Obituary Guide

Obits Change in Post-Pandemic World

Brandon Sun,  May 9, 2022

David McConkey

Much is changing in our post-pandemic world. Considering pandemics revolve around death, there is no surprise that one thing undergoing change is the obituary. As in other areas, the pandemic hurried along trends already in motion. And the pandemic introduced some new trends as well.

An obituary is a notice of a death. There are two common types. The first is the news obituary, which appears in the media after the death of a prominent person. These make for great reading as they are prepared in advance and so are well written and filled with information and insight. These news obituaries are also a snapshot of not only the life of the deceased, but also the times they lived in. 

The second type of obituary is written by family or friends and traditionally appears as a paid advertisement in the classified section of the newspaper. This is a chance for a family to remember the life of their loved one, who was important to them even if not a prominent person in the community. This is also a place for the family to announce details of a memorial service and provide other information.

Even before the pandemic, obituaries were changing. One change is that newspapers and other media started noticing that there is news in the deaths of ordinary people. Turns out that there is often a fascinating tale of what at first appeared to be just one of the regular folks. Examples include the popular but now-retired feature in Maclean’s magazine, The End. Another is in this paper, the feature, “The Journey.”  

When the pandemic struck, there emerged an urgent need for news obituaries to reflect the rising death toll. Several news organizations rose to the challenge of chronicling every death due to COVID. Maclean’s magazine for one set out to write an obituary for every Canadian who died of the disease. Enlisting journalism students, the Maclean’s project continues. Some of the obits are in the print magazine, and all are online in the series, They Were Loved.

During the pandemic, there was an increased need for family obits. With funerals and other events cancelled, the newspaper obit, both in print and online, became longer as they became the main source of sharing and connection. There was also a need for more information, like where to access a video version of a funeral. Or, if an in-person event was possible, protocols about masks, vaccination status or other information required.

Even as the pandemic recedes and as we return to regular in-person events, there are advantages of incorporating these changes for the long term. For example, video allows people in distant locations to participate.

And there was something else: obituaries became an outlet for expression where there may not have been another. In India, for example, family newspaper obituaries told of deaths in numbers that the government was trying to hide. In countries like the U.S., families gave vent to their frustrations with government policies about the pandemic. With the death of a loved one, the obituary became a forum for a family to express themselves.

Another change that has coincided with the pandemic is the shrinking resources of many big city newspapers. J-Source, an online publication about journalism in Canada, notes this phenomenon in a recent story titled “Obits Evolve with Digital Mourning.”

Large dailies often used to employ a full-staff member to write news obituaries. But as these journalists retire, they are not being replaced. Instead, newspapers are getting the information for news obituaries from wherever they can, including freelancers, family members, friends, and even the subject of the obit before they died. As J-Source notes, newspaper readers can increasingly expect “to read an obituary written by friends and family or the deceased themselves.”

The J-Source article also notes that obituaries play a special role in “mass mortality events” like a pandemic. Another similar event is the drug overdose crisis, which can be expected to receive more attention as the pandemic recedes. When writing an obit, both journalists and families have a special opportunity to express themselves. An obit can highlight the life that was abruptly ended, not just as another death statistic. As well, the obit can become a place to warn others and to advocate for new attitudes and policies. Obituaries can be part of increased social awareness along with new public initiatives like the Manitoba day of bereavement to remember those lost to drugs. 

Looks like the obituary is going to be different in our emerging post-pandemic world. And, as a bonus, many of these changes are good. As we move beyond the pandemic, the obituary is encompassing many beneficial 21st century trends: informative, participatory, diverse and authentic.

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See Also:

The End of "The End"

From the Résumé to the Eulogy: Describing Ourselves

The Changing Conversations About Mortality

Writing an Obituary Worth Reading

Obituaries in American Culture: A Review

Ordinary Lives, Extraordinary Stories

Unexpected Life lessons From a Small-Town Obituary Writer

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