I'm not into obits, but I have a project that dedmands [sic] them. It involves collecting every single obit in one city over the course of six years between the ages of 12 and 20. Then, by and by marry it up to risk of the suicide for a certain cult.


(1) How can an obit writer put it — suicide? How much flexibility is there?

I mean: the ones — "died at home" (not peaceful) — are a dead give away. But when they start going "... called on a final mission to his Heavenly Father." That's a little less obvious.

(2) How many reasons are there to say simply 'passed,' or even 'passed quietly' without adding a vague 'recent illnes?' [sic] I mean, 'passed' could just mean passed, and 'passed quietly' could just as well mean a barbituate overdose. And what about the ever simpler 'so-and-so died.' Put simply, how often does an obit writer have no natural/medical cause that he can state?

I know that all sounds rather morbid, but for what I'm trying to do — there is just like NO DATA.


HMMM ... sounds like extremely thin gruel to me.

First let me say that I know nothing about writing obituaries. And I'm certainly not aware of any commonly-accepted "manual of style", formal or informal, that an obit writer might consult for handling the specific cause of death or ruling or verdict. In fact I would expect that any rules an obit writer might follow would be determined by the writer's bosses at whatever publication he or she works — meaning the rules could be very different from paper to paper — especially when you're talking about information that you believe is either hidden, implied or only hinted at.

That being said, I don't believe you can infer a cause of death from an obit if it is not expressly given. And to go one step further — without further evidence — to tie that cause to one or any cult simply defies logic.

All you're doing is substituting your own preconceptions for data that's unavailable and calling it empirical research, and this is both scientifically reckless and professionally irresponsible — if it's scientific integrity that you're actually concerned with, as opposed to merely creating propaganda.

There's an old maxim among computer programmers: "garbage in, garbage out". If you're not familiar with it, it means that the information derived from a program or process is only as good as the information put into it.

Clearly you've already mined this approach and are realizing that it yields (in your own words) "NO DATA" — so we can expect any theories based on it to yield "NO ANSWERS" and to have "NO CREDIBILITY"!

>> Hmmm ... sounds like extremely thin gruel to me.

It was. Gosh it's been awhile since I've gotten a flame mail who's [sic] author has skill, talent, and chops. If you thought about me what I think you thought about me, then you were right to berate me.

Now I know that, in 1999, in Salt Lake County, there were 8 total deaths of male 17 year olds (3 medical, one auto, one unintentional accident, two intentional suicides with fire arms, and one intentional suicide by "other unspecified means and their sequelae") ... Utah takes its record keeping very seriously. I didn't get that from the paper. But obits, I've generally found that if they can say so, they do.

Incidentally, if you are 40 and reside in Salt Lake, your death is as likely to be attributed to suicide as it is "undetermined intent."

Privacy, absolutely. I'd never air names, and no matter how well I do, I'll still have a couple of "unknown soldiers" here and there. The data could never have perfect integrity. But done right, it's still a very maybe.

Here's where I'm coming from ... Homicide is covered ubiquitously, but suicide is hardly ever spoken of in specifics. Homicide is easy to understand. It is about money, drugs (usually meth), and mean people (usually criminals). In Utah, suicide happens much more often, but every piece on it, there and elsewhere, simply wonders "We just didn't see it coming ..." Moreover, so many of these public psych types are, I feel, playing 'hide the pickle.'

For example, Dr. Grey blames it on kids playing hookey. He says most suicide victims were in some sort of trouble with their school, the law, the home. Wow. And the reports never question — if sixty-some percent of youth suicides previously were truant, got referrals to juvy, or drank devil-water, then what about a control group? How many randoms that age had the same troubles? Another researcher at UF came to the conclusion that it had something to do with 'not being involved with the community.' Stating the obvious never gets after the why of the thing. We already know that suicide is concerned with not getting on well in life, with social isolation.

At base, people who suicide do it because they feel lousy about themselves. The question is why they feel lousy about themselves. Some are pretty obvious. Take the whistle-blower exec at Enron for instance. Meanwhile, someone like (*seems* to be a crook) Lay remains shameless. Or the Utah meany who shot his friend because he thought his friend revealed his crimes to the authorities. Next day, said meany found out his friend didn't sell him out, so he shot himself in disgust at what he'd done. Then there are the merely deranged. But, oh, half or so of the lot of them are way too decent to die, and that is the why of the why I ask after them.

Insofar as the religious bent, I'm guessing that American youth rates of suicide trend/tend to escalate as you go to religious extremes. Perhaps as far right as the Presbys and as far left as the ever-eccentric Unitarians. I'd *guess* that LDS sits the fence on this. On the one hand, their emphasis on community, family, and morality wins tons on stability. On the other hand, they propogate the shame thing well.

Insofar as obits are concerned, my favorite one concluded, "In lieu of flowers, the family requests that you spend time with someone you love." Also, the pathos runs strongest in the obits that are positive. Some of the Salt Lake mortuary authors are awesome in this regard.

Ethically, digital-age obits should refrain from stating the cause of death entirely. All too often, I'm looking at around ten cases. Got year, locale, age, gender, reason, and even what sport. Myriad archives. Whatever that I may be wrong in my earnest scholarship, throw me off the hunt and advocate privacy. Yes. I am that/too close.

Your letter attacks dishonesty, mean-ness, and sham-studies. Whatever that I won't listen. I heard it, I like it, and I'll count you among my media filters. But I'll do it until it's done or not. Also, I'll count the "as-of-yet-un-endowed" as just that. Mormon records are that good.

IF MY RESPONSE sounded like a personal attack, I apologize — it was certainly not meant to be. If the language was strong, that was because I just wanted to make it unequivocably clear where I thought your study was headed, as described in your previous message.

It's simply the methodology that I find lacking, and any statements from obits which do not explicitly state "suicide" as the cause of death (indeed any report that does not so state it) will always remain purely conjectural. Even obits that do state the cause are only circumstantial evidence, and of themselves offer no evidence for the religion tie-in — which I wouldn't expect to find in an obit — since we're really only looking at third-hand knowledge of the events.

A methodology that seems far more appropriate for this type of research is the case study (which you may not be prepared to undertake due to the time and resources involved to do it properly) — in-depth biographical studies of individuals from the subject population, the more the merrier, with first-hand real stories and hard, pertinent facts, which your ancillary statistics can supplement. For pertinent cases I would forget the obits and go straight to the horse's mouth — in this case, any suicide prevention organizations operating in the geographical areas you're studying. If anyone should know something about this field, these are the people you should be talking to.

Without actual case studies to go with your statistics, I'm afraid that your study will remain constructed on conjecture, at an arm's distance from the real story, whatever that may ultimately prove to be.