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Obituary Writer Aims To Show How Coronavirus Impacts 'All People In Our Society'

The April 19 edition of <em>The Boston Globe</em> had 16 pages of obituaries.
Brian Snyder
The April 19 edition of The Boston Globe had 16 pages of obituaries.

As the number of COVID-19 deaths continues its upward march, many of the rituals designed to help people navigate the lossof a loved one aren't possible.

One rite of grief that is still happening is the obituary. But with the sheer number of deaths, obituary writers can't write one for every victim of the coronavirus, says Maureen O'Donnell, who's been an obituary writer for the Chicago Sun-Times for more than a decade.

"So, we're doing what I call triage," O'Donnell tells All Things Considered. "We study the death notices, the requests for obituaries. We do the best we can telling a variety of stories — about people from every ethnicity, every profession, every age level — to show the story of how this is impacting all people in our society."

Here are excerpts from the interview.

Have you heard back from anyone, family member or friend, who you wrote an obituary for their loved ones during this pandemic, and they wanted to get back to you and say "thank you"?

There was a woman I wrote about named Emilia Pontarelli, who immigrated to the U.S. from Italy, and she came to Chicago and moved to the Northwest Side. She worked at Tony's Italian Deli, which was the family business. And Emilia Pontarelli would often comment as people came through the cash register, where she was stationed, she'd look at what you were buying and say, "Ah, Mama's cooking for you tonight."

She was very feisty. This was a woman who — when she was 12 or 14 years old — the Nazis came to her town in Italy, and her relatives told me her father literally had to pull her back. Nothing stopped her. Even when she was into her 80s, she would challenge relatives to arm wrestle.

A lot of people might have thought writing obituaries sounds depressing. You're writing about death. But you're writing about life. I hear such joy in your voice, in the details that you've learned and you want to share about these people's lives.

I'm the former president of the Society of Professional Obituary Writers and a more fun, more empathetic group you'll never find. We get together and we can talk for days.

From my perspective, when I was a reporter covering crimes where, for example, young children had been killed, maybe a case of child abuse, or maybe a bullet intended for someone else that killed an innocent child, that to me is very hard.

But when you're writing about an octogenarian who's had a chance to have a career and get married, and achieve their goal of going to Antarctica, and seeing their great-grandchildren grow up, and having the best pumpkin pie recipe for 40 miles — all those things temper the sadness of the end of a life. And I think a good obituary brings them back to life again.

Listen to the full interview at the audio link above.

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Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.