The Day When Names Trump Numbers

All Saints Day.  While it’s a holy day that has been pretty much drowned out by the commercial excesses of Halloween, I think its significance transcends its ancient Christian roots and speaks to everyone.

At the Lutheran church I attend here in the San Francisco Bay Area, we honored the parishioners who died over the past year.  Similar ceremonies occurred today at thousands of churches across America, as names were read and bells of remembrance were tolled.


Death is a natural part of life, although we Americans are pretty good at keeping it mostly hidden from sight except in the violent abstraction of movies and TV.

But if you happened to attend a church on the first Sunday in November you are likely to have encountered the reading of the names of those no longer among the living.

Four of the names I heard today were women taken this past year by cancer.  They were friends.  They each fought the good fight that battling cancer seems to induce in most of us.  Particularly Merrybeth, who courageously fought uterine cancer for more than eight years and endured more courses of chemo than men twice her size and weight would likely survive.  Her unquenchable good cheer and her deep connection to God, whom she knew loved her, inspired us all until she drew her final breath just a few months ago.

There’s no All Saints rule that says we should remember only those who died this past year.  So, today revived my own memories of the men who have died of the disease that lurks within me: advanced prostate cancer.  There was Bill, whom I knew well and stood watch at his deathbed.  And Dave, Trip, and Don, all of whom I met only briefly.  And then the men at my advanced prostate cancer Internet group I’ve never met face-to-face: John, Connie Mack, and others.

Lung cancer will kill almost 160,000 American men and women in 2013.  Breast cancer will take another 39,000 women, and more than 29,000 men will die of prostate cancer.  The American Cancer Society says that about 1600 men and women will die of cancer each day of the year.   That’s more than one death a minute, 24 hours a day.

But the problem with all these enormous numbers is that we really can’t get our minds around them.  Statistics and numbers are an abstraction; they are not  people.

But Carol, Diane, Doris, Merrybeth.  Dave, Trip, Don, Bill, John, Connie Mack.  It is in the naming of names—as on All Saints Sunday—that remind us that these were real people who just a little while ago were among us.  And their names also remind us of our own mortality.

It is names, not numbers, that we can get our minds around.

In my quotidian life as a cancer survivor, I tend to forget about mortality.  Mine or anyone else’s.  Until All Saints Sunday and we hear—and remember—those names of flesh and blood people who walked where we walk now.

Only then do the numbers and statistics become truly real—and truly appalling.


  1. says

    Hello Craig, I happen to be Catholic, though until in my twenties I was Lutheran. With Martin Luther a former Catholic priest, there continues a close relationship between our choice of church. If church attendance is a marker, as a kid I never missed a Sunday service for 12 years and sang in both the children and adult choirs. For whatever may have been God’s plan, every girl I ever dated were of the Catholic faith. I expect I was destined to meet and marry a Catholic girl, and of all places I met my “Catholic” girl on Virginia Beach one day when she and five other girls from Canton, Ohio had just arrived and two Navy shipmates and I saw them and went to talk to them. Ann and I kept in touch and while on leave heading for Oshkosh (B’Gosh!) Wisconsin, I stopped to visit and meet her family and friends. Long story short, we married in April 1954 while I was on the way to Guam, Marianas Islands in the South Pacific. And here we are coming on to 60 years later this coming April. But I just notice that I strayed away from what I wanted to comment regarding “names” rather then numbers. I have monitored several prostate cancer support lists for the past 17 years and we have lost so many. I remember so many even years later that I exchanged information/mentoring with and was saddened so many times in the loss of these men – and sometimes their caregivers. Among them were those who were very open with what they were experiencing and thus provided knowledge and awareness to readers. I saw this as at least some legacy for which to remember and continue to pray for them. They left their mark and they had become a part of me – brothers and sisters I was unfortunate to never meet. And I see all those with whom I have and continued to mentor as my new brothers and sisters…and I care about them…pray that they will still be surviving long after I’m gone. Participating on support lists brings sad moments as well as happy moments….and often encouraging moments. We have all become brothers and sisters in having been diagnosed with the insidious Prostate Cancer, and must remain there for each other to at least provide encouragement and their knowledge that we care.

    • says

      Thanks so much for your comments, Chuck. One more thing we have in common besides PCa and the US Navy, Chuck: good Protestants that we were, we both married Catholic girls–and never looked back! Susan and I are coming up on 45 years in 2014.

      Apropos your comment about losing so many here, many we may never have met. I particularly remember John Arnold and the immensely helpful frankness with which he shared almost up until the day he died. I had the pleasure of meeting Dave Emerson at a Zero Summit in 2011. And last year, I was able to meet Don Tabler as a fellow PCRP consumer reviewer in Washington DC just a few months before his death. As we spoke over breakfast, he knew things were moving to the end game, but I’ll never forget his courage in coming to DC and working to make a difference up to the very end. These are the “profiles in courage” that have made being here at this group such a life-affirming experience. Yes, there is far too often great sadness here as we lose another, but there is greater courage, fortitude and encouragement for both the guys with the cancer, but especially for their incredible caregivers.

  2. says

    A poignant post. It reminds:
    “Do not send to know for whom the bell tolls;
    It tolls for thee.”
    And me. Thanks for the reminder, Craig, that these numbers represent folks just like each one of us.

  3. says


    Didn’t know about the blog, or if I did know I had forgotten.

    Anyway, I’ll check in from time to time, and may even have something worth reading to post. For now, like you, and all the other names that remain, just soldiering on.

    PS: how do i get the comment post section to read in black type as I type?

    • says

      Hi Thomas, would love to hear from you when you have stuff to post. What you type is “grayed out” until I “approve” it, which I have done. Just one of those WordPress things…

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