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

New way of doing COVID memorials

As you might know, this site St. Louis Covid Memorial is the efforts of one woman, me, Jessica Murray. I hand write each memorial as a synopsis from each COVID-19 victim’s obituary and any relevant social media or other information I find about them. This part, even after getting it down to a “routine” takes over an hour each night… and then an hour or so more, to decompress. When I write about these people in St. Louis who have died of coronavirus, they’re “real” to me and it makes me sad that our world has lost their light. It’s incredibly depressing.

Unfortunately people are still dying of this virus, and obituaries that mention COVID-19 as cause of death represent only a fraction of our collective loss (with an unintentional bias that does not represent the fact that black people are dying at almost twice the rate as white people). This was not the “summer” or even “2020” project that I thought it would be. It’s an ongoing documentation and writing project which by continually humanizing the numbers as I write about each person, is incredibly depressing to me.

I’m changing how I “do” things from here out in an effort to balance out my mental health and also so that I can have time for my many other hobbies (I also love my birds, photography, writing about other things, teaching myself how to do various home repairs, reading, and occasionally vintage). I’ve decided to focus more on the task of preserving and archiving this sad history as it happens, and post originally written memorials only a few times a week. I feel that it’s more important for me to catalog and archive the names and photos (if available) of those who have died before their obituaries get lost in the unsorted archives of funeral homes and publications (obituaries and death notices sometimes are posted for only a few months, as I’ve discovered). I’ve taken time to screenshot and save everything, and will simply be posting the person’s name, age, date of death, and where (if available) they were from and where they died. I’ll be posting a screenshot of the original obituary and a link. This will save me the time and heartache of writing original memorials six nights a week.

Feel free – as always- to send memorials and posts of your loved ones, which I will promptly post unedited!

In solidarity with the National COVID-19 Memorial, January 19 2021 at 4:30PM Central Time

St. Louis Covid Memorial stands in solidarity with and in memorial of all those across the USA who have lost their lives to COVID-19, especially the 3,773+ people in our St. Louis Metro who are deeply and locally missed by their friends and families.

St. Louis Covid Memorial stands in solidarity with and in memorial of all those across the USA who have lost their lives to COVID-19, especially the more than 3,773 people in our St. Louis Metro who are deeply and locally missed by their friends and families.

We are working with Missouri Healthcare For All , CovidDay.org, and other organizations to plan future memorial events that memorialize and remember the lives lost to COVID-19.

If you’d like to get involved, please reach out!

Contact and submission form - general

General contact form to replace the one one that kept losing pictures.
  • If you're writing about a loved one, please let me know their age, date they passed away, and anything wonderful about them that you feel like sharing.
  • Occasionally reporters, advocacy organizations, researchers and others contact St. Louis Covid Memorial about the impact of this pandemic and opportunities to get involved. Is it okay to reach out to you and and connect you?
  • Drop files here or
    Accepted file types: jpg, gif, png, jpeg, , Max. file size: 128 MB, Max. files: 10.
    • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

    Reflecting upon 6 months of memorializing people in St. Louis who died of COVID-19

    It’s been about 6 months since that patio internet date on June 18 where I checked Twitter, saw what The City (NYC) was doing to memorialize all the people in NYC who died of COVID-19, thought “I can do that”, and was entering in my credit card info to buy the domain by the time my date got back from getting our delayed grab’n’sit meal. By the next day, the day that the St. Louis Metro passed 1000 deaths from COVID-19, I had created this site on “bulk hosting” that I had prepaid for in March for other projects and posted my first post. On June 24 I wrote and published the first memorial, appropriately about nurse Judy Wilson-Griffin – the first known COVID-19 fatality in the St. Louis Metro.

    I’ve learned so much in the past six months. I’ve been inspired. I’ve gotten in the news (local and national news via the Associated Press) and on St. Louis On the Air. I’ve connected with inspiring people. I’ve written, except for a few family/friend submitted posts, 167 memorials to people in the St. Louis Metro who died of COVID-19. Almost 3000 people in the St. Louis Metro have died of COVID-19 as of this writing (2923 as of December 17).

    I started out including people from St. Louis but who no longer live here who died of COVID-19, but after a few weeks decided that this site should focus on the actual local faces “behind the numbers” of the horrifying death statistics that we see on the news every night. I decided not to make a state or larger regional or national memorial because I believe that big changes start local.

    At first I was trying to “get caught up” with the obituaries and news stories about victims from April to June. Now, for my self care and sanity, I write and publish only one memorial a night. My process and routine are simple: on Sundays I go through the obituaries (currently monitoring Legacy’s Missouri obits that mention COVID or corona, the Belleville News Democrat on Legacy, The Riverbender, and St. Louis Cremation), news and notes to myself that people send me or that I find and email to myself as notes, and I save those as “drafts”. After my walk, after work (I’m still going into an office as of this writing), after dinner, after boyfriend if he comes over, I put earplugs in and sit down to write. I do a basic facebook and google search to see if there’s anything interesting about the person I’m writing about, and words come out of my fingers.

    Black people are still dying at roughly twice the rate of whites, which still is not fully reflected on this site despite my best efforts at reaching out to those communities (Black Corona Lives Matter is a great local Facebook group). This pandemic has brought out our racial and socioeconomic health disparities, and I hope that while there’s light on these issues there will be more efforts to resolve them rather than sweeping them further into the darkness.

    I’ve heard from victims’ families, which makes me cry almost every single time. I haven’t become numb to these human beings who are no longer with us, but I do a pretty good job at compartmentalizing and structuring my time doing this so that I pour my emotions into composition, then shut the browser tabs and more or less go on with my life (I am so fortunate!). Communicating outside of that zone reminds me that to so many others, it’s the waves of grief and sorrow that will last for much longer than an hour one night. My heart truly goes out to the surviving husbands, wives, daughters, sons, parents, best friends and families. I think a lot about the bereavement multipliers (”For every COVID-19 death, approximately nine surviving Americans will lose a grandparent, parent, sibling, spouse, or child.”).

    My biggest challenge has been the amount of time this takes. Unlike an exercise routine, writing memorials for those dead of COVID-19 is not becoming any easier the more consistently or longer I do it. Despite my best routine, it still takes at least an hour a night. I push through it knowing that others in this pandemic are suffering far more and far longer, so if this is the most discomfort and inconvenience that I experience then I am incredibly fortunate.

    I keep getting asked “why”, and I also keep getting asked “what’s next”.

    I’m awful at answering those questions because I truthfully don’t know it myself. I was not thinking ahead six months ago. I had a gut feeling that this pandemic wouldn’t stop killing before summer of 2021, but I wasn’t thinking in terms of this. I had a vague idea that maybe some bigger organization would take an interest in taking this effort over, but then I realized that everyone is too short-staffed, needing volunteers, processing change, and trying to at least tread water. We’re too much in the midst of living this history to really process it, so by creating St. Louis Covid Memorial I am volunteering into the future for an organization and cause I don’t yet know.

    To realize that I am providing a service to victim’s families, that this site validates their suffering and grief, has been unexpected. I don’t have the words when people tell me this, it just makes me want to blush and cry at the same time. Any compliments are more than I deserve for such imperfect memorialization of tragedies. My heart truly goes out to those experiencing death in this pandemic.

    I’ve communicated with an online friend about making a COVID-19 Memorial Day, which I still think is a great idea (and I even made a great site CovidDay.org)… That is a slow project which I hope that others with more time and resources will take the lead on. I strongly think that February 28, the day of the first publicly known death from COVID-19 in the USA, is a perfect date for a national day of COVID-19 victim remembrance (it doesn’t fall on any other holidays, either). I’m happy to help as I can!

    Yet, sometimes nothing is next, because it’s enough to just go about the mundane day to day while time slowly marches towards that light at the end of the tunnel. Sometimes, the honest and simple “why” is because memorializing deaths from COVID-19 in the St. Louis Metro area is the most helpful thing I think that I can do with my time and resources.

    “Life has a way of talking to the future, it’s called memory”,

    Richard Powers, The Overstory

    Observations, conjectures, and questions:

    • People often don’t put the cause of death in their death notices and that obituaries with cause of death noted seem to be the domain of the white and middle-upper classes.
    • There are lots of elderly people who died in nursing homes according to their obituaries, and I wonder if the families don’t want to provoke the ire (or legal arm) of management and staff at those places by posting that their loved ones died of COVID-19. If the experience was okay and nobody can be faulted… why make it look like you’re blaming an extended care facility?
    • I wonder if survivors feel guilt that they survived and wonder if or know that their deceased loved one caught COVID-19 from them. I wonder if this is also a reason to not post more publicly about their loved one’s death from coronavirus.
    • There are no prisoners on this site as of this writing, I have found no obituaries.
    • Black people are not proportionately represented (as previously stated)
    • There are no Hispanics or Asians represented on this site, at all. I know from statistics that they are dying of COVID-19 too.

    Creating St. Louis Covid Memorial profoundly impacted me, personally and beyond what I could have articulated at the beginning.

    In the background of creating and building this site, I have been dealing with home remodel angst (I bought a fixer-upper at the end of 2018), being the “new girl” at a job that I started in April (my last interview was memorably the day before everything shut down in mid-March), and unexpectedly starting a new relationship (not with the guy I went out with on June 19). Oh, and my three cockatoos. They are charming, intelligent, and they think it’s a game to distract me when I’m focused and serious. I wear earplugs when writing and they still intrude by screaming (at a measured 120 decibels), nipping at me, and chewing up interior trim and on the house in general (my neighbors can probably hear me regularly yelling “STOP EATING MY HOUSE!” and “OUCH DON’T BITE”).

    Dealing with other peoples’ callousness towards the human toll of this pandemic has become an absolute trigger point for me. I don’t understand why some people don’t wear masks. I don’t understand how people fortunate enough to get very mild cases of COVID-19 can still continue to deny the deadliness of this virus and why they aren’t praising their creator or knocking on wood that they were spared. Seeing such indifference and carelessness towards strangers and society as a whole has shaken the rose colored glasses that I’ve somehow kept on through and despite deep personal tragedies. I have come to the conclusion that most people are well-meaning but lazy and most of them not too smart.

    I’ve become more of a romantic. I write about people married 26, 38, 57 years… and I want what they had, with all the ups and downs, even to the point of becoming widowed (statistically likely). If I was the least bit commitment-phobic (which I was more than a little), I think I’m over that now. Writing these memorials and communicating with bereaved surviving spouses has taught me the power and importance of love.

    Processing all this death, by learning about the lives of those I’ll never get to meet, has made me reflect upon my own life. What would happen to my belongings and birds if I caught COVID-19 and had the worst outcome possible (death)? Who would write my obituary and what would it say? I’m taking every precaution not to catch this virus, and not to die in general, but as I’m too often reminded, all that could change in an instant (and those who take precautions sometimes still catch it since few things are 100% safe).

    I’m not sure how to end this post, and I could agonize over publishing and making small edits. Ultimately, I believe, and I hope that this site communicates:

    Life is precious. Every single life. Every person who died loved others, had people who loved and miss them, and made this world a little better by being in it. Nobody “deserves” to catch COVID-19 and lose their lives; it doesn’t matter if they were 100 years old or had 100 pre-existing conditions or had lost their mind to dementia. Every single death from COVID-19 matters.

    Thanksgiving 2020 without our loved ones lost to COVID-19

    This post is in memory of the 2243+ people in the St. Louis Metro area who lost their lives to COVID-19 and leave empty plates at our tables this Thanksgiving. With deepest sympathies to their grieving families on this 1st Thanksgiving without them. Also with the most sincere best wishes for recovery to those who are fighting for their lives in hospitals and unable to celebrate at all.

    My heart truly goes out to the grieving families today. The “first” Thanksgiving holiday without our loved ones is especially painful. As I sit here at my desk trying to find words to write, celebrating Thanksgiving alone and with all of my loved ones fortunately alive right now, I imagine the losses of others to COVID-19 and it makes me cry.

    1st Thanksgiving without those who died of COVID-19

    Mourning COVID-19 deaths in St. Louis

     St. Louis COVID-19 deaths and families mourning loved ones as of October 7, 2020

    Our country and community have only just begun to process all our collective grief and loss from COVID-19 deaths. No memorials today – nothing in the obits and nothing submitted. This doesn’t mean the virus has stopped just because folks don’t write that in their obits or post publicly. People are continuing to die. Families are continuing to mourn.

    According to the study “Tracking the reach of COVID-19 kin loss with a bereavement multiplier applied to the United States” (published 7/28/20) :”For every COVID-19 death, approximately nine surviving Americans will lose a grandparent, parent, sibling, spouse, or child.” For families in St. Louis, using yesterday’s numbers of 1704 cumulative deaths (from Chris Prener ), this means that more than 15,336 people in the St. Louis Metro area are mourning the loss of a close family member to COVID-19.

    A bereavement multiplier of 4 in the grandparent column means that if 100,000 people die, 400,000 grandchildren would lose at least one grandparent.” In local terms, this means that 6,816 people in St. Louis have lost a grandparent. Breaking down further, approximately 3,664 people in the St. Louis Metro are mourning the loss of a parent to #COVID19, 3,477 are mourning the loss of a sibling, and 784 are mourning the loss of a spouse to COVID-19.

    These are YESTERDAY’S numbers! Are we really okay with this? I have not, personally, lost a friend or family member YET. As the CDC projects as many as 250,000 COVID-19 deaths by October 31, there will be over 2 MILLION people mourning the loss of a loved one who died in the past 8 months.

    Families now “look forward” to empty seats at Thanksgiving, the first winter holidays without their grandparent, parent, spouse, sister, or brother… I don’t know how to end this. I want to say “when will be too many” but “too many” for me was the first 3. I guess it doesn’t matter to “too many” people as long as these aren’t “their” relatives dying… but if we keep doing nothing/too-little COVID-19 deaths will affect us all, and we can only hope to be the close relatives grieving, and not among the dead ourselves.

    Originally posted this to Twitter:

    St. Louis passes 1000 deaths from COVID-19

    Local news reported on June 19th that the St. Louis region had passed the mark of 1000 deaths from COVID-19. St. Louis County accounts for approximately half of these deaths, but has about 1/3 of the metro’s population.

    To stay consistent with local news and health data, St. Louis Covid Memorial will cover deaths from COVID-19 in St. Louis City, St. Louis County, St. Charles, Jefferson, Franklin, Lincoln and Warren counties in Missouri, and Madison, Clinton, Monroe and Jersey counties in Illinois.

    Stay healthy and stay safe,

    Jessica