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."?
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