Overview of COVID-19 obituaries posted in the St. Louis Metro region

Note: I drafted this paper about the data that I’ve collected here on StLouisCovidMemorial.com and my general processes. I’ve put this project temporarily on pause (except for user submitted memorials) because of the mental health issues I was having pouring over obituaries and trying to memorialize the human side of local St. Louis lives lost to COVID-19. It was incredibly depressing, but I have no regrets! I would welcome further collaborations and mentorship, and if there is a chance that I could edit and submit this somewhere more official. I could easily have elaborated further on the discussion points at the end, in particular the grief multiplier and racial and socioeconomic disparities. Additionally posted to LinkedIn.

Preliminary outline with data. Drafted May 8, 2021.

Introduction and method:

Between June 19, 2020 and March 1, 2021 I published 219 obituary summaries and user submitted memorials of people in the Greater St. Louis area (as defined by the US Office of Management and Budget) who died of COVID-19 or from complications of the virus. I wanted to humanize the local and human impact of COVID-19 deaths by respectfully presenting memorials with pictures of everyone who died that I could find. 

User submitted memorials compromised only 18 of the 219 posts, the remainder 201 entries were summaries of obituaries that I found publicly posted online. Because of the many ways that people phrase cause of death, when there is one posted, I manually sorted through over 10,000 individual obituaries. I searched as many as thirteen funeral home websites, but my three primary sites that I visited weekly were:

  1. legacy.com : The entire state of Missouri, separately for the words “COVID” and “Corona”. There are many small villages and towns in the St. Louis Metro area, and I double-checked places I was unfamiliar with. 
  2. StLouisCremation.com : I manually sorted through every single page since every single page has the word “COVID” on it. 
  3. site:riverbender.com/obits/ “covid” month year : This google site search resulted in many duplicate and irrelevant results, but it was somewhat more efficient than manually skimming each published obituary for the mention of cause of death as COVID-19.

In February 2021, I began keeping a list of the phrases about COVID-19 as the cause of death, in the order that I found them:

  • as a result of complications from COVID-19
  • due to complications from COVID
  • due to COVID
  • died from the COVID virus
  • from complications of COVID-19
  • lost his life after contracting the COVID-19 virus
  • complications due to COVID
  • passed away from COVID-19
  • transitioned peacefully from COVID
  • after contracting COVID
  • after complications resulting from COVID
  • following complications from COVID
  • lost his battle against COVID
  • developed COVID in November 2020 and passed due to complications
  • succumbing to COVID
  • after fighting COVID
  • because of health issues and covid
  • fought a hard battle with covid19
  • lost his life after contracting the COVID-19 virus
  • while recovering from severe covid
  • after a short bout with covid
  • after a long bout with covid
  • after contracting COVID

In late July 2020, after trying to access Velma Moody’s original obituary, I realized that these sources might be changed or removed so I began making screenshots of the obituary pages I obtained information from (I believe that I retroactively made screenshots of every obituary). This is noted on the fine-print of Legacy’s Frequently Asked Questions, and it is common knowledge that websites often change and have no obligation to keep content up indefinitely.  

I built a very basic WordPress website on a domain I purchased (StLouisCovidMemorial.com) and created hosting on the generous “shared hosting” plan that I already had for other projects. The theme is a custom child theme of Divi by ElegantThemes. 

Relevant plugins that extend functionality on the site are:

  • Advanced Custom Fields by Elliot Condon. This allowed me to add custom fields for name and any correspondence with family or private notes. I used this plugin in conjunction with Divi FilterGrid to create the sortable “grid” on the front page and other pages.
  • Divi FilterGrid by DiviPlugins. This plugin can sort in “gallery format” (and others) by hidden field, category, tag, and other data. It would have been unnatural reading for memorials to be Last Name, First Name; using Divi FilterGrid I was able to sort alphabetically by last name by creating a hidden field with Advanced Custom Fields. This is a paid plugin for less than $100. 
  • Gravity Forms by Gravity Forms. This widely used commercial plugin allows for easy contact form integration. I spent $45 on a license because my original idea was to create a contact form with conditional logic (“if this then that”). 
  • Link Library by Yannick Lefebvre. This allows for a basic “link library”, which I used to cite sources on the resources page (https://www.stlouiscovidmemorial.com/resources/). At the time of building St. Louis Covid Memorial I was focused on posting the memorials, reasoning that citations could be reformatted at a later date. 
  • MailPoet 3 by MailPoet. This newsletter plugin allows for automation and customization of published “new posts” notifications (memorials in this case) to users who sign up to receive emails. As of May 8, 2021 there are 75 unique subscribers who have double opted in to get notified of newly posted memorials. 

Data

I organized data that I collected using the built in WordPress categories feature. Categories included: age range, county (except Metro East deaths were grouped only as “Metro East”), month died, and the special categories of veteran deaths, educator deaths, and healthcare worker deaths.

Additionally, using the built in WordPress tag feature, I later added (and where appropriate retroactively edited) tags that included: “African American”, nursing home, branch of the military, war fought in, names of specific nursing homes, cities and townships, and “helper deaths” for those who I thought touched the world extra specially. 

I added the age ranges later and retroactively, due to feedback on Twitter. The age ranges correlate with Google Analytics Dimensions, with additions: 

  • I added groups 75-84, 85-94, and 94+ to better analyze “elderly” age groups at a later date. 
  • I (sadly) added the 12-17 age group for Peyton Baumgarth’s memorial. He was only 13 years old and Missouri’s youngest resident to die of COVID-19. 

Data tables of Categories:

Ages of St. Louis Covid deaths from obituaries
Month died of COVID in St. Louis metro - by obituaries
Counties of St. Louis Metro deaths - from obituaries
Deaths of teachers and healthcare workers in St. Louis metro by obituaries

Data from tags: 

  • African American deaths: 16
  • World War II Veteran deaths: 8
  • Educator deaths: 7
  • Healthcare worker deaths: 8

Discussion and further direction

This is a preliminary draft to present what I believe is important data that I’ve collected for StLouisCovidMemorial.com and to demonstrate my ability to professionally present research findings. 

I noticed early on that African Americans in St. Louis have higher deaths per capita than white people and higher cumulative death numbers but that their obituaries seldom mentioned cause of death. There are only 16 memorials for African Americans on St. Louis Covid Memorial, and ten of them were “reader submitted”. I found only six obituaries publicly posted of African Americans who died of COVID-19. I discussed this with Dr. Paulette Sankofa, an African American and founder of the NorthSide community nonprofit Peace Weaving Wholeness. She told me that when it comes to contagious illnesses there is a long history of blame and shame within the African American communities, additional discrimination by white people, and that culturally it’s considered irrelevant (especially to the public in an obituary) because the person is viewed as transitioning out of suffering and their soul is on to better things. To get a more accurate “human” impact presentation on StLouisCovidMemorial.com and for history itself, there needs to be outreach to African American communities. 

Additionally I think that more data collection, discussion, and analysis could be done on the following topics: 

Sources:

“About Demographics and Interests – Analytics Help.” About Demographics and Interests, Google, support.google.com/analytics/answer/2799357?hl=en.  Accessed May 8, 2021

Frequently Asked Questions, Legacy, memorialwebsites.legacy.com/FAQ.aspx#TimeRemain. Accessed May 8, 2021

MISSOURI – Core Based Statistical Areas (CBSAs) and Counties, US Census Bureau. , 2 Dec. 2018, www2.census.gov/geo/maps/metroarea/stcbsa_pg/Feb2013/cbsa2013_MO.pdf. 

Prener, Christopher. Health Disparities, 8 May 2021, slu-opengis.github.io/covid_daily_viz/disparities.html#St_Louis. Accessed May 8, 2021

Verdery, Ashton M., et al. “Tracking the Reach of COVID-19 Kin Loss with a Bereavement Multiplier Applied to the United States.” PNAS, National Academy of Sciences, 28 July 2020, www.pnas.org/content/117/30/17695. Accessed May 8, 2021Report this

William Bill England

William “Bill” England died from complications of COVID-19 while suffering from Alzheimer’s on December 29, 2020 at the age of 82. After serving in the military*, Bill was a graphic designer who worked for Maritz Motivation, Koplar Communication, and retired from Argosy Gaming.

Sources:
William Bill England’s obituary at Schrader

  • I am assuming that William served in the military due to the flag on his obituary that signifies service

Richard “Ike” Eichenberger

Richard “Ike” Eichenberger died from complications of COVID-19 on December 23, 2020 at the age of 76.

Ike had a lifelong career in music, and served in the U.S. Army in the Vietnam War as Acting Commander of the American Division Band in Chu Lai, South Vietnam. He was a music educator for over forty years in Orchard Farm, St. Charles, and Ferguson-Florissant school districts and at Fontbonne College, Lindenwood University and Meramec Community College. Ike was a vocalist, multi-instrumentalist, performer, mentor and teacher throughout his life. He and his first wife Mary were an amazing musical team. They had no children and welcomed their students into their hearts and home. Mary passed away, and in 2017 Ike remarried and was immediately loved by his wife’s adult children and grandchildren.

Ike is missed by his widow, step children, thousands of former students, and the countless people whose lives he touched.

Sources:

Richard Ike Eichenberger obituary at Hutchens Funeral Homes 

Carolyn F. Purzner

Carolyn Frances Purzner, formerly of Washington MO, died from complications of COVID-19 on January 14, 2021, in St. Louis at the age of 82. Carolyn was a survivor of esophageal cancer and macular degeneration.

Carolyn had no children of her own, and poured her love into her vocation as an Registered Nurse.  She was a graduate of Lutheran Hospital School of Nursing in 1959 and worked in St. Louis and then Dallas for many years. She moved back to St. Louis to care for her older siblings who were experiencing health problems. She’s remembered as being “the favorite aunt” and was always a nonjudgmental listening ear to vent to or for good advice.

In keeping with her sense of commitment to service and medicine and a strong family history of Alzheimer’s, Carolyn donated her brain to Alzheimer’s research.

Carolyn Purzner is missed deeply by 18 of 22 nieces and nephews, and 42 great- and great-great-nieces and -nephews.

Sources:

Carolyn F. Purzner obituary on Legacy.com 

Sue Harley

Sue Harley, born Alvina Louise Allgeyer, died of COVID-19 on January 25, 2021 in St. Louis, Missouri at the age of 84. Sue moved to St. Louis in 2008 where she lived at Gambrill Gardens.

Sue raised three kids with her late husband. After they were grown and out of the house, she fulfilled her dream of graduating from college. She continued to work at Cincinnati State College for 16 more years until retirement.

Sue Harley is missed by her two living sons, grandkids, family and extended family and friends.

Sources:

Sue Harley obituary at St. Louis Cremation 

Charles Leroy Harper

Charles Harper of Perryville, MO died at Barnes Jewish Hospital of COVID-19 at the age of 81 on February 13, 2021.

Charles was a veteran having served in the Illinois National Guard, and married three times. He is remembered as being a “rolling stone” and “restless soul”. He had many careers and adventures, most notably in the mining industry working as far away as Columbia South America. He gained his Commercial Drivers License at the age when most people are retired (at age 69) and worked as an over-the-road truck-driver which he only stopped doing because he became incapacted with COVID-19.

Charles Harper is missed by his wife, an ex-wife, six children, grand-kids, extended family, and the many friends he made during his adventurous life.

Sources:

Charles Leroy Harper obituary at Monarch Cremation 

Ronnie Lattimore

Ronnie Lee Lattimore of Edwardsville passed away December 13, 2020 at the age of 81 after a hard-fought battle with Covid-19.

Ronnie retired from his career at Amoco in Wood River and was enjoying retirement with his wife of 63 years. He loved making wood carvings, eating breakfast at Denny’s with his friends, and also stayed an active member of Troy/Collinsville Church of Christ.

Tragically for his family, Ronnie’s little brother James passed 8 days later (cause of death not available).

Sources:


Ronnie Lattimore obituary at Panynic Funeral Home
 

Phyllis C. Hall

Phyllis C. Hall died from COVID-19 on February 9, 2021.

From her obituary: “Phyllis was born in Springfield, Illinois. She graduated from Washington University with a double major of Education and English. She also graduated from Webster University with a Master’s degree in Human Resources Development. She ended her career as a recruiter with St. Mary’s Hospital.

Phyllis was a passionate golfer who loved to be outdoors; loved to dance and most of all, loved to laugh and have fun.”

Her age is unknown but I believe from finding her brother’s obituary that she was born between 1940 and 1957.

Sources:

Phyllis C. Hall obituary at Kutis Funeral Homes 

Dr. Robert E. Kuhlman

Robert E. Kuhlman died of COVID-19 at the age of 88 on January 10, 2021.

After completing a research fellowship at the National Institutes of Health with an associated appointment in the Public Health Service, Robert returned St. Louis to complete his surgical training in orthopedic surgery. He received the first grant establishing the Orthopedic Research Fellowship program at the medical school. He had a private practice as an orthopedic surgeon and was adjunct faculty at Washington University for 38 years and coauthored numerous research papers. Robert loved photography, dining out with his late wife (d. 2010), home improvement and spending time with his five kids and numerous grandkids.

Dr. Robert Kuhlman is missed deeply by his kids, grandkids, extended family, friends, and all those whose bones and joints he helped make better through his work as an orthopedic surgeon.

Sources:


Dr. Robert E. Kuhlman obituary at Bopp Chapel

John Keith Vernier

John Vernier, a 62 year old Registered Nurse at Mercy Hospital South in St. Louis died of COVID-19 on January 12, 2021.

John was retired from the US Navy where he served for 21 years on submarines and served during Operation Desert Storm. After retiring from the military, John went back to school for his RN degree, and took a few classes with his daughter Christine who was also in nursing school. John had a true helper’s heart and was always there at any time for his family, friends, and coworkers.He had three daughters with his wife of 37 years, and LOVED being a grandpa. John was looking forward to retiring from his second career and enjoying more family time.

John Vernier is missed deeply by his wife, his father and step-mother, his three daughters, grandkids, coworkers at Mercy South Hospital, and everyone whose lives he ever helped make brighter.

Sources:

John Vernier obituary at Kutis Funeral Homes 

Jason Moss

Jason Moss died from complications of COVID-19 on January 20, 2021 at the age of 52. His body had cleared the coronavirus, but could not recover from the devastating effects of the disease. It was up and down for a long time, with 49 days on ECMO and almost two months on a ventilator. He fought hard but suffered from two strokes in his brain, and his body shut down for the last time.

Jason grew up in Collinsville IL, traveled the world in the Navy, then came back to St. Louis and graduated from St. Louis University with a bachelor’s degree. He most recently worked administration and analysis for a local hospital. His pride and joy of his life was his three sons, triplets, born in 2005. He was a Boy Scout Leader and poured his heart into being the best father in the world.

Jason Moss is missed deeply by his teenage sons, his wife, parents, family and everyone fortunate enough to know him.

Sources: