The great Benjamin Franklin, in all his bald-yet-ponytailed glory, reminded us once upon a time that there was nothing as certain as birth, death and taxes. Well, based on that quip, I think it’s a safe assumption that this guy never had a social networking account. Otherwise, he’d know about the other absolute bankable lead-pipe lock of our time: that one Facebook Friend that everyone has who revels in posting the latest obituaries of the famous and not-so-famous.
Nothing gets by these Obituarians, as I like to call them. They are diligent and dogged in their pursuit of the scoop, so that you’ll be the first to know that the back-up bass player for Iron Butterfly has met his Maker. For no discernible reason, they’ve taken it upon themselves to be the Watchers, scanning the web for the last write-up of that marginal 50s sitcom actor or the long-forgotten utility infielder, and then slapping it up on their Wall for all to see. If your Obituarian has a literary bent, he might even tap out his own little maudlin tribute to the dearly departed.
But no matter who your Obituarian is, it is the accompanying Comments section that yields the secret prize of this morbid endeavor. For it is here that we encounter one of the strongest testaments to the depths of human stupidity; that’s right, I’m talking about the widely-held belief that death always seems to come in threes.
I’d love to know the genesis of this myth, if only so the culprit could be identified for posterity’s sake. I’ve heard some of the most educated people I know perpetuating the Myth of Three, so I know for sure it’s not just dummies to blame here, which was my first guess. I wondered if maybe three was as high as the grief-stricken could count, crushed as they were by the weight of their burden. Whatever the reason, it is a conundrum wrapped in a puzzle enveloped in a mystery. (You see what I did there? That’s 3 different — oh, never mind).
My heart always goes out to those poor celebs who may not be in the best of health after a second recent death is noted in the media. In this run-up to the completion of yet another troika, the typical Obituarian can smell blood. At this point, any cold body will do. Were you an extra on “Gilligan’s Island”? Boom! You’re the 3. An ex-member of the entourage of a B-list songstress? Trifecta, baby. The Libertarian presidential nominee from 1956? Tres bien, mon ami.
Of course, simple mathematical absolutes become unimportant when trying to plumb the depths of this curious phenomenon. “Why isn’t the next person who dies the fourth?” I’ve asked a true believer on more than one occasion. “Why does the tally start up all over again at one?”
Silence. Dead, uncomprehending, stupified silence.
The bewildered stares I’ve received in response to these simple questions more than confirmed to me just how enduring this myth is. Had these people misheard or misunderstood my queries? It seemed as if I might be suggesting that the earth was flat, so bizarre were the doglike head tiltings that I witnessed. It was very rare that I got a verbal response, but on the off chance when I did, it usually went something like, “Well, that’s just how it happens… ya know… in threes.” Like it was an indisputable fact of life, like Franklin’s triplets.
Eventually, it struck me that the power of small-talk was the clandestine culprit here. So desperate are people at times to fill an uncomfortable conversational void that it is entirely possible for something as foolish and baseless as this trope to get a foothold in reality. The amount of look-away it takes for such a large amount of people to buy into The Magic Myth of 3 can only be explained by the crippling fear of an uncomfortable social moment with a stranger. It probably dates as far back as the Jesus times. “Hey, d’ya hear? St. Peter died.” “No shit? Wow. First, John the Baptist, then Jesus, now Peter.” “Weird, right? Three deaths together like that?” “Yeah, that must be a thing, I guess.”
Oh yeah. It’s DEFINITELY a thing. It’s 3.