Why we name the cause of death

I know this might be a sensitive topic for some people, and it is also one on which I am opinionated, so I’m just going to come right out with it.

It is important to name the cause of death in an obituary, preferably early on, in the first paragraph or so. 

Consider this example. An acquaintance of mine died recently, and the obituary writer withheld the cause of death from the obituary that was published in the local paper. Whether this was a purposeful omission or an oversight, I don’t know, but without anything else to go on, I assumed that the family didn’t want to include information about the cause of death. Was it drugs, I wondered. Suicide?

Someone did share the cause of death with me later, and it wasn’t anything for which there might be a stigma attached. However, there’s a part of me that still doesn’t believe what I heard because of the initial omission. 

Some might argue that the cause of death is private. They should keep in mind: People are curious by nature. Publishing the cause of death in an obituary will prevent a loved one from having to answer the question later, asked, perhaps nervously, at the memorial, or in the grocery store aisle.

Sometimes an obit will say a person died of natural causes. This is maybe okay for a very old person but otherwise it’s strangely nonspecific. It’s like saying someone died because her heart stopped.

When George Michael died in 2017, the coroner who examined him said he died of natural causes. But, according to a CNN article, the 53-year-old singer had a heart condition and a fatty liver.

Apparently, when a death certificate says a person’s death is “natural,” it is really ruling out external causes. The person did not take his or her own life or overdose on drugs and was not murdered or in a car accident. It’s not so much a cause of death but a manner of death. For the sake of the obituary, we want the specific cause, if it’s available.

Jane Catherine Lotter, who wrote her own obituary before she took advantage of Washington state’s Death with Dignity Act in 2013, addressed her death with humor, which, we can imagine, was a reflection of who she was. In her lead, she wrote: “One of the few advantages of dying from Grade 3, Stage IIIC endometrial cancer, recurrent and metastasized to the liver and abdomen, is that you have time to write your own obituary. (The other advantages are no longer bothering with sunscreen and no longer worrying about your cholesterol.)” Her obit is lovely, by the way, worth checking out here.

For the most part, it’s best to keep the bad news brief. I would avoid the kind of detailed description we read in the obit for the dancer Isadora Duncan in The New York Times. The obit, from 1927 and included in the The New York Times Book of the Dead, offers a frightfully specific series of details about the events that unfolded after Duncan’s long scarf was caught in the rear wheel of a car. The reporting takes up half of the obit and was most certainly not how Duncan wanted to be remembered.

Indeed, there are probably very few people who want to be remembered for the way they died. I know this is a particularly difficult issue for the loved ones of people who have committed suicide. Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S. It’s that prevalent. Some families might not want to hear this, and I know many don’t want to talk about it at all, but hiding the cause of death furthers the stigma and prevents the awareness that’s key to helping to prevent suicide. 

I commend the family of Hayden Kennedy, the twenty-seven-year-old mountain climber from Colorado who took his own life in the fall of 2017 after his girlfriend died in an avalanche. His father, Michael Kennedy, wrote:  “Having lived for 27 years with the great joy and spirit that was Hayden Kennedy, we share the loss of our son and his partner Inge Perkins … Hayden survived the avalanche but not the unbearable loss of his partner in life. He chose to end his life.”

He offers the best of what I’m talking about here: honesty, brevity, eloquence.

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