Obituaries are beautiful.
Forged in grief and laden with sadness, they may not initially seem so. But for those of us who write and edit obituaries, a different view emerges—of gleaming details, of telling acts, of ways to live. Margalit Fox, former senior obituary writer at the New York Times, says in the award-winning documentary Obit: “It’s counterintuitive, ironic even, but obits have next to nothing to do with death and in fact absolutely everything to do with life.”
There are few as qualified as Katherine Laidlaw to agree. She has read more obituaries of Canadian COVID-19 victims than anyone; of that fact we can be certain. Laidlaw, an extraordinarily talented writer and editor, is a Carleton University fellow overseeing the obituaries for Maclean’s They Were Loved project; an audacious enterprise that assigns COVID obituaries to journalism students across the country.
These students—some as young as 17, others older and completing master’s degrees—have embraced the project with a verve and talent we didn’t see coming. For many, these obituaries are their first encounter with grief; one of the project’s great joys has been watching students greet these emotionally fraught assignments with grace.
“Some of the students have written to me after their pieces were completed to say that they found working on these obituaries to be utterly transformational, journalistically and personally,” Laidlaw says. “I think they come out of the assignment seeing what I see: that these pieces are exercises in empathy, that they’ve been granted a private window into someone’s life and that’s a gift.”
Through the window shine the details: Deb Diemer, dead at 57, who every year unpacked 50 Rubbermaid containers of Christmas decorations to bedazzle the house; Henri Labelle, dead at 91, who meticulously calculated the exact angle to cut a pie to ensure everyone had an equal share; Dianne Chin, dead at 59, who gave her shoes to her daughter when she forgot to bring an extra pair to her own wedding; Foon Hay Lum, dead at 111, who fought for an apology for Canada’s head tax and who loved to grow giant melons in her backyard.
So far, the They Were Loved project has assigned more than 400 students across 17 journalism schools to work on 800 obituaries. We like to say we have formed the biggest newsroom in the country, second only to the behemoth of the CBC.
Still, the project’s hurdles are many. There is no public list of Canadian COVID victims, so ensuring we reach out to every bereaved family is a challenge. We are building a database, but simply finding names is an exercise in shoe-leather reporting. And funding is another issue. We are grateful to the Giustra Foundation, which provided a seed donation, and Mindset Foundation, which is funding us through to spring, but the project will need more financial support to keep going.
To even attempt to write an obituary for every COVID-19 victim in Canada was always an almost impossible idea, but with supportive corporate partners, hard-working journalism professors and eager students, we will continue the uphill climb.
As we do, the process enriches us all, compelling us to consider our own lives. “What will your obituary read like,” asks NYT obituary writer William Grimes, “and what are these defining moments, and how do they assemble themselves into some kind of coherent story?”
For Katherine Laidlaw, the lesson lies in how to live a good life.
“Fill it with love,” she says when asked what obituaries have taught her, “as much love as you possibly can. Accomplishments are noble things, and certainly impressive to read about. But it’s the ways each person demonstrated care—tenderly, in unique ways, often with food—that really emanate from these pieces. Also, be a trailblazer. Even in the tiniest of ways, push to make the world better.
“Take care of people and break ground. Those blueprints have stuck with me.”