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A Ghost Tour of the National Death Index

Fer Gregory/

Good evening. Yes, it's nice to meet you too. I understand you need some information from the National Death Index? Well, it's a bit unusual but, yes, I think we can help. NDI . . . see that green sign up there? It points the way. It's buried deep down in the bowels of the federal government. We've got a long trip ahead of us, so we better get started. Ready?

Yes, here we are at the main HHS gateway U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It's a big, scary place and easy to get lost here. Let's see – FDA . . . SAMHSA . . . CDC yes, that's what we're looking for, CDC, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It's the next level down. Watch your step! They keep blood, toxic chemicals, viruses, all kinds of creepy stuff like that here. Just a taste of where we're going. These staircases are narrow and dark. Unexpected twists and turns. Be careful!

No, we're not there yet. We've got to go through NCHS  the National Center for Health Statistics. Numbers, numbers, numbers. What they call "big data." Starting here, we're just numbers. No bedside manner here. Does that bother you?

Let's keep going then – down, deeper down. The light's getting dim. Can you see? Ah yes, DVS, the Division of Vital Statistics. Nothing vital about what we're looking for. But we go in here. We're getting closer. If I squint, I think I see the sign for what we're looking for. Hold the light up closer.


Yes. That's it. The Mortality Statistics Branch. This is where they keep it. The National Death Index. Only the necrologists the list keepers are allowed in here. Shh! There's the guard. Be quiet. We can sneak past him and his guard dog if we go around and stay downwind. I'll go first.

Why, you're shivering! Yes, they keep it cold in here. Let's make this quick before they find us.

Here's the book. Now, who are we looking for? Vlad. Vladimir Igorovich. OK. I'll open the book. Oh, ugh, the dust! When are they going to digitize this stuff? "A" . . . "F". . . "H". . . "I." Let's see. Igorovich – Gregor . . . Ivan . . . Pyotr . . . Vladimir. Is this who you're looking for?

Says he died in 1979. Hmm. "Cause of Death Code. Code A82." That's rabies. How horrible!

Was he your father? No? Brother, maybe? A distant cousin perhaps?

What's that coming out of your mouth?! Why, you're foaming at the mouth! No! It can't be! It says you're dead. It IS you. YOU'RE Vladimir Igorovich!

Get away from me! Don't come any closer! Stay away! I promise, I won't tell anybody! Stop! Please!

No! Don't AGCHH.

I'm bleeding. Badly.  I . . . think . . . I'm . . . fainting.

I'm dying.

I'm dying.

I'm dying.


Robert Mander is the founder of Govlish, a service to help decipher the language of government. He has worked with more than 25 federal, state, and local agencies as a technical writer. He can be reached at

(Image via Fer Gregory/

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