Executive Director, Delaware Historical Society
It’s been a full year since the Covid pandemic forever altered how we live. We wear masks, use hand sanitizer, and have more things delivered than ever before. History will record those things easily. One important value of Covid Chronicles, however, is the personal accounting of more intangible changes we have experienced, such as how we understand the way we get the news, including tragic news. Twelve months ago, I took this photo outside the St. Peter’s Cathedral school, shortly after it closed to in-person school and church services. When I took the picture, it saddened me and looking at it now to reflect—at long last—on my first submission to the Covid Chronicles–it breaks my heart. In March 2020, as schools closed, and work life changed, it represented fear and sadness that we can’t be together. Now I see it differently, representing a goodbye to what was and to all the people I miss, especially the two dozen people in my life who have passed away over the last year or so.
With good news on vaccinations and lowering rates of infection, we have hope that we’ll return to a new, post-Covid normal sometime soon. But I don’t look forward to finding out if it’s safe to go back to social life. I look forward to reading the news without fear of what sad news I’ll discover. It’s hard coping with how much we miss people when we can’t be with each other. And even harder to cope with the news of death.
I have always read obituaries. Even growing up, when I first learned to read as a child, I read the death notices. My father would scold me for getting to the paper before he had a chance to read it first. I became deft at sneakily putting the paper back together without any wrinkles so he wouldn’t notice. My brothers and sister still kid me about my interest in the obituary pages because, when I was reading the news as a child, they recall that I once asked, “Isn’t it interesting that everyone seems to die in alphabetical order?”
I read the obituaries regularly and especially as I grow older I read them with dread, that perhaps I’ll know someone in today’s paper or, worse: that there’ll be a fresh group of notices of people exactly my age, making clear it might not be long before my own obit finds its way to public notice. I know how jarring it has been to miss a few days while travelling only to be shocked to learn when someone died without my having seen news of it in the papers or on a community Facebook group.
During the pandemic’s early days, I devoured the news, hoping there would actually be something new reported about the virus or ways we could combat the infection rates and flatten the curve. But as Spring turned to Summer 2020 and infections grew, hospitalizations spiked, and more deaths followed, I found following the news led to great pain, because each week I’d be jolted by the news of another person I know had died. Working remotely turned out to be exhausting and going out was not a safe option, so seeking relief from the daily grind led me to check out social media or email only to learn to my shock that someone new had passed away. Mentors, friends, longtime colleagues, neighbors I hadn’t seen in years, even friends from college—all had died and I read about it from afar.
I coped as well as I could but have never seemed to find comfort. Calling friends to share grief only brought more fear amid the uncertainty. “Did you hear this sad news about Jim? Oh, you didn’t get the email? Yeah, he passed away but I guess his widow didn’t have your email at your new job.” What other deaths have I not heard about because I’m not as connected?
Meanwhile, some newspapers extended their obituaries section or added “Lives We’ve Lost” portions to their weekend editions, often doing so in ways to make prominent the growing death toll and the resulting sense of loss in the community. When the number of American deaths reached 100,000, the New York Times listed each name it could—similarly again in January 2021, when the tally surpassed 500,000 and counting. I’m enough of a historian to recognize this approach recalls how the names of soldiers killed in World War I were listed in local newspapers, page upon page, purposely making known the awful costs of the tragic events. These aren’t the only changes I’ve seen in news accounts.
Have you noticed that obituaries appear very differently these days? There are new ways of conveying crucial information about the person’s passing, “Of Covid” or “From natural causes, non-Covid,” to make clear that it was not pandemic related. Then the death notices, which have grown much longer to contain more information, also have fuller descriptions of people’s lives, not simply a list of their relatives. I find more details about their interests, hobbies, and favorite foods. It’s not unusual to see political messages in obituaries, such as loved ones calling out public officials who did not take Covid seriously enough. There’s also a phrase common in most obituaries this year: “We will celebrate the loved one’s life together at a later date when it is safe to gather again as a group.” People are making clear that this is not like the way things used to be, and it’s important to accept this difference because it matters how we recall loved ones, particularly because we can’t crowd into a viewing or be together holding hands by a grave. The obit itself has become a statement of why we celebrate a life.
So when I had to write my own father’s obituary upon his death in May 2020, I took heart and wrote his accordingly. Five years ago I had winced when reading my mother’s more traditional obituary, which only described her as a wife and mother—and not with any of the details of what made her life a full one, such as love of travel, songs, and friendships. I vowed to draft my father’s death notice differently and convey it in a 2020 sort of way (“He died peacefully, non-Covid,” for instance). I described him as a proud Navy veteran, his love for his favorite teams, and how he passed on his business to his sons (even put in a plug for the family shop). I filled out the description of his life in telling detail and included a picture of him in his lucky cap, noting of course that we’d prefer a full celebration of his life when we can join together among a big group family and friends safely. It’s our pandemic way of saying how much we miss the chance to gather, mourn, and share stories and laughter. “We miss you.” Indeed we do. All of you.
Future historians will look back at our year and consider life in terms “pre-Covid” and “after-Covid.” But this is not merely about the chronology, or the dates, or causes of death. In anthropology, liminality (from the Latin word līmen, meaning “a threshold”) is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of a rite of passage, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the rite is completed. We may not be out of the transition period, but when we are, we must look at how 2020 has changed our ritual ways of telling people that someone has passed away.
We changed it because we’re describing with enthusiasm how people have lived! And, like the photo, we express how we really miss them as they have crossed the ultimate threshold. We miss them, each other, and being together to mourn our lost loved ones very much. In the meantime, today we live as fully as we can.