When someone dies, there is a brief window of time in which they are spoken of very widely and earnestly. It is like a dam in our collective emotional consciousness has been lifted, and a flood of tributes pours forth. Over time, the flood recedes, and the words slow to a trickle and then, perhaps, dry up completely. This sliver of time immediately after someone’s death is tender and strange and frightening; in a word, it is overwhelming. Those close to the deceased are left not only to process the prickly minutiae of the immediate facts and effects of death itself, but also to swat through that pain to, quite suddenly, think about what their loved one’s life meant. It is somewhat cruel that story-making must immediately follow such upheaval and be explicitly tied to an ability to express these things in word and speech, but so it is. When someone dies, we are left to speak about them with each other and to sort through these complexities, to piece together what will hopefully be a defining, powerful text: a eulogy.
I think of a eulogy as a more flowery, subjective, context-friendly obituary (a form which I associate, perhaps erroneously, with factual accuracy rather than any cultural or sociopolitical analysis). Most of these eulogy-style texts are personal—written by someone close to the deceased, reflecting upon the person’s relationship to their community, the world and the future, while reckoning with the gaps left in these places. But what about eulogies that are written by someone who is an utter stranger to the deceased?
This is the work that professional journalists, writers and editors undertake after a culture icon passes—or, sometimes, before. Josh Visser, editor in chief of VICE Canada, wrote a eulogy of sorts after Frightened Rabbit frontman Scott Hutchison died last year. It was shared tens of thousands of times on social media, garnering praise from across the world and earning Visser a Digital Publishing Award nomination. It is a personal, beautiful and rough-edged elegy to an artist who meant a lot to many. But it wasn’t written following the announcement of Hutchison’s death. Visser wrote most of it after Hutchison was declared missing a few days earlier.
He shrugs that some people might see it as ghoulish to write a eulogy before someone has died. “Even though I was genuinely grieving over Scott, even though as a human you’re thinking about things in one way, you can’t quite turn off the journalist brain, which is, ‘I need to have this ready to be in that space,'” said Visser. “There’s a little bit of weirdness there.”
This is part of the reality of pop-culture eulogy writing, an industry within an industry (or content cycle within a content cycle) that, for a brief time, dominates international news feeds. It is a fascinating and macabre corner of the writing world, where writers and editors clash over whether the practice is effective (and for whom), responsible (and to whom), or exploitative (and of whom). It is all of those things and more, depending on who you speak with. These eulogies are shaped by the same complexities that their subjects had to negotiate in life; like the lived experience, this work is carried out under and between a series of challenging conditions—almost all of them guided by capitalism and the demands of a profit-driven click economy.
Former Pitchfork editor in chief Mark Richardson was thinking of these things when he tweeted earlier this year, “does every culture writer imagine the future death of an artist they care deeply about and wonder ‘What will I write?'”
Richardson, now Wall Street Journal’s rock and pop music critic, has memorialized cultural figures like Beastie Boys’ Adam “MCA” Yauch and Michael Jackson. He says that in his line of work, the deaths of pop culture figures are an omnipresent concern. At Pitchfork, he and his team didn’t just react quickly when someone died; like many other major culture publications, they planned ahead for the occasion.
“We had all these plays for dealing with big news at a given moment,” he explained. “Sometimes, meetings would be like, ‘What if it’s 11 p.m. and Pete Townshend dies?’ I remember thinking at that time, man, I’m not looking forward to…” he trailed off before re-centering: “I just remember thinking how difficult it would be for me to confront my own relationship to his career.”
This is something culture writers in this arena are saddled with: not only the mechanics of their usual labor—putting together sound, factual and resonant copy—but also figuring out how to honor and respect a person and their life on a razor-thin deadline. There are a plethora of approaches to handling this work. There’s the template set by The New York Times obituaries desk, referred to by almost every source in this story as the gold-standard for tasteful and warranted writing after someone’s death. (Former Times obit writer Margalit Fox described the practice as “the most purely narrative genre in any daily paper.”) But other strategies, like the very personal bent of Visser’s essay, can become a strenuous exercise in self-reflection and emotional honesty. The value of these pieces—as well as the toll they demand—is a subject of debate among writers and editors.
It’s a space that Bandcamp senior editor Jes Skolnik thinks benefits from transparent subjectivity. “These kinds of pieces usually have a very quick turnaround, which means processing a lot of extremely complex feelings in a very short time,” said Skolnik. “I try very hard to be upfront about how much the artist’s work has informed my day-to-day. Are we from the same communities? What role does their music play in my life, and why?”
“We are all biased in some way or another, even if we maintain appropriate distance,” Skolnik added. “I believe it’s our duty to our readers, and ourselves, to be as clear and honest about all of that as possible.”
Myles E. Johnson, senior culture editor at Afropunk, remembers writing his first pieces on this beat about Amy Winehouse and Whitney Houston after their respective deaths. “Unfortunately, I’ve had to do a lot since then,” he said. In the past few months, Johnson has written about the deaths of filmmaker John Singleton and rapper Nipsey Hussle. He noted that the process involves a “public performance” of grief in the effort to articulate why someone’s death isn’t just a death, but a loss.
“It’s beyond just, ‘any human loss is a loss,’ but as a perfect stranger of this person, why does this still leave me grieving?” Johnson continued. “It’s trying to figure out what are the tools that I can use as a writer, and how can I then interpret it so I can better crystallize why this is a loss.”
He is honest about the process: “All of that feels like a performance.”
While writing like Johnson’s is a measured, intricate and intersectional community reference, a vast amount of writing isn’t as careful. Freelance writer Gary Suarez thinks most mainstream media content following a person’s death is a crass play for clicks, capitalizing on a deceased figure’s cultural impact to reel in readers. He refers to this simply as “death content.”
“Where ‘death content’ comes into play is that it exists solely for the purpose of having something out there,” explained Suarez. He differentiates this from short news pieces or Times-style obits sharing information of a person’s passing, which serve clear functions as news pieces. “It’s this desire to build buzz-worthy content, build listicles, off of someone’s death that just seems wholly gross to me.”
Suarez points to the unsavory economic model that governs the majority of modern digital media outlets. “The metrics that drive these sites create this sort of culture,” he said. “Especially if we think that someone’s art or work has value, we can’t be approaching it with the same sort of mechanical approach that we do other forms of content. That’s not the wave.”
Writer and editor Anupa Mistry links the issue to a broader media culture that chronically underpays its contributors. “That the formula has been scaled so that a person who gets paid less than a living wage makes $50 writing a fan’s lament for Lil Peep or resurrecting the ghost of Freddie Mercury for a listicle of YouTube performances… feels so sinister,” Mistry said, adding, “Too sinister to separate or justify on its own merit as somehow more valid than the rest of the garbage internet.”
This machine has ramifications beyond just workers’ tenuous relationship to their labor. These pieces represent some of the last viable opportunities (by current monetizable media market’s standards) for writers to dialogue with and about a person’s work and cultural contributions. What is committed to the record in this period often becomes a resource for those referencing or researching the person. Unless these works are carefully considered and meticulously crafted, they threaten to skew or contaminate the cultural canon.
The brand of shiny universalizing—geared towards snaring as many readers as possible—that tends to run through ‘death content’ contributes to this. “If you’re looking towards making something that appeals to as many people as possible, things have to be lost, things have to be flattened,” said Johnson. “Nuance can’t exist the more you’re trying to do something for a large audience.”
The adherence to principles of timeliness and clickability contributes to this issue. “In the rush to produce content to contextualize a recently deceased figure, so much is collapsed into who they are as people and not often what it is they did,” said Mistry. “It’s like a morbid version of celebrity gossip.”
Writer and editor Rawiya Kameir sees this too and wrote about it in 2016. “Often there is an instinct to sanitize someone’s legacy, to normalize hyperbole, to favor biography over more expansive cultural crit,” she explained. “Given that Google has proven itself to be a very fallible archive, I worry about what gets buried when there’s a spoke of interest in someone’s life and work.”
“A lot of ‘death content’ now happens on social media, and that requires its own form of algorithmic gate-keeping,” Kameir added. “In general, I think nuance dies a little more every day.”
The tendency towards hyperbolizing (and obscuring nuance) is, in part, a product of the morbid, grand finality of death. “Maybe it feels like the last occasion to write about someone and that gives it a feeling of depth that isn’t always warranted,” said Kameir. Richardson noted that often, the current media climate only allows room for certain people to be written about when there’s a news peg that promises click traffic. The first and final chance writers might have to talk about their favorite artists professionally might be after their death. “If you had a relationship with an artist’s music for 20, 30 years, then you’ve built up all these thoughts,” he said. “You think about what that artist meant to you personally, and then there’s a desire to square that with who they actually were. It feels, in some way, like a last chance to offer your take on who they were and what they meant.”
Recasting industry protocol is a vexing task. It is difficult work that by necessity would have to stray from preordained capitalist impulses towards immediacy and universalizing. But many writers feel that in the case of eulogy-writing, doing away with timeliness is the first step toward a healthier work environment—and a stronger, more responsible digital record.
“The first thing is doing away with the news peg,” explained Suarez, noting that the current content economy and algorithm-based curation are impediments to fostering deep, meaningful and accessible catalogues of deceased culture icons’ work. “The question even after a good pitch is, ‘Why now?’ If we can remove that component from it, it will give a lot of writers the time to do justice to that artist’s legacy, and help foster that legacy.”
Kameir noted that this would benefit readers by allowing writers and editors the time and space to find new angles, research thoroughly and “connect dots that might otherwise not be connected.” Skolnik said simply, “God, I hope we move toward more sustainable and less corporatized solutions soon.”
For Johnson, community-minded solutions are the way to subvert these dynamics. He says he finds this sort of writing work easy precisely because he doesn’t try to universalize, extrapolate or hyperbolize. “In my head, there’s a specific reader,” he said. “There’s another black queer person reading me when I’m writing.” Not every outlet allows for this sort of work; writing for international publications, he says, might force a performance that isn’t genuine. (Kameir noted that a friend once received edits on an obituary piece requesting that it be funnier.) Johnson says it’s about keeping things close to pocket. “That eliminates a lot of pressure, when you don’t feel the need to speak for anybody but what you know. And I know nothing better than I know myself.”
This orientation toward and reconnection with community relations and solidarity—and disengaging from the demands of the attention economy—seems to be the remedy for many of modern capitalism’s ills. Taking the time to ruminate, carefully and completely, on a deceased person’s work is an opportunity, not just to honor them, but also to strengthen our understanding of the past and present and recalibrate for the future. It is a moment to celebrate, but also to consider what to bring with us, and what to leave behind.
“When you go to a funeral, specifically a black funeral, you say how amazing [the deceased’s] work is, and you give a story about how the person affected you—not as a way to center yourself, but as a way to show that this person is still living in a certain way,” explained Johnson. “It’s a way to articulate that person’s power, from a place that you actually know.”
“Thinking [the writer is] selfish or not selfish, it’s probably both of those things. As somebody who has lost people in my life, the act of writing about somebody who’s gone is an act of self-centeredness not for yourself, but for the culture,” he added. “I don’t think that’s selfish. I think that’s still communal.”