In a broadsheet newspaper yesterday, it was death after death on page after page. I counted two former presidents, the one of the Seychelles a playboy, the one of Iran not a playboy; five dead when a car bomb exploded in Damascus; four more (Israeli soldiers) as the result of a truck attack in Jerusalem.
More prosaically an ‘exemplary’ student died in a fall in Japan, while in Italy a rally driver died when his open-top car crashed. So far the count of newsworthy deaths is 13. It may be like this most days, but short of a major terrorist atrocity it does seem a lot. And it’s a sobering thought that all 13 saw in the New Year, and that one or two might even have watched the annual Jools Holland Hootenanny and wondered how Jools gets the timing of the Bells spot-on considering that the show has been in the can for weeks.
We’re not quite finished. A singer-songwriter by the name of Peter Sarstedt died too. Mr Sarstedt was once moderately famous for a song entitled ‘Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)?’. When they played it a couple of nights ago, it didn’t sound half bad for a song with brackets in it. But after this chart success Peter Sarstedt wasn’t heard of again for almost half a century and the next thing he did to earn any press was to die at the age of 75.
Except Mr Sarstedt didn’t die. Everybody else died: the ex-presidents, the car bomb victims, the Israeli soldiers, the exemplary student, the rally driver. All dead; all except Peter Sarstedt. He alone ‘passed away’. We know this because it said so in the headline over his modest obituary.
The distinction prompts a slightly troubling question: is there some difference in quality between the act of dying and that of passing away? It’s hard to imagine people killed by a car bomb or mown down by a truck ‘passing away’ when the manner of their death is so arbitrary and violent. ‘Passing away’, if it is not simply a handy euphemism for the last facebook post, implies a tranquil journey of some sort: family round the bed, aromatic candles, soft music, publicist ready with the press release.
But why grant the dignity of ‘passing away’ exclusively to Peter Sarstedt? Why not to the two ex-presidents, who appear to have drawn their last breaths peacefully enough? Maybe it is only celebrities, even minor ones like Mr Sarstedt, who are allowed to ‘pass away’ (or, in its sinister new variant, ‘pass’) while the rest of the human race has to make do with merely dying.
That A-list celeb, the monarch, has recovered from her prolonged cold (‘Good to see you, Ma’am’, as one of her obsequious subjects, the Daily Express, heralded her return). Among several reasons why this should be regarded as good news is that it delays the appearance of one of the definitive headlines of the 21st century:
QUEEN PASSES AWAY
or – the ultimate abomination – QUEEN PASSES