Journal: News & Comment

Friday, August 16, 2002
# 10:44:00 PM:

Average people

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Earlier generations knew death well. Children died routinely in infancy, or before their fifth birthdays. Women died in childbirth. Many then-fatal diseases are mere nuisances, or entirely unknown, today. We who live in the developed world -- who, on average, have the best standard of living of any people in history -- are unfamiliar with death, and perhaps fear it more than our ancestors because of that.

Yet still it comes. When I was in my twenties, two of my grandparents (my mother's parents) died, a year apart. Many of my friends, and my wife, lost grandparents during their twenties too. Now I'm 33. My parents and my in-laws remain healthy. But two friends lost their mothers a few months ago. This week, another's uncle died suddenly, and yet another friend's mother, not so suddenly. These were not accidents or contagious diseases, but natural causes: heart disease, cancer, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease, and simple old age, things that remain much more than nuisances in 2002.

In my family, deaths span time. My paternal grandfather was a German footsoldier, and died in 1947 of tuberculosis, contracted when he was a prisoner in a Russian camp during World War II. (My father, who was eight, barely remembers him.) His wife, my grandmother, lived more than half a century longer, until November 2001, just a month shy of her 91st birthday. She outlived her much younger second husband, my Opa, by two decades.

We live longer than anyone ever has, on average. But it's just an average.


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