The Wild and Crazy Online Forum Tracking the Coronavirus Dead
Due to its long history and tendency toward gallows humor and infighting, alt.obituaries provides a strange, fascinating look at how COVID-19 deaths are dealt with online.
Derek Tague, a 57-year-old New Jersey audiobook editor, checks the Wikipedia page for “Deaths in 2020” every day, usually several times. He has done this, give or take, for 10 years. Tague collects eccentric pastimes: he moonlit as a minor cast member on the cult kids series The Uncle Floyd Show; he frequented Old Time Radio conventions; he appeared on two different game shows. But his most dedicated hobby involves posting daily on “alt.obituaries,” an online forum which has been chronicling public deaths and peculiar obituaries online for 27 years.
“Wikipedia,” Tague said, “they’re the first ones to have something. You check several times a day, you scroll down the days, and it will tell you about famous people, like Kenny Rogers—that’s how I found out about him. But it’s not just the headliners. It’s also the second-tier people that nobody would usually bother with.”
In recent months, Tague’s daily Wikipedia scroll has taken on a different tenor. The page formats entries by name, age, occupation, and cause of death. These days, the last item often repeats: Sergio Rossi, 84, Italian shoe designer, COVID-19. Goyo Benito, 73, Spanish footballer, COVID-19. Bernardita Catalla, 62, Filipino diplomat, ambassador to Lebanon, COVID-19. The novel coronavirus pandemic, which has now claimed the lives of more than 59,000 people across the globe, has fundamentally altered the way people deal with death. It has pushed the funeral industry to the brink of collapse. It has triggered an uptick in virtual shivas, memorials, and services held on Zoom. It has also created a whole new category of obituary: victims of the virus.
The New York Times Obituary section, long the standard-bearer of the genre, has created a separate section for COVID-19 cases, one of only two such projects (the other being “Overlooked,” for historical deaths the paper formerly passed over). The subreddit r/obituaries created a spin-off group, r/Coronaobituaries, for similar victims. Facebook groups have filled with listings about recent cases and deaths. But alt.obituaries, because of its nearly three-decade history, its status as one of the earliest intersections of obituary culture and the internet, its tendency toward gallows humor and infighting, represents a peculiar microcosm of online obit fandom in the era of COVID-19.
In internet years, alt.obituaries is ancient. The forum first emerged on the bulletin board, Usenet, in late 1993, when the first user logged on to memorialize a family cat who died from asphyxiation. (“It’s a good way to die for Tyler. Nothing banal like being hit by a car. Nothing long-term, like getting lost. He just came inside and that was all. A good mysterious death, for a good mysterious cat.”) The mission was simple: “Description: Notices of dead folks.” By the early aughts, alt.obituaries became a haven for the obit-obsessed. The subject lines read like an encyclopedia of human achievement and depravity. “Colin Murdoch; invented the disposable syringe, the animal tranquillising dart and the silent burglar alarm.” “Virtual family mourns Beachie88 (cybergamer murdered).” “Susan Montgomery Williams, 47, world renowned talent for blowing enormous chewing-gum bubbles.” “Geoff Hammond, apiarist (bees!)”
Posts could attract thousands of viewers—among them, several prominent obituary editors or writers who lurked on the forum. But the top posters tended to be amateurs, scrapbook and news-clipper types, who often proved as attuned to the news as any professional. In her definitive survey of obituary culture, The Dead Beat, Marilyn Johnson describes how a user named Amelia Rosner broke the news of Ronald Reagan’s death to a roomful of reporters at the Sixth Great Obituary Writers’ International Conference in 2004. Still, breaking news was not alt.obituaries’ m.o. The forum documented the lifecycle of an obituary. Users wrote “Healthwatch” posts for every public figure who looked peakish, analyzed causes of death, investigated surviving relatives, and debated Oscars In Memoriam tributes. Discussions could get abstract (eulogizing extinct restaurant chains) or morbid (counting how many people had killed themselves on TV). As Rosner told Johnson: “We know who’s sick and who’s dying and we know how many of the original cast members of Gilligan’s Island are still alive.”
Alongside the infusion of daily human expiration came a steady stream of comments. Like all forums, especially unmoderated ones, the discussion ranged from sincere or academic to puerile or conspiratorial. One thread might devolve into a detailed analysis of James Dean’s death, while another filled with amphibian puns after Warner Brothers retired their mascot, Michigan J. Frog. Morbid jokes are mandatory—since 2005, the group has held a celebrity deadpool where users bet on the public figures most likely to die that year. Politics, infighting, and pranks were commonplace. When one poster admitted that he had “never found diapers big enough for” him, users recited it for years. “Diaper boy, they called him,” Johnson recalled. “But he was hard to pity, because he flung more than his share of puerile invective. Anyway, pity in this arena is reserved for the dead, and sometimes not even for them.”
Tague first joined alt.obituaries around 2010, at the suggestion of his friend at the Old Time Radio Convention. A self-described “maven of show business,” he got into obits as a kid after hearing about two of the Three Stooges’ deaths too long after the fact. Over time, Tague got acquainted with the “nuances and peccadilloes and idiosyncrasies” of other users’ styles and special interests. A guy named Draney has a rep for cracking wise. A user named Brian tends to amend footnotes in his posts (“I don’t see why," Tague said,“but that’s his style and all the more power to him.”) A woman named Lenona specializes in children’s authors and illustrators, but also frequently imports posts from Bratfree, the aggressively antinatalist forum where users fling jargon like “breeder” and “MOO” (mindless, bovine mother). Tague focused on what he called “Showbituaries,” a roundup of recently deceased stars; “Totally Subjective Necrologies,” lists of overlooked deaths; and hyper-specific jokes.
A few weeks back, for example, he posted the obituary of a Tampa news correspondent named Arch Deal, who had choked on a piece of filet mignon while standing with this family. “The backstory was that his daughter also choked on food and died 10 years ago in 2010,” Tague explained. “The daughter was married to Marty Balin, one of the singers in the Jefferson Airplane. But this Arch Deal, he took up parachuting for a hobby—he survived a lost parachute attempt! He fell to the ground and only broke his pelvis. Now, Jefferson Airplane had an album in the ‘60s called Surrealistic Pillow. So I said, ‘Well, maybe his lost parachuting accident was softened by—wait for it—a surrealistic pillow.’”
A few times, Tague said, he has regretted his tone. After linking to the obituary of a man who had jumped from the roof of the Times Square W Hotel onto the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre during a production of Motown: The Musical, Tague made a few Motown puns. “I guess he chose the W Hotel because, after all, there ‘ain’t no mountain high enough,’” he wrote. “Either that or he wanted to climb ‘up the ladder to the roof’ so he could ‘see Heaven much better.’” Later, a man identifying himself as the victim’s uncle saw the post: “I am appalled at the comments made in regards to show lingo. This is my nephew. Have some respect.”
On Feb. 6, a user called “Big Mongo” posted an obituary for Dr. Li Wenliang—the Chinese doctor who tried to sound the alarm of the novel coronavirus’ spread, before dying from the disease himself. It was the forum’s first COVID-19 obit, and one that, save for a single racist comment, went without much notice. But over the following weeks, posts began to pick up—not just obituaries, but off-topic commentary about the virus’ spread. A Paul Krugman column. A piece about its impact on children. A frantic monologue about hand-washing hygiene. The next obits came for SXSW and the St. Patty’s Parade. By March 16, a COVID-19 positive Idris Elba was put on “Healthwatch.” Rand Paul and Harvey Weinstein soon followed suit.
By late March, the feed had filled with COVID-19 cases. The pandemic reached so far it spread to pieces whose subjects died of something else entirely. When soap opera star John Callahan died of a stroke on March 28, for example, the Soap Opera Network noted that it was “not related to COVID-19.” Tague, who shared the link, found that off-putting. “I don’t want to see anymore 'unrelated to the COVID-19 virus,’” he said. “I’ve seen it a couple times now. I just don’t want to see people stigmatized with COVID-19.”
Alt.obituaries emerged in the early stages of the internet, as papers began migrating online. In the past decade, however, the obit industry has shrunk. Obit Magazine went out of business; the Great Obituary Writers’ Conference kicked it; small newspapers have shuttered, and bigger ones have smaller full-time staffs. The forum has charted a similar course, dwindling to a smaller collective of dedicated users. At the same time, the obituary genre, particularly the local ones, evolved into something closer to alt.obituaries. Where family-written death notices were once short, bland, and tethered to their local paper, they are now easy to publish on social media, a growing list of memorial websites, or the death behemoth, Legacy.com. Home-cooked obits have loosened up the form, yielding tributes more like comments—obits that ramble, air grievances, and make jokes.
“They are a fundamentally different thing than a reported obit, even a funny reported obit,” Bloomberg News obituary writer Stephen Miller told Slate in a 2015 article on the trend. “They aren’t fact-checked. They don’t follow any set formula although they often have formulaic elements. There’s often something like the opposite of structure.”
Now, the forum finds itself again in tune with the broader obit world: inundated with a single kind. Alt.obituaries users have responded with fewer jokes and stray observations. What few comments appear often traffic in racism, troll-baiting, or misinformation. In its current form, the page is less like a conversation and more like a list, not unlike those in every media outlet, counting celebrities who contracted the virus, or those who died from it. Like so much of daily news consumption now, alt.obituaries is now a kind of tracker—a way to visualize the spread of the disease, to distill a phenomenon still abstract to many, into something easier to understand.
“The obit culture has mated with the Internet culture,” Johnson wrote of the forum 15 years ago, “and this is the result: people who spend their time making catalogues of the near-dead, monitoring the critical-care wards of the news, watching spores of pneumonia drift and settle, scratching out the names of the losers.”