Canadian newspapers are publishing more death notices

The Montreal Gazette’s obituary section this past Saturday looked different from most. A part of the paper that normally runs about three pages in length spilled across more than eight.

“A Saturday Gazette in the time I’ve been here as editor-in-chief – so 2013 to 2020 – is maybe three or three-and-a-half pages [of obituaries],” Lucinda Chodan told CTVNews.ca over the phone on Wednesday. “Eight-and-a-half pages is the most obituaries I remember seeing.”

It’s no secret that the city of Montreal has been hit especially hard by COVID-19. The number of deaths reported in the city related to the disease accounts for more than half of Quebec’s total number of fatalities.

“It's obvious that Montreal is being very hard hit by COVID-19 and the obituary pages are a way for the community to share [that information],” she said.

On Wednesday, Statistics Canada released new data pertaining to the number of excess deaths recorded across the country between Jan. 1 and March 31. This refers to the number of deaths exceeding the amount forecasted by historical trends.

The data shows that most of the country saw 1,145 fewer deaths than expected for this period. It’s important to note that figures from New Brunswick, Nunavut, Ontario and Yukon were not included in this tally due to a lack of readily available data.

Despite the fact that Canada has seen fewer deaths than expected, the country’s COVID-19 death toll continues to rise, something that seems to be reflected in the increasing number of death notices published by several Canadian newspapers.

These notices are paid announcements written by families or funeral homes and submitted to newspapers. While not solid proof of just how many lives the virus has claimed, these notices can help paint a more vivid picture of the impact of COVID-19, especially in cities like Montreal.

“What you see in the Gazette in particular is the fact that – it is becoming a truism of course – but Montreal is the epicentre of COVID-19 in Canada,” she said.

CANADA’S EPICENTRE

The newspaper has reportedly seen a 45 per cent increase in the number of death notices published between March and April of this year, jumping from 606 death notices to 876. In comparing the number of death notices published in April of this year to the same time last year, this represents an increase of 38 per cent.

Chodan pointed out a few of the death notices recently published in her newspaper.

“For a 92-year-old woman: ‘she fought many illnesses during her long life but was not strong enough to fight this deadly virus,’” one read in part.

“A 91-year-old, ‘May the day soon come when the residents of Canada's long-term care homes no longer die in such an unacceptable manner,’” another states. 

Chodan choked up as she read some of these death notices aloud. She says it is important to commemorate those who have died.

“It’s ‘news’ of a variety that matters to a community,” she said. “It's also a way of memorializing people…no kind of medium is able to actually acknowledge individual deaths in the way that an obituary does.

“An obituary is a way of saying this person lived in this community and he or she mattered.”

It’s important to note that not all of these death notices are linked to coronavirus, explains Chodan. Notices do not always mention a cause of death, nor does the publication require families to disclose this information. Still, Chodan is linking this year-over-year increase to the ongoing spread of COVID-19.

“It's obvious that Montreal is being very hard hit by COVID-19 and the obituary pages are a way for the community to share [that information],” she said. “This is really a way of saying that each of these deaths is significant – each of them matters to the community and to the family, of course.”

As of Thursday afternoon, 3,351 of the 5,468 deaths across the country have taken place in Quebec; 2,063 of them have been recorded in Montreal. The city accounts for about 38 per cent of all coronavirus-related deaths in Canada. 

MORE DEATH NOTICES

Similar data is being reported by other Canadian publications. The Ottawa Citizen, for example, has said that it published 13 per cent more death notices in April than in March of this year. This works out to 761 death notices in March and 863 in April. 

Compared to April 2019, however, this new figure points to a decrease of 9.5 per cent in the number of death notices published year-over-year.

The Globe and Mail, Canada’s largest national newspaper, is also reporting higher numbers of death notices. In April 2019, 300 death notices appeared in The Globe’s papers. In April 2020, that number rose by 10 per cent to 330. 

This increase was even more prominent for the first few days of May. In 2019, the paper published 141 death notices between May 1 and May 11. During the same period in 2020, it published 181 death notices, representing an increase of 25 per cent.

“Typically, on a Saturday, you would have four to five pages of death notices in The Globe – that would be typical for a period like late winter [to] early spring,” Phillip Crawley, publisher and CEO of The Globe and Mail, told CTVNews.ca over the phone on Wednesday. “But what we’ve seen in recent weeks is that death notices have been running to seven and even eight pages on a Saturday.

“We've not seen a volume of death notices like this before.”

While it is difficult to be sure of the exact number of notices referring to COVID-19-related deaths, Crawley insists it is reasonable to connect the increase in these notices to the continued increase in the number of deaths caused by the disease.

“We can’t be absolutely sure that this is all coronavirus related, but you have to assume that this growth in the number of death notices is driven by the coronavirus crisis,” he said.

According to Crawley, he reads the death notices in The Globe every day. While he says he hopes to see a decline in the number of notices published over the coming weeks, he points to the value of sharing these kinds of stories.

“Unfortunately there are a lot of stories of great Canadians who have [lived] very full and rich lives,” said Crawley. “In the case of death notices, lots of people look at them because they think it's a reflection of the story of Canada.

“You read about it and you think, ‘OK, these people help to make Canada what it is.’”

He also notes that the length of these notices in The Globe has increased as well. The volume of lines published in the average death notice rose by 50 per cent from April 2019 to April 2020.

LONGER NOTICES BECOMING A TREND

Teresa DeLuca is the manager of classified sales at Metroland Media Group, an Ontario media publisher and distributor responsible for publishing more than 75 community newspapers. She confirms that the publishing group’s papers are also seeing an increase in the length of notices circulating in its papers.

“What we have noticed is that community papers are publishing larger notices, with more written about the deceased,” she told CTVNews.ca on Wednesday via telephone.

This comes despite the fact that the amount of death notices published by many of these papers has remained relatively steady year-over-year.

The Toronto Star, for example, published 715 death notices in April 2019 while 685 notices were distributed in April 2020. The gap between death notices published at the beginning of May in both 2019 and 2020 is slightly lower. Between May 1 and May 18, 2019, 439 death notices circulated. From May 1 to May 16, 2020 – to account for this Saturday’s paper, where notices have already been placed ahead of printing – the paper is publishing 420 notices. 

In its edition published this past Saturday, the Toronto Star published 13 pages worth of death notices. Greg Turkstra is the head of classifieds at Torstar, the media company responsible for publishing the Toronto Star and parent company of Metroland Media Group. He says this number of pages is common for a Saturday.

“You're starting to see over the last couple of weeks more COVID-related deaths, but it doesn't necessarily equate to a larger volume of obits,” he told CTVNews.ca over the phone on Wednesday.

While people would usually rush to get a death notice printed in the newspaper soon after a loved one’s death, fewer families are doing this because of the ongoing pandemic, explains Turkstra. Instead, many are opting to post their death notices on Saturday instead of during the week.

“The newspaper has a very important role in the whole funeral process,” he said. “Our job is to inform as many people of the passing of someone in the community.

“So if Saturday is our most popular day, then it makes the most sense [to post on Saturday] if you are postponing and you want to let people know that your loved one passed away, to get the broadest distribution of your content.”

Despite the fact that there have been no major changes in the number of death notices published in the Toronto Star since the COVID-19 outbreak began, Turkstra says the paper has seen an increase in the number of notices requested since mid-April. Based on conversations he’s had with representatives from other newspapers across the continent, this has been the case for them as well.

“In speaking with North American partners that we know, that we’ve dealt with, obituaries across the board in the last month have increased in North America,” said Turkstra. “[The Toronto Star is] in line with what the rest of North America is experiencing – we are seeing a lift in the business.”

PUBLISHING TRENDS

This increase in activity has been seen in some of the latest editions of widely circulated American newspapers. On April 26, The Boston Globe printed 21 pages of death notices. The week before, the paper ran 16 pages worth of notices.

The April 12 edition of The Star-Ledger in New Jersey featured 109 death notices spread across nine pages. On April 19, New Orleans’ Times-Picayune printed eight-and-a-half pages of death notices, which the paper claims is “almost double the amount normally published.”

Legacy.com, an online network of death notices and obituaries, works in collaboration with more than 1,500 newspapers across the United States, as well as some in Canada, the United Kingdom and other countries to post notices for those who have died, online.

Stephen Segal is director of content at Legacy.com and leads a team of journalists that not only write obituaries, but also monitor those published by community newspapers across the country.

According to Segal, many of these local death notices are published in newspapers based in major metropolitan areas, many of them known to be COVID-19 hotspots. While a majority of these death notices don’t specify a cause of death, Segal says it’s likely that many of them are connected to the disease.

“Officially, it's impossible to say that that increase is directly due to COVID,” said Segal. “What we can say is that there appears to be a relation between the places where there are known COVID hotspots and the places where the number of obituaries published has substantially grown since the same month last year.”

Based on the data collected by Legacy.com, newspapers based in New York City have seen an 85 per cent increase when comparing the number of death notices posted in April 2019 to April 2020. In New Orleans, there was an increase of 63 per cent when comparing the amount of notices published by local papers during the same period and in Detroit, that number was 29 per cent.

Segal points out that orders to stay home and restrictions on public gatherings have made it difficult for most families to have funeral services in the way they traditionally do. This, he says, has led families to look for alternative ways of honouring loved ones who have died, one of them being to share their story.

“Telling stories of someone’s life is a huge part of how we grieve,” he said. “The grieving process is so incredibly important; it's how people heal after they have a loss.

“We talk about what will live on after this person has gone,” he said. “All of this storytelling provides something to hold on to and something to share with each other, and so in the absence of a physical funeral, the obituary is all the more prominent as a place where that can happen.”

Segal also points to a new initiative introduced to the website in the second half of March that allows for information pertaining to live streams of funeral receptions or wakes to be included in online death notices. Family members and friends can attend these services virtually as they are taking place, or they can watch them later.

The website, Segal says, has seen a steady increase in traffic starting in March, around the time that a number of U.S. states began implementing stay-at-home orders, with the amount of visits increasing on a weekly basis. As Segal puts it, having something online to commemorate a loved one can help with healing.

“What we’ve seen is that families who are grieving need a formal ritual to express that grief and to express sympathy to one another,” said Segal. 

“Having a space online where that community can take place, where people can express their love and caring and share their memories is all the more important in the absence of an in-person funeral gathering.”

Edited by CTVNews.ca producer Adam Ward

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