I get a kick out of reading the obituaries. They’re like puzzles where you have to decipher the euphemisms in order to figure out how the person actually died. Not always, of course. Sometimes they flat out tell you and spoil the mystery, in which case I move past the subject of death and go on to the crossword, or, on those long rainy days when I’m feeling unusually bored and despondent, the Jumble. Normally, though, they’re kind of cagey about the cause of death. This is strange to me. If the person died from autoerotic asphyxiation or was castrated while sodomizing a wild animal,* or if he was done in by some other prurient mishap that the British would label a “misadventure,” I could understand the family’s reticence. Apart from that, though, what’s the big deal? It’s only death, not some ghastly social faux pas. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. Relax.
When cancer, myocardial infarction, or cirrhosis of the liver finally carry me off, the local rag can blast it in big bold letters across the front page for all I care. After that, they can stick a bone up my ass and let the dogs drag me away. I’ll either be in heaven, in which case I’ll be too happy to mind, or hell, where I’ll be too busy to notice. Chances are I’ll be right back where I was when Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon or the Black Death killed a third of the world, which was nowhere.
Anyway, I’ve worked out the secret language of death notices. For example, it’s a good bet that when a person under thirty was “taken suddenly” or “passed unexpectedly,” the culprit was probably suicide or a drug overdose, otherwise the paper would phrase it in such a way as to dampen our titillation. It would say something like “after a long illness” or “after battling a long illness.” This would assure us that the deceased died a socially acceptable death. Since neither mental illness nor mortal sin was involved, we are free to condole without caveats or qualifications of any kind. We need not feel embarrassed for the parents or point fingers of blame. Or question the way things are.
A bout with long illness can be anything, but if we’re told the person “battled” it, it was probably cancer. As the late Christopher Hitchens pointed out, people always battle cancer but usually just succumb to other diseases. I don’t why. Did America declare a war on cancer when I wasn’t a paying attention? Let’s hope not. Our wars typically don’t go so well.
Sometimes the paper slips up in spite of its best efforts at coyness. I recently saw where a twenty-eight-year-old man died from pneumonia. Really? Pneumonia, at twenty-eight? He could have had cancer, but there was no mention of a battle. He merely succumbed. AIDS? I think so.
On the other hand, when a tantalizing “passed unexpectedly” appears without exegesis in a young person’s obituary, darker forces were probably at work. We’re left with the possibility that the decedent was a defective machine, an incomplete human resource or a superfluous worker, and the world we’ve created had no place for him, nor he for it. This is an uncomfortable thought. Was he right and we’re all wrong? Could it be that working in a cubicle, carrying out mission statements, eating processed food and watching Bruce Willis movies isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be? Is it possible that being a functionary in a sterile corporate hive is antithetical to human happiness, Zoloft and fantasy football notwithstanding? Maybe the shallow amusements of consumer culture don’t offset the gloom of being a part-time serf in a service economy for the rest of your life.
It might be that our society is just one vast pathology machine that efficiently churns out depressives, suicides, sociopaths and mass murderers by the thousands, and that no amount of Viagra, sports, baby back ribs, and Super Lotto can hold back the tide.
(*A man in Russia had his penis bitten off while trying to violate a raccoon, but he didn’t die. The doctors sewed him all up and he’s as good as new, to the dismay of rodents everywhere.)