Cover Story

I'm a hearse watcher

Issue: "Summer Books 2002," July 7, 2002

Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control recently released their 1999 mortality statistics. In Travis County, Texas (pop. 737,000), where I live, 3,873 people died that year. That works out to over 74 deaths per week in the Austin area.

I had no idea that such a stream of hearses flows past my house. News media cover fatal traffic accidents occasionally and murders more often. Newspapers have paid obituary pages, but these only hint at what's going on.

Most people died of disease, the CDC reported: 210 of lung cancer, 78 of colon cancer, 71 of breast cancer, 45 of prostate cancer, 63 of HIV-related illnesses, 11 of malnutrition, eight of obesity, 93 of "unspecified dementia," 33 of Parkinson's, 1,337 of circulatory diseases including 284 heart attacks, 63 of pneumonia ... the list goes on.

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As for deaths by "external causes": 49 died of accidental poisoning, two through exposure to natural heat, one to natural cold. Three people died falling off buildings, two in falls involving furniture, one off a cliff, and one on level ground. Deaths from mental or behavioral disorders involving drug or alcohol use: 32. Suicides include 14 by poison, 15 by strangulation. One person jumped in front of a moving object. Thirty-four people shot themselves deliberately; 20 were deliberately shot by someone else.

Colonial newsmen would have seen in those statistics a world of potential stories. Most believed that God had something to say in the events He predestined or allowed to happen. Most believed that deaths often sent clear poignant messages, especially when viewed in the light of Scripture.

For example, obituaries often provided positive moral examples, celebrating those who met their end "in submission to the divine Will." John Fayerweather lost his wife and bore it with "a manly and virtuous Resignation to the divine Will," said the Sept. 22, 1760, Boston Gazette, but two weeks later he also passed away. "Death was no surprise to him in the least, and being disarmed of its Stings and Horrors, he bid it Welcome ... Mark the perfect Man, and behold the upright for the End of that Man is Peace."

Crime stories, some extremely graphic, provided negative moral examples. The May 7, 1759, New York Gazette described how Mr. Dyer of Stafford, Conn., was known for his "moroseness" and recently accused of stealing hay. A neighbor found Mrs. Dyer in her house clubbed to death. Her skull was smashed and "Blood and pieces of her Brain was bespattered upon the Wall and the Ceiling." The killer hanged himself by a cord over his bed. The Sept. 11, 1750, Boston Gazette told how London executioners chopped off the right hand of a man found guilty of robbing and murdering a woman. They then hanged him, and nailed the hand to the top of the gallows.

Colonial "health news" described epidemics in distant cities and recounted mysterious symptoms to warn readers of the many and unpredictable ways death could strike. Boston News-Letter readers learned in the May 30-June 6, 1734, edition that in Southborough the Morse baby was "seemingly well" in his father's arms, but "suddenly his head fell back, and his Throat rattled; upon which some near him took the child from him and laid him down upon the Floor, but he never breath'd again." A few weeks later, the same paper recounted how a British "gentleman in the prime of life ... was taken with a violent cough, which was followed by such a sudden and extraordinary Effusion of Blood from his Nose and Mouth, that he expired in a few minutes, without speaking a word."

Stories like these made it clear, as one South Carolina Gazette essayist commented in 1732, that "none can escape the Vulgar lot of Humanity, but must all promiscuously fall by the impartial and irrefutable Arm of the King of Terror, DEATH." Today, on the other hand, journalists ignore the vast majority of deaths while audiences protest any graphic depiction of it. Colonials walked miles to witness a hanging; we objected to video clips of people falling off the World Trade Center on 9/11.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn pointed out that if you live in a graveyard, you can't weep for everyone. But colonial journalists watched and wrote about the hearses going by. "Nothing is more certain than that every man shall die, and nothing is more uncertain than the time when," as Puritan Increase Mather noted. "Did they know that before the next week, they shall be in another world, they would live after another manner than now they do."

Les Sillars
Les Sillars

Les directs the journalism program at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Va., and is the editor of WORLD's Mailbag section.

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