A less selfish first question than ‘How did he die?’

Ash Wednesday dandelion

I firmly believe that practice of reading obituaries is more about the reader than the dead.

When I heard Luke Perry died yesterday, my first thought was not about him or his family. It was about me.

“Only 52? I’m 52! How did he die? Stroke? What causes strokes? High blood pressure? High cholesterol? Diabetes? Obesity? Smoking? OK, I’m good. I don’t have any of those. Oh, too bad about Luke Perry. Well, I didn’t watch ‘Beverly Hills, 90210′ anyway.”

I’m just being honest. If you’re 52, this is what you thought, too. Unless you watched “90210,” in which case you thought, “Oh, another piece of my youth. Dead.” It wasn’t about Luke Perry. It was about your own youth. Or its demise. Or your health problems caused you to think, “Uh-oh.” Again, it was all about you.

I can’t quite believe all the news coverage Luke Perry is getting about his death. Poor Margot Kidder. I didn’t know she died last year until I saw the Oscars’ “In Memoriam” tribute, and then I had to look it up: The 1978 “Superman” star died by suicide on May 13. Three weeks later, Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade took their own lives, and everyone was talking about the epidemic of suicide. But Kidder’s cause of death wasn’t announced until August, so maybe that’s why I missed it. And, she was 69. Not so uncommon to die at 69 as at 52.

All too often, the first question someone asks when they hear of a death—whether its a celebrity or a relative—is, “How did he die?” What’s really being asked is “Could I die like that?”

A less selfish first question, after you offer condolences or at least consider the dead’s loved ones, would be “How did he live?” Being interested in what the deceased person offered the world, instead of the odds of whether I’ll leave this earthly plain in a similar way, would have been a more gracious and generous way to receive the news of Luke Perry’s death.

I’m going to blame my journalism background here. I once wrote obituaries for a living, and just about every obituary begins the same way, “Claim-to-fame So-And-So, age, died day of week of a cause of death”: “‘Beverly Hills, 90210’ heartthrob Luke Perry, 52, died Monday of a massive stroke.” How someone dies is a necessary fact in a complete report of death.

Pragmatism. My excuse for rudeness.

Still, in the future, I’m going to try to ask “How did he live?” before I ask “How did he die?”

# # #

In observance of Ash Wednesday tomorrow, I’m asking big questions about life and death this week on Minnesota Transplant. Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, a six-week season during which Christians focus on the life and, in particular, the death of Jesus Christ. Tomorrow, bearing witness.

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2 responses to “A less selfish first question than ‘How did he die?’

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