Wednesday, September 23, 2009

COLUMN: Just another roll of the die

I’ll be reaching my 41st birthday next week, which means of course that I’ll be thinking about the inescapable specter of my own impending mortality. And also, cake!

I would submit, though, that it’s not my fault the grim reaper weighs more heavily on my mind with each passing year. Blame my body, for deliberately exhibiting all these signs of aging. If it didn’t want me thinking about dying, it would be firmer, and more robustly haired.

But beyond that, it seems like everywhere I look there’s another one of these online “death calculators,” which analyze when you’re most likely to die, and from what. You’d think most people would rather not know — personally, I want my tombstone to read “He never knew what hit him” — but no: One site launched last month,, got 3 million hits right out of the creaky, wrought iron gate.

“One of our tag lines is ‘Death has never been so much fun,’” site designer Paul Fischbeck told the Seattle Times, raising the obvious question of what some of their other tag lines might be. (“Death: It’s not just about decomposing anymore,” etc.).

So I input my own information into the calculator to determine what I might be most likely to succumb to, were it to happen in the next year. The results were predictably disturbing; for instance, of 3,097 deaths predicted, 239 are accidents, and seven are “Accidents-Other.” I’m assuming the “other” are the people who have vending machines fall on them when they’re trying to shake loose a jammed bag of Combos, which is exactly how I expect to go. Look for me on one of those forwarded e-mail lists soon, along with all the people who used their Zippo lighters to check for leftover jet fuel.

Seeing all the types of death that could be facing me this year was, frankly, more than a little depressing. But I felt a little better when I compared myself to a similar subject living in Alaska. While diseases are fewer there — owing no doubt to the cleaner atmosphere, at least until we start drilling — accidents are way off the charts, with 797 to Massachusetts’ 239. Since “Bear Attacks” doesn’t get a separate entry, I have to assume that’s what’s making up most of the difference, along with all the people that Sarah Palin mistakes for wolves from her helicopter.

But that’s not the only item that’s put death on my radar screen: Someone also sent me the book “When The Sun Goes Down” by Betty Breuhaus, which tells you how to plan your own funeral. This is sort of like planning your own surprise party, except at the funeral you don’t have to act shocked when they turn the lights on. “SURPRISE!”

Still, she offers some good ideas, like picking your own music — for instance, she suggests that instead of traditional hymns, some people might want something like “The Rainbow Connection” from “The Muppet Movie,” presumably for the small population of mourners who don’t already associate Kermit the Frog with tragic, untimely death.

She also recommends writing your own obituary, which I can definitely see doing, since who’s in a better position to inventory the ways in which you’ll be sorely missed? (“His hundreds of close friends and admirers will greatly miss his renowned, almost Brobdingnagian sense of modesty,” etc.)

But I’ve got to get there first, and I’ve decided the best way to figure out when and how that will happen is the same way we find out most things these days: via a Facebook quiz. And according to the Facebook “Death’s Time” quiz, I’ll pass away Feb. 13, 2034 at age 65 from being “sliced up by a dough mixer.” I’d say they could be wrong, but it’s hard to argue with a Facebook quiz — they were dead on when they determined what “Goodfellas” character I was. (“Karen’s mother.”)

Of course, my real hope is that I wind up living a long, productive life, no matter how it winds up at the end. The apparent preoccupation with “death calculators” aside, seems to me it’s better to focus on what we do while we’re here, try our best to be happy and healthy, and not obsess over how it could all end any minute in a hail of accidents, growths, poisonings and/or infectious and parasitic diseases.

Still, just in case, I’m going to start eating a lot more cake.

Peter Chianca is a managing editor for GateHouse Media New England; this column appeared originally in North Shore Sunday. Follow him on Twitter at To receive At Large by e-mail, write to, with the subject line “SUBSCRIBE.”

1 comment:

jessicabold said...

Just so you know, those death calculators scared the shit out of me. I was all, "BUT I'LL ONLY BE 29! wait, it says I'm already supposed to BE DEAD?...the hell?"

I always sucked at math.