Big-hearted to goofy, obituaries transformed by social media

Posted at 12:18 AM, Aug 14, 2015
and last updated 2015-08-14 08:16:46-04

CHESTER, Va. -- Thursday's funeral for 104-year-old Dorothy McElhaney of Colonial Heights was a sensation, complete with an antique horse-drawn hearse clomping down Old Hundred Road in Chester, followed by family and friends on foot.

But her death was already rather sensational because the heartwarming obit she seemingly wrote (which got a lot of attention) was actually written by her family and borrowed directly from the first-person death notice written by Emily Debrayda Phillips of Florida that had gone viral.

That's doubling down on social media and news action.

It's all part of the virtual revolution of obituaries. Now anyone can become internationally known in death, even if they lived in obscurity. They can catch on in social media if they're sweet, quirky, humorous, revealing or nasty enough.

You may recall last fall's obit about local football fan John Ray Bartgis, who asked that the Washington Redskins serve as his pallbearers so the team could let him down one last time, a request other fans have made for other teams.

Delaware drinker Walter Bruhl Jr. got lots of postmortem clicks when he complained in his obit that his wife wouldn't agree to his request to have his body leaning up against a wall at the funeral home, Jack Daniels in hand, so he would look natural to visitors.

And Val Patterson of Utah used his obit to confess that his PhD was fake and he had stolen a safe 40 years earlier.

Viral obits now drift ghostlike through our social landscape fairly regularly, often tugging at us with a message made stronger and more meaningful by death:

The father who confessed in his obit that he was really Spiderman, that his young son needed to know that and understand he was undone by the bite of the arch-fiend Cancer.

The parents who opened up about their son's overdose; the children who wrote of their abusive mother who had made their lives miserable.

Then there are the rambling ones filled with offbeat observations and last requests.

Mary Anne Pink Mullhaney of Wisconsin became famous for urging people to recycle pantyhose, allow dogs to sleep with them and go to a funeral home and kiss everyone there.

The obit in Florida that was partly borrowed here began with, "I was born, I blinked, and it was over" and ended with "Today I am happy and I am dancing."

So is this just a trend, another pop culture shift nudged by social media that will fade away as the novelty wears off?

I think not. There are 70 million baby boomers all drifting toward their obituaries. We have never done anything by the book. My guess is, the liveliness is just starting in the world of death notices.