Continuing Community: Obituaries Traditional & Digital as Third Spaces

In taking a week of vacation last month, I was able to read a book for pleasure for the first time in ages. I chose to make the most of it, and finally tackled the 650-plus behemoth And the Band Played On. I’d wanted to read Randy Shilts’ impressively researched, fascinatingly plotted non-fiction account of the early years of the AIDS epidemic for years, and in a week of being away from children and academic books saw my chance. (Might not sound like your idea of a beach read, but I can’t recommend the book enough.) ATBPO cover Among the work’s reconstruction of the early-1980s’ fear and misunderstanding of what came to be called AIDS, and greater social stigma around homosexuality, Shilts mentioned how in the new days of the disease those who were in the know could decode deaths due to the disease by descriptors in obituaries—both what was said (single man under 40, urban dweller, leaves parents among his mourners) and what wasn’t (an unnamed, “prolonged” syndrome as cause). “Concealing an AIDS diagnosis in a death notice was nothing unusual in these times…One had to read the obituaries closely to understand this, to look for the vague long illness or the odd reference to a pneumonia or skin cancer striking down someone in, say, their mid-thirties. People, especially the plutocracy, didn’t die of some homosexual disease, according to the death notices; they just wasted away after a ‘long illness,’ like Camille” (178). This sent me down a rabbit hole of looking up obituaries of family friends I remember passing away when I was a child, as a number of people in my parents’ South Florida social circles disappeared. Thanks to internet archives, a little sleuthing turned up some of Shilts’ markers for coded remembrances among the names I recalled. This led me to combining that searching with thoughts on third spaces, considering the obituary section as a place of vital community news. It didn’t necessarily always have to be as dramatic as the tragic rising numbers during the AIDS crisis, when the toll of a plague could be counted in the rise in deaths of young men, but could serve more mundanely yet still crucially as the steady repository of a community’s losses and local values. My first job in journalism was for the (now-defunct) Lake Norman Times, a weekly publication in North Carolina that prided itself on being the local paper of record for the towns surrounding Lake Norman. To serve that role, obituaries (and wedding announcements, birth notices, and other life events of area citizens) ran free of charge. One of my jobs as a junior staff writer was to, during slow times in the newsroom, type up notices faxed from area funeral homes (in 2004, that local industry still hadn’t taken to e-mail). By doing so, I was clued into what the popular churches were (with people of a certain generation, at least), where kin of those born and raised in the area had scattered, and—my favorite—when folks got creative with their memorials, what longstanding favorite watering holes were. The best ever was the guy who wanted everyone to gather in remembrance at Big Daddy’s, just off the ramp at exit 36. Yes, directions were provided in the obit. (That last bit reminds me of the new reality shows about pimped-out funerals, but that’s a topic for another blog post.) imgres Between the tragedy of coded AIDS obituaries and the seeming mundaneness of the weekly record in a small-town paper, obituary columns have served as a third space for the gathering of the dead and the living in a community as long as print publications have dedicated space to local losses. The recently deceased are gathered within a few pages, for the living to learn about and learn from. Nowadays, published online, that space can exist indefinitely as a record of the time and area. They preserve the tenor of a community as it was at a certain moment, for future generations to revisit. Also, contemporary digital versions of obituaries provide a place to more immediately and interactively gather in a third space of remembrance, as online memorials enable us to come together in honoring people just after they pass (sometimes continuing for many years after the death) in online comments on newspaper sites or Facebook pages. Hume and Bressers, in a 2009 study of online obituaries, examined how new technologies “provide a forum, and potentially large audiences, for mourners who send messages to the dead, express emotion, and tell stories” (255). To provide yet another tie to my own experiences, my publisher from the Lake Norman Times died suddenly a few years ago. Friends flooded his Facebook wall in the wake of his death, and do so every year on his birthday, sharing memories, using that third space as a site for communicating about and with Scott. Hume and Bressers note that this ability to interact is “a departure from traditional obituary content” that provides more support for the bereaved (255). This form of a third space, for those the deceased leaves behind, is valuable to building and maintaining community in a time of mourning. My recent experience with researching 30-year-old obituaries, however, as well as recalling the importance of those at the traditional community newspaper, leads me to believe that obituaries have provided third spaces for localities and their members since long before memorials began appearing on Facebook.

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