If you study the National Death Index — which is morbid, but some people do it for a living, like this guy — you would learn that Christmas, the day after Christmas and New Year’s Day are some of the biggest days for fatalities in the U.S. There was a spike on those three days between 1979 and 2004 in emergency room settings and “DOA” situations. No one knows the exact reason for this, although popular theories abound. The first is the old standby: the suicide rate is higher during the holidays, as is crime. In fact, that’s incorrect. The suicide rate is a little higher in April and actually lowest during the winter months. The second idea given is that people in colder temperatures die more in the winter than those in warmer temperatures. That’s also incorrect. Phillips (the UC-San Diego sociology professor who writes a lot of these death trend studies) compared mortality rates of the states that border Canada (cold) and the ones that border the Gulf of Mexico (warm) and more people are actually dying on the warm side, so that’s not it either.
There are a couple of other ideas that may resonate more. One is fairly logical: on major holidays, junior medical staff tend to be working as opposed to senior medical staff. In certain emergency admission situations, three-four seconds can make the entire difference, and experience could cover that gap more effectively. So the staffing situations at hospitals and trauma centers is important in these numbers. Phillips also cites a related factor: it’s possible that people who are sick will wait until the conclusion of the holidays to seek more help, especially if they’re contextualizing it as “their last holidays with family.” That can lead to a more serious situation upon entering the hospital, which could lead to quicker death.
Andrew Meacham, the President of the Society of Obituary Writers, had this context and idea:
“We are always getting a slew of obits this time of year,” Meacham said. “I noticed this happened pretty regularly so I did call around to funeral directors to see if they believed there was an uptick too.”
He wondered if stress or sadness had something to do with it.
“I’ve written many stories about a spouse or a partner dying and then you see the remaining partner die within hour or days or weeks or months. To me there seems to be a correlation between body and mind here.”
The holidays are an extraordinary time — 86 percent of people tend to spend time with friends or family, which is significantly higher than at any other point in the year, including Thanksgiving — so maybe there’s some broader cosmic plan in all this too. Almost like a final goodbye. That might be a bit over-the-top, but since the explanations aren’t definitive even in the study, I figured I’d toss one more on the table.
Regardless, it’s an interesting, if depressing, topic. Be safe out there and happy holidays.
Here’s a bit more from Phillips about July and new doctors and death rates (his study incorporated 57 million death certificates, FYI):