A few weeks ago, a 68-year-old woman lay dying in Virginia. She said it beat the alternative.
“Faced with the prospect of voting for either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton,” her obituary said, “Mary Anne Noland of Richmond chose, instead, to pass into the eternal love of God.”
The dead have had an unusual amount to say this election cycle. They have forgone flowers for votes. They have looked back on their lives and said their “only regret is NOT being able to vote against Hillary Clinton.” They have called the presumptive Republican presidential nominee “Trumpypoo” who attracts “Angry Not Smart” supporters.
One of the quirkier byproducts of a campaign season defined by vitriol and polarization has been a dramatic increase in the number of people whose last words are being used to campaign.
Between June 2003 and June 2004, according to data provided by obituary clearing house Legacy.com, only five notices mentioned the presidential contest between George W. Bush and John Kerry. Over those same months leading up to the 2008 clash between Barack Obama and John McCain, there were 28. Mitt Romney and Obama elicited 22 mentions four years ago.
This cycle, however, there have been 119.
Is disdain for Trump and Clinton driving the surge? Or is some broader social change afoot? Although it’s difficult to determine the exact cause, obituary experts have their theories.
It’s social media, they say. All the posting and tweeting has acculturated Americans to sharing intimate details – including political predilections – which has now transformed the obituary.
“We’ve noticed in obits in recent years that they’re becoming more personal,” said Katie Falzone, who analyzes Legacy.com’s data. “People are viewing their lives as less private than they would have two decades ago.”
The political obituary, experts say, has become a metaphor. The time when it was considered impolite to openly discuss politics or religion is long gone.
Last spring was a bad few months for Deborah and Ernest Overbey, a season of politics and pain.
They met online 15 years ago, when both were coming off divorces. They talked on the phone for a week, then decided to meet. “It was a true love story,” Deborah Overbey recalled. “He walked up to my door with a dozen roses that day.” Months later, they married in a small ceremony beside the York River near Richmond.
But then came April of last year, when doctors found a cancerous mass in Deborah Overbey’s left lung. The operation to remove it was successful, but as she was recovering at a Richmond hospital, her husband had a stroke. The ensuing tests revealed a tumor in his brain.
“Tumor was removed but he has to undergo radiation and chemo but his cancer will return,” Deborah wrote in a terse Facebook update at the time. “Keep us in your prayers.”
What buoyed the couple in those weeks was television news. Their relationship had always been rooted in shared conservative values, and now Overbey witnessed her husband’s elation at seeing his cultural hero – Donald Trump – on television. In Trump, they both saw a champion. “Donald Trump was his and my joy together,” she said. “We had so much drama in our lives, and he was kind of our shining star out there succeeding.”
No matter how sick Ernest Overbey became over the next six months, he closely monitored every Trump tidbit. So when he died in early January, and Deborah Overbey was trying to figure out what to say in his obituary, she said she thought it was only fair to work in Trump. The obit’s final words: “And please vote for Donald Trump.”
Three days later, as the obituary started gaining attention, Trump tweeted it. “Thank you so much,” Trump said. “Earnest (sic) must have been a great person.”
“I felt like I had done right by Ernie,” Overbey said, describing her emotions when she saw Trump’s tweet. “He suffered. This disease was insidious. My sister said he’s doing backflips in heaven.”
The obituary has rarely had it so good. Its history, according to Australian obit academic Nigel Starck, traces back to the 17th century, where they flourished in British newspapers that covered the deaths of prominent community members. American newspapers soon followed up, then expanded on the practice with printed death notices purchased by those in mourning. This has traditionally been a fairly routine piece, recounting names and dates and funeral details.
The rise of the Internet freed obituaries long locked inside the column inches, providing an avenue for wider consumption. Social media, experts said, then created a multiplying effect: Obituaries flouting convention caught fire online, encouraging more to do the same.
“Ten years ago, the obit was a notification that the person died,” said Steve Parrott, president of Legacy.com. “There wasn’t a concept of, ‘Let me express my feelings and make a statement on the world.’ But now that obits do get shared on Twitter and Facebook, why not use it to get out your voice?”
It was only a matter of time, then, before that included politics, too.
Last year, Jason Brown took an interest in an obituary that encouraged people to vote against Clinton. Then, his dad, living in Pittsburgh, died unexpectedly in January of a heart attack. The absurdity of politics had always tickled his 70-year-old father.
“He found the light in anything that skewered politics,” Brown said of his father, Jeffrey Cohen. So when Brown composed the death notice, he festooned it with jokes and wrote this kicker: “Jeffrey would ask that in lieu of flowers, please do not vote for Donald Trump.”
He asked his mother, Carol Cohen, what she thought. “She said, ‘You know what? ‘Screw it. It would be funny.’ ”
Nine days later, after that obituary had already netted national attention, Carol Cohen died, too. Officially, it was complications from pneumonia. But really, the obituary said, the 69-year-old “died of a broken heart” after her husband’s passing.
Then this happened: “She would like to thank everyone who pledged to honor Jeffrey’s request not to vote for Donald Trump,” her obituary said. “And to Jeffrey’s detractors/Trump supporters – beware, she will likely haunt you until the election.”
Brown never expected that his parents’ obituaries would receive such an intense reaction. Neither did Jim Noland. His wife, Mary Anne, a nonsmoker, died of lung cancer last month. When things got really bad, Noland said, and they had moved her to hospice care, his wife said the only bright spot she had was that she wouldn’t have to vote for anyone “in this crummy election.”
It was classic Mary Anne, Noland said – wit even in a dark moment. “There would be a conversation, and she would come out with a witty comment,” he said of his wife. “And people would smile, and that’s the kind of person she was.” So when she died, he wanted to memorialize that part of her, allowing that comment into the obituary, which took off on social media.
He soon realized that in this age of politics and rapid information, his wife’s death had somehow given life to her memory.
“I wasn’t trying to gain publicity,” Noland said. “I just wanted to express my wife’s wit and personality and faith. Then it took on a life of its own.”
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Terrence McCoy