Monthly Archives: October 2012

Redemption and Support after Suicide

On September 10, 2012 Amanda Todd, a fifteen year-old from Vancouver, Canada was found dead from an apparent suicide. Amanda had suffered for years from persistent bullying both at her school and online and had already attempted suicide once by swallowing bleach. Amanda spoke out against cyberbullying in a youtube video and an online presentation; they unfortunately did not end the suffering that was being inflicted on her. However, after her death, Amanda received a wave of support and condolences from both her peers and from people who never knew she existed. Her death has been featured on several news sites with reporters calling her death a tragedy. A facebook page was also created for her and now has over 11,000 likes.

Amanda’s death shares many similarities with the deaths of other teenagers from suicide including Jamie Rodemeyer, who killed himself after years of being the target of anti-gay bullying, and Phoebe Prince, an Irish immigrant who hanged herself after being tormented relentlessly at school and online by her peers. Instead of being vilified by people for having given up on life or brushed aside for more important news stories, both of these teens also received an outpouring of support from their peers and from others around the country. Rodemeyer also received support from several famous people, most notably Lady Gaga who used his death as a rallying cry to call for tougher anti-bullying laws.
All of these incidents of teen suicide due to bullying display an unusual trend. Normally in the US when someone dies by suicide they are still mourned by their peers. However, at the same time, they are often the subject of anger and questioning as to why they have given up on life when they could have potentially worked through their problems. American culture favors those with a “never quit” attitude and rewards those people with respect even if they never truly fulfill their goals. To kill oneself before reaching these goals or living a full life implies that the person is a quitter and did not take life seriously or stop to ask how they could work through their problems.
This definition does a complete 180˚ when it comes to teen suicide due to bullying. Instead of being seen as having given up in the face of adversity, their deaths are seen as a tragedy; the loss of a promising youth who could have been very successful in life. Given that these people are still teenagers and are in a critical development stage of their lives, it is likely that people are more understanding of their situations because they are not yet able to fully grasp the consequences of suicide as well as adults. Additionally, the stresses of everyday life as a teen can also make a bullying situation seem more hopeless in their eyes. Because of this understanding, the teens receive support in levels that they would not have received from their peers if they were still alive.
The tragedy of school bullying has turned teen suicide into a redeeming factor. Teens who are bullied and do not have the support of their peers while they are alive will receive an outpouring of support after killing themselves whether it be from peers who feel guilt for playing a part in the death or from people who genuinely see their death as a tragic one. By killing themselves, the teens redeem themselves in the eyes of their peers even though they likely do not see it this way and are only looking for a way to put an end to their problems.

To read more about Amanda Todd and Jamie Rodemeyer:

If you suspect that someone you know is having thoughts about suicide, click here. You could potentially save their lives!

Nick Tigges

Frozen Space


A few weeks ago during a discussion seminar we were talking about technology in the modern era that has prolonged life. Of the many technologies talked about, like respirators, artificial hearts, and stem-cell research, cryogenics came up. Along with the very cool/science fiction notion of cryogenics, there is a very real possibility of using this technology for space travel. However there is always an important question that comes up when discussing cryogenics. Is the individual truly alive? And, how does cryogenics change the concept of death in the modern era?

The concept behind cryogenics in space travel is what you see in science fiction movies. The idea is to provide humans an alternative to traveling millions of light years without the threat of aging or dying. Placing humans in a frozen state can accomplish this. This field is also very attractive in disease research because humans can be frozen in the hope to be reawaken in a time where that disease may be cured. Cryogenics is also an alternative to customary death rituals. Many individuals, instead of being buried or cremated, prefer to be in a constant frozen state.

Believe it or not, cryogenics is currently being used aboard modern space ships and space stations, but not in the way you see in movies. The cryogenics technology requires the use of H2 and O2 molecules to provide a freezing mechanism. This is very useful for rocket thrusters, engines, and to preserve food for long distance space travel. The same application can be used for humans too. But the problem lies in how to restore humans back to active status after arriving at a certain destination, or even if the freezing can be reversed and the humans are able to recuperate from such a long stretch of time in a frozen state.

Cryogenic technology is a viable option for long distance space traveling by allowing humans to be in a frozen state in which they cannot age or die. However cryogenics pushes the envelope of the modern concept of death and dying. This technology is already being used to freeze human remains for the purposes of medical research. Now it can be used to cheat death, in a sense, which will alter how we see death and dying in the future to come.

For more information on cryogenics in space please visit here.

For a look into history of cryogenics and application visit here and here.


Fighting for Dignity


Ensign and Miriam Klein

Knowing exactly what to do when the time comes to make important decisions regarding the care of elderly parents is very rarely clear.  There are often many difficult decisions that must be made, while still taking into consideration and respecting the wishes of the people who raised and took care of you.  Joe Klein was faced with taking care of and making important medical decisions for his parents, Ensign and Miriam Klein, whose health was beginning its final decline.

This is when the health-care system came into play. At this point the Klein’s were still using health care providers provided through Medicare and Joe Klein had several questions that he wanted answers to. However, the doctors and nurses provided to the Klein’s often danced around giving the direct answers that Joe desperately sought after.  Joe noticed many other deficiencies within the Medicare system: there was a lack of coordination between physicians, no screening for possible drug interactions, and patients were the main people responsible for the supervision of their overall healthcare which often caused several other medical issues.  Fortunately, the Klein’s were soon transferred to Geisinger, a privately owned nursing facility, where Joe finally got the straight forward answers he had been looking for and where he was in more control of his parent’s medical treatment. His mom and dad died peacefully within six weeks of each other a few months later.

A major dilemma that Joe dealt with was whether or not he should continue medical treatment which seemed to just prolong the inevitable or if he should just accept his parent’s fate and help them pass comfortably.  He felt that if the Medicare system had been more straightforward with him and was clear about the prognosis of his parents he would have not wasted the last few months of their lives attempting to prolong the inevitable by having them go through unnecessary, painful procedures.  He was relieved when they were transferred to the Geisinger healthcare system because they seemed to understand what he wanted for his parents.

Although this article mostly focused on the advantages of having a privately owned cooperative type of healthcare provider, such as Geisinger, rather than the “fee-for-service Medicare” healthcare system, it strongly suggests that there is an overall need for control in the process of dying that those patients and their families seek.  Joe fought for his parents to die with serenity and dignity.  He felt that if he had stayed with the original Medicare plan, his parent’s death would have drawn on much longer, they would have received impersonalized care, and would have died in much more pain and with far less dignity.

For more information, please click here.

To watch Joe Klein’s Cover Story, click here.




Mass Suicide vs. Mass Murder in Jonestown

Few days ago, a friend started a conversation about mass death. The first thing came to my mind was Jonestown. The notorious event left its name as one of the largest mass murder in modern history and resulted in the largest single loss of American civilian life before September 11, 2001. I remembered myself watching the documentary “Witness to Jonestown” on MSNBC and struck by what I learned. The tragedy happened on November 18, 1978, a day many survivors will never forget. In the middle of the jungle in Guyana, 909 people lay dead after drinking poisons, another five people were killed near the jet outside Jonestown on an airstrip.

The story began with a man named Jim Jones who started the Peoples Temple, a religious organization. At the beginning, Jones promoted socialistic ideals, creating a set of values that was strongly felt and believed by his followers. The particular historic background of late sixties and early seventies gave Jones’ preaching a powerful attractiveness. Violence flooded the media with news from the street fights, the Vietnam War, and political assassinations. People sought for peace and an ideology that would guide them through the chaotic reality. Jones made use of the opportunity in the vulnerable crowd and became the spiritual leader of his religious cult group. This very same person, who once brought his followers hope of a better world, commanded people to die on November 18, 1978.

The Jonestown incident was shocking not only because so many people died, but also because Jim Jones claimed that it was a “revolutionary suicide,” protesting an “inhumane world.” The word “suicide” possesses meanings more than just “death.” It indicates a voluntary property in the choice of death that inevitably brings up the question of “why.” Suicide challenges the social orders in an extremely problematic way. In a suicide, there is not a killer to blame to, because the killer is at the same time the victim. People barely know how to react to suicides. There is not a socially acceptable appropriate way to react. Families and the public are left with perplexing feelings. Such conflict results in an attempt to explain the act by environmental causes, such as social structure, expectations and stress. A mass suicide of 914 people could have been a ground-shaking challenge to the society, shouting for an explanation.

Fortunately for the social structure, we later learned that the “mass suicide” Jones claimed was actually a mass murder. It’s noteworthy how quickly the media and the public changed their views and attitudes after learning about the forced deaths of more than 900 followers. All of a sudden, people knew who to blame and what to say. Rightly enough, the psychopathic Jim Jones degenerated from a fraud to a mass murderer. Anger, fear, despise, and sadness, sympathy, grief… All these feelings that were suppressed for suicides were then allowed to be expressed and released. This reminds me of how mourning is not just a personal experience, but also a socially regulated process. We respond to different deaths within each cultural context accordingly.

“Witness to Jonestown” has covered many original sources from the news of that period and recovered audiotapes from Jonestown. It also interviewed survivors extensively. It provides a comprehensive view of how the Peoples Temple developed and degraded from a dream people held, to a nightmare they could not escape from.

Video clips from the documentary “Witness to Jonestown”:

–Kim Li

The Comedy of Mortality

Death is usually regarded as a tragic event. People grieve and mourn over the loss of a loved one and will feel compassion when someone else is going through that pain. There are, however, ones who mock death and ridicule the deceased. Examples of this are the television show 1000 Ways to Die and the Darwin Awards website. Is this completely disrespectful or can it count as legitimate comedy?

First, let’s take a look at 1000 Ways to Die. This was a television show that ran from May 14, 2008 to July 15, 2012 on Spike TV. The show recreates unusual deaths and the narrator presents them in a lighthearted way. Then a team of professionals (pathologists, toxicologists, etc.) explain exactly how the unfortunate victim died. After that, the death was given a number and a title which is usually a pun of some sort. The victims of the show are usually presented as being either horrifically awful or horrendously incompetent people who apparently “get what they deserve”.  One notable exception to this formula was death number 1000 which was titled Premature Endings. Here, the victim was a dying old man who had lived a long and fulfilling life. The narrator then gave a speech about how we should strive for living and dying respectfully like the man. He concludes by saying that this show “has been an instructional manual for how to live”.

Now, let’s take a look at the Darwin Awards which is a website that was founded in 1993. They present stories of people performing senseless acts and paying the ultimate price for it. There are rules for the site. One example  is that the victim must be able to make sound decisions on his or her own; this prevents the mocking of children and people with mental handicaps. Similarly to 1000 Ways to Die, the Darwin Awards claim to be “macabre tales that make [people] laugh while instructing [them] in the laws of common sense”; however, one major difference between the two is that the accidents feature on the Darwin Awards are real (this is another one of the rules of the site) while the ones on 1000 Ways to Die are fake (some of the stories might be true, the show usually changes a few details).

So, now back to the original questions. First, are they disrespectful? 1000 Ways to Die does openly mock some of their victims, but as I mentioned earlier, they are usually depicted as terrible people. The ones who aren’t are treated with much more respect. As for the Darwin Awards, they mock the decisions that were made rather than the people themselves. What about them legitimate forms of comedy? Well, that honestly depends on one’s sense of humor. Some people will be absolutely appalled while others might be slightly amused by the dark humor. Personally, I have found some of the stories from both mediums to be humorous and others to be disgusting. So what do you think? Is it okay to poke fun at the dead or should they be off-limits?

1000 Ways to Die official site:

Darwin Awards official site:

A fair warning: some of the materials on the sites may be graphic and NSFW (Not Safe For Work)

Good Death, Bad Death, Very Bad Death

The older we get, the more we have to face the fact that death is creeping closer and closer. In general, a good death in the United States is one that involves old age, minimal suffering, and at least some expectation. We know that death is inevitable, and the longer a person lives, the more it seems they’ve had a “full” life. This makes the occurrence of death easier to swallow. When death suddenly pounces upon the unsuspecting victim, sinking its teeth into youth, our society is unprepared. We are taken aback, thrown off balance, and left in a state of shock. If this kind of death is mixed with injustice, it makes for a powerful combination of circumstances. My former classmate, 16 year old Christina Lembo, embodies this image of a very “bad death”.

Christina Lembo, a junior this year at Bloomfield High School in Bloomfield, NJ, was tragically seized from life on Saturday, September 29
th. Though I did not personally know her, I know several people who did. She is described as an athletic student who was “smart,” “talented,” and “so sweet and loving and kind.” She was young, healthy, and full of life with a promising future. According to our culture, this shocking end to her life was not supposed to happen yet, and not like this. It was too unexpected. What makes matters worse is that it was completely out of her control. A car suspected of drag racing abruptly crashed into the car in which she was a passenger. Someone else’s mindless decision cost a vibrant young woman everything.

In instances like this it is not enough to study grief and death rituals from a purely anthropological academic viewpoint. An anthropological viewpoint, however, helps one understand and recognize how the healing process can begin. Culturally accepted rituals that tell us how to handle a situation like this give us guidance in how to grieve. They tell us what is acceptable to do and/or say, and therefore give us the freedom to begin healing. The biggest example of this can be seen in the vigil held for Christina on Broughton Ave, the street where the accident occurred. The vigil is a ritualistic way for the community to come together and publicly mourn over this beautiful young student. It is a way in which support is created to all who are in need. This vigil is also a way of showing that, though Christina is physically dead, she is not socially dead. I have a feeling that, due to the nature of this tragedy, Christina will remain socially alive for a very long time.

-Sarah Hampton

More information about Christina Lembo can be found here.


The Civil War and Changing Views on Death

Arlington National Cemetery

While today the United States has very specific rituals concerning military personnel deaths, it was not long ago in US’s history that standards of burial did not even exist. This was clearly displayed in an interesting documentary by Ric Burns called “Death and the Civil War.” People projected that the war would be quite short with minimal casualties because of the dominance and organization of the North in relation to the South. However, this perception quickly changed as the war progressed and battles were leaving hundreds to thousands of dead strewn across the battlefield. The Battle of Shiloh left about 3,500 men dead in, a number that was once not even conceivable. Originally, it was the role of the military leaders to provide a decent burial and for the deceased, but they were simply not prepared to deal with the scope of the death.

During the time of the Civil War photography was gaining popularity. Consequently, these images of death were more accessible and palpable. This caused public outcry by citizens, who then began many volunteer commissions to help save and comfort the dying during the war. After the war even more commissions arose to identify the dead and give them proper burials whether they had been buried in a mass grave or simply left on the battlefield. It was expected that the government had a commitment to these soldiers who had died fighting for it. In 1867, the government began to fund, build, and protect cemeteries for the soldiers, spending 3 million dollars to do so. What was once the duty of the military leaders and volunteers had now become a government sanctioned policy.

This documentary definitively portrays the role and obligation of the living to the dead. Because of the volunteers who worked to give the soldiers dignity in death, today military personnel are held in high esteem in life and death. It is difficult imagine the amount of death people faced in the 1860’s during the civil war. With a much smaller population than today the effect of the deaths was much more detrimental to society. This is not to say that today’s war death tolls are not as significant to society, but rather that the death tolls have been substantially reduced. Society’s reaction to the unprecedented death of the Civil War caused a need to advance medical technology and governmental involvement.

Today there is a greater recognition for the men and women of the military who die in active duty. The institution of military cemeteries such as Arlington and numerous commemorative holidays such as Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day certainly exhibits this. The Civil War undoubtedly changed the US’s views on death and how it is dealt with especially on a large scale, as in the case of war.

To get more information or watch: