The News Source You've Been Waiting For


A man chokes to death on a steak, provoking an obituary like no other

When man bites steak, nobody cares. But when a steak bites back (in a manner of speaking) the world pauses, as it should, to take notice.

That’s essentially what happened when a Northern California man died in early December — a demise that his brother archly and elegantly recounted in an obituary published in The Times.

“Matthew Charles Slay of Trinidad, CA, passed away last week following a brief and courageous battle with an oversized piece of steak,” began the paid obit, like none in memory. “It was a stunning tragedy and a reminder of the inherent fragility of life.”

The deft tribute provoked more than a few chuckles and tears and heartfelt rejoinders, some shared with the Slay family and others broadcast on social media, about the previously obscure Matt Slay. The obituary revealed the 42-year-old choking victim as a one-time teacher, reptile whisperer, HVAC repairman, cos-player and chef-in-training.

“This obituary was about something that was so tragic and yet it found lightness and wit and actually made a point about how to live our lives,” said Christina Binkley, a magazine writer and former Wall Street Journal reporter.

Binkley was one of a gaggle of admirers who wrote to [email protected], the address given in the obit. Most described their admiration of the witty eulogy, a few adding they had a lurking suspicion it might all be a prank.

The fans learned that the obituary was real; written by Slay’s younger brother, Chris. Los Feliz resident Binkley said she read the obit aloud to her husband and two grown children, each in turn, after emailing the Slays that she considered the tribute “seriously magnificent art.”

When Slay was a young scholar, it wasn’t clear what sort of ending would be written for a wanderer with big dreams, who at times struggled to find his way in life. A few years back, he told loved ones he felt “lost.” His lowest ebb might have come when he pleaded no contest in a 2021 domestic abuse case, nine months after his live-in partner was convicted for an attack on him. He was sentenced to 90 days in jail in Lake County for the misdemeanor and his partner filed for a dissolution earlier this year.

His brother said that in recent months, Matt Slay appeared to be in the midst of a renaissance. After spending last summer working as a cook and jack of all trades at a lodge on a remote stretch of the Rogue River in Oregon, Slay had returned home to Trinidad, the tiny town on California’s North Coast where he shared a home with his brother, his sister-in-law, two young nephews and his father, Charles Slay.

“For me personally, the real tragedy was that I felt closer to him that I’d been in probably a decade,” said Chris Slay, a lecturer in animal and human physiology at Cal Poly Humboldt. “That time together reminded me how kind and funny and brilliant he was.”

The Slay boys were born to a pair of teachers, Charles and Nancy, who met when they were getting their bachelor’s degrees and teaching credentials at Cal State Long Beach. The couple both found jobs in the 1980s in the booming Antelope Valley, Nancy teaching mostly kindergarten and Chuck a mainstay in the English Department at Palmdale High School, before a later move to Antelope Valley High School.

The boys lived a life befitting their home on the edge of the high desert: Matt especially fascinated with tarantulas and reptiles, which he would occasionally bring home as pets. They could play for hours in a cherry orchard the family planted beside their home in Elizabeth Lake, in the hills east of Lancaster.

When the Antelope Valley Press carried a story interviewing second-graders about their view of the future, 7-year-old Matt pronounced: “I was going to be a rock ‘n roll star, but then I found out about fossils.” The grade-schooler had switched his career goal to paleontologist.

He graduated as valedictorian of the Palmdale High School class of 2000 and went on to a B.A. in English at Cal State Bakersfield, making preparations to be a teacher, like his parents.

But the surprise birth of twin daughters was one of several events that set the voraciously curious young man on another path, Chris Slay said. A few minor scrapes with the law were among his stumbles, public records show.

“Matt spent most of the past decade developing practical skills,” the obituary said, with work ranging from solar and HVAC installations to time as an apprentice mechanical engineer.

Two weeks after his brother’s death, Chris Slay pondered whether his “unquenchable thirst for knowledge,” his great gift, also prevented Matt from maintaining the kind of focus that careers demand.

But the finer points of the Slay obit were less a resume than a catalog of whimsy. There were bits about Matt’s love of Japanese manga, his encyclopedic knowledge of dialogue from “The Simpsons” and “his belief in the magic of fantasy worlds.”

In confirmation of that last bit (if any was needed) one old friend attached a snapshot to the obituary. The photo shows a younger Matt Slay, marching with friends in a moment of live action role playing at Lancaster Park. Wearing a cape and carrying some sort of tall totem, Slay’s red hair glows atop his purple costume.

Slay recently had been completing the final requirements for a culinary degree at Woodland Community College, his brother wrote. After working last summer at Paradise Lodge, near Agness, Ore., (“where, of course, he befriended a rattlesnake,” the obit says) Matt seemed in a good place.

The life-long asthmatic had begun running. He had lost 30 pounds or more. He had applied for several new jobs in Northern California. And he was determined to reunite with one of his closest high school friends, who was living in Ridgecrest.

After Thanksgiving with his family and a visit to a favorite family getaway spot, Morro Bay, the Slays put Matt on a bus to Kern County, where he planned to stay for an undetermined time with his friend, before returning to the North Coast. On the third night of the visit, Matt and his hosts sat down to a steak dinner.

Chris Slay, 37, would learn later how the hosts had tried to save Matt with the Heimlich maneuver. Paramedics arrived in less than 10 minutes. But Slay went into cardiac arrest and it took a half hour or more to get his pulse back. By then, the lack of oxygen to his brain had caused irreparable damage, his brother said.

After a neurologist explained that Matt would never regain normal consciousness or any reasonable quality of life, the family agreed to take him off life support systems. He died a few days later, on Dec. 6, at a hospice facility in Bakersfield.

With his scientist’s brain, Chris Slay could not help but linger on a truism from biology: The result of natural selection is adequacy, not perfection. A thoughtful engineer never would have designed a system with just one entry point for two critical inputs — oxygen and food.

But something in his poet’s brain made him think that Matt Slay deserved something other than a standard obituary. The elder Slay brother had approached life with a wry, dark sense of humor.

Chris Slay took a break from grading finals for his Humboldt students this week to talk by phone about his brother.

“His death was equal parts tragic, absurd and avoidable,” the younger Slay said. “I wanted to write an obituary reflecting that.”

After a bit of lively discussion (and some dissent) on a family text chain, the extended Slay family came to agree with that view.

“In lieu of flowers, please cut your food into bite-sized pieces,” the obit ended, “and chew it thoroughly.”


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *