Death and Life in the Sunday Obits

Sometimes on Sundays, I’ll go through the newspaper obituaries. I generally don’t have time during the week to do that, and I may be reverting to a family habit of perusing “the Irish funnies.”

I’m not looking for anything in particular. I notice ages — between the San Francisco Chronicle and the conglomeration of papers published by the Bay Area News Group, I found three recently deceased centenarians. I take special note of people my age or younger who have died recently; there are more and more of those.

One obit from last Sunday stood out for me. I won’t mention the name, but it was for a man who had died a few days after his 50th birthday. The death notice was accompanied by a picture showing a robust guy with a handsome smile.

I’m morbidly curious about cause of death, especially for someone who died relatively young. Did cancer get him? That information wasn’t disclosed. But the obit hinted at something disquieting. Here’s how it begins :

[John Doe] passed away April XX, 2015. Let’s get one thing out there. [John] was no fan of turning 50. He often talked about the monumental birthday as the other side of life, the decline. We talked a lot about it at family gatherings and how life is so much more than an age. But he was stubborn. And, in this case, he really wanted to be right.

The way I read that — go ahead, call me too ready to jump to conclusions — is that this man took his own life and that whoever in his family wrote this notice did a remarkable job of framing the event without coming out and uttering the agonizing truth. There’s some other evidence to support that conclusion in some of the remembrances attached to the online version of the obituary.

But of course, maybe that’s not what happened at all.

There was a very high-profile Silicon Valley death last weekend, that of David Goldberg, the CEO of an online survey company and husband of Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg. That news item went rocketing around the Bay Area, but it was conspicuous for its lack of detail. Here was a 47-year-old man who died suddenly, whose family announced its shock at the passing (on Facebook, no less), but said nothing about how he died or even where he died.

Not that that’s anyone’s business, necessarily. But when you put the word out there, people will wonder what the heck happened. I think that’s as much out of simple empathy as it is out of anything lurid or morbidly curious. I think most of us substitute ourselves into a situation: How would I feel if that tragedy had befallen me, my spouse, my child, my parent?

Anyway, I wondered whether Goldberg had taken his own life, and I said as much to Kate, who gets to listen to way more of my hypothesizing than anyone should have to.

I brought this up when I went to work, in my public radio newsroom in San Francisco, on Monday. To my surprise, virtually everyone was having similar thoughts. There was a strong shared feeling that the lack of details was strange, that the family was reluctant to say what the manner of death was, and that manner of death might well have been suicide.

Of course, details did emerge. And they were terrible and tragic — way beyond but also very different from our speculation.

And the lesson there is — what? Not to speculate? To leave people alone with their grief? No. I think it’s in human nature to wonder, and simply wondering is a far cry from prying. Being curious about death, about how people died, about the lives they led — I think all that’s natural, too, and nothing to be ashamed of.

The ritual of the obituary is a two-way communication: We put out word to family and friends about the death of a loved one and in some corner of our hearts hope the strangers who scan the death notices will see the merit in the life whose end we’re observing. And being curious about those strangers’ lives is a way of honoring that life. Or can be, anyway.

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