Bye Bye Bertha.

May 07, 2007

RAY: A fellow named Larry Gordon sent this in though he probably won't recognize it since I changed the story a little bit.

When I was a kid I always looked forward to the Christmas visits from my Aunt Bertha. She was so much fun. Every year she gave me the same present- two pairs of hand-knitted wool socks. We lived in San Diego and I really didn't need wool socks, but it was the thought that counted.

In 1951, when I was 10, our folks told me that Aunt Bertha would not be coming for Christmas. She wasn't feeling well and at her age the trip was difficult to say the least. I kind of sensed that this was pretty much the end of the wool socks and I was right. It was also the end of Aunt Bertha. Before the week was out she was dead. The county medical examiner of course had to list a cause of death on her death certificate.

Now I can't be 100% sure, but I think that Aunt Bertha could very well have been the last person in the U.S. to die of, and have this listed as his or her official cause of death. There were many Americans who died of the same thing in 1951, and before, but none after. The question is, what did Aunt Bertha die of?
RAY: Aunt Bertha died of a rare disease called... old age. Starting in 1952, the Bureau of Health Statistics, which is part of the CDC, decided that you couldn't just die of old age, you had to have a reason, like you fell on your knitting needles, got hit by a bread truck, or something like that. I think they listed 130 official reasons for death.

TOM: That was better than old age?

RAY: Exactly. They wanted everyone to be pigeon-holed. So Aunt Bertha, because she died a week after Christmas, she could have died like at 11:59 on New Year's Eve. She could have been the last person in 1951 to die of old age.

TOM: What do you do, pick something out of a hat?

RAY: Yeah. In fact when you're about 75 they send you a flier: Please pick a cause of death from the list below. Do we have a winner?

TOM: We certainly do. The winner this week is Dan Cooper from Larkspur, California. And for having his answer selected at random from among all the correct answers that we got, Dan gets a 26-dollar gift certificate to the Shameless Commerce Division at, which he can use to get our new deck of Puzzler cards. These are 75 colorful, oversized cards with a Car Talk puzzler on each one, perfect for those long trips in the car or for shimming up wobbly tables.

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