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

When it comes to Death, we’re the Biggest Liars January 9, 2012

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 the profession of faith in Christ he made while at a Young Life event, his Facebook profile (and his friends’ comments) suggested he was far fonder of beer and women. I presume there must just be a stock set of phrases and ideas that are fed to mourning families when they build an obituary. Even in death, we’re busy managing (and frankly, manipulating) others’ impressions.

Indeed, we display some of the most profound and predictable acts of social desirability around how we mark the deaths of others. Social desirability, as I describe it to my undergraduates, is the desire for people to appear or seem to outsiders better than they actually are. Sometimes it’s willful, when we know that we’re not as good as we think but take pains to appear so. Sometimes it’s accidental, when we’re not as good as we honestly think we are. Anyways, social desirability—a normal thing—makes itself very obvious around death. It’s as if there’s a silent pact among human beings that we will not only not speak ill of the dead, especially the recently deceased, but that we’ll speak positively about them, their life, and their death. That remains the case even when their lives are largely wasted on consumption and sporting events, or the circumstances around someone’s death are, shall we say, “suboptimal.” That is, when people do foolish things and wind up dead. Even then we typically do our best to put a good face on it.

I had been meaning to write about this for a while now, but a news item further prompted me. Two undergraduates here died in a car wreck in Dallas last week, after a long evening of sports, drinking, and a nightcap trip to a strip joint. (Somebody please explain to me why a woman would go willingly to a strip club…to me just another anecdotal piece of evidence that women are not in charge of the market in romantic relationships. I digress.). Their lives may not have been in vain—I’m very willing to affirm that and will presume it. But their deaths were utterly preventable, and the circumstances around it self-obviously morally dismal and disappointing. Did they not die in vain?

While most of us would agree that we wouldn’t want our own deaths—especially if they’re untimely—to be in vain, it’s hard to argue against the notion that some of them are indeed in vain. What do I mean by “in vain”? Pointless,  unnecessary, and fruitless. (But somehow not altogether meaningless.)

It reminded me of one of the teenage interviewees in my first book, Forbidden Fruit. Nice evangelical kid from Georgia, if I recall. She said she thinks about the legacy she might leave before acting: “I would hate for my grandparents and my parents to be at my funeral saying, ‘Man, what a loser, you know. She died ’cause she just couldn’t resist.’” It was a shocking assertion—and I suspect her parents would never label her a loser—but it reflects the kind of person we’d like our teens and young adults (and us, too) to be or become: people aware of our mortality, aware of the genuine threats to it, and mindful of living in such a way that were it to end that we would not be ashamed of such an end.

If I ever die in an accident, I would like it to be a legitimate one, as in, it was “accidental”—it occurred in spite of normal measures taken to prevent such things. But just how “accidental” can it be when drivers barrel down the nation’s expressways and streets at break-neck (literally) speeds, running yellow lights, driving offensively. Those don’t cause accidents. They produce wrecks.

So I’m much less of a Calvinist about death than I used to be, or at least thought I was. There are mysteries to life and our own and others’ free will. If it’s all fore-ordained, why don’t any of us live like that’s true? (We joke about the Calvinist who said, after falling down the stairs, “I’m glad that’s over!” But of course nobody actually says such things.) I don’t understand why some things happen when and to whom they do. Not all of the mysteries in the Christian life are pleasant. And we may not eventually learn the answers. I could die doing something foolish and pathetic, but I try to avoid doing foolish and pathetic things. So the odds are against that. I could very well die as a result of someone else’s foolish and pathetic behavior. I hope not, but that’s far preferable to having a significant hand in my own end. But even here there are ways to reduce the odds of dying because of someone else’s stupidity or impulsiveness. There are noble risks worth taking and ignoble ones best avoided. I won’t ever go so far as to blame a victim, but some scenarios are prudently avoided. My father’s advice still resonates: nothing good happens when you’re out after midnight.

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  • There’s a story Jerry Clower used to tell. I can’t find it online, and I’m several hundred miles away from the cassette that it’s on, so I’m doing this from memory (and probably butchering it):

    One time there was this mean, mean man. Nasty, mean man. Rotten. This man, he went and died, and his brother (who was just as mean) went to the preacher who was doing the funeral and said “I want you to go up on that pulpit and tell everybody ‘this man is a saint'”
    Now the preacher thought and thought and finally, when it came time to do the funeral, he got up and he said:
    “Brothers and sisters, this dead man, lying here, was low-down stinkin’. Not a good thing about him. Devil hisself might not want him. Terrible fella. But compared to his brother sittin’ right here, THIS MAN IS A SAINT.”

  • Kathleen

    Great post!

  • My husband once handled the funeral for a lonely old woman in our small town. It was the saddest thing ever. No one that he spoke to beforehand had anything good to say about her. No one. Kids – all estranged. No friends, nada, zip, zilch. She had a mean and nasty mouth.

    He basically read traditional funeral scriptures and left out personal commentary, turning the message toward the few people in the seats: How will you live YOUR life?, as opposed to pointing out how she lived hers.

    Sad, and awkward.

    As for me? I’ve never wanted to die young in some pointless way – such as getting hit in the parking lot. That would seem such a shame.

    We do try to say pretty things about death. It seems the thing to do at the time.

  • Chris

    One thing I have never understood is why people consider death to be unnatural or something of a mystery. I cannot disagree that what happens after death is left up to interpretation and many different religions and philosophies exist. But regardless of the religion or philosophy I would hope that everyone would agree life is precious in all its forms. In all its incarnations life must be and will be. There is a balance to everything and to say that someone lived their life in vain is in my opinion shortsighted. Is it fair to judge people from the very brief encounters we have with people? To do so we are nearly always going to misrepresent the facts or create a fictionalization of their life that fits our own perspective. The contribution of a person to life, community, society and the cosmos is something I think it would be quite difficult to put a value to, and trying to do so would only reveal something about ourselves.

    Another thing I would put forward is that death as an unnatural force is quite incorrect. There is nothing more natural than life and death. Not only is it biologically required in order for species to evolve and progress, but it is societally required in order for progress. As the new generations come forward to take the positions required of them the old must pass on. Seems to me that the christian perspective of death has been changed and tinged with fear. Might be time to take it back and realize that life is fragile and we should cherish every moment we are given, and that we should also rejoice in death as much as we rejoice in birth.

  • Tom Kelty

    I was a Social Worker in Hospice for many years. There was an elderly man who was dying slowly, a pathologically nasty person all his life. But he was our patient
    and not surprisingly we had to plan his funeral because he had burned all his bridges near the end. Our Chaplain had to give the sermon and he brought down the house with his opening remarks to the mourners most of whom came out of curiosity. He said, “We are her to bury the meanest Son of a Bitch in the valley”.
    Stunned silence then gales of laughter. It was more acceptable then for the Reverend to point out that the man was not born this way and that he did have some redeeming qualities.

  • Libby

    In my nine years journey as a hospice nurse, I’ve developed a few ideas about the mystery, for mystery it is. We cannot fathom what it is like to really, truly “pass” into the next life. If indeed (as I believe), there is a next life.

    While we all “know” that death comes for us all, I don’t think any of us truly believes it. I was so surprised as a new hospice nurse to find that my real job is not pain or symptom control, as important as that is. My real job is one of helping patients and their families adapt to the process of dying, which usually means just acceptance of reality, and acceptance of our helplessness in the face of

    As far as not speaking ill of the dead, maybe we aren’t so much liars as we are polite. Or maybe it’s a superstitious holdover, born from old time fears of being haunted by the ghost of the deceased. Maybe we just don’t like to kick a dog while it’s down. Maybe we just want to keep up appearances.

    Or, maybe the time spent dying is time spent forgiving. If so, it seems natural to let go of what’s gone, and try to remember the good things rather than get all wrapped up in telling the honest truth. What is more true than our need for

    • Mark Regnerus

      Well put, Libby. Good thoughts, from someone right in the center of it. And thanks to the others as well.