Online obituaries serve an ephemeral society and communities in news deserts

On the TV show Modern Family, three generations of the Dunphy-Pritchett clan lived within blocks of each other. Connie Sheehan’s family is perhaps more representative of a real modern family: their relatives are scattered across two continents.

“We’re everywhere,” Sheehan said. “Family lives in Chicago, Germany, Florida, Seattle, California, I in St. Paul.”

This led to complications when she took over the obituary for her mother, who passed away in May.

Sheehan’s mother, Erika, was born in Germany, where she met Aaron Wright, an African-American soldier stationed in Stuttgart. After marrying in 1957, they returned to his hometown in Mississippi and then moved to Chicago, where they raised their eight children.

“We all wanted to tell everyone about our mom,” Sheehan said. “Since she’s from Chicago, it wouldn’t have made sense to put obituaries everywhere [children] live to let our friends know that she died.”

So Sheehan turned to Epilogg, a free online platform founded in Minnesota. It allows survivors to commemorate loved ones by creating online obituaries that can be shared on social media.

In addition to the traditional information—parents, spouse and descendants, memorial services, memorials—survivors who post on Epilogg can provide a link to a funeral streaming service and set up click-throughs to the charitable donation of their choice. Since there are no space restrictions, they can write extensive life stories and post multiple photos. You can continue to update and add to the digital memorial.

“At the time of death, the family has a tool to publicize the news and get it on their social media feeds,” said Jane Helmke, President of Epilogg. “Later on, when things aren’t in crisis mode, they can come back and edit and add to the story and update the arrangements as they make them.”

Online obituary options are not new. In fact, they’ve been around since the late 1990s. But they’re becoming increasingly popular in a transitory society where people want to share obituaries beyond their hometowns.

Legacy.com, one of the oldest and largest, is a collection of obituaries from more than 1,500 partner newspapers that pay fees to have the obituaries listed. It allows you to search and share obituaries, but it doesn’t allow posts to stay online indefinitely without a fee. Many of the other obituary platforms — including online options offered by newspapers — allow for in-depth life stories, photo galleries, and click-through links, but may require fees or subscriptions to keep a publication online or to allow for ongoing customization.

A message desert option

According to the latest vital statistics from the state Department of Health, 44,533 Minnesotans died in 2019. That number could fill any spot in Target Field – with another 5,000 waiting just outside.

But not all of them are commemorated in paid print obituaries, in part because community newspapers have taken a hit.

Around 1,800 local newspapers have gone out of business since 2004, according to a University of North Carolina project tracking so-called news deserts. The project also recorded a 22% decrease in the number of newspapers in Minnesota between 2004 and 2019.

When Atina Diffley’s father died four years ago, the family published an obituary in the newspaper of a small Wisconsin town where her parents lived.

But that newspaper was no longer published when her mother died in December. So Atina and her five siblings filled an epilogue page with stories about their mother playing the accordion, gardening and making jam. They included more than two dozen photos and even posted a picture of their handwritten carrot cake recipe.

“I love the idea that the site will be here for their descendants,” said Diffley of Lakeville. “We presented her life in chapters. It gives a true picture of her and how she lives on through her influence on us.”

Grand Marais, Minnesota has only one printed newspaper that is published weekly. WTIP, North Shore’s non-profit community radio station, “is the primary medium up here,” according to executive director Matthew Brown.

The station broadcasts news, weather reports, college sports and local events to a large but sparsely populated coverage area. Announcers used to read local obituaries over the air, but the station’s website now links to Epilogg instead.

“The audience can comment on them, say how they felt about the person who died,” Brown said. “The number of clicks on our website is pretty amazing; everyone reads the obituaries.”

Brown said families outside Arrowhead often post obituaries through the radio station’s link.

“The person who died might have lived in Minneapolis or Chicago, but they had a connection to Cook County, they loved the Boundary Waters, or they had a cabin on the Gunflint Trail, and their family wants people in our area to know about it.” , he said.

KMOJ, the Voice of the People nonprofit radio station broadcasting from north Minneapolis, was also a partner with a website link to Epilogg.

“Obituaries can be prohibitively expensive, but without a record, history can be lost,” said Freddie Bell, the radio station’s general manager. “Epilogg doesn’t replace the printed word, but it can be a bridge.”

When his mother died in 2011, Bell placed her obituary in the newspaper in her hometown of Kansas City. He recently created an epilogue to pay tribute to her.

“I want their children and grandchildren to be able to use the technology to learn more about them. They check their phone for everything from their vaccination records to a movie that’s on. Now you can meet my mother there.”

A gift to share

In its first year of operation, Epilogg continued to focus on Minnesota. This year, it begins a statewide rollout that links to news outlets and social media sites in other states. Mary McGreevy, one of Epilogg’s founders, said the plan is to make the platform viable by adding premium options, staff writers and partnerships with florists and funeral, cremation and end-of-life service providers.

Six months after her mother’s death, Connie Sheehan broke down and cried on “Mrs. Erika’s” 90th birthday.

She also paid a sentimental visit to her mother’s epilogue post, looking at sepia-toned images from her childhood in Germany and reading memories of her volunteer work at the church and teaching her grandchildren to play poker for money.

“Since Mom passed, so many people have texted and emailed us about her courage and big heart. My friends saw the full picture of what a weapon it was,” Sheehan said. “It was a gift to share them.”

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