Obit Project Honors Canada’s COVID-19 Victims

Funeral Industry News October 1, 2020
They Were Loved Obituary Project
Diana Ionescu

Diana is a writer and urbanist based in Los Angeles. Her interests include modern grief rituals, innovative disposition methods, and navigating death and mourning in an increasingly secular society.

Obit Project Honors Canada’s COVID-19 Victims

Canadian publication Maclean’s launched a new project that commemorates the more than 9,000 Canadians lost to COVID-19. The obituary project, They Were Loved, aims to honor those who died by capturing “the richness of each life lost” and paying tribute to every individual that dies of COVID-19 with a meaningful obituary.

Into the Foreseeable Future

Maclean’s partnered with Carleton University’s Future of Journalism Initiative and other Canadian journalism schools, whose students will research and write the obituaries. The young journalists will have the opportunity to honor the victims of this historic pandemic and gain experience chronicling a crucial time in Canada’s history.

The obituaries will be published monthly in Maclean’s print edition, with the full list on a page on their website. The public can contact the project to include their loved one. The project also encourages journalism schools and foundations to get involved. Funded by a seed grant from the Giustra Foundation, They Were Loved will last into the foreseeable future as the pandemic continues to simmer across Canada.

Portraits of Grief

After 9/11, the New York Times produced a similar obituary project commemorating the victims of that attack. The Times beautifully profiled the victims in Portraits of Grief, including personal details and poignant anecdotes that attempted to depict the full humanity of the tragedy.

The students working on They Were Loved are reaching out to family, friends, and associates of Canada’s COVID-19 victims to get an intimate snapshot of each person’s life and personality. Some relatives and friends are eager to talk about their loved ones, while others struggle with the painful memories.

For the students, the importance of the project feels both daunting and exciting. How do you glean a lifetime’s worth of passions and endeavors from interviews and capture the vibrancy and diversity of an entire life in a 300-word obituary? How do you do justice to the lives lived, some simply, some extravagantly, all deserving of individual attention?

The First Memorials

The project launched in August. Among the first group of people memorialized by They Were Loved are:

  • Sandra Cairns, a nurse who pioneered a needle exchange program and felt just as comfortable chatting it up with Freddie Mercury as serving the people of East Vancouver.
  • Wayne Thunderchild, a 61-year-old living in Washington state who loved nothing more than finding the perfect gifts for his family and encouraging his children and grandchildren’s athletic pursuits.
  • John Tsai, a personable club owner and manager who had a talent for making people feel seen and a passion for Lacoste polos.

They Were Loved seeks to do justice to each person’s life and legacy and tell the human stories behind the COVID-19 numbers. The budding journalists try to capture the small, intimate details and meaningful stories that epitomize every individual life. “Most people think of an obit as about death,” says Archie McLean, a professor at Alberta’s Mount Royal University and participant in the project. “What I love about obits is that they’re really about life.”