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

May 26, 2020
Originally published on May 27, 2020 11:46 am

As the number of COVID-19 deaths continues its upward march, many of the rituals designed to help people navigate the loss of 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.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Sometime over the next day or two, COVID-19 will officially have killed 100,000 Americans. It is a grim number, a horrific number. And behind that number are people - people who had loved ones now left behind to grieve. Many of the rituals designed to help us navigate the loss of a loved one are not possible because of the threat of the virus. One rite of grief that is still happening is the obituary. Maureen O'Donnell writes them for the Chicago Sun-Times. She joins me now to talk about what it is like to carry the responsibility of summarizing a life during this time.

Welcome.

MAUREEN O'DONNELL: Thank you for having me, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Before we get to that responsibility and how you feel that, how has this pandemic affected just the number of obituaries you're being called on to write?

O'DONNELL: Well, unfortunately, we can't write one for every victim of the coronavirus, so we're doing what I call triage. We study the death notices, the requests for obituaries. And 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. Recently, one of my colleagues wrote an obituary for a 12-year-old in Illinois who died of the coronavirus.

KELLY: Has there been one for you that was particularly hard to write?

O'DONNELL: All of them can be challenging and rewarding in different ways. Writing John Prine's obituary was sad for me because he was someone who had his roots in Chicago, used to sing at clubs that I frequented, was a postal worker who used to write his song lyrics while he was walking around, delivering mail. He composed them in his head, and those songs in his head became American classics. And writing his obituary made me a little sad because of all the songs I think he had left to write.

KELLY: Have you heard back from anyone - family member, a friend who - you wrote an obituary for their loved ones during this pandemic, and they wanted to get back to you and say, you know, thank you for writing about this life as though it were a life worth remembering and preserving and marking?

O'DONNELL: Yes. 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 Emelia Pontarelli would often comment as people came through the cash register where she was stationed. She's look at what you were buying and say, ah, Mama's cooking for you tonight. And, you know - and 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. You know, nothing stopped her. Even when she was into her 80s, she would challenge relatives to arm wrestle.

KELLY: (Laughter) Till her 80s, she was arm wrestling. It's funny because I think I might have thought - a lot of people might have thought writing obituaries sounds depressing. You're writing about death, but you're writing about life. I mean, I hear such joy in your voice, in the details that you've learned. And you want to share about these people's lives.

O'DONNELL: Well, I'm the former president of the Society of Professional Obituary Writers, and a more fun, more empathetic group you'll never find.

KELLY: Is that right?

O'DONNELL: They're - you know, we get together, and we can talk for days. And 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, you know, 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, you know, those - all those things temper the sadness of the end of a life. And I think a good obituary brings them back to life again.

KELLY: That's beautiful. Maureen O'Donnell, thank you.

O'DONNELL: Thank you so much, Mary Louise.

KELLY: That is Maureen O'Donnell. She writes obituaries for the Chicago Sun-Times. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.