Death Likes A Holiday

If human beings were mere mechanisms, like light bulbs, you’d expect us to wink out in a normal, random statistical distribution, the odds of dying on one day or another about the same. But we aren’t machines, but sentient thinking and feeling creatures, as our patterns of death remind us.

Years ago I learned that people are much more likely than would be predicted to die within a week or two of their birthday. I’ve been scared of the month of July ever since. Thanks, statisticians! David Bowie released his final album on January eighth, his birthday, and died January tenth. New analysis shows that there is an even greater likelihood of dying on your birthday itself. Fourteen percent more than average, to be precise.

One cause appears to be suicides which is sad, but understandable if life is handing you lemons and you’re allergic to lemonade. But even when birthday suicides are set aside, the numbers of deaths on birthdays is still much higher than might be expected mathematically. And the bulge is more pronounced in people over sixty. They are more likely to die on their birthdays than are people aged thirty.

A similar phenomenon occurs in the period around the holidays, with especially pronounced spikes on Christmas Day, December 26th and New Year’s Day. Those who compile “In Memoriam” lists to appear near the end of the year, as I sometimes did as a newspaper guy, notice that as soon as they finish a list of the year’s notable deaths in time for end of year publication, a flurry of holiday deaths arrive. In 2015, Mario Cuomo and Donna Douglas died on January 1st and Wayne Rogers and Natalie Cole on Dec. 31st, for instance.

Explanations have been offered for both of these odd statistical variations, but they tend to be the kind of mechanistic explanations adopted by the kind of people who study statistics. On birthdays and holidays, they say, we are more likely to do things that are bad for us – like overeat and drink to excess. But if that’s the cause there ought to be a holocaust every Superbowl Sunday.

Some researchers offer the explanation of stress, which feels like it night be getting closer to the mark. Surely the clustering of deaths on days that have special meaning, that are milestones on the calendar of life, suggests there is a large psychological component to the statistical bulge.

It isn’t hard to imagine that people already in less than robust health might be hanging on for dear life, counting the days if only beneath the level of conscious deliberation, until the next Christmas or New Year’ or birthday. And when they reach it, it seems likely they might give a great sign and relax to “sink Lethe-wards,” as Keats said. Or less happily, they may arrive at the day they’ve been struggling to reach, only to find it disappointing, and the prospect ahead even worse. Time to go. So they do. Not suicide, but surrender.

We are not rational counting machines but networks of moods and feelings, thoughts and fancies, intentions and dreads which express themselves in our living and in our dying. “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little lives are rounded with a sleep.” Apparently a statistically significant number of us do the rounding on or near a day we feel has meaning. And incidentally, Shakespeare said that. And guess what? He was baptized on April 26th, so was probably born a few days earlier, and died on April 23rd.

The researchers advise us to extend life by being with friends, eating and drinking in moderation, exercising and avoiding stress, but no amount of kale or sweat will keep us from the last round-up. If you tried to live by statistics you’d be wise to avoid winter since more people die in cold months. And since Christmas appears to be deadly, best not to be a Christian, and to avoid all calendars so you don’t know it is New Year’s or your birthday.

You’d also have to refuse to be over sixty since so many more people over sixty die near their birthday. AARP, which is always telling us how to live long and prosper, brings the news that the first baby boomers turn 70 this year. Well, some of them. Turns out, there were 3.4 million Americans born in 1946, but only 2.1 million will be turning seventy this year. One-third down and two-thirds to go.

Since New Year’s is over and my birthday is six months away, I plan to take a break from worrying about death until then. And aside from avoiding really stupid behavior, we have little choice but to let nature take its course. Let’s face it, death is a lot like Vegas. In the long run, you can’t beat the house. As long as you’re going anyway, it may actually be kind of fun to expire in a statistical anomalous way, if only to give the statisticians something inexplicable to get stressed about. If enough of us do it, it might kill them.

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