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Thread: Obituaries

  1. #1
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    Obituaries

    This is actually a question, but not science related. In the US at least, I've always noticed that obituaries use the term "after a sudden illness", which I tend to associate with heart attacks, and "after a long illness", which I usually associate with cancer, though of course those are simplifications between lots of people die of strokes and other nasty things.

    What I wonder is, what if a person gets pneumonia and dies after two weeks? Would you say, "He died following a medium-length illness"? Or would you have to make a choice in all cases between short and long?
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    Speaking for the UK, but not all of it, I would say 'sudden' for a week or two, 'short' for a fortnight to a couple of months. A 'long' illness suggests much longer than that, so there might be a lacuna here.

    I have also seen the unhelpful 'after a serious illness' presumably where the journalist had switched his brain completely off.

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    I believe it is correct in the UK that the doctor cannot write "natural causes" i.e. of old age, on the death certificate but has to find an acceptable phrase for "heart stopped" or "total organ failure" but these phrases are never found in obituaries I suppose out of either tactful concern or the fact they were written long before the death of the subject.

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    I've really gotten tired of "after a long illness" as a euphemism for cancer. Especially when you go on to list the American Cancer Society for memorials. But I've had to write several obituaries in recent years and understand it's difficult.

    Some years ago, the Seattle Times featured a weekly column by a middle-aged couple. When it started out, it was supposed to be about middle age -- in fact I think it was called The Middle Years. The content quickly changed to being about the wife's battle against brain cancer, which lasted for about two years until she finally succumbed. It was a very frank story of courage and lots of folks, including me, felt like they had come to know her. When she died, the paper ran her obituary on the front page -- listing the cause of death as "a long illness". I thought that was disgusting, and not at all in keeping with her openness about her battle.
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    As a kid, I was told that "died suddenly" translated to homicide, suicide or an accident.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Trebuchet View Post
    I've really gotten tired of "after a long illness" as a euphemism for cancer. ...I thought that was disgusting, and not at all in keeping with her openness about her battle.
    I appreciate what you say, but there is another way of looking at things which is more traditional. I think the idea is that the fact that somebody has died is overwhelmingly important relative to the detail of what actually killed them. The lack of detail focusses on the person, not the illness. Either that, or the idea that there is something inherently disgusting about disease in general, and cancer in particular.

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    I just checked what we put in my Mom's obit. We just said she passed away at home.

    I almost had to write one for my wife at the same time as my mother's. Fortunately she pulled through.
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    As for the OP, I agree that two weeks would still fall under the "sudden illness," as even something like that is rather sudden for the family. Which, I've always viewed as the reason to even mention how sudden / non-sudden the death was; so you know how to approach the condolences.

    Now my obit will hopefully read, "Died after a sudden alien invasion," or, "Died suddenly at the same time as a home-made rail-gun malfunction." Something cool like that. I've considered adding provisions to my will . . . assuming I ever make a will . . . that request such an obit even in the event of a more mundane death such as a tiger attack or failed teleportation experiment.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Trebuchet View Post
    I've really gotten tired of "after a long illness" as a euphemism for cancer.
    In certain papers at certain times, it was a known euphemism for AIDS. No one at the time ever actually died of it. (Yes, I know; technically, very few people do and mostly they die of AIDS-related infections. But you know what I mean.) There was an incredible stigma attached. Heck, I read a book recently that talked about the stigma formerly associated with cancer; I wish I could remember which one and why I was reading it.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Fazor View Post
    As for the OP, I agree that two weeks would still fall under the "sudden illness," as even something like that is rather sudden for the family. Which, I've always viewed as the reason to even mention how sudden / non-sudden the death was; so you know how to approach the condolences.

    Now my obit will hopefully read, "Died after a sudden alien invasion," or, "Died suddenly at the same time as a home-made rail-gun malfunction." Something cool like that. I've considered adding provisions to my will . . . assuming I ever make a will . . . that request such an obit even in the event of a more mundane death such as a tiger attack or failed teleportation experiment.
    "Dennis E Puleston, an archaeologist, died in 1978 after being struck by lightning while watching a thunderstorm on top of a pyramid at Chichen Itza in the Yucatan." (Really!)

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    Quote Originally Posted by Fazor View Post
    Now my obit will hopefully read, "Died after a sudden alien invasion," or, "Died suddenly at the same time as a home-made rail-gun malfunction." Something cool like that. I've considered adding provisions to my will . . . assuming I ever make a will . . . that request such an obit even in the event of a more mundane death such as a tiger attack or failed teleportation experiment.


    We did have a Fun-n-games thread about what you wanted on your gravestone. Maybe we need an obit one too.

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    In 2003 a friend of my husband's committed a murder-suicide (her/him -- due to an ongoing love triangle). The wife's cause of death as written in the obit was vaguely worded to give the impression she'd died as a result of an accident. Must have been horrible for her family.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Buttercup View Post
    In 2003 a friend of my husband's committed a murder-suicide (her/him -- due to an ongoing love triangle). The wife's cause of death as written in the obit was vaguely worded to give the impression she'd died as a result of an accident. Must have been horrible for her family.
    As I was told, the woman who owned this home that now functions as my office killed herself by OD. She was elderly and had a lot of physical problems, but the worst of them was that her family didn't pay much or any attention to her.* I believe the obit read, "Died peacefully in her sleep," which I suppose is technically true, though if it was suicide, was anything but peaceful.

    *Again, it's what I was told through friends of the family as pieced together by circumstance. Could be totally wrong.

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    I did make a point, in my parents' obits, to mention their beloved cats among the survivors. My mother loved the little black one so dearly that she wanted his ashes placed in her casket. He outlived her, so that didn't happen. He and his buddy are on our mantle now.
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    I don't think I want what I died of in my obituary. The people who are important will know; for everyone else, it's just curiosity.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Gillianren View Post
    Heck, I read a book recently that talked about the stigma formerly associated with cancer; I wish I could remember which one and why I was reading it.
    Could the reading have been inspired by Pratchett's Dimbleby lecture?
    For those who don't know, the link is because Richard Dimbleby, after whom the lecture is named, was one of the first well-known people to break the taboo by revealing that he was suffering from cancer, thus helping to reduce the stigma.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Gillianren View Post
    I don't think I want what I died of in my obituary. The people who are important will know; for everyone else, it's just curiosity.
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    Quote Originally Posted by HenrikOlsen View Post
    Could the reading have been inspired by Pratchett's Dimbleby lecture?
    For those who don't know, the link is because Richard Dimbleby, after whom the lecture is named, was one of the first well-known people to break the taboo by revealing that he was suffering from cancer, thus helping to reduce the stigma.
    No, I've remembered. It was about Grover Cleveland's secret cancer surgery. It's one of the reasons the surgery was secret; cancer, at the time, was considered an automatic death sentence (for good reason!), so he never told anyone if he could avoid it.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Gillianren View Post
    I don't think I want what I died of in my obituary. .
    I think I would just be grateful that somebody has actually noticed my demise.

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    you could launch a daily "no obit today" rocket but as they always say, "suppose everyone did that" however it would make an interesting entry in the obit. e.g. P kicked the bucket today and his rocket went up his trousers causing a short (illness).

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    Quote Originally Posted by Perikles View Post
    I think I would just be grateful that somebody has actually noticed my demise.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Perikles View Post
    I think I would just be grateful that somebody has actually noticed my demise.


    Indeed.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Perikles View Post
    Speaking for the UK, but not all of it, I would say 'sudden' for a week or two, 'short' for a fortnight to a couple of months. A 'long' illness suggests much longer than that, so there might be a lacuna here.

    I have also seen the unhelpful 'after a serious illness' presumably where the journalist had switched his brain completely off.
    I have some experience with placing obituaries. Usually, except for the obits of famous people, the text is written by the funeral home and family (this is just more task my siblings and I had to do the day after my father died; we didn't have much experience.), so, in the majority of cases, you can't blame a journalist for vagueness.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Perikles View Post
    I have also seen the unhelpful 'after a serious illness' presumably where the journalist had switched his brain completely off.
    I was translating an obituary, which is why I asked. And amusingly, another obituary that I used as reference said "after a grave illness." It made me chuckle. Yes, I assume it was pretty grave. . .
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    Quote Originally Posted by Fazor View Post
    Now my obit will hopefully read, "Died after a sudden alien invasion," or, "Died suddenly at the same time as a home-made rail-gun malfunction." Something cool like that. I've considered adding provisions to my will . . . assuming I ever make a will . . . that request such an obit even in the event of a more mundane death such as a tiger attack or failed teleportation experiment.
    Unfortunately, I don't think you can get away with that. An obituary, even if written by the family, is still a news item, so I doubt a newspaper would be willing to print an obituary about an alien invasion in the absence of such an invasion. If I asked in my will that my obituary read, "was assassinated by so-and-so," then a newspaper could be (rightly) convicted of libel if it printed it.
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    I recently had a conversation about how it is possible to infer the cause of death from the organization that benefits from the "in lieu of flowers" line. Things like "Bicycle Helmet awareness foundation", "The Coalition to outlaw cell phone use while investigating gas leaks", "The Pet Lion Anger management Federation".

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    My Mom used to pour over the obits. Having been adopted when my parents were in their late 30s from big families, my memories of travel focused on endless visits to hospitals, nursing homes and funeral homes.

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    Quote Originally Posted by publiusr View Post
    My Mom used to pour over the obits. Having been adopted when my parents were in their late 30s from big families, my memories of travel focused on endless visits to hospitals, nursing homes and funeral homes.
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    Quote Originally Posted by jfribrg View Post
    I recently had a conversation about how it is possible to infer the cause of death from the organization that benefits from the "in lieu of flowers" line. Things like "Bicycle Helmet awareness foundation", "The Coalition to outlaw cell phone use while investigating gas leaks", "The Pet Lion Anger management Federation".
    Yes, and if the funeral is spread out over several days you may assume that an explosion was involved.

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    I understand people's objections to "after a serious/grave illness" but perhaps it's a phrasing intended to indicate that the illness was the actual cause of death? As opposed to saying, for example, "He had a cold that lasted for several weeks. Then he had an accident at a narwhal museum."

    No, I'm not sure that makes any more sense. He could just as easily have been suffering from a serious disease before that fatal encounter with an exhibit.

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