Longer, stronger obits amid COVID-19 tell families' 'love story'

Obituaries are becoming longer, stronger and more heartfelt as families seek ways of sharing loved ones' stories outside of wakes and funerals with pandemic restrictions. "They are looking for an outlet to tell the life story," says one funeral director.

Pandemic restrictions mean smaller wakes and funerals, but obits are filling the gap

Grief, mourning, and funeral practices have changed amid COVID-19 restrictions. So have obituaries. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC)

Richard Haché died suddenly on Feb. 27, 2021, at age 57.

His obituary was filled with details: That he liked '80s rock and single-malt scotch. And he met his wife, Susan Hutton, at a golf course, and would go on to inscribe on her wedding band his commitment to his two new stepchildren.

The obit for Haché, who was a live audio technician in Ottawa, spoke of his heart surgeries, his love of the cottage they'd built, the far-flung trips he'd taken the family on, even the ones they'd planned to take after the pandemic.

Haché serves as an example of how obituaries have taken on added meaning during COVID-19. Since the year-long pandemic has forced restrictions to gatherings, fewer mourners have been able to hear eulogies, let alone swap stories of the deceased over sandwiches and tea.

Susan Hutton and her husband, Richard Haché, shown at Christmas 2020. Hutton added all the personal touches to his obituary: 'I wanted people to know what he meant to me.' (Andrew Burney)

Hutton wrote her husband's obituary, adding all the personal touches to what was, at first, a straightforward death notice prepared by the funeral home. 

"All it had was facts. And that's it," says Hutton. "I was quite shocked. I feel like it's an important public testament to who that person was."

Under tremendous time pressure and paralyzing grief, Hutton was able to compose Haché's obituary. In some ways, it's her first written tribute to him.

"I never had to write a love letter. We were always together," she says. "I wanted people to know what he meant to me. I'd like to think that if he's looking down, he liked it."

Scott Miller, who has worked in the funeral business for more than 30 years, has noticed more details are being included in obituaries. (Supplied by Scott Miller)

Scott Miller has noticed families wanting to include more details in obituaries. The general manager of Hulse Playfair and McGarry has worked as a funeral director for 32 years. 

"They are looking for an outlet to tell the life story. They can't do it for the masses with their bums in the seats," says Miller. "They've started saying how much they enjoyed the cottage or cribbage."

Rev. Anthony Bailey of Parkdale United Church in Ottawa says families are 'creating a more fulsome description of the person's life,' which would normally happen in a eulogy. (Amanda Pfeffer/CBC)

Rev. Anthony Bailey of Parkdale United Church says: "They're creating a more fulsome description of the person's life, because normally that is what you would hear ... in the eulogy."

Bailey has noticed family members collaborating on a more complete obit.

"A tremendous capacity emerges in the family circle when this happens. I'm finding there's a little bit more deliberateness: 'How can we, in a lyrical way, in a literary way, portray this life?'"

Until it's safe to grieve together, en masse, obituaries are filling at least some of the storytelling gap.

Bruno Carchidi of Tubman Funeral Homes encourages people 'to think about what I call their [family member's] love story' when writing an obit. (Submitted by Bruno Carchidi)

"We see some that are much longer. Families are sharing the eulogy through the obituary," says Bruno Carchidi, president of Tubman Funeral Homes in Ottawa, who has 34 years of experience.

"I always encourage people to think about what I call their [family member's] love story," adds Carchidi. 

"You're allowing people to join you in your grief. So writing the story …  can be healing. There's going to be some tears. There's going to be some smiles as they think of that journey.

"It's a good, healthy process for the person writing it and for those reading it."

Longer, more lively obituaries are a good thing, says Rev. Cheryle Hanna of Ottawa's Fourth Avenue Baptist Church. For her, they mark a return to a time when obituaries were read out aloud.

"They would be these elaborate, sometimes two-page things that were read during the funeral service," says Hanna. "The history of reading them, particularly in the Black church, was that not everyone could read.

Rev. Cheryle Hanna of Fourth Avenue Baptist Church in Ottawa welcomes the return of more detailed obits. (Submitted by Rev. Cheryle Hanna)

"It was an oral history. What modern people call a eulogy was actually the reading of the obituary," says Hanna.

Hanna believes people started shortening published obituaries to save on cost.

"There is this sense that, well, they're going to charge me to put it in the paper. I'm going to make it as short and as brief as possible.

Going back over obituaries is a way of putting a history together of a people.- Rev. Cheryle Hanna

"What about people … who can't afford to pay per word? They would not be given that privilege of being able to tell this story in the obit."

Still, Hanna welcomes the return of more detailed obituaries.

"Going back over obituaries is a way of putting a history together of a people."

Mary Mussell wrote an obituary for her husband, Ed Weick, who died Jan. 1, 2021, at age 88. In addition to describing his work with Indigenous organizations and his fascination with Canada's North, Mussell included his love of choir and performing with the Sunset Singers.

"I wanted to put some details in about him that would be interesting to people … who didn't really know him that well," says Mussell. "Kind of like a eulogy that might have been given if we'd had the funeral." 

Because of COVID-19, Mussell was unable to gather friends and family to help mourn.

"I come from a small town. A wake was a big event, even more than the funeral, because it was the time when people gathered together.

"So that was another reason I wanted to put some details in [the obituary] because we wouldn't have that opportunity to share," says Mussell.

Weick's obituary, including a picture, appeared in the paper for one day and cost $500, according to Mussell. On the other hand, the cost of a funeral luncheon has been deferred. 

"You're putting into the obit the money that you would have put into a reception," says Mussell.

The cost of a more descriptive obituary didn't deter Hutton. But she admits she left out an important detail about her husband, Haché. 

"The thing I forgot to say, which has bothered me terribly, is that he was a huge Ottawa Senators fan. But I mentioned it in the eulogy."

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