Cause of Death

angel-tombstoneAs my good friend and fellow blogger Ann Aikens posted just now on The Upper Valley Girl, “If holy weekend Passover on about death and mayhem and baffled onlookers I don’t know what is.”

I do hear that. The topic of death has me thinking today, the quiet day when the Christians world waits to see if the miracle will occur tomorrow. And I guess death is also on my mind because of a fantastic article I recently read in The New Yorker about the history of death certificates, which seem to have first originated after the huge loss of life during the Black Death in the 14th century.

Here are some of the things you could die of according to the old documents which in 17th and 18th century England were called Bills of Mortality. Back then you could be carried off by: 

  • Bleach – I almost did that once. Stuff tastes na-a-a-a-asty.
  • Cramps – had those – nasty again.
  • Itch – what torture to die of an itch!
  • Cut of the stone (hmmm)
  • Or something called Rising of the Lights. (And who doesn’t understand how daylight might affect you if you’d been to a real Rager the night before?)

According to Kathryn Schulz, the article’s author, you could also die of something called Kings Evil. (Is that Anything like droit de seigneur?)

I’ll let her tell the rest: In 17th and 18th century England

“You could succumb to Overjoy, which sounds like a decent way to go, or Be Devoured By Lice which does not. You could die of Stopping Of The Stomach, or Head Ach, or Chin Cough. You could die of Horseshoe Head but don’t ask me how.  You could die of being a Lunatick. You could die of, basically death: “Suddenly”; “Killed by Several Accidents”; “Found Dead in the Streets.”

You could also die of “Frighted” and of “Grief.”

The story in my family is that a long-ago relative died of fright in the 1870s some time after a bunch of boys dressed as ghosts dangled themselves outside her bedroom window. She was 13. 

Another ancestor died of ‘Dropsy’. I know that because it says so right on her death certificate though I can’t say I know what Dropsy is.

What we really need to know is WHY someone died. As the author writes “we want to know if a loved one suffered or was at peace, or if her death was meaningful, or whether we could have prevented it, or how the universe could have permitted it at all. ” On these questions, she goes on to say, “the death certificate is mute. “instead it provides the pathological basis of death, determined by some combination of fact, convention and guesswork, and described in terms that most non-doctors struggled to understand.”

My Uncle Ed’s death certificate lists a heart condition. Because the circumstances were so painful I know that they were only guessing about that, but there it is. They were wrong about the time of death too. They wrote down the date when I found him but I could tell because I knew him so well and knew his patterns that he had died someplace between 5 o’clock and 7 o’clock the evening before.

The author concludes this article by underlining the fact that all a death certificate does is try to explain WHY we die. “But when we are in the pitch of grief – or for that matter in the full sunshine of joy – what form, what blank, what cause, final, immediate, or underlying could possibly answer that question to anyone’s satisfaction. Why do we die? We die because we were born; because we are mortal….”

But on a day as glorious as this just ending do we rely believe WE will ever die? Are we not the stable central cast of characters around whom other characters briefly flit and visit? No, alas, we are not. And one day our names too will be placed on a form and filed with the state.


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5 thoughts on “Cause of Death

    1. yes I think so too.. It’s what the “cause” line reads on the death certificate of our first ancestor to come here. (she was born in 1800: imagine!)

  1. Your line “Are we not the stable central cast of characters around whom other characters briefly flit and visit?” is the money line here, the one that hits and makes me take a breath. Yes. Absolutely, that’s the view from inside most of the time. Except when it’s not, and then it’s either a serene and philosophical view of my smallness in a big universe, or a fluttering panic about the people currently dependent on me. Which I suppose is back to the central cast of characters….

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