So a tragic, but interesting thing happened over the weekend. David Goldberg, a 47-year-old Silicon Valley entrepreneur (and husband of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg) died “suddenly” while on vacation with his family. When I saw the news, I clicked on a few articles, and was struck immediately that no mention was made in any of them of exactly how he died. And the reason it struck me was because in this day and age, it seems there is no escaping the lurid details of how any of us die.
Yes, I understand we live in a celebrity culture, and people’s appetites are insatiable when it comes to the deaths of famous people. For example, it wasn’t ENOUGH for us to know that Robin Williams killed himself, we needed to know HOW he killed himself (hanging). Then, it wasn’t ENOUGH for us to know that he hung himself, we needed to know also that he wrapped a plastic bag around his head, just to make sure.
I do recognize this sort of thing has been going on since forever. Indeed, the words of Elton John’s tribute to Marilyn Monroe come to mind: “All the papers had to say . . . was that Marilyn . . . was found in the nude . . .”
And hey, so wasn’t Whitney Houston!
When the brilliant New York Times media guru David Carr died recently, dropping dead in the Times newsroom, it was sad and tragic news. But most everyone who knew of David Carr also knew he had battled plenty of demons in his time, most especially, years of drug abuse. He had written a very well acclaimed memoir about it. Those closest to him also knew he was a cigarette smoker (ironically, perhaps one of the more benign substances Mr. Carr had ever put into his body.) And when the news came (because of course it did) that Mr. Carr’s sudden death was due to lung cancer, the moralists and finger waggers of our day had lots of fun with it.
Perhaps the most egregious recent example of wallowing in the manner of someone’s death also comes from the Times, when fashion designer L’Wren Scott took her own life. It wasn’t ENOUGH for us to know that she killed herself. We had to know HOW she killed herself. And if the Times obituary for her wasn’t a veritable “how to kill yourself with a scarf” primer, then I don’t know what would be.
Now, I do acknowledge that celebrities and so-called “public figures” are fair game when it comes to this, however unseemly it may be. But what about the rest of us? Because it seems whether famous or not, public figure or not, the manner or cause of our deaths – what specific cancer kills us, for example – is going to end up in our obituary, whether we want it to or not, whether it’s anyone’s business or not.
Maybe I misremember, but I don’t recall years ago, every obituary containing a cause of death, particularly the obituaries of older people. “Natural causes” was often used as a catch-all for any of the hundreds of things that can (and will) kill us as we get older. Do we need to know that an eighty-year-old man dies of prostate cancer? That a ninety-two-year old had colon cancer? Or, in the case of eighty-two-year old Joseph Lechleider, a Father of DSL Internet Technology, that it was esophageal cancer that finally did him in?
When I opined about some of this on twitter yesterday, someone responded that in most cases, cause of death is a public record, and that gathering causes of death is important for public health. Yes, it is. Then, someone else chimed in that Mr. Goldberg and his wife LIVED online. They OWE us an accounting of how Mr. Goldberg died! No, they don’t (setting aside even that Mr. Goldberg’s 400+ twitter posts is hardly “living your life online.”)
No, I contend that people’s insatiable appetite to know the cause and manner of someone’s death is akin to prurience, plain and simple, an insatiable prurience to know other people’s business. Exactly when did we become a nation of Gladys Kravitz’s?
At any rate, rest in peace, Mr. Goldberg. You died too young, and you leave behind a loving wife and two young children. That’s all I need to know.
UPDATE: The family wished to keep the details private.
It's a shame they couldn't.