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Narratives of prevention and redemption in opioid overdose obituaries


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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