8 May 2020
Castle Valley, Utah
anisha Brunson-Malone works at the Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey. Once a week, she picks up $100 worth of yellow daffodils, paying for them out of her own pocket. She is a forensic technician who works at the hospital’s morgue, performing autopsies, picking up the bodies of those who have died and there have been more deaths lately because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
With the morgue overwhelmed, Ms. Brunson-Malone oversees the refrigerated trailers in the garage loaded with body bags. They are full. Each trailer holds 38 bodies. Each day when she arrives, she doesn’t know how many bodies she will find inside the trailers. In the past few months, they are always full.
Ms. Brunson-Malone walks into the trailers every day and places one yellow daffodil on each white body bag. In the silence of this unseen gesture, restless spirits must be soothed. “I was kind of like their voice,” Ms. Brunson-Malone said, “because they were voiceless.”
I cried when I read this story in the New York Times on May 5, 2020. I thought about all the invisible gestures that are being performed by largely anonymous people in anonymous acts of care and compassion during this COVID-19 pandemic.
I thought of my friend Bryan Marquard, who is the obituary editor at the Boston Globe. He has held his “dream job” for fifteen years. He’s also one of the finest profile writers I know which is what his obituaries are: caring, thoughtful biographies. His profiles of the deceased are not just “must obituaries” for the rich and famous but written about those citizens who represent the mosaic of Massachusetts communities.
I see Bryan’s writing of people who have passed — known and loved by their family and friends — largely unknown to us, as his gesture of placing yellow daffodils on the graves of the dead, one obituary at a time.
During this period of COVID-19, Bryan doesn’t wear protective personal equipment, but he does possess an open heart and the gift of deep listening. He takes his work very seriously.
“I always ache for all the stories I can’t tell, all the families I have to say no to,” Bryan says. “Now, in addition to the 164 deaths per day in Massachusetts in a normal year, we may have 252 deaths from COVID-19 as we did a few days ago.”
We know the facts: Hospitals are overwhelmed. Funeral homes are overwhelmed. Health care workers are overwhelmed. Families are overwhelmed, their loved ones are dying alone, be it from COVID-19, from cancer or heart attacks, or all manner of diseases. Those who now die in hospitals die alone.
“I’m also concerned for the family members of those who die for reasons other than COVID-19 deaths — family members are feeling constrained by their grief because their grief is not dominating the news. I wonder if they are feeling they can’t be as sad as those families whose loved ones died of the virus. Do they feel that the deaths they are grieving are diminished because everyone is focused on this pandemic and the rising numbers of dead every day? I wonder about this,” Bryan said.
“I always ache for all the stories I can’t tell, all the families I have to say no to”
As I listen to my friend over the phone, it is his compassion that moves me. We spoke on a Sunday evening. He had just pored over 21 pages of death notices in the Boston Globe. He will choose one or two among those who have died to profile by asking their families if they would be willing to be interviewed, to delve deeper into the life of the one they loved, to honor their character, highlight who they were and what they cared about, with perhaps, a story that reminds us what binds us together, regardless of our differences.
In his most recent obituary, Bryan focuses on a fellow Pulitzer-prize winning reporter from the Globe. Headline: “Ron Hutson, whose reporting illuminated Boston’s race relations, dies at 72 of coronavirus.” We learn that he was part of the Globe’s thorough coverage on desegregation in the 1970’s. Bryan tells us “He wrote about the first Black family to live on a particular block in Dorchester’s Codman Hill neighborhood, the last white woman to keep her home on a section of Roxbury’s Julian Street…”
What stands out in each one of Bryan’s obituaries is the surprise that rounds out the complexities and character of the one who has just died. Not only did Ron Hutson write deftly and fearlessly about race relations, he was a beautiful writer with an eye for beauty.
When the sun sets behind Spectacle Mountain in the north Maine woods, the sky lights up and throws a brilliant yellow-orange sheen over the two-mile long glacial lake where wildlife research biologist Roy Hughie and his nine helpers make their camp.
It's not until the last third of the obituary/biography that we learn Hutson was one of three children born to parents with roots in the West Indies, that he “was an infant when his parents moved to Wall Township, N.J., where a cross was burned on their front lawn their second night in their house,” and “the Hutsons were the first Black family in their neighborhood.” Suddenly, a pattern emerges and the pieces fit together of the puzzle that constitutes a life. We see the moral imagination that informed this reporter’s ethics.
This combination of craft and care makes Bryan's work unique. He shows us whole people with whole lives, not just the facts of where they were born and how they died, words the dead are typically buried with, especially in this time of COVID-19, which is how Ron Hutson died on April 28, 2020.
Bryan tells me, “My experience throughout this COVID-19 lockdown has been that everyone’s emotions are running higher. It doesn’t matter how your loved one dies, everything we feel is more intense. The exchanges I am having with families, whether the cause of death is dementia, cancer, or stroke is that they are distraught. These families and their loved ones in the hospital are experiencing the same isolation, social distancing, and all the same guidelines that the COVID-19 families and their loved ones are experiencing, too. COVID-19 relatives cannot visit their sick — if you are dying from cancer, it’s the same thing, your families can’t see you either, you too will die alone. All funerals are being postponed. Grief is being postponed. How long until any of us can be hugged or can hug — the emotional weight of all of this is taking its toll.”
Bryan and I spoke about our own experiences with death. In fact, we met thirty years ago over a conversation we had about my mother’s and grandmother’s death in a book I had written called Refuge. I had the privilege of being with my mother and grandmother when they died. It was a healing grace.
Bryan had a similar experience. “I held my father after he died. That was incredibly important. This now can’t happen. The family members are so hurt, many are angry, with nowhere to place their anger.” He paused. “How do you get angry at a pandemic? It’s like yelling at god.”
“What do you do with your emotions?” I ask. “This can’t be easy focusing on death day in and day out for fifteen years.”
“I will tell you candidly, the coronavirus has sent me into the woods — everyday.” Bryan said. “I can also tell you that for me, hiking doesn’t produce the same kind of endorphin replacement that I get at the gym. My daily endorphin hit has fallen off the cliff.” He laughs. “But one does what one can to muddle through.”
In all the years, Bryan and I have known each other, I had never directly asked him how or why he chose to be a writer of obituaries.
“I fell in love with biographies in 3rd grade,” Bryan said. “Biographies of famous people. A friend and I read all of these particular biographies bound in blue that were shelved at the back of our class. Every one of them. And then, my friend’s father died. His father was our pastor. It was my first death. I lost my pastor and my best friend’s dad at the same time. He was quickly pulled out of school and I never saw him again.”
“And this is what led you to do the work you now do as a journalist?”
“I just always knew this was what I wanted to write. I guess I also knew I had a gift for empathy.”
This I can vouch for.
After a distinguished seven-year career writing profiles at Newsday on Long Island, Bryan and his wife, Jill, spent five years at the Valley News in the Upper Valley of New Hampshire and Vermont. Hired by the Globe in 2000, he held several editing jobs before landing is “dream job” as the obituary editor. “I knew I wanted to change how an obituary was written, how people thought about them. I saw them longer and more fully reported with anecdotes and quotes by the people who knew them, worked with them, loved them. I saw an obituary as a profile not just a death notification of facts, but a memorial infused with character — written about regular people that make up our towns and cities, not just the famous people, but often invisible people who lived quiet lives of purpose and dignity — and I wanted a representation of diversity that matched our communities, not just dominant white males that dominated most public obituaries.”
Bryan has penned over 2200 obituaries, having written roughly 2.5 million words on behalf of those who have died in the last 14 years in the state of Massachusetts. He has set a gold standard in the newspaper industry, increasing the institutional length of an obituary to 1200 words per person.
“People see what I write and that matters to me. A family will call and ask if I will write an obituary on their family member. I write on average 150 obituaries a year. Now, on top of all the COVID-19 deaths, it’s not just these families and their horrors, but families who have loved ones who are dying from everything else. The requests keep coming. Death takes no pause as COVID-19 rips through the state. It’s hard to decide what you will write about. Hard to say no to grief-stricken families. When you care as much as I do, that’s hard. I wish I could write more. But there is only one of me.”
"I saw an obituary as a profile not just a death notification of facts, but a memorial infused with character"
At a time when families are agonizing over not being allowed to be with their loved ones as they are dying, at a time when patients isolated in the hospital are dying alone, an obituary writer like Bryan creates a public place on the page where together we can both celebrate and mourn the lives of those who have died at this difficult moment in time.
“I don’t want my experience of the pandemic to be reduced to a daily run of statistics. These are real people with real families who were loved. It is my honor and privilege to be able to tell some of their stories.”
A spiritual practice comes in many forms: one yellow daffodil lovingly placed on each body bag brought to a morgue in the back of a refrigerated trailer; one heartfelt profile written on newsprint of a life well lived. These essential gestures made by those who show up every day and ground their work in empathy toward those they never knew yet believe deserve the dignity of their attention remind that each of us has a role to play in soothing the wounds experienced in a pandemic.
Bryan Marquard and Tanisha Brunson-Malone may go unnoticed by some, but to the spirits of the dead and their families, their compassionate acts of care are received as a bow toward eternity.
We need a collective expression of grief in this country to be able to cope with the losses we are experiencing in this pandemic. Over 80,000 fellow citizens are dead and mortality continues to rise. If there are no public rituals to be found on a national level, we must create our own mourning practices within our communities to honor the sorrow among us.
A grief shared is a grief endured.