Thursday, March 06, 2008

“…passed, after a long and valliant battle with something or other…”

Eventually, people start getting weird at the breakfast table. If you’re under 60 or so years of age, you’re going to have to trust me on this; one day you won’t be able to put down your coffee cup and head out the door until you’ve finished reading the death notices in the morning newspaper.

There are all kinds of reasons for this, many of them social.

What if Harry's now a corpse?

At a certain stage of life you don’t want to ask Harry’s wife how good old Harry is feeling if there’s a chance Harry dropped dead from fatal stroke yesterday. What does it say of you if you commit a major faux pas simply because you were too lazy to check the death notices?

Even later in life, reading the death notices is a way of keeping up with your friends.

Personally, I got into reading the habit of reading death notices in my early 40s. It started after I called my insurance agent to ask why he hadn’t responded for more than a week to some request I’d made. His sister growled at me over the phone, “Our father just died, that’s why.”

“Oh,” I said, feeling – pardon the expression – mortified, “I’m terribly sorry. I didn’t know.”

“How could you not?” she snarled, “It was in the New York Times!

Since then I’ve regarded reading death announcements a requisite act of citizenship, sort of like voting and paying my taxes.

The language of death

So it’s amazing that in all these years I never took particular notice of something until it began bugging my beautiful girlfriend. I’m talking about the curious language of death notices.

“Passed, after a valliant battle with cancer,” is a typical phrase. So is “after a courageous struggle” and even, “a lifelong fighter who fought his disease to the very end.”

As the beautiful girlfriend points out, you don’t and can’t battle a disease. You go to a doctor. He radiates your tumor. Or cuts it out surgically. Or gives you a transfusion of the latest chemotherapy agent. Or you get moved to a home where people feed you oatmeal with a spoon after Alzheimer's renders you so helpless that you can’t even remember who you are. Then they change your diapers.

Dying – or getting cured or treated to prolong your life for a while – is by its nature a passive experience.

What’s brave and what’s not?

The 105-pound little old lady who fights off a 6-foot, 250-pound mugger with her umbrella – she just had a brave battle. The little old lady who lies there while they start an intravenous drip is just lying there because the doctor said to lie there.

Having survived an often-fatal form of cancer (at least so far), I can crankily boast that I was neither brave nor a fighter. I went to the doctor and he said, “Here’s what you have to do.” I said, “Okay.” I wasn’t brave. I was numb with fear. I lay down on the operating table because I was ordered to. When I woke up a few hours later, the cancer was out. That was several years ago. So far, so good.

Incidentally, I’ve also noticed that in some small town newspapers dead people “respose.” For example, “He is reposing at the Ajax Funeral Home on Main Street.” What this is intended to communicate is, his corpse is lying there in a box and you can go there to see it and offer sympathy to his family. Nobody in the death business says what they mean.

The passing of gas

While I’m on the subject of death notices, what’s with the euphemisms for death? Why is it that animals die, but people “pass?” Pass what? And why does anyone say that someone else “passed away?” Where is away? And what do they do while they’re passing there – turn the steering wheel? Hit the brakes? Stomp on the accelerator? Do they use hand signals or their blinker lights?

I’m in no rush to be dead, but when I die I’d like people to say of me, “He died,” and not that “He passed.” First of all, I went through life trying to get more than a passing grade. If you tell people I passed, they might get the idea that I nearly failed.

Don’t even get me started on New Age phrases like, “He moved on to the next stage.”

If society keeps on going with ridiculous euphemisms for death, pretty soon simply saying that somebody died will become politically incorrect, a paranoiacally perceived insult to those who believe in life after death, or life with 72 virgins after death, or life after removal from a cryronic freezer after death.

We have turned into a world of people who fear to say what we mean, whether in matters political, religious, ethnic, racial, or sexual. Why did people who used to be one sex or another now have to be one gender or another? But I’m getting off the topic of death here.

A personal death pact?

Personally, I’m thinking of making a cranky pact with my beautiful girlfriend: Whomever drops dead first will put on the other’s tombstone, “Died after a valiant battle with hyperbole.” Except that I’m also thinking of not having a tombstone. If I get cremated, my ashes can be distributed and everybody can have a piece of me. Some people have been wanting a piece of me for years.

In any case, we’d all better do something about this death hyperbole business fast. This means you, pal. Because, as the beautiful girlfriend – a medical doctor who therefore has some authority in these matters – often reminds me, “Nobody’s getting out of here alive.”

1 comment:

Geff said...

Hey, some euphemisms for death are kinda cool. "Shuffling off the mortal coil", for instance. Also the one the great Kinky Friedman used to use - "He stepped on a rainbow."