Monthly Archives: September 2012

Resting In Pieces?

When one dies, the conservation of the integrity of the body is practiced in our culture.  Many times when a person dies, we still have an emotional attachment to the body because the body and identity of the person are intertwined.   Although the person has died, the body is still treated with respect through the conduction of certain rites and rituals at funerals.  The treatment of the dead body is related with mortuary practices.  The way cadavers are controlled, is the way the family copes with the death of their loved one. In other words, the way the cadaver is handled is the way we indirectly handle and define death.  Thus, funerals provide a sense of closure, and introduce the initial process of peaceful detachment. However, for a Muslim family in London, this was not the case.

On Friday April 18, 2003, a Muslim woman’s body was found in the hospital morgue covered with pieces of bacon, as it was being arranged for the viewing. In Islam, the consumption of pork is prohibited.  Thus, the act of having bacon put on the body is not only disrespectful to the body, but also to the religion, the family, and the Muslim community at large. One of the family members said, “ ‘I witnessed her passing away and then for me to witness that again, it’s traumatic. I feel emotionally raped.’ ”  The person who committed this crime was attacking the religious beliefs of the deceased, by performing this traumatizing act. As a Muslim myself, I was awfully disturbed and repulsed. Even if the person who died wasn’t Muslim, it is such a grotesque thing to do in general!  But because the family is Muslim, a deeper meaning is behind it.  Somebody symbolically put what is forbidden in Islam on the dead body as “a slap in the face”.   This incident reflects on how cadavers are located in a liminal phase, of being between a subject and an object.   The dead body is just an object, but is the main subject of this issue.  This hate crime just shows that people are capable of doing anything and everything they possibly can to make a point.

As mentioned earlier, funerals provide a sense of closure for the family members.  However, this upsetting act made it a lot worse for the family to cope with their grandmother’s death. As a result, there is a cash value prize to whoever comes forward on who may have committed this racial hate crime.  The article can be found in the link below:



Technology can prolong life, but we live to hasten death?

We have discussed the extension of life with new medical technology at great length: we can transplant organs to save a life, perform invasive surgeries to fix an organ, and even keep someone on life support when they fall into a vegetative state. It seems that as technology advances, we have more hope of keeping death away for at least one more day.

Ironically, many Americans live a lifestyle that would decrease their life expectancy. We love our fast food and we love our sodas. (Oh yes, we can’t forget that many of us smoke, too!) And eventually, many of us are diagnosed with diabetes, develop heart problems, and other issues due to our lifestyle. Then we seek help from our doctors and surgeons to fix these problems. According to the CDC, the leading cause of death is heart disease, followed by other preventable issues.

What I see is some kind of a vicious cycle. We slowly bring ourselves close to death – whether we are conscious of it or not – and when we are close, we ask our doctors to add more days to our lives so that we may go back to the things that almost killed us to begin with. Why would do people allow this to happen to themselves? Not only is it painful to suffer from heart disease, but it is also very expensive. Is it because the way people view life, or is death not something we think about on a daily basis? How much do we care about how long we live, or how we die? I have also talked to a friend on this, and we agreed that it is a slow suicide. This irony in our culture was brought to my attention when I found this YouTube video on The Heart Attack Grill (from Nightline, ABC News), which I think embodies this irony well although it is extreme.

The man in this video (the model/spokesperson for the Heart Attack Grill) dies at the age of 29 last year. The life expectancy in America is almost 80 years. And not to mention that another frequent customer in this clip also survived a coma and had several heart surgeries. Medicine has extended this man’s life when he would have died under normal circumstances. (A friend on Facebook updated me that the one in Arizona closed down after someone died.)

If we do not remember our deaths, then perhaps we live as if we are immortal. This seems contradictory to how the Romans viewed life and death. Even when they were enjoying themselves or celebrating for a victorious battle, they were reminded of their own deaths.

Memento mori. Remember you will die.

– Michelle

When Doctors Grieve

I know we haven’t touched upon this topic in class yet but the concept of grief interests me simply because it’s different for every person. Some people like to openly discuss feelings and memories while others tend to remain quiet and keep their emotions to themselves. Grief also differs depending on how the person died. Were they ill for years or were they a victim of a tragically fatal car accident? When a loved one dies, one focuses mainly on either their own grief or the grief of their family. However, what about the doctor that cared for your ill grandparent? How do you think he feels? The grief doctors experience usually goes unnoticed but these doctors have spent long hours slaving away at curing the patient and have gotten to build a personal relationship with them and their families so it’s only fair that they have a right to grieve their patient’s death as well.

I found this article “When Doctors Grieve” that was published in the New York Times last May very interesting because it is a topic that isn’t discussed often and because I am an aspiring doctor. A study was done on twenty oncologists concerning grief practices when one of their patients died. Over half of them reported feelings of “self doubt, sadness, and powerlessness”. Many added that they felt guilty and would often cry and lose sleep. However, most of these oncologists fought to hide their emotions because it is seen as a sign of weakness as a medical professional. Surprisingly, the death of a patient oftentimes effects the behavior of the doctor and the treatment practices they perform on the patient. One doctor stated “I see an inability sometimes to stop treatment when treatment should be stopped.” This results in more aggressive chemotherapy treatments. Another aspect of this article which was of most interest to me was the idea that as a patient gets closer to dying, the doctor tends to distance themselves from the patient and their families resulting in an overall less effort toward the patient. I think this is because the doctor does not want to become too attached with the patient and develop a relationship with them because when they die, the doctor becomes affected by this both emotionally and professionally. The author of the article believes that doctors should be trained to handle their own grief and I agree. A great doctor is one that can compose themselves and carry on with their life while coping with the loss of their patient.

The article can be found here: (

Jared Siegel

The Frozen Dead Guy Days

Some families traditionally cremate their deceased, some bury them, and in Colorado we sometimes like to keep them chilling in a shed in the back. Literally.

About 15 miles down the road from my home in the foothills of the Rockies, there is a relatively small town called Nederland, Colorado. Around 1300 people inhabit the mountain town, yet if you drive by during the first week of March you are sure to find it packed. You may also accidentally run into a scheduled coffin race or ice turkey bowling contest. In 2012 Nederland celebrated the 10th annual Frozen Dead Guy Days festival, inspired by and dedicated to “Grandpa Bredo,” more formally known as Bredo Morstoel.

Mr. Morstoel is originally from Norway and after passing away spent several years at a cryonics facility in California. Since 1993, several of his relatives, who reside in Nederland, have kept him cool in the “Tuff Shed,” a mini cryonics facility on their property in Nederland. Unfortunately his daughter Aud Morstoel and grandson Trygve Bauge experienced some trouble with visas and a near eviction because of electricity and running water requirements, but with the help of a local reporter Grandpa Bredo became an international sensation. There has been some minor continued legal trouble surrounding the housing of Mr. Morstoel in the Tuff shed and the festival that is dedicated to him, including a new Nederland law concerning the storing of bodies (which does not, however, apply to Mr. Morstoel since he was already being housed in Nederland at the time of the creation of the law) and a complaint filed by the family concerning festival naming rights.

Even so, the festival is still going strong and grows with each year. This past year’s events included tours to the Tuff Shed, cryogenics presentations, Snowy Beach volleyball, and a polar plunge among other events and musical performances.

Being enrolled in a class that focuses on the topic of death and burial, the Frozen Dead Guy Days immediately caught my attention the first time I saw a flyer. I’ve always been interested in cryonics, but have never had the chance to view a cryonics facility or listen to a lecture on it. At what point does the freezing or the work of the cryonics team begin, since pinpointing a time of death becomes more difficult with every medical advancement? How does brain death fit into this? If a patient is certified brain dead, can the team from the hired cryonics facility come in and begin their work on an otherwise living body? Would this really be any different than if the process of organ donation were to be started right after brain death?

Though cryonics and the housing of deceased relatives on private property raises a lot of legal, moral, and just plain interesting questions, what I do know is that next time I’m in town during that first week of March, I will be hopping on the bus to Nederland for the weekend.

To read the fully history of the Frozen Dead Guy Days and find more information on the festival, see

Jana Muschinski

Cadavers: Something of Value and Meaning for Some

There is much controversy about how the bodies of the dead should be treated. In the past, during times of great plagues, those who suffered and died from the plagued had their dead bodies piled on one another in the streets. Some people had the lucky job of picking up the dead bodies and dragging them out of the cities in order to “clean” the streets. Nowadays, that would be considered cruel and disrespectful. We have established laws that regulate what we can and cannot do to a dead body, such as dissection, burying one in a residential place, and having sexual intercourse with one. However, most of the laws that are set in place are done so in order to protect emotions of the remaining family member’s or make them feel better based on what they think a dead body actually represents or contains. Growing up in a society that practices such laws made it difficult for me to understand how other cultures could have opposing views of the dead body and treat them as mere objects.

For example, the Chinese sold the plastinated bodies to the United States to be put on display in museums of New York City and Atlanta in “Bodies…The Exhibition” to be viewed by paying customers. These bodies were taken from chinese prisons without the prior consent of the deceased or their family members. The skin on their bodies were peeled back, and the bodies were arranged in comical “poses.

What? Is there no wrong doing done here because the benefits (income) that can be made by such an exhibit is so significant? Or is there no attachment because these people are not Americans, and since we do not have any cultural or familial commonalities with these people, should our laws not apply to bodies brought into the country? Is this not cruel and brutal and inhumane? This is outrageous and disgusting.

You can read more about this at:

picture from:


Technologically Prolonging Life and Tuck Everlasting

Many of our recent readings have dealt with the advancement of medicine and technology and how it has affected the length of life.  In America, we see this triumph over death as a great accomplishment and therefore strive to keep increasing the length of life.  However, are we raising quality of life as well, or just delaying the inevitable processes of nature? As we age and become more feeble and sickly, technology that preserves our lives becomes more increasingly present.  It is used to keep our heart pumping when the heart has stopped doing so on its own, to keep us breathing, and to replace body parts that can no longer perform correctly.  These actions can prolong life, but they also commonly leave patients in a state of non-life, non-death; comas, forms of social death after living longer than family and peers, and failed organ transplants.  For these reasons we can wonder not only how beneficial these actions are, but also when should we plan to stop technology advancements.  After a point, extended life is no longer a beneficial thing if all other important aspects of life are absent.

Movie poster for Tuck Everlasting (2002)

Movie poster for Tuck Everlasting (2002)

This argument is presented in the book/movie Tuck Everlasting. The Tucks have lived for over a hundred years after drinking from a stream that gave them eternal life.  Winnie Foster falls in love with one of the Tuck sons and eventually learns their secret of immortality; he tries to convince her to drink from the stream and wait for him so that they can share the rest of time together.  The father, Angus Tuck has a conversation with Winnie in which he tries to convince her otherwise (see video link).  It is here that the concept of longevity versus quality of life is incorporated into this fantasy film.  Angus establishes the idea that living forever is not such a great gift; they become a being in a world in which everything around them passes by throughout time.  They no longer have an importance as an individual since they exist outside the boundaries of normal functioning life.  He believes that Winnie, as a mortal, is able to live a true life of meaning and social connections with the world she lives in.  Taking  Tuck’s advice, Winnie decides not to drink from the spring and we see that she dies after a long and fulfilling life; the film shows us that if given the choice, opting for a natural life is more meaningful and rewarding than “living forever”.  Maybe this should be considered as we continue along our path of forever advancing science and technology.

Winnie Foster at the immortal spring

Winnie Foster at the immortal spring

-Victoria Grumbles

The Mysteries of Mourning

Death is a mystery, and for all of our braininess, most of us can understand death only through the emotions we associate with it, through our feelings of grief and loss. Our ability to comprehend death in even this small way, and to experience all of the complex emotions that the loss of a fellow human creates in us, is part of what makes us human. It belongs to our species alone, a marker of our deep intellectual and emotional ability, as uniquely human as our large brains or complex cultures. Or does it? Is it possible that we humans are not the only creatures capable of grasping the concept of death, and of feelings the emotions associated with the loss of a loved one?

Mourners at a funeral

A recent study, done by researchers at U.C. Davis, is yet another link in a growing chain of evidence that non-human members of the animal kingdom do, in fact, mourn their dead. This study showed that scrub jays (a type of bird) show distress at the presence of a dead jay, which includes ceasing all food-gathering and making loud calls of alarm. In my opinion, this study does point less to an emotional response to death and more to a self-preservation response, but it shows that animals can perceive death and its consequences. And who are we to say that the response isn’t, at least in part, emotional? The question of whether animals experience emotions of grief after the death of a relative or another member of their community is an important one, and there is far more evidence than just this study suggesting that they can. Giraffes, elephants and chimpanzees, all of which are far more social animals than jays, have been observed reacting to the deaths of others in ways that are, well, human.

If animals can feel grief upon losing a member of their community, some very difficult and disturbing dilemmas arise. I’m not referring to the rights of animals in zoos or being used for testing (which are important, of course, but not really the point that I want to make) but to what this could mean for our definition of humanity. If animals react to death in much the same way that we do, what does that mean for us? Do animals have culture, or is this response to death innate? How much of our own response to death is built in, and how much is a product of society? None of this changes the nature or the complexity of human reactions to death, but it does raise questions about what really separates us from the rest of the natural world, and about what it really means to be human.

Rachael Cogbill

Report from Finland

This weekend I went to Helsinki. The object was to attend an archaeology conference, which I did with great interest, hitting sessions on cremation practices and post medieval mortuary practices and what archeology can tell us about them. It was amazing, stimulating and interesting. But, then, I snuck away. My brilliant colleague Howard Williams, who like myself, has an interest in all things death related invited me to come along to the Hietaniemi Cemetery.

I don’t know about you, but I have always loved cemeteries. These places are restful and loaded with sentiment, art and lived experience. And they tell a story. Hietaniemi is no different. In fact it tells many stories. The stunning eccentric monuments on the artist hill are striking in their daring design, and the large military section reminds the visitor of the loss of young lives in the fight for independence. The modernist fonts on the family graves stand out both as exceptionally beautiful and as a testimony of the embrace of modernist ideals also during the most sentimental of times. The avenues bordered by tall pine trees shape the place into a monumental landscape and a home for the dead. Peaceful and stern.

A storage space for lanterns at Hietaniemi cemetery, overlooking the urban industrial landscape across the small bay.

But, this is Finland. And Finland is special. It blends eccentricity and individualism with collectivism in a way that I found to be truly unique. Nowhere was this more striking than at Hietaniemi. The arrangements for cremations, with arrangements of natural stones in flowerbeds exploding with color, or the sterner granite square shapes of crosses or pillars with room for many names embody this notion of collectivity and conformity with individual expression.

Area for the final deposition of cremations at Hietamieni cemetery. The crosses are standardized and can be engraved on both sides, thus forming the marker for two separate depositions.

What can I say? I grew up with the books by Tove Jansson (and by the way, her family grave is at Hietaniemi), I dress myself and my home in Finnish design, I have loved the brilliant movies by Aki Kaurusmaki, enjoyed many a sauna and placed myself in the lines of the poetry by Edit Sodergran and Marta Tikkanen, but it took a trip to Hietaniemi for me to finally get closer to what I think Finland is about. I can’t put my finger on it yet, but I can say with certainty that it is pretty amazing.

Liv Nilsson Stutz