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Narratives of prevention and redemption in opioid overdose obituaries
  1. Elizabeth Troutman Adams1,
  2. Mara Buchbinder2
  1. 1 Center for Communication Science, RTI International, Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, USA
  2. 2 Department of Social Medicine, Center for Bioethics, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC, USA
  1. Correspondence to Dr Elizabeth Troutman Adams, RTI International, Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, USA; etroutmanadams{at}


Obituaries of people who died from an opioid overdose represent a new territory for understanding cultural narratives of the US opioid epidemic. Drawing on textual analysis of 30 opioid overdose obituaries published on between 2015 and 2020, we describe a prototypical narrative conveyed through opioid overdose obituaries, which renders symbolic meaning through the voices of the bereaved. Obituary authors reimagine their subjects as tragic heroes and reconstitute opioid addiction as a curse, plight or affliction that befalls its victims. Many of these obituaries invoke the language of public health, calling for reform, action or general awareness so other families might avoid the havoc and heartbreak of opioid addiction. We argue that obituaries contribute to broader cultural narratives of opioid addiction by reproducing tragic storylines, vindicating and humanising the deceased, framing opioid addiction as a societal, rather than individual, problem, and medicalising addiction as a brain disease beyond a person’s control. Obituary texts thus intertwine a personal story with a broader societal health crisis, transforming stories of the deceased into cautionary tales and public health warnings.

  • medical anthropology
  • cultural studies
  • drug and alcohol misuse
  • comparative literature studies
  • literary theory

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  • Contributors ETA conceptualised the study, conducted the literature search, collected the data, analysed the data, drafted the manuscript and edited the manuscript. MB conceptualised the study, analysed the data, edited the manuscript and served as the scientific advisor throughout the project. ETA accepts full responsibility for the finished work and the conduct of the study. Drs. Brian Southwell, Nori Comello, Daniel Hallin, Daniel Riffe and Lawrence Greenblatt reviewed an initial draft of the manuscript.

  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient and public involvement Patients and/or the public were not involved in the design, or conduct, or reporting, or dissemination plans of this research.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.