As the COVID death toll grows, so do the obituary pages

As of December 1, the coronavirus pandemic has killed 1.47 million people worldwide and devastated the global economy. The fallout has generally wreaked havoc throughout the news industry worldwide: employees have fallen sick, advertisers and subscribers have retrenched, and cutbacks and newsroom layoffs have become commonplace.

That same grim force, however, has also powered a remote corner of the industry: obituaries. A growth in the number of obituaries has brought new readers, new advertisers, a new sense of purpose to newsrooms, and, in some cases, even a slight increase in circulation.

As the death toll has mounted, newspapers from the United States to Italy to South Africa to Brazil have rolled out new sections and added page after page of obituaries. Writers and editors have been transferred from less active beats, like sports and culture, to writing obits. News websites have added verticals and special websites with names like “Those We’ve Lost,” “The Names We Must Remember,” and “Frontline Workers.” At different moments this spring and summer, print outlets—including the New York Times, Brazil’s O Globo, and Israel’s Yediot Aharonot—listed the names of the dead on their front pages.

The whole enterprise, editors say, is an effort to get away from the political, economic, and data-focused stories about the pandemic and move to the heart of the tragedy: the human loss. As one editor at O Globo, a large-circulation paper based in Rio de Janeiro, put it, “There is no person that likes to be a number.”

Over the course of ten weeks, a team of recent Columbia Journalism School graduates reviewed hundreds of obituaries published by news organizations large and small—from the New York Times and The Guardian to L’Eco di Bergamo in Italy and The Gazette of Colorado Springs—as the pandemic reached peaks in their respective countries. Among their findings:

  • Newspapers in Africa, where the stigma surrounding infectious diseases is especially strong, were the least likely to list the cause of death as the coronavirus. Only 12 percent of reviewed obituaries did. By contrast, almost all of the reviewed obits in South America (96 percent) mentioned covid-19 as the cause of death, as did the overwhelming majority reviewed in North America (83 percent). Obituaries in China (77 percent) and Europe (65 percent) also stressed covid-19 as the cause of death.
  • Most obits were for men. While some of this can be attributed to men dying at somewhat higher rates, obits of men outpaced those numbers. In China, 89 percent of reviewed obituaries were for men, followed by South America (80 percent) and Europe (75 percent). In Africa and North America, roughly 70 percent of the obits were for men. (Of the hundreds of obits analyzed by our team, we found only one that identified its subject as gender-neutral.)
  • Nearly all the obits disclosed the ages of the deceased, except in Africa, where only 10 percent of the obits disclosed age. In those obits surveyed, the ages of the dead ranged from thirteen to one hundred and six.

Here is a breakdown of what our researchers found in select countries:

 

CHINA

In China, where the virus first emerged in December 2019, government-controlled news organizations initially underplayed covid-19’s devastation, while private, semi-independent outlets struggled to cover the full extent of deaths in Wuhan.

The media’s approach changed with the death of Li Wenliang, thirty-four, a physician at Wuhan Central Hospital, who was punished for his public warnings about the virus. News of Li’s death sparked an outpouring of commemorations on social media platforms, defying government censors. Both Caixin and The Paper published long obituaries that included interviews with Li before his death, as well as comments from Li’s colleagues and family members.

Obituaries reviewed since then have largely toed the limits of censorship; reminding readers of the death count was heavily discouraged by officials. More than half of the sixty-two obituaries recorded in five Chinese media organizations between January 24—the day after the initial lockdown in Wuhan—and February 21 were about government officials and prominent public figures, mostly in Wuhan. As the virus continued spreading, obituaries expanded to include doctors, nurses, and, occasionally, everyday people who died from the illness. Their stories especially interested newsroom editors and readers, said reporters from Caixin and The Paper, both semi-independent outlets.

As Wuhan’s situation stabilized by mid-February, covid-19 coverage, including obituaries, became increasingly restricted as authorities dialed up the campaign to laud public servants. In early April, Beijing officially designated fourteen healthcare workers as “national martyrs.” The Communist Party’s Publicity Department had ordered organizations to focus obit coverage on these martyrs, said one journalist with The Paper who did not want to be named.

 

ITALY

As the coronavirus spread to Europe, L’Eco di Bergamo, a local newspaper in the north of Italy, struggled to keep up with the large number of dead. The paper ran ten full pages of obituaries on a single day in mid-March. It also launched a series called “The Words I Would Say to You,” for which family members and friends were encouraged to send notes, poetry, and memories of their loved ones.

According to Daniela Taiocchi, the editor of L’Eco’s obituary section, the paper enlisted reporters from other beats to help with its covid-19 efforts. At the height of the pandemic, the sports, culture, and entertainment pages were replaced by news related to the pandemic, including obituaries. Coverage emphasized the deceased person’s connections to other people—for instance, says Taiocchi, “if someone is a greengrocer, you don’t talk about the quality of their fruit, but about the relationships that they had with their clients.” She saw a lesson in all this for readers. “This fact should be a warning to us who continue to live.”

The obituaries also served a public health function not necessarily characteristic of traditional obituaries. Suddenly, Taiocchi says, it “became essential to know if a person died in their own home, in which country they lived, if they were in nursing homes or if they were in a hospital, and which hospital.” Providing details on the place of death “helped us have a better idea of the risks that each of us was running,” she says.

Digital and print subscriptions at L’Eco increased during the pandemic. The number of digital subscribers alone more than quadrupled, to thirteen thousand, Taiocchi says.

 

SPAIN

In Spain, coronavirus cases peaked in late May. La Vanguardia, the national newspaper based in Barcelona, created a limited-run section called “Los Nombres Que Debemos Recordar,” or “The Names We Must Remember.” It ran for a little over a week and featured obits of those who had died of covid-19 during the preceding months.

As at news outlets in other European cities, obituaries at La Vanguardia are often written by freelance writers or family and friends of the deceased. But during the pandemic, two staff members from the paper’s investigative unit oversaw the new section. One of them, Jaume Aroca, says the paper was committed to representing the most diverse and representative sample of the people who died of the virus in Spain. According to Aroca, most of the obits were of older people, but younger victims of the pandemic were also covered. The paper relied on correspondents all around Spain, so as not to limit its focus to Barcelona. “The idea was to represent in a few all the victims of the pandemic,” he writes.

In some ways, Aroca says, the paper was a substitute for funerals that could not be held for fear they would become super-spreader events. “To the pain of losing a loved one was added the pain of not being able to say goodbye,” he says. “This is why our mission was to highlight these lives.”

 

THE UNITED STATES

Many small American papers relied on Legacy.com, an obit website that largely depends on tributes written by friends and family members, to document the devastation. Meanwhile, large American newspapers like the New York Times and the Seattle Times added staff and resources to beef up their obit coverage once the scale of the pandemic became clear.

The New York Times set up a special vertical called “Those We’ve Lost.” The Seattle paper called its section “Lives Remembered.” Both publications modeled their covid-19 efforts after previous projects meant to capture lives lost in disasters. For the New York Times, the coronavirus coverage was modeled after “Portraits of Grief,” which chronicled the dead after the terror attacks of 9/11. The Seattle Times based its coverage on a feature that chronicled the lives of the forty-three people killed in a devastating mudslide in 2015. Both papers have attempted to cover everyday people who died because of the pandemic, rather than the celebrities or prominent civil servants who usually populate the obit pages.

“ ‘Lives Remembered’ really was born out of conversations about how we can humanize the pandemic,” Gina Cole, the Seattle Times’ assistant metro editor, says. “As we try to help people understand all of the data and the numbers and the epidemiological terms that come along with covering something like this, we didn’t want the human toll to get lost.”

The paper set out to cover deaths that were representative of the lives lost in Seattle and the greater metro area. At first, they relied on readers to alert them of deaths and then chose ones to further report on. Over time, to better reflect the diversity of those lives lost, the staff scoured a list of deaths from the coroner’s office, GoFundMe pages raising money for hospital or funeral costs, and other local papers.

The coverage in both the Seattle Times and the New York Times stretched beyond the typical obituary form. The New York Times’ “Those We’ve Lost” vertical now lists hundreds of obits of coronavirus victims from around the world. Two days per week, the physical paper also devotes a page to these special obits.

As a second wave of the virus sweeps the country and record numbers of deaths are reported daily, obits will continue to proliferate. Obituaries have been a staple of newspapers since their earliest days. Online journalism has not changed that. Obituaries are essential. As terrible as the news they convey is, people want—and need—to know.

Research provided by Albert Han, Zoe Chevalier, Zoe Chiriseri, Ricardo da Silva, and Madeline Simpson. Financial support for the project was provided by the Columbia Journalism School and the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma.

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Ari L. Goldman is a professor at the Columbia Journalism School.

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