Remembering Online: Reinscribing Normative Autobiographies in the Pandemic Era Digital Obituary
By Yash Rakesh Gupta
When Leslie Leake (75), Enekee Leake (45), and John Leake Jr. (44) passed away due to the Coronavirus, their collective obituary soon became a part of CNN’s We Remember, a compilation of 105 obituaries dedicated to those who succumbed to death during the pandemic. The digital obituary was posted by Shanta Leake-Cherry (daughter and sibling), in which she recounted Leslie Leake as “the one that exemplified love,” her Sister Enekee Leake as “the social butterfly”, and her brother John Leake Jr. as “just a joy” (Leake-Cherry). Even though humans have been engaging with the internet as a space of mourning since 1995, the upending of notions of normalcy in the way we process death during the pandemic has re-emphasised the importance of the digital realm in transacting a posthumous identity (Landry & Carroll 347). However, under observation, the online obituary, much like the offline obituary, seems to negotiate its content in relation to normative social scripts. The online has transformed into a reflection of the offline, portraying a vision of formal conventions in the construction of post-mortem remembrance.
As a form of life narrative, obituaries negotiate length, audience, focus, authorship, and expectations. While debates about whether an obituary qualifies as a biography or not still rages, we can approach the subject on Shield’s declaration that “obituaries… carry, like genes packed tight in their separate chromosomes, tiny kernels of narrative” (Shields in McNeill 187). Furthermore, as pieces that reduce the expectations of life into small columns, obituaries provide through the process of selection, a condensed ground of information, specifically, as Taussig (2) suggests, in gauging the events deemed vital in one’s life.
In this context, online pandemic obituary pages have not only created public journalistic cemeteries, but have also given family members the flexibility to project their conceptions of their loved ones. The elasticity of expression is transacted through texts, images, videos, and audio messages, that, much like the newspaper obituaries, are open to all, at least conceptually. Very much like a printed death notice, again, the consumers are actively engaged with the life-narratives of their contemporaries, either a private or public citizen. McNeill notes that through the process of reading, the audience creates a community around the narrative of shared characteristics, experiences, values, philosophies, age, and others (187).
The form of the obituary rests upon the need to represent the deceased as a productive member of the society, especially one ‘worth remembering’ in the public domain (McNeill 188; Smith & Watson, Reading Autobiography, 18). Roniger, in his work on newspaper obituaries, suggests that even when obituaries are personal productions, they are situated in the dynamic of the public, and deeply connected to our notions of collective memory and expectations (152). In a similar sense, the online obituaries represent both the dead and living (Walter et al. 280). Wolfelt, while commenting upon the role of rituals, establishes the importance of death as a means of creating a relational identity, where, as beings that are defined by our roles to others, we are in an active reconstruction of identity during one’s death (“Why rituals help us mourn… and heal”). As could be noted with the Leake family, Leslie Leake as the ‘survived by’ not only engaged in the process of biography creation of the deceased; but also partook in the construction of, what Taussig refers to as, the “narrative self” (3), or the unstable conception of the self – mediated through the collective memory and relations. Indeed, Smith & Watson, in Getting a Life, categorize obituaries as “everyday autobiographies”, sources that participate in the everyday alteration of biographical information in the private, personal, and public spheres (Smith & Watson 3).
As culturally mediated condensations of life narratives, obituaries allow us to evaluate what a group of individuals idealises. As manifestations of collective beliefs, obituaries expose, through the acts of exclusion/inclusion, what a culture deems acceptable. However, it is essential to note that this changes not only with the temporal context but also with the platform. For instance, the internet has proved more inclusive of ‘deviant deaths’ such as suicide, accidents, drug and overdoses, and the ‘deviant dead’, such as individuals belonging to the queer community, the disabled and the social outliers. By placing obituaries in this context of collective expectations, we can further explore the notions of genre in thanatological texts online.
In an environment that lacks any rituals, obituaries transform into the sole public recognition of the deceased. Since the public announcement of death is a traditional requirement for most grieving processes, online obituaries enact a communal behavioural change by announcing the need for an appropriate response. Obituaries, as established, partake in an intimate transaction with communal expectations. This transaction produces a set model of the obituary that can be understood through Lauren Berlant’s conceptions of the genre. For her, a genre is an “aesthetic structure(s) of affective expectation” that presumes information on the Intimate public (Berlant & Prosser 180). The genre and the intimate public exist in a cycle of influence. Similarly, cultural scripts allow certain kinds of obituaries, with individual notices negotiating their belonging to either the newspaper’s last page or on sequestered and labelled pages on the internet (Walter, A new model of grief, 9).
In this sense, one can deem online obituaries as ‘intertextual’ in nature, for certain patterns reoccur. The general script involves name, age, cause of death, occupation, familiar relations, connection to different contexts, and others. Novel within the digital realm is also the presence of photographs for all entries, as opposed to images in newspapers, which are a matter of economic interest and affordability. These images can be seen as the ‘idealised’ version of those being remembered, often in their prime, as healthy individuals free of ailments. This is where the paradox arises, for while the past-oriented images can be taken as a trial at erasing the presence of illness, and its general sequestration in hospital wards, the very presence of the entry on a page dedicated to pandemic deaths suggests otherwise. Taussig (191) calls this a form of ‘re-embodiment’, where the placement of remembrance in the past, helps negotiate the present overwhelming reality of the pandemic. Added to this, is the experimental form of the online obituary, which allows for recorded audio messages, creating an engaged intimacy with the posthumous biography, since the mode of capturing individual memory, audio, becomes a possibility.
The active negotiation of the private and the public occurs specifically since the wider audience of the obituary remains unaware of the intimate personality traits of the deceased. Thus, the obituarists have to take recourse to the known norms of the ‘good life’ and ‘good death’ to create public meaning within the life of the deceased. However, a deceased can claim public mourning, only if their life/death can reinscribe notions of life, death, gender, profession, national contribution, and others, enacting negotiations with hierarchies of power and establishing their worthiness. These expectations, thus, create certain patterns.
For instance, the lives of male-projecting individuals (especially older individuals) can be connected to the role of the ‘brave patriarch’. Rija Khan remembers her father Islam Uddin Khan as “a good leader, a role model—a patriarch of the family” (Khan). In another obituary dedicated to John ‘Jack’ Hennigan, his daughter Karen Hennigan notes: “He survived the Vietnam War, suffering lung damage as a result of Agent Orange, but he was unable to win his fight against COVID-19” (Hennigan). Similarly, there are several other obituaries, like the one conveyed to Walter James “Jimmy” Amoss Junior, that focus on “a businessman and a family man” (Amoss). Indeed, such subjectivities have for a long time been the focus of formal newspaper obituaries, highlighting the professional in the public sphere. Thus, the obituaries dedicated to older men reveal that the most valuable components of the normative patriarch remain in service and economic success. The dominance of professional contributions as the biographical highlight aims at not only assimilating with the biographies of the dead but also of the living. Auto/biographies like Steve Jobs: A Biography or A Promised Land (which focus on the male figure in relation to their profession/service) become the ideological standards for obituaries, specifically since both forms of biographical material aim at similar ends: justified memorialisation of a figure. In other words, obituaries exist in a biographical environment, where in order to stifle the offensiveness of memory, cultural scripts are adopted.
On the other hand, obituaries dedicated to female-presenting individuals place ‘worth’ in realms of emotions, as opposed to men. Narratives of devoted, selfless, and caring mothers, and wives, remain dominant still in both online and offline obituaries. These death notices/obituaries play an integral role as reproducers of social hierarchy, disseminating the characteristics of proper remembrance to the next generation of assumed mothers and wives. Romi Aneja’s obituary published on Time‘s The Lives Lost to Coronavirus, serves as an example of the same. Written by her daughter Arpita Aneja, it reads: “this Mother’s Day, my mom was sedated and on a ventilator … Nine days later she lost her battle to COVID-19… As a wife and a mother, she had endless love for us” (Aneja). Fowler reads the act of situating one’s death in the vicinity of a temporal event as a means of making simultaneous one’s death with the general history (56). Furthermore, the casting of the deceased in social moulds also universalises the obituary, serving an audience that would harbour similar casts for the same roles.
Within these two categories, we see the formation of the ideals of the good life and good death. While good life pertains to the fulfilment of social roles, for example, that of the great patriarch or the caring mother (specifically since the space of online obituary pages heavily rely on the creation of familial and communal grief), good death refers to ‘natural’, non-ambiguous and non-disfiguring death. If deaths are mentioned, the standard evokes images of either peace or a long-drawn, courageous battle, dying “at home with her (their) family” (Aguilera). Subjects of a good death, thus, do not ‘give up’ or are defeated by the illness. The focus on the struggle against death, along with constructions such as beloved, loving, or remembered in tandem with social roles, McNeill suggests, thus sanction certain manners of living, dying and remembering (195). COVID-19 occupies a special and, in some senses, privileged position here, for in mixed memorial pages, such as CNN’s, deaths, if not related to the pandemic, escape mention. This, it can be argued, is because the narratives generated on online obituaries focus on the virus, and since other deaths fail to meet the mould, their mentions take lesser precedence.
Other similar patterns include age-range specific spaces (with official online obituary pages mainly focusing upon the deceased belonging to older age ranges; and personal platforms like Facebook or Instagram memorialising younger individuals), individuals belonging to recognized pay grades and professions, war heroes (or other national associations), and others.
This consistency in content, between the online and the offline obituary, Taussig (203) notes, can be traced back to the re-establishment of print standards in the digital realm. The online exists on the familiarity of the traditional in matters such as grief, especially since, as McNeill suggests, any alteration in the pattern can be viewed as disrespecting the dead. Thus, in aligning with the wider patterns of presentation, the obituarists follow the codes defined by the online pages themselves, for these sites may refuse the publication of submissions deemed ‘inappropriate’ (McNeill 196). The same is also reinstated in several how-to pages that guide the obituarist to follow offline formats concerned with age, professions, and social roles. For example, The Remembrance Process, a website that specialises in conveying end of life information, guides,
We begin with the name, age, and place of residence of the deceased…date and place of marriage, birth name of spouse, education, work, and military service. (“How To Write An Obituary – A Step-by-Step Guide”)
Thus, online obituaries also rely upon the perceived stability of the genre, re-establishing the experiences that are marked worthy. Regardless of the innovative freedom present in the forms of audio messages, images, flexible length, and others, it becomes another platform for staging traditional performances.
While making a claim about the consistency between online and offline obituaries, it is not suggested that there have been no deviations from the norm. For example, pandemic obituaries, though dominantly still majoritarian, have opened spaces for the inclusion of the coloured, immigrant (as was seen with Romi Aneja), queer, disabled, and other non-normative bodies. These bodies play an essential role in deconstructing the genre through mentions constituted as difference. For example, Lorena Borjas’ obituary marks her as “a mother for many in the transgender community” (Carlisle). Borjas’ notice is essential since obituary pages rely heavily upon heteronormative familial adjectives and descriptions to construct one’s biography. In subverting the role of a mother in a non-normative scenario, Borjas not only subverts the notion of the family but also of the bodies that can be allowed in digital mourning spaces. However, at the same time, Borjas necessarily assimilates into the hetereonormative familial condition to negotiate her presence, which is also bolstered by her fame.
The process of selection creates what Smith and Watson have called “legible subjectivities”, or variations of living that are readable through cultural scripts, requiring that the everyday life be made to fit in the mould of accepted biographical obituaries (Getting a Life, 11). The genre also regulates what it considers acceptable pieces. Considering the thousands of COVID-19 related deaths each day, only a hundred or so have made it to these compilation pages.
Certain changes arise from the alteration in the manner print media negotiate with their social contexts. The multi-step process of death finds its reduction in mobile screens for many, as physical condolences have become more and more restrictive rituals (Caswell). This mobile screen then becomes a space for a lot more than relaying of information, including the process of biography creation (of the dead and the living), the process of mourning, and the creation/alteration of webs of relations (Walter et al. 280).
For those who fail to conform to the script, like non-English speaking public, those unable to access the internet, unmarried individuals, individuals without families, criminals, and others, the space of collective auto/biography remains out of bounds. Subjects that do not classify as ‘missed’, ‘beloved’ or ‘adored’ are left without legacies, and do not enter the homogenous space of the online obituary page. Obituaries thus serve to construct institutional history in its assessment of the good dead that fulfilled their roles as good citizens, family members, and providers. In creating the biography of the dead, the living are equally implicated, creating an obituary that is much more alive than the person it is dedicated to.
Photo: Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images.
 By offensiveness, I refer to the totality of memory that engages and often disturbs culturally constructed notions of posthumous remembrance.
 To read more, please access: https://time.com/5814406/coronavirus-obituaries/; https://edition.cnn.com/interactive/2020/health/coronavirus-victims-memories/
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Yash R. Gupta is an undergraduate student from FLAME University. Currently in the last year of his Literary and Cultural Studies Program, he is interested in the study of thanatological discourses, gender studies, critical theory, cultural studies, and other tangential subjects.
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