Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Viral obituaries

Slate on "viral obituaries":

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. . . . 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. . . .

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 obituary reported “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.”