The Evolving Obituary

The unusually candid obituary for Coleen Sheran Singer received widespread attention. Is it a sign of a changing format?
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Clockwise, from left: A collection of obituaries throughout the years. (Photos: Terry M/Flickr; Brian Kelley/Flickr; Terry M/Flickr; Robert of Fairfax/Flickr)

Clockwise, from left: A collection of obituaries throughout the years. (Photos: Terry M/Flickr; Brian Kelley/Flickr; Terry M/Flickr; Robert of Fairfax/Flickr)

Two months ago, a 900-word entry in the obituary section of Bangor, Maine's Daily News received a not-too-brief moment in the national spotlight. The remembrance began starkly: "Coleen Sheran Singer (born Coleen Sheran Clark) would have turned 33 this August 31, but she died in Lewiston in an unsuspecting suburban professional couple's home of a heroin overdose on the morning of December 25, 2014." The writer, whose name was not disclosed at the time, went on to detail Sheran Singer's life, describing in painstaking detail not just her triumphs (intellectually gifted, creative, possessing a quirky spirit), but also her more significant travails (borderline personality disorder, a penchant for manipulation, an addictive personality).

The piece, though written generously, was careful not to meander into excessive sentimentality. More surprisingly, the obit's author, Brent Singer, also Coleen's ex-husband, placed her death squarely in the context of state politics. Governor Paul LePage's MaineCare service reduction, Singer wrote, made access to the methadone clinic his ex-wife had relied upon for her continued sobriety impossible. Her family, as he described them, wasn't the one-dimensional "loving" and "devoted" unit, as families invariably are in the obituary section. Rather, their sketches were given color: Coleen's father was absent, and her mother struggled mightily to raise her daughter.

Is the viral spread of the Sheran Singer obituary indicative of a broader trend—that Americans are ready to break down barriers in how we talk about death?

Singer's memorial garnered a terrific amount of attention; an army of fawning Internet commentators marveled over the obit's candor with its subject's difficulties in life. The obituary was shared online thousands of times over (I received it twice via email, and saw it dotting my Twitter feed, from people with no connection to the state of Maine or Sheran Singer personally). It garnered a follow-up story not only from the Bangor Daily News, but other outlets like the Portland Press Herald and the Boston Globe. Singer, meanwhile, received calls from strangers as far away as Norway, people wanting simply to express their admiration for his work.

Is the viral spread of the Sheran Singer obituary a tale signifying nothing? A piece of writing that derives its shareability from the quick rush of confessional connection? Or is it indicative of a broader trend—that Americans are ready to break down barriers in how we talk about death?

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An obit has traditionally been "a reflection of cultural value"—an indication of the qualities its society supports, providing the who, what, where, when, and why that we've come to expect of our news stories, says Janice Hume, author of Obituaries in American Culture and department head of the University of Georgia's journalism department. But beyond that, Hume says, a good obit also provides lessons on how to live a meaningful life.

"One of the constant battles we have to fight as obituary writers is to make sure our sources appreciate the difference between eulogy and obituary."

The obituary form can be traced back to the Acta Diurna ("Daily Acts") in ancient Rome. The Acta Diurna were essentially early newspapers, where legal proceedings and trials (akin to the modern day Police Blotter) were carved into stone or metal and hung on message boards in popular places like the Forum. The earliest appeared around 131 B.C.E. Historians estimate that around 59 B.C.E., under Julius Caesar, the Acta Diurna were expanded to contain more social news: the outcomes of gladiator combat (the ancient sports page), socialite marriages (the ancient styles section), and notable deaths (the ancient obits). Centuries later, in 1600s England, the parishes of Greater London released "bills of mortality," a weekly round-up that served to inform informed citizens about who had died, and from what cause. But between the plague, tuberculosis, and the "teeth and worms" epidemic, too many people died too suddenly to merit much description.

Two hundred years later, American news writers began to report deaths with a bit more personality. Obituaries from the 1800s focused on heavily gendered attributes of character; men were remembered for being "brave, gallant leaders," women, for their "gentle and submissive" natures. The Industrial Revolution brought with it a stark change in obituary style: By the early 1900s, people were being remembered on the page principally for the amount of money they'd earned, and for how many years they'd worked. This legacy continues, to an extent, in journalist-written obits. For family-written memorials, the writing tends to focus on "what we value in a human being. In a country where every person is supposed to matter, that's meaningful," Hume says. "[T]he great advantage obit writers have is that forcefield of emotion around obituaries," Marilyn Johnson, author of Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries, writes in an email. "The fact that someone is gone changes every detail. And no one reads an obituary casually—look what's gone from the world!"

Today, funeral home staff do the majority of American obituary writing. Perhaps as a result of this, the format is sometimes quite formulaic. Personalized memorial is more common online—Facebook groups, websites, and sorrowful tweets abound as tributes to the dead. "The huge change is the digital era that we live in. People can put up their own obit sites now," says Hume, who, in 2009, published a study looking at the myriad ways people interact with obituaries online. She found that, in the lengthy message boards that often follow a family written obit, many literally speak to the dead ("Say hi to Aunt Margie," for instance), and a wide variety of people offer condolences to their grieving families. Hume gives the example of a soldier killed in Afghanistan or Iraq, with mothers of other servicemen and women acknowledging "I lost my child too," or strangers writing "thank you for your service." The rise of online memorialization has given families a greater deal of control over how their loved ones are publicly remembered. Some elderly are even now pre-writing their own obituaries, confirming my fear that personal branding continues even after death.

"Everybody deserves an obit, but not many people get them."

The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times are among the few national papers with remaining obit desks. The New York Times publishes approximately 1,200 obits a year with a full time staff of four to six writers, depending on how you count. "Should we print fewer, longer pieces and not every jazz sideman, or character actor, or ball player that played in the World Series?" Bruce Weber, a Times "obituarist" (his phrase) asks. "On the other hand, when you start attacking the lesser known ones, there's usually an interesting little story in there. Everybody deserves an obit, but not many people get them."

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While these forms of personal memorialization play a useful role in the communal grieving process, journalists note that they've contributed to a mental muddling of two discrete forms: memorials and news obituaries. "One of the constant battles we have to fight as obituary writers is to make sure our sources appreciate the difference between eulogy and obituary," says Margalit Fox, perhaps the New York Times' most prolific obituary writer. For instance, Fox says, small town papers often accept eulogies directly from funeral parlors, where they're sold as part of a package. "It would be a cold day in hell before I did that. We are reporting the news and we have to have complete fealty to the truth, just as reporters in any other section of the paper do. Obituaries are instances of journalistic biography and, just as the writer of a book-length biography has to show the subject once and for all, so do we. Family members, needless to say, might not like that."

Weber agrees that the piece in the Bangor Daily News is not a traditional obituary, but is instead a eulogy or a testament to a loved one (this form can also be called a memorial advertisement). "You can write about the recently dead a million different ways," he says. "We do it fundamentally impersonally, as a source of information." The process of obit writing at larger papers is a "particularly complicated fact-gathering enterprise," Weber says; sources are subjective and contradict each other, prior news reports can be riddled with errors, and writers undertake crash courses in different disciplines on a weekly basis, depending on whether they're writing about a quantum theorist or a Head of State.

Fox is pretty blunt about the main goal of obit writing: "not to fuck anything up."

Though national papers like the New York Times are still able to maintain a few dedicated obituary writers, dwindling resources have forced local papers to monetize memorial space that used to be free. Telling nuanced stories, it turns out, is expensive. Todd McLoud, the Bangor Daily News' client advocate manager, explains that memorials in local papers were largely run free of charge 20 years ago, though papers gave the families only a small paragraph to express themselves. To place obituaries in the Bangor Daily News now, families pay by the line, starting at 60 dollars for eight lines. To that end, McLoud says, "it's our opinion that if a family member is going to purchase an obituary they should be able to say what they want to say, within reason." The only editing on the paper's side is for slander, profanity, or spelling errors. Ninety percent of their memorials, he estimates, come directly from funeral homes. He anticipated Singer's memorial would draw a public reaction, though he didn't expect it to be so overwhelmingly positive.

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Heroin is common in Bangor-Brewer—the biggest population center in the northern part of the state—as well as nearby Washington and Hancock counties; widespread heroin deaths would have been "unheard of 10 or 15 years ago," McLoud says. And yet Maine Governor Paul LePage has been pushing a drug-enforcement strategy that has decimated addicts' options for state-supported treatment. In the first six months of 2015, an estimated 37 Mainers died from heroin overdoses; in all of 2011, the drug killed seven. Last month, there were 14 heroin and opiate overdoses in a 24-hour period in Portland, Maine, two of which were fatal. While the rates of heroin deaths are climbing rapidly in Maine, this cause of death is not always named clearly in family memorials, for both emotional and practical reasons.

"You can't capture it in 900 words, but at least people got a better idea."

In Bangor, people tend to learn about difficult deaths—most commonly, snowmobile and motorcycle accidents—through news notices, even if the family obscures the cause of death in the obituary. But with heroin deaths, the toxicology results may take months to come back, so news reports and memorials are purposefully vague, out of careful necessity. Singer waited nearly eight months after his ex-wife's death to publish this piece; it took two months to get the autopsy results, and he delayed until close to her birthday. It was important for Singer to place her death in the context of Maine's heroin epidemic, writing that "she was a victim of herself, of LePage's politics, of our society's continuing ignorance and indifference to mental illness, and of our society's asinine approach to drug addiction."

The American obituary convention has long been to "honor the dead" by obscuring the sharper realities of the lives they lived. The narrative runs something like: birth, triumph, total renown, universal adoration, spouse and kids, death surrounded by loved ones. Sheran Singer's life complicated this funeral home-produced form narrative, Singer tells me. "I didn't want to do some bullshit obituary, and what would I say? If you did a standard set obituary, she wouldn't really have one," he says. "There was no funeral service; her ashes were spread out in various interesting places; she had no children. People who knew her knew she was no saint. She had some remarkable qualities, but woven into all that were psychological and drug problems that were pretty extreme."

Heroin death disclosure is just the latest in a list of traditionally private deaths that are beginning to be discussed publicly. "Think back to HIV/AIDs," Hume says. "There was a time when using the word cancer was taboo." Fox, the New York Times writer, agrees that the cause of death is less shrouded than it was in times past. "When I was growing up, newspapers were very Victorian when it came to describing death. If you saw 'short illness,' it meant heart attack and 'long illness' meant cancer," she says. "A southern colleague of mine said 'died at home' meant the person committed suicide. It seems that everyone in a certain generation was born with the knowledge of how to read that code wired into them."

Nowadays, the paper is much more straightforward—still, Fox notes, some families actively try to suppress the cause of death. "In the end, sometimes all we can say is, 'family confirmed the death, declined to name the cause,'" Fox says. (The New York Times made family confirmation mandatory years ago, after running an obituary for a Russian ballerina who was, in fact, still living, or, as Fox puts it, "pre-dead.")

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What might be the consequences of placing "unseemly deaths" of marginal people in a larger socio-political framework? Singer hoped that his memorialization could open up a space for conversation, and space for other kinds of lives. Though he and Sheran Singer were married briefly eight years ago, they stayed in touch, and he watched her downward spiral over her final years. "It didn't seem right for there to be absolutely no public tribute to or recognition of her," Singer says.

At Governor LePage's closed-door heroin epidemic summit at the end of August, Singer says they invited people of repute. "Cops, DEA, treatment professionals," he says, "but they didn't have people like Coleen come. They didn't listen to them. They would have felt uncomfortable talking to them." LePage left the summit without taking questions. Humanizing the heroin epidemic, particularly through those who have been marginalized by destitution, homelessness, and arrests, grounds an abstract subject in lived experience. The consequences of candor could be renewed attention, or even policy change. And yet, the reasons many families choose not to disclose the circumstances of drug deaths are entirely comprehensible: a sense of privacy, or pride, or simply pain.

Would Sheran Singer have been comfortable with the attention her story is receiving now? "I think she would have been pretty fascinated and happy that she was on the front page of newspapers in Maine being remembered in a positive way," Singer says. "As a last gasp of sorts, people around here should know who she really was. You can't capture it in 900 words, but at least people got a better idea."

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