Wednesday, August 19, 2009

death sentence

Kind of a funny title, don't you think?

That darn death sentence. First, I totally get why some situations aren’t spelled out—a suicide, a murder, a tragic accident. Yet 90% of the obits we read don’t list a cause—even euphemistically (died peacefully in their sleep)—and I find it hard to believe that 90% of the people around my neck of the woods die tragically. Second, I appreciate the difference between a person dying of a long fight against illness and the sudden cause playing into an obituary writer's ability to come to terms. But I maintain that an obituary is a news item in a newspaper with an intention to inform the greater world of an event. In this context, I believe the reporting should be more thorough (in general--again, if a kid overdoses on pills, that is understandably written in euphemistic language, i.e. "died suddenly"). And if a family feels so fiercely private, an obituary is optional. There's no requirement to publish the news in a public forum.

There's no shame in how things end. And that piece of information is helpful for the reader. I prefer to go to a funeral KNOWING how my old neighbor lady died--as opposed to going and having to figure out who I might discreetly ask once I arrive. Why the shift between the blunt language of 1893 and today?

Let's look at an example:

1893--Saturday 21st inst., Dr. Charles A. Baldwin, son of Mr. John Baldwin, of Long Green, died at his late residence, Smithsburg, Washington county, of a complicated attack of pneumonia and heart disease. He was a graduate of the Maryland University, and practiced medicine at Smithsburg for 12 years. He married Miss Clara Fahrney, daughter of Dr. D. Fahrney, of Hagerstown. His body was brought to Long Green for burial.

His funeral took place on Tuesday 24th, from the home of his father, Mr. John S. Baldwin, 11th district, about a mile from Baldwin Station, on the Baltimore & Lehigh Railroad. The services were conducted in Chestnut Grove Presbyterian Church by the Pastor Rev. Thomas L. Springer. The interment was in the burying ground connected with the church. Dr. Baldwin formerly practiced medicine at Long Green, Baltimore County. He leaves a widow and four children. Among those who attended the funeral were Dr. James F.H. Gorsuch, of Fork; Dr. J.H. Scarff of Baltimore; Samuel M. Rankin, Dr. A.S. Baldwin, Thomas Pearce and Charles Scharff, of Baltimore. Dr. Baldwin was highly esteemed by a wide circle of friends in Baltimore county.

Elaine Ruth Benz, age 94, of Appleton, passed away at Brewster Village on Monday, August 17, 2009. Elaine was born in Kaukauna on May 8, 1915, to the late Anton H. and Dorothea (Woelz) Frank. She was a graduate from Kaukauna High School, class of 1933. Following high school she graduated from Bowlby's Business College. On June 12, 1937, Elaine was united in marriage to Walter H. Benz, in Appleton. They shared 48 wonderful years together until his passing on March 20, 1986.

Elaine was a faithful member at Faith Lutheran Church Appleton, and the Women's Guild. She was a charter member of the Senior Citizen Bible Class at Faith Lutheran Church.

Elaine is survived by her son, Robert (Margery) Benz; a granddaughter, Barbara (Douglas) Reinders; two grandsons: David (Karen) Benz and Brian (Tonya) Benz; three great-grandsons: Caleb Benz, Nicolas Reinders, and Joel Reinders; four great-granddaughters: Abigail Benz, Nicole Reinders, Lydia Elaine Benz, and Elise Benz; many nieces and nephews; a very special lifetime friend, Mrs. Oliver (Evelyn) Taylor; and many wonderful neighbors.

In addition to her husband, Walter, Elaine was preceded in death by her two sisters: Genafava (Al) Fischer and Dorothy Mae Frank; three brothers: Harold (Dorothy) Frank, Orville (Hazel) Frank, and Emmet (Louise) Frank.

Let me postulate a theory.

I think a reluctance to write and even speak clearly and with some detail about how a person dies (and huge shift from the 1893 obits) demonstrates a larger philosophical shift in how we think about death today—with modern medicine and technology perhaps we feel death is a failure? Death should be fended off, denied at all costs. We’re far removed from it--the life cycle is sanitized for us--our food is slaughtered hundreds of miles away from our tables, our sick are tended to in hospitals or nursing homes and we take our pets to a veterinarian to "have them put down. I know people who work with life cycles in a regular way (farmers, doctors, nurses, etc.) have a much more pragmatic view of how every living thing is born and dies. Perhaps modern day people are so removed from the dirty business of death and dying (compared to our 1893 counterparts) that we’re more uncomfortable with it.

But in the end, we all die. And a lot of people, thanks (or not) to modern day medicine have a chance to make their peace with that fact. The HOW of their death seems a very strange omission to me—not that an obit shouldn’t celebrate a person’s life or accomplishments—they should! And I personally love it when they do! (I've mentioned in previous posts my habit of reading obituaries and my delight when I run across a brilliantly written one--those tributes literally make me pause and reflect on that stranger, their contributions, their influence.) But if the primary purpose is to announce the news of a death, it ought to be complete for the audience reading it—except, perhaps, in the rare occurrence when a family would prefer that information to be kept private.

And of course, this could all be the result of Midwesterners' obsession with euphemistic language--we are loath to dissect the details around here. I'm not sure whether to blame the Lutherans, the Catholics* or the vast swaths of flat land. I did compare 1893 obituaries from Baltimore and 2009 obituaries from Wisconsin--a regional disparity could be a plausible explanation.

Now, to address the other death sentence: that infamous attention whore and quarterback Brett Favre came out of retirement again, this time to play for the Vikings. I can't think of a surer way to kill any goodwill remaining in the hearts of his most zealous fans. Talk about a death sentence--even when they commemorate his legendary years for the Packers at the Hall of Fame, this latest decision will override all his heroism while wearing green and gold.

*KIDDING! I used to be Lutheran and married a Catholic--please don't lambast me in your comments!


  1. Oh Gosh... Leave Brett alone. The Packers didn't want him - so he found some teams who did. Remember, "our" glorified Vince Lombardi left the Packers and went to the Washington Redskins.

    And..on the obits.. I agree, when an obit is in the newspaper, it becomes public and the public wants details.

  2. First of all, I am totally loving the name Genafava (sister of Elaine Benz)!

    I agree that society today eschews death. I think we have pushed it as far away from our consciousness as we can. I I can't really defend why I feel this way, but it seems to me that folks in the Victorian era (when obits were most descriptive, informative, and flowery) were fascinated with death. So maybe we've just swung from one extreme to the other. Frankly, the modern obit you quote is way more info than we get around here most of the time.

  3. I'm with you on all counts Green Girl. I'd like to know how people die too. I can't say I'm unhappy to be as unfamiliar with death as I am, but I do think it should be confronted head on instead of talked around.

    And as far as Brett is concerned (yes, I live in Minnesota, but I was born in Neenah, WI and football loyalties are cemented at birth) it's not so much that he left, but the big stinky childish hissy fit he's pitched every five minutes since he first retired from the packers that is the problem. I can't believe I ever had a crush on that guy.

  4. Stephanie - - I have to confess, I still LUV Mr. Favre. I watched his press conference last night and wanted to kiss the TV screen like I did with my Teen Beat magazine with Shawn Cassidy. I will never give up this crush.

    GG I know you are laughing at this

  5. For the record, I firmly believe Sarah is batshit crazy on the whole Brett Favre thing, BFF or not.

  6. Ehh...I say if you actually KNEW the decedent, chances are that you also know how and when they died.

    If you don't know any of the family members and weren't close to the decedent, or maybe not even acquainted, the cause of death isn't really relevant to you, is it?

    We don't give that information in birth announcements...
    "Yankee Doodle Dandy was welcomed into the world via cesarian-section after 84 hours of excruciating labor on the part of Mrs. Dandy. Mr. Dandy had hoped for a girl, but is pleased overall." *haha!*

    It shouldn't matter HOW someone has died...if you're a FOF (friend of the family) you'll find out eventually anyway...if you're not FOF then it's sort of nosy (not to mention appearing insensitive) to want death-details...
    * : /

  7. One thing I've always noticed in obituaries is not only the vagueness about the cause of death but also the deceased was always a wonderful person. There's never mention of the decades-long struggle with alcoholism that made that man a miserable person to be around. Or the woman who was so horrible that she was alienated from her children and grandchildren.

    One of my grandfathers died, leaving behind a mess. In addition to his children from his first marriage, there were his stepchildren from his second marriage who thought of him as a father. But what about that third family? The one we didn't speak of? The other woman (who has children that may or may not be related to us) showed up at the funeral home.

    In spite of all that, anyone who read the obituary would have thought the man was a saint, not a lying cheating sack o' poop who ran around on his wife (my grandmother) for decades.

  8. Sarah, I do understand the attraction. I used to feel the same way. I'm hoping eventually he'll be diagnosed with some mental illness that explains his erratic behaviour so I can forgive him and once again resume my crush. Until then, he's all yours. :)

  9. Jen, I agree with you too. I have a copy of my grandfather's obituary and nowhere does it say, "Lying philandering drunk."

  10. Heck, some people are so scared of death, they think that end of life counseling means that the government is going to kill them!

  11. Here, here Mary Alice. That was exactly what I was going to say.

    And in regards to Brett Favre, he no longer holds a prominent position on the ceiling above my head. I'm so over him and I wish the NFL would be too.


  12. Mary Alice nailed it.

    I just put a book on hold at the library that heard about on Fresh Air on Wednesday.

    The author's wife was dying of bladder cancer and confronted and planned her death in an amazingly brave way. I think most people's doctors are just not as honest with them as hers must have been with her.

  13. I wondered how you were going to handle yesterday's comments - and you did it with grace and style, as usual.


  14. That was an interesting post - I'd never really thought of obituaries in that much detail before. Whenever I happen to scan them, my thing is to look at the ages - if they are 80+ then I am fine with that, but anyone younger, it makes me sad. I'm sure once my grandparents hit 80, then my age limit will go up again, to like 90 or something.

  15. I too always play that guessing game - an elderly person probably died of natural causes but a younger person is more curious. For that, I look to if donations are being suggested to a particular group such as American Cancer Society or hospice. "Suddenly" often means heart attack, "tragically" means a car crash... If the person was particularly religious, they didn't die so much as they "went home to the Lord." "Surrounded by friends and family" is a phrase I often read around here but doesn't tell you much there. I always thought I was the only one who had that curiosity:)

  16. Hmmm... so, was thie post written by a former teacher at Kaukauna High School? Just wondering!

    Anyway, I have to admit- I, too, often find myself reading the obituaries.... (Its nice to know Im not the only one!)

    Personally, I dont think its necessary to include the "cause of death," in an obit. Sure, sometimes Im curious and would like to know, but sheesh... the person is dead- let them rest in peace. Knowing how they died isnt going to change the fact that they are all ready gone.

    As far as the neighbor example goes... if you were close to them, youd probably know how they died before reading about it in an obituary...

    And oh my! Those of you who cant get over the fact that your relative was a drunk and lived a miserable life.... make me laugh!! Get on with your own lives.... stop dwelling on the past! Enjoy the present while YOURE alive, and be grateful you are able to do so!


Spill it, reader.