Remembering the Dead: Obituary Writers Restore Humanity to Covid-19 Crisis

Telling individual stories in the face of unyielding mass casualty

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Emilia Pontarelli, the matriarch of Tony’s Italian Deli, an institution in Chicago’s Edison Park neighborhood, was 93 when she died last month of Covid-19.

But her life had many twists and turns before then: As a young girl in Italy, Pontarelli challenged a Nazi soldier who stole her pet goat for dinner. In her 90s, Pontarelli challenged her son-in-law to an arm wrestling contest to show how strong she still was. 

Pontarelli’s story, how she lived and died—her last words to her family were communicated over FaceTime—was told by a woman who had more than once shopped at Tony’s.

“I knew that this was a place that thousands of people rely on for good food,” said Maureen O’Donnell, the obituary writer for the Chicago Sun-Times.



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