No One Dies of Old Age
Of all the questions we ask family members when we're gathering information for an obit, two invariably meet with the most resistance: cause of death and previous marriages. I can understand that second, third or fourth spouses might be reluctant to discuss their predecessors, but any marriage is (or should be) a big event in someone's life. We can't expunge a person's true-life experiences for the convenience of the survivors.
But even more surprising is the hesitance to reveal the cause of death. Yesterday, my colleague Pat Sullivan had a long, fraught discussion with a doctor who was quite exercised about the Post's policy of naming the specific medical cause of death, even for someone who was 93 years old. The doctor insisted that the cause was "old age," a term that never appears on an actual death certificate. Finally, when pressed, he said the cause he wrote on the death certificate was "failure to thrive," which isn't much more specific, but at least it's something.
When people don't want to tell me the cause of death, I sometimes say, "No one dies in The Washington Post of old age, natural causes or a long illness." Everyone dies for a particular medical reason, and that specific cause is what we have a responsibility to record. In chronicling the life of someone, part of our duty is also to chronicle his death. After all, when people read obituaries, the first two things they want to know are "How old was he" and "What did he die from?"
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