…Obituaries no longer tell you the cause of someone’s death? It seems to me they used to. Now they say, So-and-so died “after a long illness”. Well, what was it? Was it cancer? Was it AIDS? Was it leprosy? Oh wait…I know leprosy isn’t fatal, I’m just making a point. Why won’t they tell you?
The point is that unless you’re a celebrity, only the people who knew you well will know why you died. If you’re a celebrity, we’ll know if it was an overdose, or anorexia, or you smacked into a tree while snow-skiing, or you crashed your ultralight plane. But for the rest of us poor schmucks, apparently it must be a well-guarded secret. Why is that?
Is it like a need-to-know basis, and we don’t have a need to know? What the hell possible difference could it make? If you’re the deceased, I pretty much think you’re beyond having your feelings hurt. Is it to protect the sensibilities of the family? Well, why would you care either? The jig is up, so to speak. If you tried to protect a family member with AIDS during his or her life, to protect them from being shunned or discriminated against, that’s understandable. But at death, you are released. Why not just come clean? (Naturally I have a theory about that…to come later.)
Sometimes So-and-so dies “after a short illness”. So, what was it? Did they have the flu? Food poisoning?
Sometimes So-and-so dies “unexpectedly”. What happened? Was it a car crash? Tree limb fell on them during a hurricane? Drive-by shooting? Electrocuted by a hair dryer in the bathtub?
Although you will never know, sometimes the obit has clues, which always start with the following phrase: “In lieu of flowers, the family requests that you make a donation to….” Of course, that doesn’t always work either. If they want you to make a donation to the International Cat Protection Society (don’t look for it, I made it up), it tells you only that the deceased loved cats. If they want you to make a donation to a local hospice, that tells you only that the deceased died “after a long illness”.
The occasion for this post is that on Thursday and Friday, there was an obit in the Tallahassee newspaper for a young man, age 20, who died on New Year’s Day. I am not an obit reader by nature. Unlike people of my grandparents’ age. They compulsively turned to the obit section of the newspaper right off the bat, to see if anyone they knew had died. I always thought that was extremely sad. What is this, like a countdown to your turn?
What struck me about this obit, as I was flipping past it to the next page, was that it was a column and a half long. The newspaper gives you like three lines for free–after that…And these people ran a column and a half for two days. So I stopped and read it. And it was beautifully written, heartfelt and bittersweet. The writer completely captured the essence of this young man, to the point where at the end, you felt like you knew him and would have wanted to be his friend. It was not generic. It didn’t say “He was generous and loving”. It said, on weekends, if a friend needed his help, he would spend his time with his nose buried under the hood of the friend’s truck. It said, he chose as his soulmate a “simple country girl” named Elizabeth. How Elizabeth must be suffering right now…that part got me.
You had to get to the very end before you found out he died in the burn unit of Shands Hospital, and “in lieu of flowers…”, the family requests that you make a donation to the Children’s Burn Camp. But what happened? How did he get burned?
This is not morbid curiosity on my part. I am simply irritated with the apparent political correctness of the whole thing. Theory time: we try to sanitize death. Sweep it under the rug.
Last week I paid a visit to my friend Judith, who is dying of metastatic breast cancer, and somehow the conversation turned to my cat Erin who died mysteriously three years ago. “There he was,” I said. “lying in the street and he looked perfectly normal, except he was dead”. Judith said, “Death IS normal. It’s part of life.”
You don’t get more philosophical, or un-politically correct, or more truthful than that. The thing is that, once you accept it–as opposed to being young and feeling immortal–it’s quite okay. You are released from fear. Then you can go ahead and live. And why is that?