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He may be dead, but friend's curiosity isn't

A dear friend died recently and unexpectedly. I asked his widow if he had been ill and received an evasive answer. It is unsettling not to know how he died. Would it be wrong to check his death certificate - it is a public record?

It would be insensitive to demand this information from a widow awash in grief but not unethical to seek it yourself. A death certificate is, as you note, a public record. It might vex the widow to discover that you acquired this information, but that need not deter you. Your long friendship with her late husband has its own claims. It is a natural and honorable thing to want to know how a close friend died.

Even if your friend himself had wished to conceal these bleak details, you could seek them now: He is beyond being harmed by your doing so. The dead have no claims to privacy, something reflected not only in ethics but also in law: You cannot, for example, libel the dead. As Voltaire said: "One owes respect to the living. To the dead, one owes only the truth."

UPDATE: This fellow paid a small fee to an online company for an "abstract" describing his friend's cause of death.

This column originally appeared in the New York Times Magazine. Send questions and comments by e-mail to ethicist@nytimes.com.

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