This article published in the New York Times looks at the discovery of and research on a very simple organism that seems to be immortal. Could the study of these jellyfish help us learn how to evade death? If so, should that be an avenue we pursue?
In season 8 of America’s Next Top Model, executive producer Tyra Banks received extensive criticism for her crime scene photo shoot, in which she made contestants pose as brutally murdered corpses dressed in glamorous clothing. The premise of the photo shoot was as follows: one contestant becomes jealous of the success of another and subsequently decides to strangle, stab, or mangle her opponent. The result? An edgy photograph, editorial enough to be in the pages of Vogue.
But it was not the concept of the photo shoot itself that critics found disturbing, rather, it was the shoot’s glorification of the violence and abuse against women. According to blogger Sabine Hikel, “Spliced together, the photos become a pornographic assemblage of horror; perhaps this is the point. Interspersed with very disturbing facts about violence against women, the effect of the photos is intensified.” The pictures, in a sense, represent the types of extreme violence that women most often face. In some photos, for example, the women are sprawled on the floor or over a bed, half naked or in ripped lingerie. This positioning seems to imply that these women died after experiencing some form of domestic abuse or rape. Additionally, their seductive poses and partial nudity indicate their roles as sexual objects. Because the contestants are modeling death, the pictures become much more about the makeup, clothes, and styling of the shot rather than the gruesome deaths each contestant was made to portray. Even during the elimination panel, Banks and the other judges make the point that regardless of the shot’s premise, the models must always remember to showcase the clothes. The message in these pictures is clear: alive or dead, women are glamorous objects, subject to the voyeuristic inclinations of the public.
Yet, the arguments of these critics seem overly one-sided. Yes, the women in these pictures are representing violent deaths, which seem lost in the beauty aspect of the photographs. However, the artistic value of these photos cannot be overlooked. From the photographer’s perspective, as well as that of the judges, these pictures are creative portrayals of taboo issues. Death, a process that is dark and scary, is reappropriated to an image that is beautiful and interesting. Of course, I am not condoning violent deaths or abuse toward women, but neither are these photos necessarily. Countless artists have used death as a motif in their artwork, and many more internet fetishists have come up with websites like “Suicide Girls” where they post pictures of girls who model suicide in provocative sexual positions. If these pictures really are just another type of creative outlet, then what’s the harm of posting them? Can death only be portrayed in a horrific and mortifying way? Additionally, does it make a difference that women are the objects of these pictures? Would our criticisms still hold true if the subjects of these pictures were men? Regardless of what we think, however, there’s no denying that Banks pushed the envelope. She definitely got our attention.
For Hikel’s article, click here.
For another similar article click here.
Finally, copy and paste this link for an article looking at violence against women in high fashion <www.rymaec.org/files/TV.Fall_.SayWhat.Final_.pdf>.
I was reading the New York Times this morning when I came across this article, which is directly related to the topic of my term paper: continued associations of HIV/AIDS with death. The article reveals the presence of institutionalized stigmatization of individuals living with HIV in the prison system in Alabama and South Carolina. Despite the fact that airborne methods of transmission were debunked in the early days of the disease– back in the ’80s, when so little else about HIV/AIDS was understood– HIV positive inmates are prevented from working with food and segregated from the rest of the general prison population, including at mealtimes. Prisoners with HIV are prevented from transferring to prisons closer to their families, and, until recently, were barred from prison church services. Perhaps most disturbingly (and most relevant to my paper, as well as to the topic of this blog), one HIV positive inmate reported that guards would call out “dead man walking” when he passed through the halls. This is despite the fact that, with current treatments for HIV (while there is no cure and no vaccine, there are effective treatments), a person can live a relatively normal, healthy life, and is more likely to die with HIV than from HIV. With proper treatment, the amount of virus in a person’s system can be reduced to nearly undetectable levels (meaning that it is difficult to spread the virus to another person), and the progression of the disease to AIDS can be all but halted. In other words, modern medicine has made it entirely unnecessary (and entirely unethical as well) to treat people with HIV any differently than people without the virus, even in a prison setting.
And yet, misconceptions about the disease persist. People (yes, even outside of the Alabama and South Carolina prison systems, though I wish I could say otherwise) still think of HIV as though it was the plague. This is not to downplay the seriousness of this disease– it is a very serious issue, especially in Africa, where treatments are not generally available, and where the death toll is absolutely devastating. But in the United States, the rate of people dying from HIV has fallen sharply since the early days of the epidemic, and continues to fall, even as perceptions of HIV remain very much the same. These unchanging perceptions, exemplified by the policies of the prison systems in the article, provide a fascinating insight into how we associate things with death, and the rigidity of those associations, even as other cultural circumstances change.
One amazing piece of documentary on the subject of suicide in Japan. It is filmed by VICE magazine in 2011.
In the film, geologist Azusa Hayano introduced Aokigahara to us, a forest at the foot of Mt. Fuji, commonly known as Jukai (Sea of Trees). Apart from being a famous tourist attraction, Jukai is also on the list of world’s most notorious suicide sites. About 100 people die in the vast forest every year. In fact, Hayano himself alone has found over 100 bodies in his years patrolling the forest.
In the documentary, you see people leaving tapes on the tree trunks just in case they change their minds and decide to find their way back. The man Hayano encountered during the filming camped right in the middle of the trail, as if he wanted to be found. Those people who enter the forest are troubled, yes, but many are still struggling over their options.
(A sign in the forest urging people to reconsider; at the bottom, they provide phone numbers of the Suicide Prevention Association. Unfortunately, because of the size of the forest, it is difficult for the local government to spare enough resources to be more effective in preventing suicides.)
People do not just kill themselves in a forest. They consciously choose Jukai and often travel a long way to reach it. Local residents seldom even enter the forest. Somehow the notion of dying in a place where a lot others have done the same gives them some courage. Maybe a comforting thought of not being alone? — then you see those flowers offered on the site from families or friends of the deceased. They were NOT alone.
The idea of going to a popular suicide site to die reminds me a lot of the suicide clubs in Japan.
It is true that people meet online in those virtual “clubs” to find partners and arrange deaths together. However, it is not always as simple as we might think. Such online sites also allow people to share the most unspeakable fear, hatred, anger, and their deepest desperation. In a way, it contains some therapeutic value. Like the personal experience described by the interviewee in the article, people often back out of the plan and reconsider the action. Such hesitation may come from the attention they received from their “suicide partners”, connections they established in the club, consolations in the knowledge of shared suffering, or just simply a sudden fear of the reality of death. Whatever the reason is, a withdrawal often deters the partner’s suicidal plan as well.
Just to add a fun (?) fact to the dismal topic. Another famous suicide site in Japan is Kiyomizu (pure water) Temple in Kyoto. It is at the top of a hill and has a gorgeous scenery.
The famous veranda/stage (see above in the picture) in Kiyomizu has an old saying among Japanese:
清水の舞台から飛び下りる (to jump off the stage at Kiyomizu), the equivalent of English expression “to take the plunge.” However, many people, and I mean MANY, have taken it literally…
For many of those who have had to live through the tragedy of losing a loved one there are often several months of grief and sadness that survivors must endure following the death. In many situations, there is no time or space where it is appropriate to openly grieve. People are surrounded by places filled with memories and familiar smells that haunt them. Some are left with family responsibilities and must constantly appear strong so the underlying infrastructure doesn’t crumble beneath them. A few weeks after the loss of a loved one, neighbors stop bringing over meals and those more distant begin to forget. However, the loss is still very new and those more closely related to the deceased are often still only in the beginning stages of grief and attempting to piece their lives back to normal.
The last thing one might think of is taking a vacation during this time period; however, those who do, find that it is much easier to proceed in their grieving process. Those who choose to go somewhere fun, where they can take their minds off the sadness that has overwhelmed their lives, find that they don’t forget that they are grieving, but find it easier to remember the happier times with their loved one. For others, a vacation taken alone to a familiar spot may be easier, it gives the person the time and space to openly grieve and heal.
After the death of her teenage daughter to suicide, Jaletta Desmond, described how she and her husband decided to go to Las Vegas to celebrate a friend’s birthday only a couple of months after the tragedy. Desmond describes that “Although we were able to laugh and visit and enjoy our friends and each other, we knew jumping on a jet to Vegas wouldn’t carry us away from our grief.” However, they both found that it was refreshing to be temporarily distracted by their sadness. She believed that her experience in Vegas somehow revived her and allowed her to begin to move past the grief that she had dwelled in for so long while also allowing her to become more equipped to go back to a home filled with past memories.
To find out more on Jaletta Desmond’s journey, please click here.
Today in discussion, our group talked about how the school shooting article addressed music choices as a predicting factor for aggression. While I personally don’t believe that what people listen to indicate their actions, it makes me listen to the lyrics of songs more closely. We said that the mention of music was a weak part of the article, but it may have a valid point in some aspects. If listening to something for an extended period of time, people can become numb to the graphic images presented in some lyrics.
One of my favorite bands from middle school and high school, My Chemical Romance, features graphic lyrics in their songs. One that I really starting thinking about today after our class is called Teenagers; these are the lyrics:
“They’re gonna clean up your looks with all the lies in the books to make a citizen out of you. Because they sleep with a gun, and keep an eye on you, son, so they can watch all the things you do. Because the drugs never work, they gonna give you a smirk’, cause they got methods of keeping you clean. They gonna rip up your heads, your aspirations to shreds. Another cog in the murder machine. They say that teenagers scare the living **** out of me. They could care less as long as someone’ll bleed. So darken your clothes or strike a violent pose, maybe they’ll leave you alone, but not me. The boys and girls in the clique, the awful names that they stick, you’re never gonna fit in much, kid. But if you’re troubled and hurt, what you got under your shirt, we’ll make them pay for the things that they did.”
In these particular lines, there’s mention of drugs, bullying, and retaliation through aggression (with a gun possibly). Through listening through lines such as these, it could be possible that people see these images as less unimaginable and actually come to the point where they can visualize the scenes. In this way, they can come closer to actually committing crimes like school shootings; maybe the paper did have a point about music and aggression after all.
We’re all familiar with the cycle of life. We are born, we live and grow for a while, and eventually, we die. Death is supposed to be the end, “the big sleep”, “the final resting place”, etc.; however, what if this is not the case? What if instead of resting in peace, a person wakes up?
No, this is not the latest horror movie plot. This is a very real and very rare phenomenon known as Lazarus Syndrome. It is named after Lazarus, a biblical figure who was resurrected four days after his death. Though the “deaths” do not last that long, this is what usually happens to the patients. As paraphrased from Wikipedia, circulation spontaneously returns after multiple failed attempts at resuscitation.
Doctors are not certain of the causes of Lazarus Syndrome. Nevertheless, there are several possible theories floating around. According to a scientific study, one of the more probable explanations is “positive end expiratory pressure caused by a dynamic hyperinflation of the lung”. In Layman’s terms, this is the pressure that builds up in the chest after CPR is given. After the pressure is relieved, the heart expands which “[triggers] the heart’s electrical impulses and [restarts] the heartbeat”. Other possibilities include a delayed reaction to drugs given during CPR and a response to dialysis in patients with hyperkalemia (elevated potassium in the blood).
There was a recent case in the United Kingdom involving a man named Michael Wilkinson. He was found unconscious by his mother and was rushed to the hospital. There, doctors tried to revive him, but ultimately pronounced him dead. However thirty minutes later, doctors found a pulse. Doctors think that his heart restarted due to the drugs he was given during the resuscitation attempts. Sadly, Michael died a few days later following an emergency operation.
The above case is an example of one that could be explained by the hypotheses; however, there are many which do not seem to have a cause at all. The patient just suddenly regains a pulse again. This raises a major question: how accurate is a declaration of death? Or better yet, is it possible for a declaration of death to be accurate? Maybe having a bell in one’s casket is not such a bad idea after all…
In a humorous article I recently came across, Vlad III, the prince of Wallachia, was declared to be in the top 10 list of royals who would not have been a good contestant for Facebook. Though not intentionally, this article is a reflection of the recent trend involving vampires. Whether loved or hated, one thing that cannot be ignored is the growing infatuation with vampires. One of American culture’s most recent fads has been the romanticization of these blood sucking creatures. Originally they were seen as cruel and vicious, bringing eternal terror to their victims. The actual person around whom the myth was created was Vlad III Dracula, also known as Vlad the Impaler, mentioned in the humurous article. It is thought that he impaled around 100,000 people during his short lifetime. Clearly there is nothing romantic about Vlad the Impaler. So why is it, then, that we have twisted his excessively ugly existence into something seductive and alluring? How did society go from Vlad the Impaler to the Twilight version of a vampire lover?
It seems that there is something in our nature that does not want to accept the existence of such unrelenting cruelty. We have no way to cope with the presence of such a vile and dark infringement upon reality. And so, we have turned the ugly into the enticing, the profane to the esteemed. Rather than hide from the terrifying death that vampires embody, our culture has begun to flirt with the idea- literally. Possibly as a makeshift coping mechanism, we have romanticized the vampire and given him seductive appeal. This has gone so far as to penetrate into movies intended for children. The recent film Hotel Transylvania depicts a teenaged vampire girl who falls in love with a human boy. What was the catalyst for this shift in perspective on vampires? Or has this been a gradual change on a never ending spectrum? If it is a spectrum, what decides the direction in which it travels? Perhaps this vampire fad is the reflection of underlying cultural unrest. Deeper still, maybe there is something deeply flawed within humanity. Taking the embodiment of a cruel death and turning it into an object of sexual appeal could be viewed as the reflection of humanity’s never ending search for a permanent solution to death. We seem to be trying to control that which in uncontrollable. Rituals give us an accepted way to deal with and mourn for the dead, but they do not solve the problem of death. Perhaps society is searching for a solution to something that cannot be fixed.
This week in class, we read an excerpt from one of Philip Gourevitch’s gripping book We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families about the genocide in Rwanda. His testimony of visiting the Nyarubuye Church after the massacre initiated a bigger discussion of what is ethically acceptable when it comes to using actual human remains to bear testimony of atrocities to commemorate events in the past, and also to assure that nobody ever forgets or questions the authenticity of this history. Andrea shared with us her family’s images from a visit to Auschwitz, a site that remains not only a ruin of a painful past, but also provides actual evidence against Holocaust deniers today. It is hard to argue against such tangible facts on the ground. Then a friend of mine, Petter Linde, who also happens to be an archaeologist, sent me an interesting link to an article by BBC News, that reveals a similar discussion about the ethics of photographing and displaying images of the dead from World War 1, entitled Fallen Soldiers: Is it right to take images of bodies?
Is it acceptable to show images like this from WW1, or is it ethically so problematic that the benefits of bearing witness of these horrific events do not compensate for the humiliation and lack of sensitivity and respect for the dead?
Documenting the dead – to create a record, to support testimonies of atrocities, to communicate what most of us are unable to put into words – has long been business as usual for journalists. But we see that today this is becoming increasingly questioned by both the public and by authorities. I understand the visceral reaction to photos of dead people, and I feel sympathy for those who feel that this is in some way undignified or at least questionable. But at the same time we must then also ask ourselves where to draw the line? Is it not equally, if not more problematic, to publish images of living people in conflicts – those who may still be suffering, or whose lives may be at risk because of the exposure. Is it not more objectionable to capture the images of starving children or wounded soldiers, than of dead ones? Of course, this immediately gets very complicated and probably we must resort to an uncommitted “it depends”. And yet, without testimonies like this, would the world community care, even less take action?
The image of the naked Phan Thi Kim Phuc in 1972 raised awareness among the American public about the reality on the ground in Vietnam and the effects of the use of napalm bombing for thousands of civilians.
Without images like that of Phan Thi Kim Phuc the American public may have felt differently about the Vietnam war.
But the question remains: how far should we go to use the bodies of the dead to tell our stories? Do their voices to some extent still speak through the materiality of their bodies, or, are we simply exploiting the raw effect these gruesome images have to make our own points and further our own agendas?
This blog is a platform of communication for a college course at Emory entitled "The Anthropology of Death and Burial". The purpose is to use this blog to invite the world into our classroom by drawing on current events or phenomena that surround us and that are relevant to our exploration into the topic of death and how people deal with it.
The course is explicitly cross-disciplinary and besides anthropology we also explore the topic of death through the lens of biology, history, religious studies, medicine, law, philosophy, sociology, literature and art. Feel welcome to explore and participate!
Who we are
The contributors to this blog are all undergraduate students at Emory University in Atlanta GA (USA).
The course is taught by Dr. Liv Nilsson Stutz who is an archaeologists with a special interest in mortuary archaeology and ritual studies. She is also a regular contributor.