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Friday, March 14, 2014

Friday Feature-Dear Abby and obituaries

religious clipart RIP
Below you will find a past writeup of a "Dear Abby" column regarding listing the cause of death. I think this is very applicable to genealogical research. Most causes now-a-days tend to be generic "form" based answers, such as "cancer", "died at home", "natural causes" or listing no cause at all. As genealogists, this is often not much help and drives us to find a death certificate whenever possible. While some causes can be to some extent subjective without an autopsy, we can also come to realize that obituaries from 100 years ago can just as well provide us with a cause of death that may have been far from accurate, yet just as difficult to prove otherwise. How often was there an underlying cause? So what did they die from when so and so said their ancestor died from this according to the oldest living relative, yet the obit says something else? Died at home could mean the family didn't like the thought of the public knowing the cause or maybe the medical term just wasn't well understood. These standard "form" answers provide obit applicants with options if the deceased committed suicide, died from unknown causes or died from multiple causes. For added fun (as well as added stress when it comes to the desire of historical accuracy), readers may find interest in learning of New York coroners that were elected, requiring no certification. Prior to the implementations of medical examiners, coroners were notorious for making up the cause of death, or receiving payment for lying on death certificates (in cases such as murder) or selling the cause of death, for families not wanting to acknowledge a suicide.1 If a death looked suspicious, the coroner could even hold the body for ransom.

     DEAR ABBY: I agree that "printing the cause of death in obituaries often serves no useful purpose and can be painful for those who are suffering from the same disease."
     But when the deceased was a long time smoker who died of lung cancer or emphysema, cause of death should be printed so that those who are still smoking can be reminded that if they continue to smoke and torment non-smokers with their offensive secondhand smoke they (the smoker and the non-smoker) may be next.
     You have my permission to use my name, address and occupation. - CHARLES A. WRIGHT JR., ATTORNEY AT LAW, CHICAGO

     DEAR MY WRIGHT (What a great name for a lawyer!) You're Wright. Read on:
     DEAR ABBY: So you want to eliminate the cause of death in obituaries?
     Why not eliminate age, lest the elderly be offended?
     Why not eliminate first names, lest sex be disadvantaged?
     Why not eliminate the hometown, lest it be considered unwholesome?
     Why not eliminate religion, lest it appear that fruit is fruitless?
     Why not eliminate obituaries, so that ignorance will gleefullly lead us to believe that we'll live forever?
     Why not? - C. HARVEY GARDINER, ZEPHYRHILLS, FLA.2


1.“The Poisoner’s Handbook,” American Experience, 7 January 2014, Public Broadcasting Service. American Experience, (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/transcript/poisoners-transcript/ : accessed 14 March 2014).

2. "Dear Abby," "Reader wonders how to answer questions," Waterloo (Iowa) Courier, 1 January 1988, p. B6

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