In the TV show "Modern Family," three generations of the Dunphy-Pritchett clan lived within blocks of one another. Connie Sheehan's family may be more representative of a true modern family: Her relations are scattered across two continents.
"We are everywhere," said Sheehan. "The family is in Chicago, Germany, Florida, Seattle, California, me in St. Paul."
That created complications when she took charge of the obituary for their mother, who died in May.
Sheehan's mother, Erika, was born in Germany, where she met Aaron Wright, an African American solider stationed in Stuttgart. After marrying in 1957, they returned to his Mississippi hometown, then moved to Chicago, where they raised their eight children.
"We all wanted to tell about our Mama," Sheehan said. "Since she's from Chicago, it wouldn't have made sense to put obituaries in all the places we [children] live to let our friends know she passed."
That's why Sheehan turned to Epilogg, a free online platform founded in Minnesota. It allows survivors to memorialize loved ones by creating online obituaries that can be shared on social media.
In addition to the traditional information — parents, spouses and descendants, funeral services, memorials — survivors who post on Epilogg can provide a link to a streaming service for the funeral and set up click-throughs to their charitable donation of choice. Because there are no space limits, they can write extensive life stories and post multiple photographs. They can also continue to update and add to the digital memorial.
"At the time of the death, the family has a tool to post the news and get it on their social media feeds," said Jane Helmke, president of Epilogg. "Later, when things aren't in crisis mode, they can come back and edit and add to the story and update arrangements as they make them."
Online obituaries options aren't new. In fact, they've been around since the late 1990s. But they're growing in popularity in a transient society where people want to share death notices beyond hometowns.
Legacy.com, one of the oldest and largest, is a repository of obituaries from more than 1,500 partner newspapers, which pay fees to keep the obituaries listed. It allows you to search and share obituaries, but doesn't allow posts to remain up indefinitely without a fee. Many of the other obituary platforms — including online options offered by newspapers —allow for in-depth life stories, photo galleries and click-through links, but may require fees or subscriptions to keep a posting up online or to allow for continued customization.
A news desert option
According to the state Health Department's most recent vital statistics, 44,533 Minnesotans died in 2019. That number could fill every seat at Target Field — with another 5,000 waiting at the gates.
But not all of them are memorialized in paid printed obituaries, in part because community newspapers have taken a hit.
According to a University of North Carolina project that tracks so-called news deserts, some 1,800 local papers have gone out of business since 2004. The project also tracked a 22% decrease in the number of Minnesota newspapers between 2004 and 2019.
Four years ago when Atina Diffley's father died, the family placed an obituary in the small-town Wisconsin newspaper where her parents lived.
But that paper was no longer being published when her mother died in December. So Atina and her five siblings filled an Epilogg page with stories about their accordion-playing, gardening, jam-making mother. They added more than two dozen photographs and even posted an image of her handwritten recipe for carrot cake.
"I love the idea that the page will be here for her descendants," said Diffley, of Lakeville. "We laid out her life in chapters. That gives a true picture of her and how she lives on through her influence on us."
Grand Marais, Minn., has only one print newspaper, which publishes weekly. WTIP, the North Shore's noncommercial community radio station, "is the main media up here," according to executive director Matthew Brown.
The station broadcasts news, weather, high school sports and local events to a large but sparsely populated coverage area. Announcers once read local obituaries over the air, but the station website now links to Epilogg instead.
"Listeners can comment on them, say what they felt about the person who died," said Brown. "The number of clickthroughs on our website is quite amazing; everyone reads the obits."
Brown said that families outside of the Arrowhead often post obituaries through the radio station's link.
"The person who died might have lived in Minneapolis or Chicago, but they had a connection to Cook County, they loved the Boundary Waters or had a cabin on the Gunflint Trail and their family wants folks in our area to know," he said.
KMOJ, the noncommercial "Voice of the People" radio station broadcasting from north Minneapolis, also partnered with a webpage link to Epilogg.
"Obituaries can be cost-prohibitive but without a record, history can be lost," said Freddie Bell, the radio station's general manager. "Epilogg doesn't replace the printed word, but it can be a bridge."
When his mother died in 2011, Bell placed her obituary in her hometown Kansas City newspaper. Recently, he created an Epilogg to pay tribute to her.
"I want her kids and grandkids to be able to use technology to learn about her. They go to their phone for everything, from their immunization records to where a movie is playing. Now it's where they can go to meet my Mom."
A gift to share
For its first year in operation, Epilogg kept its focus on Minnesota. This year, it's starting a national rollout, linking to news outlets and social media sites in other states. Mary McGreevy, one of Epilogg's founders, said the plan is to make the platform profitable by adding premium options, writers-for-hire and partnerships with florists and funeral, cremation and end-of-life service providers.
Six months after her mother's passing, Connie Sheehan broke down and wept on what would have been "Frau Erika's" 90th birthday.
She also paid a sentimental visit to her mother's Epilogg post, looking at sepia-toned pictures from her girlhood in Germany and re-reading reminiscences about her church volunteer work and how she taught her grandchildren to play poker for money.
"Since Mama died, so many people texted and e-mailed us about her courage and big heart. My friends got to see the full picture of what a pistol she was," Sheehan said. "It's been a gift to share her."