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People Who Died

Jim Carroll’s minor 1980 hit “People Who Died” is a song about grief, but you probably wouldn’t play it at a funeral. It’s too upbeat and danceable, and its unadorned listing of Carroll’s departed friends and their grim endings (falling off a roof after sniffing glue, “twenty-six reds and a bottle of wine,” childhood leukemia) doesn’t offer much in the way of solace or meaning beyond the refrain “they were all my friends, and they died.”

Still, there’s something moving about just hearing their names. It could be a prayer; Carroll’s Catholic upbringing surely meant he was familiar with the Church’s tradition of praying for the dead. It’s a tradition closely associated with Halloween, which marks the evening before All Saints Day (November 1) and All Souls Day (November 2).

We are all People who die, of course. In recent years, various gurus and influencers have rediscovered the time-honored practice of memento mori and repackaged it as a kind of for-profit self-help trick. Remembering the deaths of others is not as easily monetizable. Whether or not you consider such prayers efficacious (we do), it’s a worthwhile exercise to make a list like Carroll’s. The more recent entries may be painfully fresh; others you may not have thought of in years. 

Today, for no special reason, we’re thinking of Faith, a high school friend who died eighteen months ago. Her cheerful, loquacious letters helped us through that first lonely, self-absorbed year of college. We took them for granted then (did we even write back?). When we heard she was dying, we finally sent her a proper letter of our own. Her response came via email, with an instantly recognizable warmth and wit. Somehow she said everything there was to say between us in a little over 500 words; three days later she was gone. 

After years of poor health and dwindling fame, Jim Carroll died a death as lonely and anonymous as the friends in his song, felled at his desk by a heart attack while working on his decades-in-the-making “comeback” novel.  Well, none of us are long for this world. Maybe remembering others is the best hope we have of being remembered in turn.