Stigma, Sensationalism, and Silence: The History of the Overdose Obituary

Katherine Warren

 

 
This paper follows the rise of the “overdose obituary”—a family-written death notice for someone who has died by drug overdose—through the current opioid overdose crisis in the United States. As a subset of obituaries increasingly point to drug overdose as a cause of death and to addiction as a disease, this paper examines the anti-stigmatizing potential of this emerging body of memorials while seeking to complicate the idea of overdose obituaries as simply “narrating the epidemic.” Primary sources are drawn from New England, a region with one of the highest rates of fatal opioid overdose deaths. The first part of the paper traces the historical landscape of newspaper reporting of drug overdose deaths as news items beginning in the late 19th century. The second section demonstrates how the rise of the overdose obituary in the 21st century is intimately linked to the changing political economy of digital newspaper circulation as well as to the rise of commercial obituary aggregators or “warehouses” like Legacy.com. The final section turns to the overdose obituaries that have emerged over the past 10 years to trace the ways in which they challenge, reflect, and reinscribe the stigma, silences, and public narratives of the current overdose epidemic. Drawing from historical and anthropological literature on death, mourning, and bereavement online, it asks what demands these obituaries make on the readers as well as the kinds of claims that are made about their circulation within the growing political economy of online obituaries and memorials.