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Dying to Know the Cause of Death

I was sad to hear that Jurassic Park author/ER creator Michael Crichton had died earlier this week at age 66. I'll miss Crichton: You could always count on him to deliver a good story, usually scary and generally thought-provoking.

His death also revealed something scary and thought-provoking -- about me.

I wanted to know more about what killed him.

To my shame, I felt slighted by the fact that his family revealed only that it was cancer that felled Crichton and that he'd been handling the disease privately for some time.

Sorry, but that's not the way it's done these days. I wanted to know what kind of cancer he had. And how long he had it. And -- if there were any clues -- why he got it.

It's not just Michael Crichton, either. When I do my daily scan of the obituaries, I tend to skip over most of the details of the departed's achievements. Here's all I really want to know: How old was the deceased? And what was the cause of death?

I'll admit to feeling frustrated when the obituary reports that the person died peacefully at home. That's when I skip to the bottom, where the information about memorial donations appears. Sometimes there's a clue there: a mention of the American Cancer Society, for instance. But a request to send donations to the local humane society? Dead end.

Why am I so interested in the morbid details?

Probably because I'm so afraid of death.

I got the chance yesterday to run this phenomenon by one of the leading experts on death, Robert Kastenbaum, professor emeritus of communications at the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication at Arizona State University and the author of several books about dying.

Kastenbaum confirmed my hunch. And told me that I'm not alone.

"Reading obituaries is very reassuring -- because we're around to read them," said Kastenbaum, and lots of people, including himself, read them regularly.

By focusing on the details, he explains, "We try to see where we fit in. We're looking for a pattern of people who died, and looking for some reason" for why they died.

This all fits in with what Kastenbaum, who at age 76 has been researching death for something like 50 years, calls the "unifying idea" that there's a "pecking order of death."

"Most of us are more comfortable when we feel that death is part of this game, that it's kind of predictable, that it will take some people before others," Kastenbaum said. So if the information in the obituaries reveals that death is playing fair, we can reason that it will play fair with us, too.

Knowing what people have died of gives us a sense -- albeit a false one -- of our own relative risk. "If I'm reading about a person who died of a rare strain of malaria that's found only in some remote part of the world, I'm okay," Kastenbaum says. "But a person about our age who's died of undisclosed reasons after living a healthy life makes us uncomfortable."


Do you read the obits? Why? And what games do you play to convince yourself that, as Kastenbaum says, "I'm way down on the list, so maybe death will forget about me."?

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  November 7, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Psychology  
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Next: Giving Pancreatic Cancer its Due


Yes, I read the obits to see if it's anybody I know. Just this summer 4 people I knew througout my life died. If I hadn't seen it in the obits, I wouldn't have known to send cards or flowers. It has nothing to do with a fear of dying since I'm pretty healthy right now.

I'm also curious to see how many die of pancreatic cancer. That's my major 'cause' right now. PC is 99% fatal, often misdiagnosed until it's too late, there are no early detection methods and treatment options are limited. Only about $1200 per patient is spent in pancreatic cancer research. You only hear about it when a celebrity gets it, like Patrick Swayze or Pavarotti. Jennifer, I suggest you do an informative article on pancreatic cancer very soon as November is National Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month. We've had breast cancer shoved down our throats (no pun intended) for so long, let's give another disease a chance. Contact or, or the Sol Goldman Pancreatic Cancer Research Center at Johns Hopkins for all the information you need.

Posted by: Baltimore11 | November 7, 2008 9:52 AM | Report abuse

Read "Staring at the Sun - Overcoming the Terror of Death" by Irvin D. Yalom, 2008. It's a fantastic book about understanding and dealing with your own fear of death.

Posted by: ivorynicky | November 7, 2008 11:47 AM | Report abuse

Also, regarding pancreatic cancer, google Randy Pausch and learn of his courageous battle with PC, and how he turned it into a fascinating story and gave us a remarkable view of his experiences with it and how he dealt with it.

Posted by: ivorynicky | November 7, 2008 11:54 AM | Report abuse

I always want to know what they died of too and always wonder why they're hiding it. The obits in the Independent in the UK are fun to read because they're so detailed and well written.

Posted by: ronjaboy | November 7, 2008 12:12 PM | Report abuse

Yes I read obits and especially those of people my age. I like to think that I'm ahead of the game if someone who's about my age has died.

For example the other day I sent this to family and friends.

Michael Crichton -- the author -- is dead.

He was just 66 years old and a few months younger than the not-yet-famous Bruce Ramsay.

So he was famous and a lot of people know his name and have read his books; they've almost certainly never heard of little ole me.

But he is dead -- and I (about the same age) am not.

There might be days when you feel kinda' low but then some days you feel you're ahead.

Cheers! br

Posted by: bramsay1 | November 7, 2008 5:05 PM | Report abuse

I always want to know the cause of death too, especially when the person died is young - was it a suicide? car accident? illness? murder?

Posted by: SNCinDC | November 7, 2008 5:43 PM | Report abuse

"Every day, I go to the paper and look in the obituaries. And if I'm not there, I'm having a good day." George Carlin

Posted by: cwh2 | November 9, 2008 5:52 PM | Report abuse

I often read the longer articles in the obituaries, because I learn about the stories of people who were often illustrious in one way or another but not necessarily "famous". I am relatively uninterested in their cause of death, however.

Posted by: catherine3 | November 10, 2008 2:15 PM | Report abuse

I read the obituaries to make sure I am still alive. When I can't read the obituares any more I'll know for sure I'm dead. Once I lay in coma for 60 hours. If death is like that, oh come sweet death!

Posted by: chriswuth | November 10, 2008 4:44 PM | Report abuse

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