The arithmetic of death

Opinion: Columns

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By John Hubbuch

On April 15, an explosion in Boston, Mass., killed three people. On April 17, an explosion in West, Texas killed 14 people. Both events were tragic and unexpected. The friends and families of all 17 victims were shocked and will be scarred for the rest of their lives.

Although almost five times as many people died in the Texas explosion, the news coverage was far greater for the Boston Marathon bombing than for the Texas fertilizer plant explosion. That wasn't surprising, given that the news media knew that most of us were more interested in the event that caused much less carnage.

But this inverse ratio of carnage to coverage caused me to do a little research on the arithmetic of death.

Let's look at the big picture: Today there are almost seven billion of us on this planet. Every one of us will die. Jiromen Kimura from Japan is the oldest of us. He celebrated his 116th birthday on April 19. So in all likelihood everyone who is living today from Mr. Kimura to today's newborns will be dead by 2129.

Some of us may die by plague or pandemic. In two years beginning in 1348, the Black Death killed between 100 and 200 million people in Europe, which took 150 years to recover. AIDS, a modern scourge has killed 1.7 million of us.

Some of us will die in wars — an efficient way to kill people in a relatively short period of time. In the United States, 8,000 Americans died in the American Revolution, around 300,000 in WWII, 58,282 in Vietnam, and "only" 3,542 died in Iraq.

Genocide also kills large numbers of our species in relatively short bursts. Six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. Pol Pot, Stalin and Mao slaughtered millions too.

By 2015 the number of deaths by car accident and those by guns will be roughly equal, around 35,000 each year. Around a half million of us die of cancer each year.

Although TV might lead us to believe otherwise, very few of us die by plane crash, lightning, avalance, shark, grizzly bear, sinkhole or bug eating. Similarly, very few Americans die from terror attacks. The World Trade Center bombings killed 2,996. The bombing of the federal courthouse in Oklahoma City resulted in the deaths of 168.

Then there are the deaths of individuals who are famous in some way. They almost always die one at a time. Presidents. Movie and TV stars. Professional athletes. Singers. We spend a lot of time talking and remembering these exemplars of our society, but their death only counts as one.

Of course, each and every one of us at the very end dies "one at a time." Whether the last minutes are peaceful or violent, painless or painful, sentient or blank, alone or befriended, poor or rich, unknown or famous, each of the seven billion of us leaves this world individually. Alone. One by one.


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Victoria Weise from River Forest  

Posted: May 22nd, 2013 5:56 PM

I was quietly enjoying the Wednesday Journal, sitting on my deck, and reading your article on the Arithmetic of Death, when a huge oak tree branch came crashing down, literally one foot away from where I was sitting. Talk about a 'near death experience'! Great article, by the way. Spooky, but very enlightening.

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