The Rise of the Viral Obituary

September 1, 2015
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Article originally appeared on Slate

The death of an elderly former housewife normally does not make the news beyond her hometown. But when Dorothy McElhaney died on Aug. 8 at age 104, her obituary in the Richmond Times-Dispatch demanded attention. “It pains me to admit it, but apparently, I have passed away,” the 1,300-word message began. After sharing memories of her Missouri childhood of pie suppers and square dances, she ended with some advice. “Do your best, follow your arrow and make something amazing out of your life. Oh, and never stop smiling.” McElhaney’s folksy self-eulogy began spreading online almost as quickly as it appeared. In retrospect it seemed destined to be shared: The details were nostalgia-inducing (a one-room schoolhouse! “railway hobos”!), while the inducement to cherish every moment and the vague, nonreligious reassurance that the deceased is now “dancing” were thoroughly modern.

From a publication’s perspective, there are two kinds of obituaries: reported features of newsworthy subjects written by journalists, and death notices paid for by the family of the deceased. Those in the latter category, often submitted by funeral homes, are less prestigious: In newspapers, the font is usually small, the placement ad hoc. They’re the obits your grandmother scans to see who died in town lately. But today they have spawned a boisterous subgenre: the viral obituary.

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Once upon a time, family-submitted death notices were quick and dry; newspapers typically charge by the line, incentivizing brevity. Even if the notice had a bit of flair, it disappeared with the next day’s trash. Today, death notices are much easier to submit and share thanks to local news websites, tribute pages hosted by funeral homes, and the clearinghouse Legacy.com, which claims 24 million unique visitors a month and maintains a whole section of “Funny Obituaries.” As a consequence, amateur obituarists are having more fun with the staid genre, and receiving more attention for their efforts.

Take Michael “Flathead” Blanchard, who “enjoyed booze, guns, cars and younger women until the day he died.” Then there’s Kevin J. McGroarty, who died in 2014 “after battling a long fight with mediocracy,” and who noted in his apparently self-penned obituary that the church he was baptized in burned to the ground, his elementary school had been torn down, and his middle school converted into an apartment building. Kay N. Woollen “keeled over deader than a mackerel” in July.Aaron Purmot, who died last November at 35, co-wrote with his wife an obituary in which he compared himself to Spider-Man; it said he died “after complications from a radioactive spider bite that led to years of crime-fighting and a years long battle with a nefarious criminal named Cancer, who has plagued our society for far too long.” All of these obits spread quickly around the Web, usually admiringly. (Google “best obituary ever” for a taste of this borderline-condescending vibe.) This is the obituary as inspiration—or at the very least, as pleasant distraction. Whether or not these writers were aiming for online immortality, they’re mixing and matching certain elements that produce it: humor, optimism, authenticity, young love, elderly cantankerousness, and tweet-sized life lessons. As unique as each life surely was, their commemorations online can feel oddly familiar: just another drop in an ocean of feel-good #content.

But not all death notices that catch on with a broader audience are so playful. Take the obituary for Coleen Sheran Singer, posted at the Bangor Daily News in late July. Singer was a 32-year-old Maine drug addict whose bracingly angry obituaryreported “she was a victim of herself, of [Maine Gov. Paul] 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 portrait was both more frank and more loving than those written by journalists could be, feeling both like a tribute and a kind of cleansing that the writer could never allow him or herself while the subject was alive: “While Coleen was capable of great compassion and would give the shirt off her back to one less fortunate, she was also at times a con artist, thief, and liar,” her then-anonymous obituarist wrote.

The newspaper ran a follow-up news story a couple of days later in which the writer, her friend and ex-husband, explained that he wanted people to get a true picture of Singer’s complicated life, including her good qualities. “Not just think of her as some junkie,” he told the paper, “or have her die without even the sort of public tribute that most people receive.” He excoriated Maine’s Republican governor for vetoing an expansion of Medicaid that, he wrote, would have allowed Singer access to a methadone clinic she wanted to enter but couldn’t afford on her own. The personal and the political have mingled in other popular obits, but the tone is usually cheekier. When Elaine Fydrych died on Aug. 13, her obituary noted, “Elaine requests, ‘In lieu of flowers, please do not vote for Hillary Clinton.’ ”

Some of these postmortems are blunt about the kinds of deaths that traditional obituaries often euphemize as “sudden.” Clay William Shephard died at 22 of a drug overdose, his family wrote in May. “He successfully completed drug rehab several times, but the craving that comes from true addiction was more than he could overcome.” Singer’s obit noted she “died in Lewiston in an unsuspecting suburban professional couple’s home of a heroin overdose”—on Christmas morning. Others refuse to gloss over the failures of the deceased. A brief but raw 2013 obituary for Marianne Theresa Johnson-Reddick, written by her son and daughter, claimed, “Everyone she met, adult or child was tortured by her cruelty and exposure to violence, criminal activity, vulgarity, and hatred of the gentle or kind human spirit.”

Even the funny ones sometimes display a frankness unusual in traditional remembrances. In Val Patterson’s warm, punchy self-written 2012 obit, he confessed to stealing a safe in 1971, and to lying about having a Ph.D.: “What happened was that the day I went to pay off my college student loan at [the University of Utah], the girl working there put my receipt into the wrong stack, and two weeks later, a PhD diploma came in the mail. I didn’t even graduate, I only had about 3 years of college credit.”

Stephen Miller, an obit writer at Bloomberg News, says he’s a fan of the genre. “They are a fundamentally different thing than a reported obit, even a funny reported obit,” he wrote in an email. “They aren’t fact-checked. They don’t follow any set formula although they often have formulaic elements. There’s often something like the opposite of structure.” (Miller’s now-defunct quarterly “Good Bye! The Journal of Contemporary Obituaries” is a repository of the kind of “zesty” obit writing he’d like to see more of.)

More important than their alterations to the traditional form is that these viral obituaries can make news of the kinds of deaths, and lives, that never used to make the news. According to Miller, this is a long-running controversy in the obit world: whether only “important” people should be memorialized by reporters, or whether there’s room for “everyday” people in the obits, too. Even when everyday people do make the traditional obit pages, the journalistic standards there—a good thing, overall!—can make the end result feel a little, well, lifeless. Those standards used to bleed into the paid death notices, too. When Miller first worked on newspaper obituaries in the 1980s, he said, the paper would “chop the hell out of” any long or interesting submissions they received. Now those shaggy-dog submissions—angry, bawdy, and anything in between—can run in their full unedited glory online.

Meanwhile, the traditional obituary business is on death’s door. The conventionsare no more. Obit Magazine is defunct. And fewer and fewer publications employ full-time obit writers. But the strange, spunky resurgence of the amateur obit indicates we haven’t stopped wanting to read about other people’s lives and deaths. It’s just that now we get to read them in something closer to their own words.

Or not. As it turned out, 104-year-old Dorothy McElhaney’s daughter had plagiarized large portions of her obituary from a Florida woman who died of pancreatic cancer earlier this year. The earlier obit, too, had blown up online, and eventually was featured on the Today show. McElhaney herself hadn’t even read the obit, let alone written it. “This has turned into quite a firestorm, one that I had not anticipated,” McElhaney’s abashed daughter told the Times-Dispatch in a follow-up story. Her mother had no comment.

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