The Data of Death

by Glenn J. Thomas

On Sunday, July 7th, two men that I knew died.

The first was Ernest Borgnine.  Growing up I knew Ernest as the star of the sitcom McHale’s Navy or as I sometimes referred to it in my youth: “Gomer Pyle with boats”. In my college years, he was etched into my memory for the role of ‘Cabbie’ in the 1981 cult classic “Escape from New York’. Kids today are more likely to know him as the voice of ‘Mermaid Man’ in Sponge Bob Square Pants cartoons. The last role I recall seeing him in was the Bruce Willis movie, ‘Red’ where he played the ‘records keeper’. I recall the scene when the records vault opened and the camera panned in. There was Ernest sitting behind the desk. It made me smile as I hadn’t seen him in anything for many years and thought he fit the role perfectly. Ernest appeared in over 200 films and TV shows during his career.

The other man that died, I knew more closely. It was one of my neighbors, Robert. Robert and I weren’t close friends. We were more the ‘wave at each other when getting home from work’ friends or the ‘stopping to have a quick chat about the weather when mowing the yard’ friends. Robert was a pillar of the community, deeply involved in his church and the local jail ministry, and a loving and devoted husband, father and grandfather.

Robert likely had no idea when he awoke on Sunday, ate breakfast and then showered before dressing for church that it would be his last morning. We are told he never felt a thing when he exited the shower and was most likely dead before he made contact with the floor.

Death for Americans is the ultimate taboo subject. No one likes to consider the possibility that any moment on this earth may be their last. There are plenty of songs that remind us we should live like we were dying and that we should live every moment to the fullest. But how do you do that when you are working eight (or more) hours a day five (or more) days a week?

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the final 2009 U.S. death statistics show that there were 2,437,163 deaths with a death rate of 793.8 deaths per 100,000 of population. The average life expectancy was 78.5 years (Robert fell short by 18.5 years). The number one cause of death, 599,413, was heart disease. Cancer followed as a close second. states that 55% of Americans do not have a will, dropping to only 32% for African-Americans. For Robert’s family’s sake, I hope that is not the case.

The average cost of a funeral is now over $6,000 yet the average family has less than $4,000 in savings. While funeral homes do their best to work within the limits set by families, there are a large number of irrevocable decisions that need to be made in a very short period of time and many of those decisions come with a price tag attached. To offset this issue, funeral homes are now offering ‘prepayment plans’ that cover everything from the style of casket to the flowers and musical selections.

Ernest had fans around the world. At 95 he had led what many call a ‘full life’. Robert’s influence was undoubtedly smaller but I also have no doubt that the lives he touched were forever changed just by knowing him.

This blog is not an effort to immortalize either gentleman.  For me, they serve as reminders that on one hand, an entire generation of Hollywood stars that I grew up with seems to be passing away at a faster and faster rate. On the other, I’m reminded that I have crossed over the 50 yard line of life and that more and more I need to spend what time I have left doing the things I enjoy… and a little time planning for the inevitable.  After all, none of us really knows what second will be our last…. Do we?

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