When my father, Jim Kerr, died in late February at the age of 83, we followed many traditional rituals. Notifying distant relatives. Finding an appropriate suit. Visitation at a local funeral home. Packing up and donating personal possessions.

One significant exception was publishing an obituary in the local daily newspaper, in this case the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from which employees are now on strike. That among other reasons made this a difficult decision. For people of my father's generation, reading the death notices or obituaries is an important way to stay informed of the passing of neighbors, coworkers and friends. Deciding not to place an obituary was therefore a painful choice.

For my father, it was more personal. He was raised by his maternal grandparents. His grandfather, Gil Remley, was a newspaper man for more than 50 years. He got his start in 1908 as a copy boy racing between reporters and editors. He worked his way up to reporting, eventually landing in the sports departments of the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, and then the Post-Gazette.

A black and white obituary newspaper clip of Gil Remley.
The obituary of newspaper editor Gil Remley, Jim Kerr's maternal grandfather. (The Pittsburgh Press via Newspapers.com)

My father was immeasurably proud of his grandfather who had cultivated a lifelong respect for reading the daily paper in his children. My father in turn did the same with me. My parents subscribed to the Pittsburgh Press and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Both of them read them cover to cover. They passed this on to me. I've always subscribed to my local daily no matter where I lived, from Washington, D.C. to Baton Rouge, then to Todd County, Kentucky, and back to Pittsburgh.

And, yes, I read the obituaries. As did my parents. There was no simpler means to share this information in an era long before home or personal computers. Phone calls to immediate family and friends were expected, but how else would a former student of a beloved teacher or a coworker from former jobs know about this significant life event?

We ran an obituary when my mother died in February 2022. My father didn't warrant a news obituary, just living an ordinary Pittsburgh life. That left me aiming for a paid obituary. Several barriers stood in the way.

First, there was the picket line of the striking Pittsburgh Post-Gazette employees. It remains important to me to respect the picket line, given the role of labor unions in my own family, including my father’s life. So I called a member of the Pittsburgh News Guild and was assured that it was acceptable to honor my father with an obituary in the P-G. It was sort of like a union absolution. They were very kind about it.

Second was the cost. My father was buried on a Monday so finding a publication date was exasperating. Finding the funds was more so. I rely on Social Security Disability Insurance for my income, about $1,200 monthly. I've been dealing with domestic issues that left me without much to spare. Life insurance didn’t stretch that far.

I did the math after a P-G employee sent me a rate sheet. By my estimate, the obituary I wanted to run would have cost more than $600, including funeral home fees, for a one-day notice.

Pennsylvania law requires us to go through the funeral home to publish an obituary.

Funerals are fraught with grief and unique family dynamics. In the best of cases, there are bound to be some differences of opinion. When a family has underlying tensions coupled with the sense of loss, even small details such as a flower arrangement can become a big deal. Crafting the obituary, deciding where to place it, and how long to run it are one of those potential big deals.

My family couldn’t agree on obituary language. I posted my tribute to my father on my blog, Pittsburgh Lesbian Correspondents.

But it pains me that my father of all people was the first in our family to not be memorialized. He had dozens of neighbors, hundreds of coworkers, and probably a helluva lot of drinking buddies. There’s no telling whether they all got word of his passing.

It feels significant that his ordinary obituary didn't run. It reflects a changing of the mourning rituals that's inevitable as papers continue to fold. How will we share information about this vital milestone in every single life?

Ridiculous costs, outdated systems

For over ten years on my blog, I have created memorial posts for transgender neighbors who have lost their lives to violence. I know it is important to devote a space to fuse sharing their life story with news of their deaths. It's not an obituary, but sometimes it is the only published piece that honors their true identity. I always try to center their humanity, not just the circumstances of their death. People should know how they lived.

Sue Kerr recognizes that she has had support throughout hard times post-hysterectomy and she wonders how others with little to no safety net are getting through hurdles and uncertainty she faced. (Photo by Ryan Loew/Rtvsrece)
Author Sue Kerr. (Photo by Ryan Loew/Rtvsrece)

Social media is one option. But creating obituary content for all of the platforms is laborious. Countless times, I've come across a memorial image followed by countless inquiries for details. Exerting energy to answer all of them is also not sustainable. And many of the larger sites still require a family to go through a funeral home.

My father also lived a life in the shadows, not on social media, a product of his generation and his family circumstances. His funeral only had three flower arrangements and scant contributions to our in-lieu-of-flowers charity. He deserved to be acknowledged and celebrated one final time, to have the dignity of a proper obituary. His work on earth was done.

But he did not have that. And I suspect more and more of his peers will suffer similar fates.

The cost of an obituary is ridiculous, absolutely taking advantage of grief. The state law about going through funeral homes is appalling. I understand the need to confirm the death. Still … It would be easy enough to create a system through which any newspaper outlet would be able to confirm death through the county or state with a few clicks. State law around death is behind the times.

I feel immense guilt and regret that my father endured this final blow to his dignity, a confirmation of his lifelong belief that his life was overlooked. All the blog posts I can muster won't reach the audience he deserves.

Closing a historical goldmine

In my genealogy work, I read many newspapers.

In the early 20th century, most people used a “death notice” format to share the information: The person had died, here are the arrangements. Many of these notices included a call to other papers on the newswire to run the notice locally as well. These notices were paid by length so keeping things simple was a necessity.

An obituary of one of the author's relatives, Katherine D. Butler. (Newspapers.com)
An obituary of one of the Sue Kerr's relatives, Katherine D. Butler. (Newspapers.com)

As the century moved along, people began writing a little more information, albeit with some constraints. The person died on a date, they were from a certain community. They had survivors — a spouse, children, perhaps parents. Funeral arrangements. That’s that. It feels like a very mid-century modern attitude with a stiff upper lip while still needing to keep up appearances.

As time wore on, the obituaries grew more elaborate, listing extra details such as the place of birth, full names of the parents and clarification on whether they survived the deceased, names of siblings and the spouses of children and even special family members like a beloved cousin.

More recently with the onset of the internet, obituaries can list multiple generations by name, and plunge into the pastimes and activities of the deceased. The write-up might mention their workplaces and religious beliefs. Sometimes, the family will give a shout out to any caretakers. The notice of someone’s death might often contain essential bits of information about the story of their life.

The 1864 obituary of James Kerr, Sue Kerr's 5x great-grandfather. (Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette via Newspapers.com)
The 1864 obituary of James Kerr, the author's 5x great-grandfather. (Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette via Newspapers.com)

For a family researcher like me, it's a goldmine.

I found my father’s maternal great-grandparents, both unknown to us descendants, through searching obituaries. I found a Pittsburgh Gazette news obituary for my 5x great-grandfather, James Kerr who died at age 86 in 1864. James Kerr warranted a news obituary, perhaps because he was a financial patron of the Gazette. Death notices filled in the stories of his son, grandson and so on through the descendants, until reaching my father, also James Kerr.

I found the obituary of my father’s paternal great-grandmother, learning she had spent nearly a decade of her final years in a state hospital. No one knows why, especially since her children had the means to support her.

The obituary of his other paternal great-grandmother, Sadie Butler Kerr, offered incredible information about her work with the Women’s Benefit Association of the Maccabees. She wasn't just a millworker’s wife/widow eking out a life for her four children. She was a revolutionary, offering women access to life insurance. She was changing the lives of working class women. Sadie traveled around the region. She even organized picnics at Kennywood right up to her death in the 1920s. Her life was very hard, but also very large. And we never knew until I saw a women's association listed in her death notice. The association wasn’t listed as a bragging point; it was added simply to notify them of her death.

I have unraveled many mysteries using obituaries. I found one set of my great-great-grandparents both through death notices and obituaries. Both were previously not known to any of us by name.

Will researchers generations from now know where to find details about my father?

How will we know?

The barrier of price is simply part of our economy. Some people have life insurance that can be applied to the obituary. If not, this is one of those occasions where people find the money somewhere. This is so ingrained in me that I remain aghast that I have not found a way to rectify it.

The barrier of shrinking media resources presents a different challenge. As the page width shrinks, the cost of the column width spikes. Or the page disappears altogether.

The obituary of Jim Kerr's paternal great-grandmother, Sadie Butler Kerr. (The Pittsburgh Press via Newspapers.com)
The obituary of Jim Kerr's paternal great-grandmother, Sadie Butler Kerr. (The Pittsburgh Press via Newspapers.com)

I haven’t read the Post-Gazette in more than 18 months, in solidarity with the strike. I haven’t read a new obituary in that time either. The dawning realization that I was relying solely on social media to keep me informed on the lives and deaths of my classmates, neighbors and extended family is dismaying.

At least two of my casual friends have died in the past six months, as did one distant relative. I did not know until weeks or months later. That delay hurts me and the community. Others may find opportunities for this ritual limited as we lose our print media sources. Both are reflections of a future that is losing touch with important components of our past.

Newspapers serve as part of our communications network. The exchange of information about life and death events is essential not just for the broader construct of news, but for an informed public.

My Dad, Jim Kerr, died in February 2024. I should have been able to honor him with a traditional obituary, and inform his former colleagues, high school friends and neighbors. His legacy should be accessible to future generations.

Sue Kerr (www.pghlesbian.com) is a national award-winning LGBTQ activist and blogger. She is an adult who no longer has living parents. She can be reached at pghlesbian@gmail.com or on Instagram, TikTok, and Facebook @pghlesbian.

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