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.
2009: 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!