An interactive database available online can tell you some decidedly grim facts about death. Your death.
Or rather, your namesakes’.
How many people with your name have died since 1936? What are their average lifespans? And is your name frequently on death’s door? The Database of the Dead can tell you.
Does it affect you?
What are the consequences of using it?
Using the Database
The Database is based on the United States’ Social Security Death Master File, which notes down the details of over 86 million departed citizens with Social Security numbers.
It’s simple to use. You just need to write your name. Most four-year-olds can do that. I wouldn’t advise kids to go on this website, however.
Since the mid-1930s, 24 people called Philip Bates have died in the US, the last having passed away in October 2010 apparently. Only the last ten deaths are displayed, the oldest of whom died at the age of 85 and the youngest a mere 48.
It occurs to me that I could quite easily search for my late namesakes’ obituaries online. Here, on the Database, that’s all they are: data. Names and numbers. But I could find out more.
I decide against it because it seems disrespectful. If a photo were displayed, I’d feel uncomfortably close to these individuals. This is already a touchy topic, even without putting faces to the name.
The majority of these people died at an old age, but I’m not sure how I’d feel looking into the details of any youths who could’ve suffered a crime or accident. Three passed away around the age of 50. That’s too young. I asked Briallyn Smith, MakeUseOf‘ s psychology expert, about quantifying ages in comparison to death, and she said:
“People experiencing a ‘midlife crisis’ tend to have greater anxiety about death. This ties into a major theory in development – Erikson’s psychosocial theory categorizes this life phase as a ‘generatively crisis.’ People are really worried about whether or not they have made a difference in their lives; whether they have created a legacy that will outlast them, or if they have failed to contribute to society in their lifetimes. It stands to reason, then, that death anxiety would increase out of fear that you haven’t made that difference yet.”
In comparison, then, Sir Ian McKellen’s latest film, Mr. Holmes looks at the final days of the Arthur Conan Doyle’s genius creation, Sherlock Holmes. Shown at the age of 93, Holmes is struggling with the deterioration of his mind during retirement; as such, death looms large. McKellan spoke about this in The Mail on Sunday‘s Event magazine:
“I am 76. People you know very well die all around you, so you find you do think about death quite a lot – theirs and your own… Inside, you don’t feel your age, but you are reminded when you take your pills or, in particular when friends are dying, that at last mortality becomes reality. I’ve seen quite a few people at the end of their lives and they all seem ready for it. I think the preparation has been going on for some time. As you get older, you accept it.”
The generativity conflict forces us to ask how we contribute to the world. Indeed, Briallyn also tells me that people who feel like they’ve no control over their lives are more anxious about death than those who believe that they do.
Problems with the Database
You can find out how many people with your name were born and died in America since the 1950s. It seems Philip is an increasingly rare name, declining from a high of over 6,000 Philips born in 1950 to only 733 in 2013. I also find out that my full name is the 357,997th most popular in the Grim Reaper’s book. I don’t know what I’ll do with that information, nor that fact that the most frequent is James Smith; Mary Smith in third place, so the most popular female name.
We can infer that Smith is an extremely common name… but that’s about it really.
This Database only incites more questions. For example, despite being hugely common, why has the birth rate of James fallen steadily since 1950? And were masses of Alfreds migrating Stateside, since the name’s death rate shot up without a concurrent increase in births?
MakeUseOf‘s own Shay Meinecke gave into his own curiosity too. He found there to be a fair number of babies called Shay listed in America, but not many deaths – so, as opposed to Alfreds, it seems many abandon the place! Meinecke notes:
“Oddly enough, I’ve also left the US and haven’t been there for 3+ years.”
This all exposes limitations of and issues with the interactive. It only goes up to 2013, so many Philips might’ve departed in the interim and I wouldn’t know. I’m also British, so how does this data, collected solely about deaths in America, affect me? And what about all the incorrect data listed from its source, the Social Security Death Master File?
These problems are one major point of the Database: it’s not infallible, and neither is the Death Master File. The interactive version was created by Paul Ford, whose scepticism about the Death Master File is spelt out at The New Republic, especially that the details of the living have been accidentally listed – and vice versa.
The oldest person in the world is credited as 116; the oldest in Europe is 112. Yet earlier this year, the US inspector general’s office found 6.5 million people aged 112 or over weren’t in the death database. Ford particularly worries that this is 6.5 million further opportunities for fraud, certainly considering the amount of data available online via social networking like Facebook.
A Question of Death
Paul Ford poses some further questions himself:
“How do you get into a dead person’s gmail? What should happen to their blog posts? Every social media platform must eventually face the consequences of its users dying.”
(We’ve already accounted for posthumous social networking, and what happens to your emails, though.)
The bigger question is: can we confront the potential of our own deaths?
Death is a serious business. It’ not something we often mull over – here, at MakeUseOf or in life generally. The Database gets us talking, certainly, but is that a good thing? Briallyn confirms:
“People have 3 types of anxiety around death: uncertainty about what occurs after death; actual process of dying; and thoughts of ceasing to be. Many in Western culture tend to avoid thinking about their own mortality because it can quickly lead to negative feelings like anxiety and depression. We also tend not to talk about it (especially if you are young and healthy) because it’s socially unacceptable and you may be seen as morbid.”
The Database tells you a name’s average lifespan, and that’s probably the most concerning part of it.
People can become fixated. Grief can do that: losing a family member can make you question mortality, and even make you worry that it ‘runs in the family’, that you might pass away at the same age. Getting an estimated age of death isn’t something that sits comfortably with anyone.
Philips in the USA have an average age of 71; strangely, so do Americans with the surname Bates. It feels odd to know this. I don’t know how this affects me. I’m only 24, so it might make more of a difference if I tried this test when I’m in my 60s.
Fellow MUO writer and twenty-something, Harry Guinness tried the Database but wasn’t particularly fazed by the projected 72/74-year lifespan, stating:
“I know I’m likely to die in my 70s, it’s not news.”
He’s not at all superstitious; those who are might best avoid it. Your reaction really does vary depending on your own belief systems. Briallyn adds:
“In some cases believing in an afterlife (or being staunchly atheist) is helpful in reducing death anxiety, but generally just in the short-term – and if you believe in a negative form of afterlife or are worried about what afterlife you may face, that can actually add to the anxiety.”
There are various threads about fear of death itself, some after a parent’s passing, and others as a result of depression. But a doctor who wishes to remain anonymous told me we shouldn’t be too concerned by this:
“We’re all likely to live significantly older than our parents despite some shared genes, given the advances in medicine – assuming we’re treating our bodies well – but how an individual reacts to becoming more aware of their own mortality is mostly dependent on their temperament and personality traits, which are largely stable throughout adult life.”
And this is a very important point: it’s quality of life that matters.
The Database doesn’t purport to tell you anything about these people apart from their deaths – and even then you don’t know the exact circumstances (quite rightly).
You’re curious. But before you check it out yourself, take note of the late Terry Prachett‘s words from the Royal Society of Medicine in 2010:
“I dare say that quite a few people have contemplated death for reasons that much later seemed to them to be quite minor… If I knew that I could die at any time I wanted, then suddenly, every day would be a precious as a million pounds. If I knew I could die, I would live. My life, my death, my choice.”
And maybe that’s the point.
Try it for yourself and tell me what you think.