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What You Learn When You Read Obituaries

If you read little details about people, you rightly see how big their lives were and how unfathomably awful the coronavirus pandemic really is.

Posted on May 13, 2020, at 10:42 a.m. ET

Alec Soth / Magnum Photos

A cemetery in Andersonville, Georgia, 2014.

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When you read about the coronavirus pandemic, there are the large questions about science, health, inequality, the dark statistics, and the way regular life abruptly ended.

When you read the stories about those who have died during the pandemic, the stories become — at the same time — more individualized and expansively larger.

You read about the most “peaceful person”; the church elder with such good taste that ministers in Flint consulted him on their clothes; the 28-year-old who loved to sing, who was always “trying to over-sing the choir” in New Orleans; the Disney animator who was never on time in her life, who “loved to have a good time”; the woman “everyone knows” on her block in Bed-Stuy; the young therapist who brought a “real vivaciousness” to how she approached life and her many friends; the man who kept every card his wife had given him; the father who did one movie night with all the kids, then a second one with each individual child; the father legendary for “having the nicest cameras but taking the worst pictures”; the retired firefighter who walked Staten Island with his rosary beads, offering prayers to those who might need them; the retired cop who was one of the NYPD’s first black women detectives, who offered on the subject, “it was just a job”; the teacher who loved owls; the collector of thousands of dictionaries who once, when she only had enough money for her next trip, bought the 17th-century book anyway and hitchhiked; the cab driver who would pick up discarded books, read them, and give them to nursing homes and libraries; the father “who, in the positive sense of the word, was a hustler”; the stepfather whose ordered, attentive care wasn’t just for his family but for friends who started calling when he wasn’t checking in anymore; the hospital housekeeping employee who texted his wife before his death, “I can’t explain how much I truly love you.”

Almost always, singular details or lines like this stand out, eternally: “She was exceptional and I am very proud,” one mother said of her 17-year-old daughter, an elegant description in a horrible tragedy.

Listing details like these is, of course, limiting to each of these people. Your own life couldn't be reduced down to one detail; if you've ever tried to capture it all in a eulogy or a Legacy.com post before, you definitely know the challenge of even trying to do it in a few hundred words.

Reading a bunch of those kinds of details, though, in one story about one person feels like looking at a great candid photo from 20 years ago: that feeling of seeing people as they really are — more handsome, more alive, brighter — than perhaps you (wrongly) knew at the time, and understanding the way even a gesture frozen in the frame can explain complex, dynamic relationships. The combined effect is to want to meet and know these people, even if you know they are pure strangers and it is now too late.

I’ve read, perhaps, 150 obituaries in the last two months — and in each, those who have died from COVID-19 are revealed to be totally distinct, the unique combination of a thousand different vectors and hues into one irreplaceable person who's different from the next.

And in these stories and threads, you can always feel the reverberation of that one irreplaceable person through the people who knew them and who are quoted, and the people those people have been hearing from about whoever it is that's died. One death is felt by many, in ways that might even be unexpected to them.

In the United States alone, at least 82,000 people have died. Even if you wanted to, there'd never be enough time to find everyone and read about them — a hopeless scale thrown into relief by how big people’s lives are in each individual story. There are just so many ways that people can be and won't be again. ●

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