January 23, 2022

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As US deaths approach 300,000, obituaries force reckoning with COVID

“I couldn’t just write that he lived and died and had two children,” said Kim Miller, a retired college professor, who wept as she spoke of her husband of 25 years. “I wanted people to read this and really read this.”

By Sunday, deaths from the coronavirus were approaching 300,000 in the United States, a toll comparable to losing the entire population of Pittsburgh or St. Louis. Reports of new deaths have more than doubled in the last month to an average of nearly 2,400 each day, more than any other point in the pandemic. The deaths have been announced in the traditional fashion, in obituaries and notices on websites and in newspapers that have followed the same format for decades, noting birthplaces, family members, jobs and passions.

But in recent months, as the death toll from the coronavirus in the United States grows steadily higher, families who have lost relatives to the disease are writing the pandemic more deeply into the death notices they submit to funeral homes and the materials they share with newspapers’ obituary writers. They are crafting pleas for mask wearing, rebuking those who believe the virus is a hoax and describing, in blunt detail, the loneliness and physical suffering that the coronavirus inflicted on the dying.

“In the beginning, families wanted to keep COVID more private,” said Charles S. Childs Jr., an owner of A.A. Rayner & Sons Funeral Home in Chicago, where he has seen a surge of virus deaths in the last month. “That has changed. Now they want to make it public.”

Over decades, families have often declined to write in an obituary how their relative died when there was anxiety or fear attached to the cause, whether it was AIDS, an opioid overdose or suicide. But as the public has grown more aware of once-unfamiliar infectious diseases, mental illness and drug addiction, the tendency to conceal has slowly given way to candor.

After Shirley Flores, a postmaster and mother of three, died in Las Cruces, New Mexico, her family noted in her obituary: “She died a very painful lonely death because we weren’t allowed in to hold her hand and sit with her. Please take COVID-19 seriously, protect yourself and those you love.”

The obituary of Shirley Rowe, a 67-year-old Michigan resident, said that she had fought for her life after contracting the virus, but her body was overpowered by COVID-19. Rowe was a loving grandmother and the life of every party, her family said, and believed she caught the coronavirus from a guest at her home.

“It is our family’s firm belief that she would still be here if restrictions hadn’t been lifted so soon for society, and the person that gave her the virus would have taken precautions more seriously,” they wrote. “This is not how my mom’s story should have ended.”

Judy Fuller, 76, of Blue Grass, Iowa, died from the coronavirus in September, after she and her husband, Ron, fell ill at the same time. Judy Fuller was known for her bright smile, her love of fashion and the outdoors, and her devotion to her job handling staffing at the hospital, where she worked for nearly four decades.

“In lieu of flowers or donations, we just ask to take the COVID-19 virus seriously and please spend time with your loved ones,” her family wrote. “Life is short, enjoy time with your family while you can.”

Ron Fuller, who is currently nursing his son back to health after he contracted the coronavirus, said that he had wanted to send a quiet but urgent message in the obituary.

In the weeks since his wife died, he has shopped at the small supermarket in town and seen customers not wearing masks. Most of the people who work there don’t wear masks either.

“We put that in there because it is serious, and people need to understand it’s a serious disease,” Fuller said. “A few people I’ve talked to, they called and they said they appreciated what they saw in the paper. And they agreed with what was in the paper.”

Some families said they were channeling their loved ones’ wishes.

Lida Barker, 92, a longtime resident of Gary, Indiana, died on Nov. 20 after contracting the coronavirus in the nursing home where she lived. Her death devastated her children, three sisters who met on a Zoom call to write the obituary in the days after she died.

They composed a line urging mourners to donate to the Gary Aquatorium restoration, a project close to their mother’s heart, in the city she loved. And they wrestled with the wording of a mention of the coronavirus, settling on this: “In her memory, please wear a mask in public and take COVID-19 seriously. It is real; it hastened her death.”

Janet Levin, one of her daughters, said she felt that her mother would have approved of an obituary that was straightforward, unflinching with facts and devoid of euphemisms.

“We keep hearing people say, ‘I don’t even think it exists,’” said Levin, who lives in Wheeling, Illinois, near Chicago. “My mother had lived in Gary for 50 years. She had a wide variety of connections. She might have known people who didn’t believe in masks. And I thought, maybe someone she knew would think, ‘I can’t do much else for her, but at least I could wear a mask.’”

Others said that they worried that by including the coronavirus in an obituary, they would insert a distraction, a politically tinged detour from their relative’s life.

“I’m not diminishing the importance of being safe from COVID right now,” said Vincent Tunstall of Chicago, the day after the funeral service for his brother, Marvin Tunstall, who died from the virus in November. He chose to keep the coronavirus out of his brother’s obituary. “I just didn’t want to take the light off him.”

With funeral services postponed, and burials often happening without public eulogies or words spoken in memory, the obituary has taken on heightened importance, the family’s turn to deliver their own unfiltered message to the community.

That was how Kori Lusignan, a consultant in Lake Mary, Florida, saw her role in writing the obituary of her father, Roger Andreoli, who died of the virus two days after Thanksgiving.

He was funny and vibrant, a special-education teacher, skilled carpenter and enthusiastic traveler who split his time between Wisconsin and Florida.

Lusignan crafted the obituary to honor the person he was, and capture his humor and sweetness, as she would have done in a eulogy delivered at church. “Roger’s exuberance for life was infectious,” she wrote. “It would be impossible to list all of the organizations in which he participated; he jumped into living with both feet.”

And she wanted to cleanly knock down misconceptions of who can die from the virus. Andreoli was 78 years old, but he was perfectly healthy and could have lived decades longer, she said, as many people in their family have. He died “peacefully and prematurely after his battle with COVID-19,” she wrote in the obituary, adding: “Roger’s family will not be holding services at this time in order to spare other families the trauma they experienced with COVID-19.”

“We wanted people to know, this is why he died,” Lusignan said. “And we are not having a service because we are going through trauma. We didn’t want people to experience what we did.”

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