Here's Everything We Learned About Death in 2014
Bodies turned up in weird places, people had complicated feelings about suicide, and the circumstances of our eventual deaths became disturbingly clear.
Photo by Nate Miller
According to my own rough projections using the most reliable data I could find, by the time 2014 is over 56,756,662 people will have died during the year. When you compare that to the paltry 55,973,000 who died in 2013, you can see that dying was super popular this year.
That's good. Someday soon, there could conceivably be a year when fewer people die than the previous year, a rare anomaly that will indicate a disturbing trend toward people living into, say, their 200s, or just never checking out at all. But here in 2014 and for the foreseeable future, the burgeoning immortality trend is still a nonstarter, despite what Aubrey de Grey might have you believe. Terminal illnesses can still affect us all, as can bullets, falls from great heights, old age, poison, crippling depression, drunk drivers, etc.
Here is what 2014 taught us about death.
Fame Can't Save You
Probably the second worst thing about dying is that it makes the living feel like shit. This is doubly true for celebrities, and triply true for the ones we lost in 2014. Even the elderly ones like Joan Rivers, Alexander Shulgin (whom we just couldn't stop eulogising), and Mike Nichols, all seemed like weirdly personal attacks from the Grim Reaper.
But 2014 had a seemingly unusual glut of early departures, too. Drugs claimed journalist and rock-and-roll heiress Peaches Geldof, and of course Philip Seymour Hoffman. Natural causes – possibly helped along by a rough past – got to the British actor and comedian Rik Mayall, and skateboarding legend Jay Adams. Suicide claimed fashion designer L'Wren Scott, the 25-year-old singer Simone Battle, Basketball Diaries director Scott Kalvert and, most shockingly of all, Robin Williams. Speaking of which...
Suicide Is Having a Moment
When Robin Williams died, it was a reminder of a factoid we had already digested when the CDC ran a study in 2013: middle-aged men's risk of committing suicide is skyrocketing. Suicide is, in the CDC's view, a public health problem. In the UK, the male suicide rate has been called a "national tragedy" – it's now the biggest killer of young British men that there is.
Last year, respected publications seemed to come to the defence of suicide. When Henry Rollins called Williams a coward, we all jumped down his throat, prompting him to issue what really should be the blueprint for all internet apologies from now on. We have complicated feelings about the issue, but it was those who were staunchly opposed to suicide that were feeling the internet's wrath.
This might have been because there was a high-profile story about the right to die with dignity. A 29-year-old woman named Brittany Maynard was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, and made the private decision to commit suicide with the help of an Oregon doctor before she got extremely sick.
Her decision was met with some public outcry – from the Pope, for instance – but not much. Mostly we all just got kinda sad about it, and agreed that it was probably the best thing for her, and that it doesn't seem cowardly at all now that you mention it.
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Bodies Turn Up in the Darndest Places
The finding of bodies isn't unique to 2014. Corpses don't make the news when they're found in bodies of water, dumpsters, or drainage tubes. In 2014, though, bodies turned up in some bonkers locations.
Most notably, the body of a college student was found in the dumbwaiter of a Wisconsin restaurant. The tragic death of 21-year-old Brooke Baures of Winona State University was somewhat overshadowed last week by the puzzling circumstances of her death, with no one able to offer any explanation as to how or why she got in there.
The runners-up this year include a Los Angeles murder victim found in a suitcase, an Australian woman who was perched atop a tree after falling off a cliff, and a Detroit man who was found in a Porta Potty. All these deaths were tragic for the loved ones of the victims, but confusing for the rest of us.
It's Increasingly Likely That We're Going to Die Alone
In June, in a small English town in Hampshire, a woman named Anne Leitrim was discovered dead in her home. But her actual death, authorities say, had occurred shortly before Obama was elected president in 2008, meaning neighbours had been carrying their groceries past her corpse through five or six of the seven stages of decomposition.
This prompted Fay Schopen to pen a thinkpiece for the Guardian, saying British people live in an "isolated age", and that "Anyone can die alone—not just the lonely."
There is, of course, the widely-held belief that a feeling of solitude in one's final moments is inescapable. But having a lifelong relationship, or at least one that spans the end of your life, should theoretically put a person in comforting proximity while you die. That is, as long as you die first. We're increasingly unlikely to receive that, or any, fringe benefit of marriage, because according to a new Pew Research study an astonishing 25 percent of millennials aren't ever getting married.
We're Also Going to Know Well in Advance That We're Dying
Julianne Moore is probably going to win the Best Actress Oscar for her role in Still Alice, the story of a vivacious woman in her early fifties whose life falls apart when she gets early-onset Alzheimer's. I don't know what would be worse: early-onset Alzheimer's that takes me while I'm relatively young, or knowing decades in advance that I'm going to eventually get the tortuous disease. Nonetheless, diagnosis of Alzheimer's as much as 20 years early is one of many promises to come out of a new – and if you ask me, unwelcome – medical breakthrough.
Granted, preclinical diagnosis of curable or treatable diseases using molecular imaging is a good thing, and as medical imaging technology rapidly develops, we'll know further and further in advance what diseases we have, or are going to have, like tumors, and rheumatoid arthritis. Still, when it comes to the gnarly neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and Huntington's, I really would prefer ignorance to an early diagnosis.
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