North of Ground Level
Undertakers must really wonder. And those who write epitaphs on grave stones must also receive some strange commentary. There are no doubt, some odd ways to die. We, the living, wonder about it. It makes us feel positively lucky to be north of ground level.
I think of this periodically when I hear of someone dying under very strange circumstances. I recall one near the juncture of the 427 and QEW, close by where I was working. Around lunch time the cry of sirens and ambulances and firetrucks rose up from all directions. What had happened would make you shake your head. A guy had rescheduled his regular routine, apparently to make a special appointment with the Grim Reaper. He usually headed to work during regular rush hour, but this day he had been late in order to drive his daughter to university. As he passed by that juncture at around noon, a truck flying by at speed, lost a piece of sheet metal about the size of a licence plate. Travelling through the air like a shot from a gun, it passed through the windshield and straight through this guy’s head. He didn’t even see it coming. The only reason he died - he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Now you know why I am scratching my head about what you might put on some head stones. “Here lies one unlucky son-of-a-bitch” must pass through the engraver’s head sometimes.
As these things go, there are unlucky ways to die. History is full of them, and we just cannot predict. You never know when you your own special little appointment will come, except that it is as sure as taxes and it will come to us all someday. So it might be a good thing today, to count yourself lucky to be a commentator and not the one commented on.
I ran across a census of deaths in Perth County, in 1857. It was informative, because the ways people die have changed. You only have to pass by an old graveyard and see the dates on head stones in a row from large to small, to know that an entire family died when influenza passed through an area. Or, the baby deaths from unknown causes, or simply the many women from times past who died in childbirth before more sophisticated medicine made this less likely.
Causes of death in Perth County, could be categorized. Some the same as today, and some unfamiliar. Living on a farm in the past would greatly increase your chance of death, in case anyone thought rural life was healthy. You were in close contact with wild horses and heavy machinery on a regular basis. Rural life at that time also meant you heated your home with fire, so chances of death from a fire were fairly high. Since wood was also needed for making those fires, felling trees, logging and the moving of logs, another big culprit. You also had to have a gun to hunt, and to defend your property. Check that box. Guns were as dangerous then as they are now. Then there was trains. Being on them or around them, accounted for many accidents. Then there were the usual suspects, drunkenness, stupidity, and plain old fashioned murder also made the list.
One man’s cause of death, was by tar and feathering. I would speculate that if you died at the hands of an angry mob, chances are you preceded that with something truly stupid and dishonest on a large scale and without fear of reprisal. Many deaths are simply that, death from consequences most normal people could predict.
I heard of a man in Saskatchewan whose wife claimed he slept with a loaded pistol under the pillow. Apparently he had been threatened with his life and took it seriously. Judging that most people in rural Saskatchewan are fairly chill, I would speculate that the death threat was intended to avenge the chastity of someone’s wife or daughter, and so maybe he was taking a sensible precaution. I wonder if his wife ever questioned what he did while out and about, since sleeping with a loaded pistol under your pillow might be considered unconventional. People who live on the edge - when their time comes, they may have already been courting death for a long time.
Death by wounded honour is another strange one that happened here and there in upper Canada. The law tended to stand back in such cases because it was then common for gentlemen of good family to address assaults to honour with pistols at dawn, instead of going the long route through the courts. It harkens back to the trial by ordeal established in the middle ages, situations where it was believed that God would determine the just victor in a dispute. This meant that whoever survived the duel, generally walked free, even if they were frowned upon in polite society. There are many cases where the win was accomplished by less than honourable means, like firing your pistol before the allotted count had been completed by the second, the person monitoring the fairness of the duel. And yet few cases were later prosecuted in court.
Brushes with death can change your life. A man we knew in Saskatchewan became a Pentecostal preacher, after his arm was violently torn off at the shoulder by a threshing machine. Far from medical help, it was considered a miracle of God that they managed to stop the flow of blood, especially because there was no stump upon which to apply a tourniquet. When he stood up at the pulpit people tended to listen to the one-armed prophet who had cheated the grim reaper.
If you have ever sat in on a court proceeding, you can see the strange tangle of events that can lead to an unplanned early departure from this earth, whether by misadventure, accident, or something like a robbery gone wrong. What is even more puzzling is when our early departure is arranged by somebody on purpose - like those old widows throughout history with the Strychnine bottle on the shelf, in case they are tired of present husband or just want an early inheritance. History is riddled with those who have wed one husband after another without drawing public suspicion. After all, everyone pities a widow, even the one with a dozen kids from six husbands whose estates she has gathered up along the way. Insurance companies - they must get a lot of enquiries over the timing of large insurance policy arrangements.
Death is never very fair. Early or late, it always seems too soon. The Grim Reaper just seems to be cooking up new and fascinating ways to depart this earthly vale, such that the phenomenon spurred the creation of a show called “1000 Ways to Die”, (in case you were sleeping too soundly at night). Go down to Mexico some time when they are celebrating the Day of the Dead. No avoidance of the topic, they are handing out skull candy and grinning right along with all the skeletons. Even Hallowe’en here, look at the number of people who put mock graveyards in their front lawns, complete with witty inscriptions that will make you laugh.
We seem endlessly able to be fascinated by death, as long as the subject involves someone else. Perhaps the discussion of it makes us feel a bit more alive today. Let’s just say it is a good thing to be north of ground level. People speculate on whether it is better to die with your boots on, or in bed at a ripe old age, but we will never know until our own day arrives and it is likely better that way. Lucky or unlucky we are all in the same boat - our chance for human mortality remains at 100%.
Still, I wonder about those who must scratch their heads, wake up on the other side and say, “Oh CRAP, I’m dead! I should have had more fun while I still could!”