As the death toll from the opioid crisis continues to rise, communities have found an unexpected source for understanding its impact, death notices. These modern-day obituaries published occasionally in community papers but more often online on such sites as Legacy.com, have together chronicled the crisis’s individual human toll.
Journalist Anna Clark recently wrote about the opioid-related death notices for the Columbia Journalism Review.
ANNA CLARK: One thing that I’ve been noticing is how many of these obituaries are very candid, not only that the cause of death was an overdose but often giving a lot of details about how long this person struggled.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, there was a time when obituaries or death notices would go to rather great lengths to avoid talking about causes of death or circumstances that would be deemed shameful. These were things that were hushed up. You know, I'm not speaking only of suicide, for example, or HIV-AIDS, but back in the day even cancer.
ANNA CLARK: It’s interesting to trace how shame around particular illnesses, which is almost exactly correlated with misunderstanding about particular illnesses, has made families feel like this is something that they needed to hush up, something that they didn't want the neighbors to know, something that when they wrote the last story of this person's life felt like a stain or a distraction. But yeah, even cancer. For a long time, people thought it was something contagious. It affected body parts that were thought to be unseemly.
BOB GARFIELD: So what changed?
ANNA CLARK: The story of how AIDS was told in obituaries was really important. It caused a lot of internal discussions among mainstream newspapers about how important it was to mention the cause of death at all because it was not just outing the fact that they had AIDS but often it was outing that they were gay. And both of these things had a lot of stigma around them. And if the family felt uncomfortable with that, a lot of papers weren't sure if that was something that they should do.
The folks who were at the forefront of shifting this was gay newspapers, and particularly the Bay Area Register, which for a very long time was publishing obituaries of people who died of AIDS with real persistence and compassion and, in some cases, they were the only notice at all that these people had died. Sometimes they were disowned from their families; there was no mention of their passing anywhere else in the world.
In 1998, I believe, when, for the first time since the AIDS crisis hit the San Francisco area, no one submitted an obituary of somebody who died of AIDS. It was such a big deal that they published both a news story and an editorial about that, that it ended up going on the wire, being written about all over the country because it seemed like a metric that perhaps just maybe there was some light at the end of the tunnel with this terrible, terrible crisis.
BOB GARFIELD: Being candid became kind of a political statement because silence equals death. It was a direct act of defiance against stigmatization, shame, and so on.
ANNA CLARK: Right. Early on, I mean, there was literally people working for the White House who described HIV and AIDS as a just punishment for people who were gay or used intravenous drugs. I mean, there was a powerful pushback against that, affirming that there was nothing that these people needed to be ashamed of. And it was simultaneously documenting the human cost of this crisis in a way that nobody else was, in a way that was very, very necessary, if we were going to change the attitudes and policy necessary to find solutions.
BOB GARFIELD: You've written that the accumulation of these candid obituaries influenced the collective memory. How so?
ANNA CLARK: They were a way of showing what we as a society value and also what we abhor, by both what's included and what’s left out. When we tell the story of people's lives, it's inherently selective. Taken as a whole, it’s a really powerful document of how we change and don't change over time.
And I think what’s happening now with these opioid obituaries, especially in communities where there is no local reporting, these obituaries carry even more weight in telling the truth about the utter devastation that is playing out right now, to the extent of 59,000 people dying a year of this.
BOB GARFIELD: Your piece in Columbia Journalism Review begins with a passage from the obituary of a young man named Austin Jonatzke from Stevensville, Michigan. Could you read a bit of that for me, please?
ANNA CLARK: Sure. I’ll just start from the beginning.
“Austin James Jonatzke, 24, of Stevensville died unexpectedly on July 2nd 2017, when he lost his courageous battle to addiction. Austin was born May13, 1993 and grew up in St. Joseph, where he attended Lakeshore Public Schools. He was employed at Walsworth Printing. Austin enjoyed fishing, camping, boating, listening to music and the Dallas Cowboys. Most of all, he enjoyed spending time with his family, especially his nephew Johnathan and nieces Joan and Paige. Austin had a kind heart, with an amazing personality and was able to bring laughter to all those he met.
During the last seven years of Austin’s life, he struggled and fought to overcome his substance abuse disorder. Austin was blessed to have the love and support of his family and many caring individuals to stand and fight with him during his battle. Austin attended Families Against Narcotics where he shared his personal battle with opioids, in hopes to inform the community on the dangers of drug addiction and to offer support, acceptance and encouragement to all who have been affected by this terrible disease.” I can go on, if you’d like.
BOB GARFIELD: No. [PAUSE] Those words are having a surprising effect on me, as I listen to them. What effect do you imagine they have in the larger community and in the larger narrative of opioid abuse?
ANNA CLARK: Sure. Well, I should, first of all, make clear that I’m kind of biased here. He’s part of my extended family. He’s my brother’s brother-in-law, and this is where I grew up, in this community in southwest Michigan. First of all, it really does humanize and complicate this crisis for people who might still carry a lot of stereotypes about it. I hope it does so to the point where it moves people to reach out for help if they need it, to not feel shame about asking for help for something like this or admitting that they don’t know what to do to help a family member who’s struggling with addiction. It’s also alerting people to resources, you know, Families Against Narcotics, which I mentioned here. Somebody who’s reading this might notice that and think, oh, maybe that’s a place I can reach out to if I need help.
At the same time, it is helping people to see that this kind of crisis isn’t just something happening far away. It's not something that's distant. It's not something that only happens to people who, quote, unquote, “chose it.” It doesn't just affect people who grew up in an unloving family situation.
BOB GARFIELD: It’s that nice kid who works down at the printing shop.
ANNA CLARK: Yeah, it’s affecting everybody. Nobody is safe, until we come up with solutions.
BOB GARFIELD: Anna, thank you.
ANNA CLARK: Oh, thank you so much.
BOB GARFIELD: Anna Clark is a Detroit-based journalist. She wrote about opioid death notices for the Columbia Journalism Review.