Monday, May 7, 2012

Tacky Death Notices on Listserves

I've derived much benefit from my subscriptions to academic list-serves. They have helped me to keep up with new books, information about conferences and museum exhibitions, and other goings on in the field and at large. They're much more immediate than waiting for journal reviews of same.

Another type of news that is sometimes sent out is a notice of the death of a scholar in the field. In most cases, they are written quite simply, tastefully and respectfully, rather like obituaries. They note that the  person has died, mention the names of surviving relatives and students, and describe their contributions to their field of study, usually in the glowing terms that befit a deceased person. But every once in a while, a death notice comes across one of the lists that is tasteless, baffling, distressing, and surely unworthy of the dignity of the decedent.

I got one today (edited slightly where [redacted] doesn't quite cut it):

I was at the hospital last night with [redacted]'s family, her son [redacted], daughter [redacted], her husband [redacted], and her sister [redacted]. Several of their closest friends were also there and were extremely supportive of the family. They all had a chance to be together to say goodbye to [redacted], and begin to make some plans for the next days. The only good news in all of this is that [redacted] wanted to donate her organs, and this has been done successfully. [Sister] said that it seemed especially fitting that [redacted] would be giving new life to [people in distant locale where death occurred].

The message in and of itself wasn't so grossly bad, but until further notices went out filling in more of the back story, it was a lot of disturbing sound and fury; without knowing more, it almost seemed that a scholar knew she was dying rapidly and requested that her organs be donated, a scene which occasioned much contemplation not just of mortality but of awareness of mortality. I must not have been the only one who found this odd, since more specific details — that were really none of my business or that of probably most people on the list-serve — trickled out over the course of the day. I know that with a dead young woman in the mix, this is hardly the most pressing issue. The scholarly community, particularly among medievalists in certain sub-disciplines is small, but it's not quite that small. That's just too much detail for everyone in that world to get in their inboxes first thing in the morning. This is a scholar whose work I am first learning about after finding out lots of information about the circumstances under which she died. That's not fair to her intellectual legacy.

The all-time worst, however, was a list-serve death notice that contained this paragraph:

Last night, I came back from visiting Dr. [redacted]’s family (his wife, Dr. [redacted], and his son [redacted]) along with several students and colleagues. Some of you have asked me and others about the rumor of suicide. I knew, as some of you also did know, that Dr. [redacted] was very ill in recent months. After complications and hospitalization for severe diverticulitis in May, 2011, he was stricken by severe post-traumatic stress with acute depression, and lost 20 lbs. Despite medical care and the support of his family, he was unable to overcome this painful condition and took his own life on the afternoon of August 24, 2011.

Again, this was a scholar whose work was so removed from my own that I didn't even recognize his name; it was a gross violation of his privacy for someone obviously in his inner circle to blast this to an entire, enormous, 800-member international list-serve. I am sympathetic to a former student wanting to quash rumors about a beloved teacher, but somehow spreading them, confirming them and adding intimate details doesn't quite seem the way.

I know that this is easy to write about from the vantage point of someone who is not in shock and mourning. I know that grief can make people do odd and regrettable things. But I'm curious as to how much of a trend this is (perhaps it's two isolated cases in a year and nothing more). It must seem, in the throes of grief, like an easy way to get the news out, but there's clearly a breakdown between getting the news out and circulating details that should go to a much shorter, hand-picked list of friends and colleagues. On the one hand, I can understand the impulse to send all the details far an and wide to avoid excluding someone who should be included. But I also wonder to what extent other factors play into this phenomenon: How much of it is owed to people simply forgetting the wide reach of these list-serves, how much is a result of the changing definition of public information or how much you have to share for it to constitute an overshare,  and how much of it is to do with the list-serve still being a sort of Wild West where etiquette is concerned?

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