“Every dead body is a mystery,” says author Kathryn Schulz. “Death is an assassin with infinite aliases, and the question of what kills us is tremendously complex.” As with any other complex matter, we have developed a bureaucracy to address it – or to obfuscate it – and, by Schulz’s reckoning, “The atomic unit of that bureaucracy is the death certificate.” As a means to come to terms with our mortality, the death certificate is, in Schulz’s elegant phrase, “the saddest of diplomas, the most mysterious of passports.”
The death certificate stands for our notion that every death means something, and should be accounted for. It also represents our attempt to explain death, by documenting it.
Keeping track of the dead is a relatively new endeavor. The death certificate, as Schulz details, was an innovation of 16th-century England, in the form of a document known as a Bill of Mortality. “Early (earlier) states,” she points out, “had neither the means nor the motive to track individual deaths – or, for that matter, Individual anything.”
The motive arose, Schulz says, in large part because of the Black Plague, which made death a public concern, and the means followed, as states began to mandate the recording of deaths.
With the rise of democracies, the death certificate took on the aspect of a personal ID. As Schulz notes, “The flip side of democracy is bureaucracy: if everyone counts, everyone must be counted.”
But the imperative to account for every death was marred, inevitably, by imprecision, where the cause of death was uncertain and those charged with the recording of deaths were overwhelmed or unqualified. Today, Schulz says, the task of filling out death certificates is often foisted on medical interns or residents, and she quotes one who compares it to “filling out your own taxes. Shouldn’t I be smart enough to know how to do this?” The comparison is an apt one: the official book on causes of mortality is as dreary and byzantine as the IRS tax manual, and lists over 8,000 ways to die.
Even when it is as accurate as mortal hands and minds can make it, the death certificate can still never answer the question, Why do we die? All we can do is guess, and say, as Schulz does, with cheerful resignation: “We die because we were born; because we are mortal; because that is, after all, life.”