisiana’s total confirmed cases, according to The New York Times. And Louisiana has the sixth highest infection rate of any U.S. state. But Pope said the crisis facing local news has eaten into newspapers’ abilities to run reported obituaries, as many are just struggling to cover their regions with reduced staff. “Yes, The New York Times soldiers on, and so does the Post and The Wall Street Journal,” Pope said. “But those of us at other papers are just having a devil of a time.”

Pope worked full time for the Times-Picayune from 1972 until 2015, when the paper laid off 37 people. He said he was the only one affected who was asked to stay on as a contributing writer. These days, he pitches “obits, features, whatever.” 

But it’s tough getting obituaries in the paper. “It’s difficult to get an obituary in as a news story here because income is down. Space is at a premium,” he said. “It’s triage as far as obituaries go. And this sounds really terrible but you have to figure out who is the worthiest, who merits an obituary as opposed to a death notice, which you can pay for.” 

Since the beginning of March, Pope has successfully placed eight obituaries in the paper, two of which have been Covid-19 related. Outside of Pope, current staffers have written some obituaries: For example, arts writer Doug MacCash wrote Marsalis’ obit (Pope said MacCash did a “bang-up job,” too).

Sesno, from George Washington University, said the localizing function of obituaries is critical. 

“It’s a way for—from community to community—for people to know that this is local, this is happening to their neighbors, to their friends, to their acquaintances and to perfect strangers, but who just live down the street,” he said. “So much of the coverage is from a state capitol or from Washington or New York or whatever. But for these obituaries to be written, and to be brought into the community… that’s what serves a really important function in a local community.”

Without obituaries, Pope said there’s a lot that local papers lose. 

“We lose local flavor. I hate to say it, but we lose contact with the community,” he said. “New Orleans is extremely parochial and people read obituaries. They read death notices. And I do think they’re aggrieved if an obituary didn’t run. I can say, truthfully, I tried. And that’s all I can really do.”

It’s never easy to mourn, but it’s a lot harder to do so right now. 

Due to social distancing policies that limit gatherings of more than a few people in most states, funerals—at least in their traditional form—are difficult, if not impossible. Beyond the funeral, death is typically commemorated with ritual: We bring food and company to those who have lost, we perform religious ceremonies, we give hugs. In the spring of 2020—and for the foreseeable future—these concepts seem alien. Much of our grieving is done with physical distance; the closure a funeral provides is often absent.

And that shows in the wording of obits as well. Lines that once provided funeral details now mostly signal that a service is postponed or significantly altered.

“Coping strategies that we all use to go through a loss are pretty much impossible in a pandemic,” said Camille Wortman, a professor of social and health psychology at Stony Brook University. “The funeral provides a way of working out the psychological issues surrounding the loss… so if that is unsatisfactory or delayed, that really delays one’s progress.”

While video conference memorials and the like can provide some solace, obituaries and death notices are one of the few constants from our old era of mourning to our new one. 

Storytelling can help people mourn, according to both Wortman and M. Katherine Shear, a psychiatrist and professor at Columbia University School of Social Work. Shear, who directs the Center for Complicated Grief at Columbia, said grief—which many people may be feeling right now, especially if they’ve lost a loved one—is characterized by yearning and longing, and is distinct from anxiety and depression.

“We tell each other stories. We learn—and what you have to learn here is that this is this person’s life,” she said. “And you have to learn how you’re going to think about their life, and how you want other people to think about their life. So in telling that story, I think it is actually very helpful in the healing process.”

Legacy.com is the most prominent online network of obituaries and, chances are, you have read a death notice or obituary published there. The company partners with more than 1,000 local newspapers in the United States—plus some in Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand—as a place where families and funeral homes can submit paid death notices for the deceased. They also have a small team of journalists, led by content director Stephen Segal, who write reported obituaries about people of national prominence. 

“Basically, what we’re seeing is that obituaries have quickly become more important to more people during the epidemic because the questions that need to be answered are less routine,” Segal said. Legacy.com’s traffic has surged and so has his team’s workload, which has doubled in recent weeks. 

In an odd way, Legacy is also a social platform of sorts, complete with a team of content moderators that make sure death notices and their associated memorial pages stay appropriate and nonpolitical. “It basically is a mechanism for making sure that a family is able to have the digital equivalent to a respectful funeral,” Segal said. When asked if the surge in traffic has made moderation harder, he said, “the honest answer is it’s never easy.”

O’Donnell, from The Chicago Sun-Times, said that Legacy “complements” the work that she and newspaper obituary writers do. She said that their journalistic work highlighting opioid deaths was a boon. “They had the big umbrella ability to look at how this permeated so many states, and it was really a public service,” she said. “I think the things that are harming newspapers—I don’t think it’s Legacy, I think it’s other things. Our work benefits them, and their highlighting of our work benefits us.”

Legacy isn’t the only place people gather online—a function with newfound importance in the Covid-19 era. Facebook introduced memorial pages for dead users in 2007 and has since rolled out more controls for “legacy contacts,” those managing profiles on behalf of the deceased. Facebook is “working to build more tools to help people plan their digital legacies,” a spokesperson told Adweek in an email. Others have shown their support on GoFundMe, which has welled with fundraising efforts during the pandemic and often sees campaigns to help with medical or funeral costs.

Despite these resources, it’s an exceptionally difficult time to grieve a loss. 

“I’m a psychologist and people ask me all the time… where should these people go? What should I do? Well, I have no idea,” Wortman said. “As far as I can tell, there are no specialized resources out there for them. There’s no website, there’s no support group, there’s no professionals geared just to them that I’ve been able to find. This is baffling.”

The pandemic is even putting a strain on the reporters and editors who are writing these obituaries as they vet first-hand accounts of how people’s most precious ones died. The pain of what readers have experienced can be felt through their emails, said Bill McDonald, obituaries editor at The New York Times, who looks through his inbox daily for stories to tell. (The Times asked readers to write in about those they’ve lost to Covid-19.) One woman submitted a “blow-by-blow” account of how her husband died.

“You could read between the lines—the anguish—and she was hoping we would write about him as part of our project,” he said. That particular story is on his “list of possibles.”

“We’re only scraping the surface, we know that, we acknowledge that, I think readers understand that. It’s a representative sample,” McDonald said. “When you show them as people with real lives and families with a past and futures that were cut short, people understand that for every one we print, there are 10,000 others.”


@ScottNover scott.nover@adweek.com Scott Nover is a platforms reporter at Adweek, covering social media companies and their influence.