Obitus by Sarah Diamond Burroway

“[Opioid overdoses] claimed more lives in America than motor vehicle crashes and gun violence last year.”
- National Safety Council, 2019

Obitus roughly translates as “going to a place, or a going down, like the setting (as of the sun)” or, more plainly, “fall, ruin, death.” As far back as Roman times, the public has learned of the deaths of both common and prominent citizens through death announcements in the Acta Diurna. Since then, obituaries have taken many forms. President George Washington’s death was announced in a brief published notice in the New York Spectator in 1799 of about twenty-five words. The death notice of Pope John Paul II in 2005 was perhaps the longest obituary ever written at more than 13,000 words.

The length of an average obituary is somewhere between 800 and 1,000 words. And, in small town daily and weekly newspapers, obituaries haven’t changed much over the years. A few paragraphs outlining loved ones left behind. Many times, they include tiny, black and white thumbnail photographs, showing deceased loved one in happier times. Somber gazes. Hats slanted over work-hardened foreheads. Schoolday portraits. Everyday life, cropped to fit a grainy, half inch box on the edge of a column. Newsprint remembrances of favorite hobbies. Brief notes about career accomplishments or academic achievements. All the information neighbors or acquaintances need to know about funeral arrangements and the family’s wishes for donations to one cause or another in lieu of flowers. One of my friends worked for a time as the obituary clerk at one of the local dailies. She took a lot of pride in her job, getting the information in just right to commemorate the lives of people she didn’t know and would never meet. “It means a lot to the families,” Debbie told me over lunch one summer day. 

In recent years, I’ve noticed something different in the obituaries of the local newspapers I read—the Daily Independent, the Herald-Dispatch, and The Ironton Tribune. Since the spike in opioid-related deaths in these Appalachian foothills, some obituaries appear to be cryptic. Those left behind speak in new dialect. They use a different way of describing the loss of loved ones, rejecting the use of graphic words like “overdose” or “fentanyl-laced heroin,” realities too harsh for black and white.

Unlike obituaries that exude courage and fortitude, the new lexicon is void of much feeling at all. Instead of language like “she died following a long battle with cancer,” or “he was killed in service to our country on the battlefield,” or “she passed away surrounded by loved ones,” these new obituaries are a bit ambiguous. 

Died unexpectedly at home.

Died at St. Mary’s Medical Center after an unfortunate accident.

Passed away suddenly.

Scant details. An unwritten wink and nudge asking you to read between the lines. It is not difficult to decipher. Young men and young women. Mostly between the ages of 20 and 45, some would say in the prime of life. Many are survived by a husband or wife. Or, a devoted girlfriend, boyfriend, sometimes listed as a fiancé. 

And, survived by children. So many children.

. . . his three children who he loved with his whole heart Emily, Edward, and Lewis; two stepchildren he loved as his own, Turner and Perry.

He will be sadly missed by his son, Hunter.

She leaves behind Megan, age 3, and Todd, age 5, who will miss their mother very much.

When life ends too soon, it’s hard to put into words what happened during “the dash,” the span of time between birth and death.

Overdose deaths in Greenup County, Kentucky, where I live, have increased or remained steady every year since 2014. Dozens of young people. College graduates. Nurses. Factory workers. Musicians. Clerks. Business owners. People with promise, loved by family and friends. 

For the parent or spouse or sibling who is left behind, trying to put thoughts into a few normalizing words may ease the sting of death, at least on paper.

He enjoyed baseball, hunting, fishing and loved the outdoors.

He never met a stranger or a person he couldn’t make smile. His personality was infectious. He was an avid bass fisherman and loved fishing bass tournaments or any place a pole could find water.

She loved to go camping with her friends and family.

Generally, families here have kept silent on the truth of fatal overdose. They don’t want to draw negative attention to the death of their loved ones. Occasionally, the obituaries offer a small glimpse of the sad reality. Tucked quietly in between the listing of the officiant who will preside over the memorial service and the visitation hours, a hint of truth sometimes pushes through.

 Although she struggled with her depression and addiction, she never let that change the love for her son and family.

. . . departed this life on Thursday due to a heroin overdose.

The light of an intelligent and inquisitive spirit was extinguished from us by a senseless drug.

Perhaps, seeing it on the page offers too stark of a statement. Is too harsh. The stigma of addiction and overdose death is too difficult of a burden to bear. Friends and acquaintances who reach out to offer condolences are absent of words. 

Her mother and I loved her very much and wish we could have done something to help ease her pain in this world.

Nothing stops the sting of death. My life will never be the same without my beloved son.

Rest high on the mountain, sweet angel.

Rows of shadowed monuments framed by the blush of pink sunset mock the frenzy of final days. Souls coursing through clouds on a last, liminal flight. Finally free.

Sarah Diamond Burroway is a Kentucky writer whose work has appeared in Still: The Journal, The Bitter Southerner, The Worcester Journal, and the Women of Appalachia Project anthologies. Her plays and monologues have been produced in New York, California, West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky. Sarah earned a Master of Fine Arts in creative nonfiction from Eastern Kentucky University's Bluegrass Writers Studio.

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