Something horrible is happening: reading the obituary page

UnknownSomething horrible is happening. Dozens of local people die every day. It’s a holocaust.

I read the obituary page, and feel bad for everyone there. What’s happened to them is the worst thing that can happen to anyone. (And someday it will happen to me.)

imagesIt’s gotten worse since the local paper went to full color printing. Now the people pictured in obituaries seem more real to me.

Dying at, like, 83, is uninteresting. But I’m always drawn to those listing younger ages. “Passed away suddenly,” “died at home,” etc. – it makes me wonder what could have happened. It’s a reminder of life’s fragility. Though actually such wording – especially, “died unexpectedly” – can be a euphemism for suicide. Tragic how common that is.

Speaking of euphemism, of course most obituaries avoid words like “died.” Some read as though the person merely moved away – to a better neighborhood, at that.

Unknown-1What I like is obituaries with high ages. “Sally Jones, 103.” I say to myself, way to go, old Sal! Made it to 103! It gives me hope. And for centenarians I’ll glance over the details, to see what a person did in such a long life. It seems that high achievers in the age department are often high achievers in other ways.

One recent obit was for a Vera Lister, 100. I read it. Said she was a “homemaker for most of her life.” Zzzz. But also that, in the British navy in WWII, she participated in breaking the German enigma code. Holy smoke!

There are some amazing people among us, and we don’t always know it. One local acquaintance, the most unassuming of men, I recently learned worked on the Manhattan Project.

Of course, a big reason for checking the obits is to look for names I know. I’m not very social, yet it’s amazing how many folks one has encountered in half a century in Albany. Seeing someone on that page can be a shocker. Not long ago, a guy I knew from work; younger than me; a lively fellow, in rude health when I’d seen him just shortly before. Died in some stupid accident. Another memento mori reminder.

Sometimes merely the age is a shocker. Just saw the obit of a young feller I once knew slightly. He was eighty. How could that be? Time gets away from us.

"Hap" Hazzard

“Hap” Hazzard

Yet the obituary page – occasionally – offers some yuks too. One recently made me laugh out loud. Guy’s name was Harold Hazzard. The obit included his nickname: Harold “Hap” Hazzard. He must have had a sense of humor.

But this holocaust must stop. And we’re working on it. This is what medical science is ultimately all about. It’s not enough to cure illness when people must die in the end anyway. But aging and death too are medical problems. A key factor is telomeres, little extensions on the ends of chromosomes. When cells divide, telomeres get shorter. And, when you’re out of telomeres – you’re out.

images-2There’s an enzyme called telomerase that can replenish them. Unfortunately, a dose of telomerase gives you cancer. But maybe we can fix that.

And someday, you’ll turn to the obituary page, and it will say: no deaths to report.

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5 Responses to “Something horrible is happening: reading the obituary page”

  1. wolfgang Says:

    SOUNDS great on the surface, but image how quickly the earth would get overpopulated! Do you think people would actually stop having children? Of course not. Widespread hunger, waste overflow, housing shortage, unemployment, rich-poor polarization, and eventually riots, and government overthrow would be immanent. Not a pretty picture if you ask me.
    Wolfgang

  2. rationaloptimist Says:

    OK, Wolf, so let’s all just die, you can be the first in line. But seriously, not being mortal will change human life in the most profound way. It is indeed a very serious subject upon which we can speculate all day. In a nutshell, I think we can deal with the downsides . . . as we always have.

  3. Scott Perlman Says:

    I have thought about this subject a great deal and think it would make the basis for an outstanding novel (and I know just the author who could write it….). Imagine all the consequences, positive and negative, of finding the secret to living forever (excluding accidental deaths, murder, etc.).
    We continue to grow and improve to a certain age and then the gradual decline starts. If (perhaps I should say “when”) we discover the genetic code to maintain the process we experienced in, say, the first 20 years of our life, not only will we live forever, we will do so with the physical and mental health to enjoy it.
    The implications of this are tremendous. I have fun thinking about all the possibilities. Being an “anti-Malthusian” I do not jump to the assumption that we will become overpopulated and run out of food. Rather I think about the possible rules regarding who could have children and when, I think about the possible “reduction of evolution” in the holistic sense and counter that with the possibility of developing real profound knowledge on something because we would have the time to do so.
    Would the rich get richer and the smart get smarter leaving others behind? Conversely, would there be more of an evening of the “playing field” as we get better at recognizing how to maximize individual potential?
    Fascinating subject and a great piece, Frank.

  4. rationaloptimist Says:

    There have been some fictional depictions, usually “dystopian,” where the (villainous, unworthy) rich have access to the medical miracle and the poor don’t. You can imagine how that plays out. (Up to a point, it’s already true.) But I am (of course) an optimist. In fact, poverty is, in the big picture, disappearing. (Bernie says America’s poverty rate is the highest, yada, yada, yada. But compared to most people globally (and nearly all in past centuries), America’s poor today would be considered rich.

  5. Bob Cutler Says:

    Great extension of long life may be a dubious idea, but early death is indeed sad. Contagious disease, medical error/neglect, accident, fire, armed conflict, homicide, suicide, tobacco & alcohol & drug misuse/abuse, unhealthy food & water, etc. They add up to tragedy for too many. Yes, good vison for a better future: we can be hopeful and work toward using our wealth to ensure long & healthy life!

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