As U.S. deaths approach 300,000, obituaries force reckoning with COVID

By Julie Bosman

When Kim Miller sat down in her Illinois house to compose her husband’s obituary, she could not hold back.

Not about the coronavirus that had left Scott, her fit, healthy spouse who loved to swim, golf and putter in the garden, gasping for breath and unable to move his limbs as he stood at the kitchen counter. Not about what had killed him swiftly and cruelly in only a few days.

“This disease is real, it is serious and it is deadly,” she wrote in his obituary. “Wear the mask, socially distance, if not for yourself then for others who may lose a loved one to the disease.”

“I couldn’t just write that he lived and died and had two children,” said Kim Miller, a retired college professor, who wept as she spoke of her husband of 25 years. “I wanted people to read this and really read this.”

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 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 crafting 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.

“In the beginning, families wanted to keep COVID more private,” said Charles S. Childs Jr., an owner of A.A. Rayner & Sons Funeral Home in Chicago, where he has seen a surge of virus deaths in the last month. “That has changed. Now they want to make it public.”

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.

After Shirley Flores, a postmaster and mother of three, died in Las Cruces, New Mexico, her family noted in her obituary: “She died a very painful lonely death because we weren’t allowed in to hold her hand and sit with her. Please take COVID-19 seriously, protect yourself and those you love.”

Judy Fuller, 76, of Blue Grass, Iowa, died from the coronavirus in September, after she and her husband, Ron, fell ill at the same time. Judy Fuller was known for her bright smile, her love of fashion and the outdoors, and her devotion to her job handling staffing at the hospital, where she worked for nearly four decades.

“In lieu of flowers or donations, we just ask to take the COVID-19 virus seriously and please spend time with your loved ones,” her family wrote. “Life is short, enjoy time with your family while you can.”

Ron Fuller, who is currently nursing his son back to health after he contracted the coronavirus, said that he had wanted to send a quiet but urgent message in the obituary.

In the weeks since his wife died, he has shopped at the small supermarket in town and seen customers not wearing masks. Most of the people who work there don’t wear masks either.

“We put that in there because it is serious, and people need to understand it’s a serious disease,” Fuller said. “A few people I’ve talked to, they called and they said they appreciated what they saw in the paper. And they agreed with what was in the paper.”

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.

That was how Kori Lusignan, a consultant in Lake Mary, Florida, saw her role in writing the obituary of her father, Roger Andreoli, who died of the virus two days after Thanksgiving.

He was funny and vibrant, a special-education teacher, skilled carpenter and enthusiastic traveler who split his time between Wisconsin and Florida.

Lusignan crafted the obituary to honor the person he was, and capture his humor and sweetness, as she would have done in a eulogy delivered at church. “Roger’s exuberance for life was infectious,” she wrote. “It would be impossible to list all of the organizations in which he participated; he jumped into living with both feet.”

And she wanted to cleanly knock down misconceptions of who can die from the virus.

Andreoli was 78 years old, but he was perfectly healthy and could have lived decades longer, she said, as many people in their family have. He died “peacefully and prematurely after his battle with COVID-19,” she wrote in the obituary, adding: “Roger’s family will not be holding services at this time in order to spare other families the trauma they experienced with COVID-19.”

“We wanted people to know, this is why he died,” Lusignan said. “And we are not having a service because we are going through trauma. We didn’t want people to experience what we did.”

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