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Obituary Trends of 2015: Opening the Book on Addiction and Mental Health

by Legacy Staff

Millions of obituaries were published in 2015, each memorializing a unique life. Many followed a traditional format: brief biographical information, a list of surviving family and information about funeral services. Typically, the biographical information included is limited to what will help identify the deceased to readers – vocations, affiliations and accomplishments that a family wishes to note. The traditional obituary, you see, is not the venue for airing a dead person’s struggles and failures.

In 2015, though, a growing number of obituaries and memorials took a different tack: describing how the deceased struggled with and succumbed to addiction, depression and other mental health issues.

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One high-profile example of this phenomenon occurred when Stone Temple Pilots frontman Scott Weiland died at 48 in December 2015. Mary Weiland, the singer’s ex-wife, released a sad statement on behalf of herself and the two children she had with Scott, both teens. Titled, “Don’t Glorify This Tragedy,” the statement was frank about the substance abuse and mental health issues that had dogged Weiland for years, and the effects it had on his children. “The truth is,” Mary Weiland wrote, “like so many other kids, they lost their father years ago. What they truly lost on December 3rd was hope.”

Going on to exhort readers who are parents to “try just a little harder and don’t give up,” Mary Weiland followed a pattern that has become familiar over the course of 2015. Many families of people who have died this year as a result of addiction, suicide and other mental health issues have opted to publish obituaries that shed light on the issues with which the deceased were struggling. Such obituaries urge readers – blatantly or tacitly – to get help if they’re facing similar situations. 

These obituaries can be emotionally raw and at times difficult to read, but they do important work in destigmatizing issues of mental health and substance abuse. They can also be a wake-up call to families, making it clear that these issues are, in fact, often fatal. These obituaries encourage other families to get help for their troubled love ones.

Here are a few examples of 2015’s most frankly written obituaries:

Coleen Sheran Singer died of a heroin overdose Dec. 25, 2014, but her obituary appeared in the Bangor (Maine) Daily News in July 2015: It’s an honest, angry plea that calls society and the government to account, but does not excuse Singer’s role in her demise: “She was a victim of herself, of (Maine Gov. Paul) LePage’s politics, of our society’s continuing ignorance and indifference to mental illness, and of our society’s asinine approach to drug addiction.” The mention of politics is a reference to cuts in state medical programs that some say made it more difficult for heroin addicts to access methadone treatments.

Singer’s obituary was written by her ex-husband, Brent Singer, who was interviewed by the newspaper after his tribute to his friend and former wife went viral. “It just seemed like the right thing to do, and I tried to be honest about her life and her conditions,” Singer said. “She obviously was no angel and no saint, but she was a remarkable person with some real talent and good qualities, too. I wanted people to know that, I guess, and not just think of her as some junkie, or have her die without even the sort of public tribute that most people receive.”

Traditionally, suicide is not mentioned directly in obituaries; instead, there’s a kind of code: The deceased “passed away suddenly at home” or “died unexpectedly.” But Miguel Angel Orozco-Tejeda, according to his August 2015 obituary in the Modesto Bee, “took his own life in the early morning hours.” Orozco-Tejada’s family, clearly hoping to use his obituary as a way to help others in similar circumstances, goes on to request that “in Miguel’s memory, please remember: Always be kind, always be patient. Always love, and always care. No matter who you are, we are all human beings and deserve to be happy, accepted, and most importantly, loved.”

It requires courage to flout societal norms by addressing suicide directly in an obituary, but often that is the point: to acknowledge, one obituary at a time, that suicide is more normal that any of us would like it to be, and to remove some of the stigmas from mental illnesses such as depression. Dr. Paula Sandler’s family, for example, asked that those reading open their hearts “and offer compassion without judgment for those that suffer from illness rooted in stigma, trauma or shame.” These are just two of several obituaries that addressed suicide directly this year.

Meanwhile, numerous recent obituaries for U.S. military veterans refer to the veterans’ struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues. Some do so implicitly, just asking for donations to be made to an organization that assists veterans with PTSD. Others, like Michael Roth’s, discuss the matter more openly. “Though not apparent to others, Mike had deep personal struggles – especially since returning from an Army tour in Iraq as a medic. He was diagnosed with PTSD and, while we thought he was getting better, he chose instead to end the pain, and took his own life. His family is heartbroken.”

These are just a few of the families who addressed their loved ones’ demons directly in obituaries this year. The families still honored the memories of their loved ones – perhaps more so, since the obituaries painted more accurate portraits than traditional obituaries, which omit certain uncomfortable details. These frankly written obituaries do some good in the world: They start discussions, serve as cautionary tales, and normalize important issues that have often been swept under the rug. While we saw quite a few of this kind of obituary in 2015, we’re likely to see even more in 2016 as the trend continues: not because addiction and mental illness are claiming more lives, but because the frank obituaries already published have helped to remove the stigma for future families, and encouraged them to deal with these matters openly and honestly.

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