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 at 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 including 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.
Lida Barker, 92, a longtime resident of Gary, Ind., 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 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.”
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.
And 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.