I wouldn’t be caught dead…

I’ve got to think that one of the motivations behind the movement promoting a person’s right to die at home has to do with how embarrassing in can be to die in public.

If you doubt this, consider the appeal of the most popular reality show in the history of television. America’s Funniest Home Videos has consistently brought laughs to a large segment of the viewing public for close to 20 years. Their formula for comedy is showing people being injured in a variety of different and painfully public situations. Whether hit in the crotch with a baseball bat, conked on the head with a golf ball or falling down while dancing, the victim’s humiliation is compounded by a nationwide audience roaring with delight.

Now imagine how funny it would be if one of those victims actually died. Now imagine if that victim were you.

As a man approaching late middle age, I do occasionally consider the embarrassment that would follow should I suffer a fatal collapse to the floor during the course of my day. In some situations, I think, the shame would be such that I’d rather use my last ounce of strength to crawl off to the nearest handicapped stall and expire in dignity (well, privacy anyway) than cause a commotion. I guess, though, it depends on who is around, what type of activity you’d be disrupting, and what are the chances that someone present could actually do something to help you.

People discharged from hospitals with a fatal prognosis may long to die while surrounded by their families, and I can see how that would be desirable in most circumstances. However, if the dying were unplanned, it can get a little more problematic. Imagine keeling over at the Thanksgiving dinner table, and the impact that’s going to have on everyone’s future memories of the fall holiday, not to mention their appetites. Consider how you’d feel if you choked on the chicken served at your daughter’s wedding reception, and turned what should’ve been the best day of her life into an afternoon of horror. Even what would seem to be an appropriate setting – an uncle’s funeral, for example – would likely make too much of a scene. “Imagine the nerve of upstaging Phil at a moment like that,” people would whisper as you were carried away (into the next room over, I guess).

Almost as bad a place to die in public would be at work. Not only do you hate to think that reading an email about whose turn it is to clean the refrigerator could be your last act on earth, but you probably have a professional reputation to uphold that you don’t want besmirched by involuntarily released fluids. We deal a lot in my office with critical deadlines that are considered a “must,” and I’m afraid my death would not only cause me great personal shame but also contribute to a missed SEC filing. There might be someone available who could aid me – we do have a safety coordinator who makes lists during fire drills, and that seems potentially helpful – and yet it’s just as likely I’d be helped by someone I don’t care for, and that’s just not acceptable. I’d rather, as they say, be dead.

Dying in another public space where you might be vaguely known by some onlookers would be a lot better. That’s probably an option I’d consider if I felt a fatal seizure coming on. There’s a homey little diner less than a five-minute walk from the office, and I bet I could make it there with a little luck. Sometimes, I’ve even seen EMTs eating lunch there and, though I’d hate to impose during their down time, maybe they could squeeze in a quick CPR before their meat loaf got too cold. Even if it’s just the regulars behind the counter who saw me, I don’t think they’d mind too much just making a quick phone call, at least if I avoided the lunch rush.

I’ve also wondered what it would be like to collapse along the side of the road during one of my jogs through our subdivision. Even though we’ve lived there almost 15 years, we’ve always kept to ourselves. So it wouldn’t be that much more awkward to forever be known as “that guy they found dead in the cul-de-sac” rather than my current identity, “that heavy-set older guy crazy enough to run in the summer heat who never waves to anybody.” Plus, there’s probably a better-than-even chance that my family could be notified to pick up my body before the sanitation department got involved.

Finally, there’s the option of suffering your ultimate demise in a location where no one has the slightest idea who you are. If I didn’t make it to that luncheonette I mentioned earlier, I’d be falling by the side of a well-travelled state road. A slumped body on the shoulder would certainly draw someone’s attention, maybe even a police officer or fireman. And being right there on the street, I’d probably save precious moments being evacuated from the scene.

Probably the closest I’ve come to actual sudden death in my 55 years was during a recent business trip to Sri Lanka. As you may know, that South Asian island nation is in the midst of an insurgency by the Tamil Tigers (I know they sound like a baseball team but, trust me, they’re far more dangerous.) While eating dinner at my hotel one evening, we heard a loud explosion, and soon learned that a terrorist bomb had gone off in a phone booth I’d normally be walking past about that time. No one was injured in the blast – these Tigers are about as skilled as the ones from Detroit – though I could’ve been killed.

Now that would’ve been some attention I could get used to. “American is felled by fatal blast,” reads the headline. “President sends military jet to bring body home; hero’s welcome planned for what’s left,” says the subhead. Only foreigners I’d never see again would be subjected to the messy details of the immediate aftermath, and everyone else would get a nicely packaged overview.

That’d be the way to go.

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5 Responses to “I wouldn’t be caught dead…”

  1. trishatruly Says:

    Really interesting (and farkin’ funny!) post!
    I’ve reached a rather past-the-point-of-middle age where I am thinking too often of my own demise. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) I never actually considered the act of dying and the impact it might have on me and those who must deal with dying me. AGGH!!
    Another thing that’s gonna give me insomnia!!


  2. planetross Says:

    I hope I die in the most unobvious place possible, so people will search for me like it’s an Easter Egg hunt. … and in a hundred years someone will finally find me and be all surprised and get all curious about who I was and stuff. I might make the papers then.

  3. Cindy Holman Says:

    Well I have to say, Davis – this is a most interesting choice of topics – and on MY BIRTHDAY too!!! I’m just messin’ with ya 🙂 Keep up the hilarious writing – I’ll be reading, my friend.

  4. Skip Dekades Says:

    I’ve always worried about dying of an aneurism on a public toilet.

  5. Alan G Says:

    Living alone for a number of years now, I have spent most of my “wonder-where-I’ll- die-time” dwelling on the fact that I will probably die alone, assuming of course it is something quick and unexpected. And I suspect as terrible as this might sound, it will be the smell that finally gives me away! I know….that’s gross but unfortunately may be closer to the truth than one cares to admit for those of us who are defenders of a more reclusive life style.

    And….because of that I have not given public croaking much air time. But I have to say that regardless of the ultimate method bestowed, I will still be quite dead so unless, like one of your previous posters mentioned, I am struck dead in an eerie similarity to my main man Elvis, it will simply be the prerequisite to my final proclamation – “Finders-Keepers!

    If on the other hand it is an Elvis moment that brings on my demise, they should just prop me back up on the toilet and I will holler when I’ve finished and have my pants pulled back up! It’s not so much a matter of modesty as it is protecting myself from some sarcastic epitaph eluding to…..well, you know!! 🙂

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