Election-year theodicy? Washington Post explores rise of faith-haunted, political obits

So do you remember Mary Anne Noland of Richmond, Va.? Her name surfaced recently in a way that was both humorous and poignant, during a "Crossroads" podcast about the "lesser of two evils" dilemma faced by many voters in this year's White House campaign.

All over America, people were talking about her obituary in The Richmond Times-Dispatch. Some people thought this was a hoax, perhaps something from The Onion. The folks at Snopes.com quickly verified that this viral sensation was the real deal.

If you do not recall the details, here is how the Noland obit opened:

NOLAND, Mary Anne Alfriend. Faced with the prospect of voting for either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, Mary Anne Noland of Richmond chose, instead, to pass into the eternal love of God on Sunday, May 15, 2016, at the age of 68. Born in Danville, Va., Mary Anne was a graduate of Douglas Freeman High School (1966) and the University of Virginia School of Nursing (1970). A faithful child of God, Mary Anne devoted her life to sharing the love she received from Christ with all whose lives she touched as a wife, mother, grandmother, daughter, sister, friend and nurse. ...

You could see, in the Noland obituary, that this family's faith was woven into this story and linked, somehow, to the disdain they felt toward the two major candidates (depending, of course, on the outcome of the crucial FBI primary and the growing revolt among GOP delegates, many of them cultural and moral conservatives).

Surely this obituary was a one-of-a-kind heart cry, right? As it turns out, it was not. That leads us to a quite amazing feature in The Washington Post that ran under the headline, "Disdain for Trump and Clinton is so strong, even the dead are campaigning."

Did this feature deal with the moral and religious elements of this phenomenon? Sort of.

The Post team did open with the Noland story and left the family's religious language intact. Here is the summary material that explains what this story is all about:

The dead have had an unusual amount to say this election cycle. They have forgone flowers for votes. They have looked back on their lives and said their “only regret is NOT being able to vote against Hillary Clinton.” They have called the presumptive Republican presidential nominee “Trumpypoo,” who attracts “Angry Not Smart” supporters.
One of the quirkier byproducts of a campaign season defined by vitriol and polarization has been a dramatic increase in the number of people whose last words are being used to campaign.
Between June 2003 and June 2004, according to data provided by obituary clearinghouse Legacy.com, only five notices mentioned the presidential contest between George W. Bush and John F. Kerry. Over those same months leading up to the 2008 clash between Barack Obama and John McCain, there were 28. Mitt Romney and Obama elicited 22 mentions four years ago.
This cycle, however, there have been 119.
Is disdain for Trump and Clinton driving the surge?

What's going on here? The experts consulted by the Post seem convinced that this mini-trend has more to do with the social-media age than with questions about this year's two major candidates and, well, the content of their characters.

The experts say that modern Americans are getting used to sharing their innermost feelings in digital settings in which a wide variety of people have a chance to see them, share them and pass them around. And what are the topics that are supposed to be off limits in polite public talk? The story notes:

The political obituary, experts say, has become a metaphor. The time when it was considered impolite to openly discuss politics or religion is long gone.

As you would expect, there are people who are enthusiastic about a candidate and want to urge people to head to the polls. At least one candidate is thankful, to a degree.

No matter how sick Ernest Overbey became over the next six months, he closely monitored every Trump tidbit. So when he died in early January, and Deborah Overbey was trying to figure out what to say in his obituary, she said she thought it was only fair to work in Trump. The obit’s final words: “And please vote for Donald Trump.”
Three days later, as the obituary started gaining attention, Trump tweeted it. “Thank you so much. Earnest must have been a great person,” Trump wrote, misspelling his name.

Then there was the obit of one Jeffrey Cohen that featured this finale: "Jeffrey would ask that in lieu of flowers, please do not vote for Donald Trump.” The man's wife, Carol, signed off on publishing that message.

Then, believe it or not, that was not the end of that story:

Nine days later, after that obituary had already netted national attention, Carol Cohen died, too. Officially, it was complications from pneumonia. But really, the obituary said, the 69-year-old “died of a broken heart” after her husband’s passing.
Then this happened: “She would like to thank everyone who pledged to honor Jeffrey’s request not to vote for Donald Trump,” her obituary said. “And to Jeffrey’s detractors/Trump supporters -- beware, she will likely haunt you until the election.”

The bottom line: It's hard to write a story about death and dying without including some references to religious themes and beliefs. Religion is simply part of the territory.

In this case, the Post team didn't edit out these references. That was good. However, this feature didn't really wrestle with the possibility that this year's election has offered unique challenges to voters who have deep, traditional religious commitments.

Let's face it, there are plenty of voters out there who, looking at these candidates, are asking: What is God up to, here? Apparently, more than a few people are thinking about that issue on their deathbeds. It's like a milder form of the "when bad things happen to good people" puzzle linked to the term "theodicy."

So this story has some of the puzzle in place, and that's good. I would have appreciated knowing how many of the other 116 or so of these obits included references to faith and painful choices of campaign 2016.

The Post team went full circle and ended with another passage about Mary Anne Noland. This was truly a laugh to keep from crying situation for Noland and her loved ones.

When things got really bad, Noland said, and they had moved her to hospice care, his wife said the only bright spot she had was that she wouldn’t have to vote for anyone “in this crummy election.” ...
So when she died, he wanted to memorialize that part of her, allowing that comment into the obituary, which took off on social media. He soon realized that in this age of politics and rapid information, his wife’s death had somehow given life to her memory.
“I wasn’t trying to gain publicity,” Noland said. “I just wanted to express my wife’s wit and personality and faith. Then it took on a life of its own.”

Should reporters keep watching this trend? Sadly, I would say "yes."

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