Dear Good Greatsby: How Can I Tell If My Neighbor is Dead?

Posted on September 14, 2011


Today’s questions comes from Laura of Unlikely Explanations who wonders what is the politest way to determine if her neighbor is dead.

Dear Good Greatsby,

This question is about my neighbors. I’ll call them Betty and Don, because those names are similar enough to Beth and Dan that I think I’ll be able to get through this whole letter without getting too confused, and I don’t want to use their real names because I don’t want them to find out I’m writing about them. Except it’s unlikely that Don will read this, because I think he’s dead — but I’m not sure. That’s the problem. I moved into my house about 10 years ago; Betty and Don were in their late 60s / early 70s at the time. About 5 years ago, I began to notice that I hadn’t seen Don around for a while. I haven’t seen him since. Don was kind of obnoxious, so it’s possible that Betty kicked him out, but I think it’s more likely that he died. I wanted to ask Betty about it, but by the time I decided he was probably dead, it had been months since I’d seen him. At that point, it seemed like the window of opportunity for asking had closed — I mean, what kind of insensitive clod waits that long to ask “So, is your husband dead, or what?” That’s the kind of question you should ask immediately following the suspected death. So my question is, how can I tell whether my neighbor is dead? And if he is, can I ask his widow a few simple follow-up questions, like “Did you kill him?” “How?” and “Is he buried in the back yard?”

Thanks for your help,


Dear Laura,

Paul: You can never be too careful about asking whether somebody is dead.  My dream of being a private detective has influenced me to see murder and conspiracy everywhere, and I have to remind myself not to start conversations with people I’ve just met by asking, “Committed any interesting murders lately?”  But I’m not afraid to interrogate people I already know.  If a friend arrives at a party without his wife, I ask:

“Where’s Donna?  Is she dead?  What have you done with her?”
“She’s parking the car.”
“Parked in the car, huh?  Perhaps parked in a rolled-up carpet inside the trunk?”
“No!  Here she comes now behind you.  Why don’t you ask her if she’s still alive?”
“I’m the one asking the questions!  I’ll interview the murder victim later; right now you’re the one on the hot seat, buddy!”

Here are a few different ideas for determining if Don is dead:

Call the police with a complaint that Don has been peeping through your windows.  It won’t take long for them to find evidence refuting your story if Don is dead.  If the police do confirm Don’s death, you can save any embarrassment by pressing charges against ghost Don.

Ask Betty if she would feel uncomfortable if you started dating Don.  If he’s alive, and still living with her, she’ll probably answer yes, she would feel uncomfortable.  If he’s alive, but not living with her, she’ll probably say no, but tell you Don was a bum and always forgot her birthday and sometimes used her back as a footrest.  If he’s dead, she’ll tell you and call you an ‘insensitive clod’, but you can still save yourself from further awkwardness by replying, of course you knew, but you meant you were planning to date him in heaven.  The worst case scenario is that Don is still alive, still living with Betty, and she doesn’t mind if you date him.  In this case, it would be rude not to date Don after putting them both through so much trouble.

How about dressing up as Don for Halloween this year and trick-or-treating at Betty’s house?  If Don is alive, Don and Betty may find the joke funny and flattering.  If he’s dead, Betty will tell you your costume is in poor taste and become angry, but she won’t know who she got angry with because you were disguised in a costume.  If Don is dead, there’s also a chance she’ll believe you’re his ghost and you might be able to say you’ve returned to give her an important message about writing a check to her neighbor, Laura.

Once you’ve determined Don is dead, and you want to ask all the juicy questions about whether she killed him, you should just ask away and not worry too much about looking like an ‘insensitive clod’ because if you’re the type of neighbor who didn’t know whether a neighbor’s husband has been dead for the past five years, I’m willing to bet your reputation as a neighbor wasn’t sky high to begin with.

Note: Laura, I’m curious whether you murdered Don, but nobody noticed he was missing and it’s bothering you that not one person took note of your brilliant plan.

Today’s guest panelist will be my best friend Todd.

Todd: Laura, have you considered checking the Internet archives of your local newspaper for Don’s obituary?

Paul: Todd, paying to access her local paper’s archives could cost as much as $4.99, a completely unnecessary expense when ‘donning’ a Don costume for Halloween might only cost $2.00 according to my imagination of how Don dresses, and that $2.00 would also be offset by receiving free candy.

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