December 20, 2021 9:00 AM EST

It seems a strange metric indeed, but one way of marking the resumption of something like normal life is the return of the year-end In Memoriam list. It’s true that COVID-19 killed more Americans in 2021 (405,000 by mid-December) than in 2020 (385,000), and millions the world over. Neither tally takes in the death toll from the opioid pandemic that since 1999 has killed more than 940,000 Americans. Deaths jumped to 100,000 in the first year of the pandemic.

And yet, in shape and feel—kids back in school, churches open again—life was sometimes familiar enough to once again regard its ending as something natural and, at a certain distance, even comforting. Any obituary is an opportunity to look back and assess, not only someone’s life but also our memory of the time it occupied. Does metaphor lurk in the passing of Bob Dole and George Schultz, neither considered a moderate in the GOP of their time? Can we move past our grief and find meaning in the deaths of those who passed before their time? We can muse on such things when deaths come one at a time.



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