In his too-short life, actor Nelsan Ellis was ashamed of his secret — hard-fought addictions to drugs and alcohol. When he died this month, his family refused to allow that shame to follow him to the grave.
After an initial report that Ellis, best known for his role on the HBO vampire drama, “True Blood,” had died from heart failure, his family clarified: heart failure caused by complications from alcohol withdrawal. In a statement, the family said they believed Ellis would want his “life to serve as a cautionary tale in an attempt to help others.”
Ellis’ real cause of death is usually the stuff of tabloids and gossip websites, but what his family did seems more than a desire to get ahead of what might have otherwise been a salacious story. It’s part of a movement of truth in death, with surviving family members in obituaries refusing to regard addiction as an embarrassment, and lifting the veil on what for addicts and their relatives is an all-consuming struggle.
“People are more willing to personalize the stories of the dying around us in ways we didn’t really see in the last couple of decades,” said Gary Laderman, author of “Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in 20th-Century America” and an Emory University religion professor. “I think obituaries are now much more free-flowing, and people are more willing to try capture something of the character, personality, and truth of the deceased in ways that once weren’t so open.”
Once, no family dared list substance abuse as a cause of death in a newspaper obituary. Addicts were akin to criminals. Even after many began referring to addiction as a disease, it remained a source of public disgrace and judgment. That started to change as the opioid crisis became an epidemic, and its body count spiraled upward. Families began to write loving tributes to children, spouses, and parents lost to drugs, and obits were also threaded with warnings to others and pleas to public officials for action.
“We may be at a turning point because of all public attention to this particular epidemic and all the craziness [opioids are] causing in people’s lives, especially young people’s lives,” Laderman said. “This may be an example of how society is now much more willing to talk about it and try to do something about it.”
As a young journalist during the height of the AIDS crisis, I was occasionally drafted to write obits. While a funeral director might mention that the person I was memorializing had died of the disease, at the family’s request that information never made it into print. Relatives did not want people to know their sons were gay, or had succumbed to a disease so feared and misunderstood some thought it could be spread just by being in the same room as a person with AIDS. When I lost friends to AIDS, I was always disturbed that their obits would say they had “died suddenly” or from cancer. More often than not, local LGBT weeklies told truths that mainstream newspapers dodged.
As with opioid overdoses now, the stigma surrounding AIDS deaths slowly lifted. “At first there is a kind of silence around it, but then gradually there are ways that the cause of death becomes more public and brought into the narrative of a person’s life,” said Laderman, who recalled an era into the mid-20th century when cancer deaths were shrouded in secrecy.
Today, social media helps fuel our openness. We grieve on Facebook memorial pages and turn hashtags into tributes on Twitter and Instagram. Death’s sting is now accompanied by likes and retweets. As people craft and curate an online persona, once-taboo details of a loved one’s death are a natural extension in a culture of public sharing.
“In some ways it’s very democratic,” Laderman said. “There’s no holds barred, there’s no convention or formalities that were somewhat controlled by certain cultural authorities like funeral directors, the local pastor or rabbi, or doctor.”
On “True Blood,” Ellis was lauded for his full-bodied portrayal of the beloved Lafayette Reynolds, a take-no-mess black gay man who lived openly and without compromise. He inspired those who saw in Lafayette a rare reflection of themselves, or who they could be. That’s what his family also wants with the unvarnished truth of Ellis’ death — for those who struggle with substance abuse to see themselves in this young man who achieved his dreams, but was ultimately consumed by his addiction.Renée Graham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham