I think my first “official” job was working in the Children’s Shoes department at Halle Brothers department store. I was 16. I also worked in Food Service during college, in the Communications dept with The Cleveland Chamber of Commerce (summer job), and after I moved to Chicago, I worked at Studio One recording studio in the city.
As varied as these jobs were, though, nothing prepared me for the most unique job of my life. It started the day I joined Legacy.com.
If you have ever searched for an obituary online or left condolences on a loved one’s Guest Book, chances are that you visited this site. Legacy.com works with over 1200 newspaper affiliates in the U.S., Europe and Australia. They also work with over 3000 funeral homes. They attract 44 million unique visitors a month. Basically, Legacy.com receives a daily data feed of obituaries from their newspaper affiliates and then places them on both the newspaper and Legacy website. Legacy offers their newspaper affiliates customer service, screening and technical support for those pages.
My history with Legacy.com started in early 2007, when I was looking for a part-time job. They hired me as a “Guest Book screener” and worked from home. What does this mean? A Guest Book is a virtual book where friends and family members leave condolences when someone passes away. It is found on the obituary page. Legacy trained me to read Guest Book entries as they were submitted into thousands of Guest Books. I had to review each entry for anything such as copyright issues (song or poem lyrics to name a few), profanity, spam, negative comments about the deceased or random additions to the obituary such as “I am the REAL daughter of Mary Smith.”
I never edited an entry. I either approved it, deleted it, or passed it on to a senior member for further review. I should clarify that if I deleted an entry, it was still in the system and could be posted anytime.
The goal of this review was to protect family members from seeing an entry that might be upsetting. Legacy also needed to comply with laws pertaining to copyright issues, etc. There is no cost to submit an entry into a Legacy Guest Book. I also remember that there were approximately 40 remote Guest Book screeners spread over maybe 4-5 states. We had to work in 4-hour shifts 17 hours a day, seven days a week.
From there, they asked me to work part-time in Customer Service from home. Although I could not accept work phone calls, I assisted the department by answering emails. Soon, they offered me a full-time position, and I transitioned to working in their office, which was only a 20-minute drive.
It seems strange to say that I loved a job focused on death, but I did. I guess the secret is that the staff didn’t see it that way. It was fascinating to us to read unique obituaries and learn about the lives of people. I bonded with the employees I saw every day and found them to be exceptionally smart and creative people who cared. Mostly, they were almost a generation younger than me.
The job had its challenges. When a person didn’t see their entry, we would have to explain why. We always tried to work with them to remove the sentence or word which was preventing it from appearing online. Sometimes they understood; but not always. We saw emails with FREEDOM of SPEECH written in capital letters. They wanted their entries online NOW.
The truth is that freedom of speech rights do not apply in this situation. They explained it this way:
“The person is choosing to make a comment on the Legacy.com website. Legacy.com has every right to not post something that they feel may be illegal, insensitive or hold us liable. It is our name and business. If John Smith wants to say something that falls outside of Legacy’s policies, he can use his free speech protection at Johnsmith.com.”
There were other challenges. We understood we were working with people at the worst moment of their lives. Grief certainly presents in different ways. We spoke to customers in tears; they needed someone to listen. There were times I was on the phone for over an hour with a mother who lost a child to violence or illness or a man who had lost his wife of 50 years. Our managers always encouraged us to take a break and maybe a walk after a difficult call.
Sometimes that grief manifested in anger and it was directed at us. This happened for many reasons. As I had referenced, it might be about a missing entry. Or, a caller might insist that content in the obituary be altered; either by removing something or adding a name. Since it was technically the newspapers’ content because they accepted the obituary and worked with the purchaser, we could never make a change. If we confirmed the name of the notice purchaser with the newspaper, however, and placed that name in our system, we could honor requests.
Death can create deep tension among family members. There were a handful of times when separate obituaries would be purchased and posted by opposing family members.
Overall, they taught us how to de-escalate and solve the problem, but sometimes it didn’t work. Our mantra was “it is the grief talking.”
Fortunately, we made connections with the customers too. We built trust with them. For instance, Evelyn from New Orleans would only speak to me when she called regarding a request related to her sister’s obituary. If I wasn’t there, she would call back! For whatever reason, she was comfortable with me and we would briefly chat about her health before addressing her request that day.
There were many unusual days at Legacy. One day, the employees were getting ready to throw a baby shower in the lunchroom when the news broke that Michael Jackson had died. When a prominent person died, we set up a Featured Guest Book. People looking for news or wishing to leave condolences would visit Legacy to sign it. It was a popular feature. We set books up for any notable person, including Neil Armstrong, Nelson Mandela and Robin Williams, to name a few.
We understood, however, that the Michael Jackson book would attract millions of fans, so the baby shower was canceled and all staff members, including management, helped to screen and post the entries. One thing I remember that day is that the actress Farrah Fawcett had also died. She received many entries, but I always felt her death was overshadowed by the musical superstar.
I will also always remember answering the phone and briefly speaking to a British Petroleum (BP) executive who wanted to set up Memorial Guest Books for the employees they lost in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. My manager assisted him.
September 11th was always a somber day. It was busy with hundreds of family members submitting an annual message of love to their departed sisters, brothers, parents, sons and daughters.
This reminds me of another use for Guest Books I witnessed in my years there. If you search Legacy.com, you will find Guest Books with a few entries, while others have hundreds. (There is no limit to the size of a Guest Book.) Some family members found comfort in writing, or “talking” to their loved one daily or weekly about the day’s events. Without a doubt, Guest Books became a type of therapy for certain individuals. It was a connection to their loved one and they used it as a journal.
It sounds strange, but there was humor in the job too. Some families honored a loved one by writing a funny obituary. When one of the staff discovered one, they would share it so we could all have a laugh. I am paraphrasing, but I remember a line from one of them:
“I would like to request that my pallbearers be six Chicago Cubs baseball players so they can let me down one last time.”
This is another example:
“Robert Clyde Drew, beloved husband, father, and Papa, drew his last breath on January 25, 2018. Mainly, we suspect, to prevent himself from having to watch the Patriots and Eagles in the Super Bowl. A loyal Cowboys fan, he died peacefully with his daughter by his side, knowing full well that Dez, did, in fact, catch the ball. Rob was born June 21, 1931, somewhere in Maine, though none of us are sure where exactly…”
I think it is important to clarify that services and policies I reference here may be updated or removed by now since I left Legacy several years ago. My husband and I were moving to Florida to be closer to family (and to warm up from cold Chicago winters.) I was really torn about leaving. There was a brief discussion about working remotely from Florida, but they had no other employees (guest book screeners) hired in the state and there were employee/business state licensing issues involved.
I will always remember how well they treated me. Not only was I hired full-time (which I wasn’t looking for!) they promoted me into customer service management with a nice pay increase. Eventually, I became the funeral home liaison too, as we increased partnerships with hundreds of them.
It was a fascinating job. I loved what I did. When I tried to explain my job to both friends and new people I met, I would occasionally see eyes glaze over as they looked away. Death. No, thank you. Others got it right away. In 2009, I helped an active-duty soldier in Afghanistan who called in needing help to find and sign a Guest Book for a family member in Illinois. The whole concept of connecting on a global scale was still relatively new then, and I was thrilled to help him.
I visited the site to spark my memory for this post and I see they have included Coronavirus Memorial Tributes honoring those who have died since 2020 and there is even a podcast now titled “Immortalized.” Life goes on at Legacy as they look for new ways to celebrate it.
Newspaper Photo by Dziana Hasanbekava