“Remember, when you are dead, you do not know you are dead. It is only painful to others. The same applies when you are stupid.”—Ricky Gervais
ROLLING FORK—As I recall, it was a little over 30 years ago when what was then one of the state’s leading newspapers, citing all manner of politically correct journalistic rot, placed itself atop the lesser beings owning and/or operating their flawed attempts at newspapering by adopting a policy of insisting that detailed causes of death be included in all of their obituaries. (I have never done that in my paper, the reasons for which follow.)
That, of course, was years before that same publication did its Paul Simon impression of slip-sliding away into some no man’s land of printed prostitution through letting folks say about whatever they want to about dead Uncle Ned, while charging those poor grieving folks who loved him out the wazoo for so doing.
Before the fall, however, that paper’s original idea behind its cause-of-death-with-no-exceptions policy was ostensibly “the public’s right to know,” and the actually admirable concept of keeping one’s readership informed about all that might affect them—up to a point.
And that point-reaching, kind readers, is why newspapers have (or nowadays sometimes should have) editors. As example, I present you Mrs. Henrietta Holyoke of Rt. 2, Box 36 B, Houlka, who for the sake of this fictitious account, choked one Sunday dinner on a pork chop bone.
You see, I am (yes, among other things) an editor. Have been for more than 40 years now, and the editorial judgment I have developed in all that time told me then as it tells me now, that there is some significant doubt to be harbored regarding whether the public’s right to know would be seriously infringed, absent the details of Mrs. Holyoke’s dinnertime demise.
Indeed, it is the bone-chokers and kindred croakers who can make bastions of the Fourth Estate end up looking real silly if they aren’t careful.
I really don’t think journalistic independence and freedom are threatened here.
Certainly, if the Creature from the Black Lagoon were to show up in Rolling Fork and start chomping on the citizenry, then I can understand how some benefit might be gleaned from identifying those victims as monster fodder. Likewise, if people are killed in automobile accidents or boating accidents or airplane crashes, I can see how the rest of us might find that information helpful in our travel and recreational decisions.
But, (bless her heart) it is my mythical Henrietta and her pork chop bone that have always worried the stew out of me, because that’s dying dumb.
There might not be any sho nuff great way to depart this earthly sphere, but dadgum it, there sure are some bad ones. When someone dies in battle, we can talk about heroism and sacrifice. When someone succumbs to either a lengthy or sudden illness, we can summon up words like tragic and noble battle and cut down in the prime of life and stuff like that.
But when some poor slob does a full-gainer into an empty swimming pool or tries to catch a water moccasin with his teeth or chokes on a pork chop bone, that is just a flat out dumb way to die.
And I don’t think warning the public is either required or helpful. I don’t think printed newspaper accounts of their causes of death from now until doomsday is going to head off a single one of them. And there is a very good reason for that: It is the living dumb that most frequently become the dying dumb.
And I just don’t think that our “right to know” that Henrietta klutzed-out at the dinner table one day and went to her reward is sufficient to offset the humiliation that Mrs. Holyoke’s survivors are going to have within the knowledge that all of their friends and neighbors have been made aware of it – in detail.
Oh, yes, and there has proved to be yet another downside to this practice. I read a lot of newspapers, large and small, and pay some attention to the obits, as much as anything now, to see whether they are charging for them (Is the type size larger? Is the space between words a tad greater?).
But in prep for this, I read all of them in one paper. Of the 16 deaths, there was one wreck, a surgical complication, one cancer, one complication of heart disease, three cardiac arrests, three respiratory failures and six heart failures. In other words, 13 of the 16 were “due” to either the deceased’s inability to breathe or to pump blood through his or her body.
Find me somebody dead about whom one or both of those conditions don’t apply and I will consider it a Road to Damascus moment and start printing detailed causes of death, Henrietta or no Henrietta.