Death and typos: my six strange years screening online obituary comments | Life and style

Rarely is it “loss”. Mostly, “lost” or “lose”. “Sorry to hear of your lost,” an author might begin. Or: “So sorry for your lose.”

Authors have problems with “passing” and “spirit” and “sympathy” too: “We’re saddened by his sudden passion.” “Rest in the arms of the Holy Spitit.” “My deepest symphony”.

For six years, I worked at an online memorial company – part of an invisible network of content moderators tasked with reviewing condolence messages, or guestbook entries, attached to obituaries. I left this past February having screened nearly 500,000 comments about the recently deceased.

My main responsibility was to keep a queue system of differently labeled, never-ending condolences safe and sugarcoated. Surprisingly, I was rarely bombarded with violent or pornographic messages. Mostly, I deleted spam.

In January 2018, after a dozen years on the peripheries of indie music and freelance writing, I needed some reliable income and applied to an unusual job screening online content in the death industry. Online memorials have existed since at least the 1990s, offering a place for mourners to pay their respects digitally. Over the decades, they have become a familiar part of the modern grieving process – and a big source of traffic for the companies that provide them, ranging from funeral homes to Facebook.

An apt typo would break up the dark, sloppy tediousness of death work. (A recent favorite: “timbering” loved ones instead of “remembering” them.) Lately, with the freshly bereaved writing condolences on iPhones, sympathy notes are freighted more with autocorrect than grief. For example: “No words to describe this terrible trade gym.” Or: “During this difficult time, hang onto all the find meteorites.”

When I mention this job to others, I’m immediately asked to reveal the most offensive sympathy note I’ve read. Here’s one that’s safe to print in a family publication: “I know it’s last minute, but are you available to come cut the grass at the house today? Mainly the front please”. (And another gem: “Burrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrp”.)

Commenters often use the guestbook section as they might use social media, sharing work gossip, relationship spats and health updates. From the condolence screener’s laptop, however, there is one big everyday obstacle with monitoring small dispatches of daily life: we aren’t allowed to read the related obituaries – it slows our productivity rate. Screeners are constantly monitored, instructed to work in the queues without clicking out of them for the duration of our shifts. Deprived of the grand picture, I would often find myself left with head-scratchers: is the author addressing a parent or spouse? Is this entry for a person or a pet?

When I wasn’t processing condolences, I would shuttle between more sobering assignments. For example, I reviewed names of the deceased, correcting any spelling errors in death notices. (I was still not permitted to read the obit itself.) I also verified and input service event details. Burials, funerals, interments, entombments, inurnments, committals. This type of somber yet menial data entry was suspiciously omitted from the original job description. Sure enough, half of each shift eventually consisted of it.

As I worked out of our apartment, my longtime partner often witnessed the frantic drudgery of death work – how it reduced me to a dazed-looking schmucko supremo dismissing her in shushes and hand waves. It was hard enough to screen human complexity while heating up dinner. It was even harder knowing every keyboard click was logged by faceless supervisors and scrutinized for inactivity gaps. While I call it “death work”, my partner saw my job closer to grief work. Except from her own detached position, she considered an unreflective content screener as the very worst kind of bereavement counselor: “Who, really, is the arbiter of what’s an appropriate way to express grief?”

Early on, I reacted to this job by defiantly ditching my own filter whenever away from my remote desktop. After one shift, I remember walking to the home of a notable Chicago musician for a dinner party. It was a rarefied event among, let’s say, not-exactly-ordinary mortals. Once seated, each guest was asked what they had brought to the table. If ever there was a moment for content moderation in real life, this surely was it. But after hours of deleting or flagging entries I found authentically human, I lost all tact.

“I bring death,” I said flatly.

I’ve never been invited back.

Perhaps the most challenging part of my job was screening references to family fallouts and estrangement – the most common reason that entries are flagged or deleted. It turns out, I could handle tiny slices of other people’s messy and meandering loss. What was far more overwhelming was bowdlerizing it.

Full disclosure: I’m estranged from over half of my relatives. I imagine this is why the queues’ seemingly eternal soapy family drama gnawed at me. Note after note, I was confronted with the grim realization that entries for my own small, fractured family would likely be deleted.

Running parallel, or perhaps underneath, all the disputes and estrangement is regret. The day always seems to be getting away from authors, preventing them from what’s urgently needed: rebuilding past relationships. “I thought we had more time” is a remorseless refrain.

Screening vast amounts of regretful messages typically jolted an eagerness to repair my own family rifts and neglected friendships. And then, inevitably, the day got away from me too.

For a few years, directly after work, I would travel a dozen miles to a boxing class. I believed that the best way to reconcile myself to death work, and perhaps death itself, was to smash sledgehammers on to tires.

Week after week, I would inelegantly throw punches next to jacked, statuesque boxers, carefully stepping around fresh blood drizzled across the ring. Though I intended to keep my day job separate from boxing nights, I quickly opened up to a curious, tolerant community. On a few occasions, I even recall sparring while chatting about inappropriate condolence notes.

The Covid-19 pandemic upended my unexpected boxing stint. It also irrevocably transformed sympathy note screening. One might think a global pandemic would unify grievers. Nevertheless, authors noting Covid-19 devastation arrived in the queues alongside entries dismissing it as a “liberal hoax”.

There is, however, one observation about our turbulent times that I didn’t need to delete. An observation, I should add, with strong bipartisan support among disparate guestbook authors: entries written to those who had died years ago almost always emphasized that the deceased were lucky to be missing out on our current world.

Near the sixth anniversary of sympathy note screening, I asked my parents and partner if I seemed more sympathetic lately. Their response? Not whatsoever. Instead, my mother was quick to note a harsher observation. “You’re more conscious of time, even when you don’t need to be,” she said. “You’re always on the clock now.”

I wonder: Was I subconsciously “always on the clock” due to working in an industry built on those who have permanently clocked out? Or had arduously screening unending content against a stopwatch just to meet “productivity goals” scrambled my sense of time?

Whatever the case, death work didn’t lead me to a greater understanding of life. Mostly it just reinforced what I already worried about.

Still, reading half a million condolence notes convinced me of one thing: the empty “thoughts and prayers” language around grief might drastically improve if we communicate only in typos.

And so let me conclude my own flaggable entry with a sympathetic hope: during these difficult times, amid terrible trade gyms, always remember to keep hanging on to the find meteorites.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *