When it comes to Death, we’re the Biggest Liars

I’ve always been the kind of person who reads the obituaries in the local newspaper. I don’t believe I have an unhealthy curiosity about death. I just think it registers and I pay attention to it. It could be that being a PK provided me with elevated exposure to the reality of death. And I lived for 12 years about 50 feet from a cemetery, next to the country church in Iowa that my father served from 1972-1984. It didn’t much bother me, except of course on those nights following a burial. (For the record, nothing ever happened.) Regardless of the exact etiology of it, I’m an obituary reader.

Obituaries often hide the cause of death, leaving readers to speculate (sometimes wildly) about the nature of the death and life of the deceased. And, to be honest, whether their own choices played a role in bringing about their death. As I get older, this part interests me more than it used to. Most of the time, we’ll never know. We say they “passed away,” as if death is typically painless and gentle. Hardly—having witnessed it twice. (Even my mother-in-law, God bless her, was telling a slightly different story about it within hours of my father-in-law’s death.) Now many people just say “passed,” as if they’re not even “away” at all. In the local newspaper yesterday, there were at least three references to passing away “peacefully” or “quietly.” While preferable no doubt for the dying and grieving, I’m not sure this is information for the public. Nor have I ever read of someone dying “painfully” or with considerable aggravation, even though it’s a safe bet that those occur with a great deal of regularity. Speaking of peaceful, suicides are sometimes subtly indicated by phrases like, “John is finally at peace.” (Is he? How would we know?)

So obituaries tend to lie, or at least harness the truth and run off with it. Sometimes they report that the deceased “never met a person he didn’t like.” (Obviously he didn’t get out much.) I recall a student here who died a few years ago in a car wreck; while his obituary spoke of [Read more...]


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