Monthly Archives: October 2013

The Ways We Grieve

My research topic for our final paper is how people express grief and undergo the mourning process on Facebook. While I have been thinking about this subject it has heightened my awareness to how humans in general cope with grief and the idea of dying. We have cultural, social, political, and emotional (and many other) ways of approaching death. There are different ways we talk about death before it happens and different ways we talk about death after it happens. We plan and prepare then we grieve and memorialize. One incident has come on my radar recently that I would like to discuss in the context of the flexibility of ritualization.

Messages in a Bottle


On the anniversary of the sinking of the HMS Bounty, the survivors gathered to memorialize two friends who passed away. A year earlier, the HMS Bounty sailed into Hurricane Sandy. The old boat didn’t stand a chance. It was tossed and turned until it eventually sunk. The Captain and a rookie sailor passed away. Friends gathered to send messages to those they had lost. The rookie sailor, Claudene Christian, had promised Jessica Hewitt that they would send messages in a bottle during the passage. It seemed appropriate to all to send their love by a message in a bottle. They wrote apologies and missives and send their messages out to sea. They even weighted the bottles down with iron shackles because “it is the only way the message would get to them”.

We attach our grief to things to give it more meaning. The plain idea of writing a message to someone who has passed away and then making sure it sinks so it can reach them is utterly absurd, but put in a cultural and emotional context it provides a necessary level of closure for the survivors. The idea of a message in a bottle is fitting not only for how death entered their lives but also it had been established as a personal connection. The Captain’s body was never found so it is a comforting idea for the crew to send a message to their Captain’s final resting place.

While others would get together at a loved one’s favorite place or gather around a gravestone, these friends and family came to the ocean to pay their respects. In the context of these particular deaths the flexibility of ritual allows for mourners to experience grief in such an individualized way. The ocean provides a physical space for the mourners to express their grief in a way that feels tangible. This instance reveals the flexibility in the structure of grieving in America.

The Funeral Selfie

A fellow archaeology focused student at Tulane found this:

The fad of taking selfies spreads to going to funerals.

As odd as this is. It shows some expected views of grief i.e. some of the girls in the photos frowning, dressing in black, and the captions with “cried off all my makeup”. But it all seems so contrived and the comments on my friend’s post of this were mostly negative concerning these people’s lack of respect for a funeral, or that this is another reason they have lost faith in humanity. Maybe this is another way for grief expression for this generation. It obviously does not fit with many others’ view of grief and expression of it. How do these pictures differ from our prescribed views of how to  grieve and how are they trying to conform?

Google Doodles—A Modern Medium to Immortalize the Dead?


Most of us are familiar with the iconic Google logo—that colorful logo that pops up against the white screen of our computers as we anxiously type away a question, phrase, or word we need to know more about. Every so often when we arrive to Google’s homepage we are greeted by a different logo of sorts, a doodle that commemorates a historic event or celebrates the life of a person. This past Monday I was pleased to find that Google had decided to make a doodle commemorating the life of Celia Cruz on what would have been her 88th birthday.  This is the doodle pictured above. Although this name may not be at all familiar to many of you, it’s a household name we Latinos know and respect. Celia Cruz is one of the greatest salsa singers of all time, the Queen of Salsa, and one of the largest icons Cuba has produced.

Following up on my group’s discussion from Wednesday, in which we discussed how people are immortalized in the modern world today, I thought back to this doodle I had seen earlier this week. Many famous people have had Google doodles made of them, such as Michael Jackson, Gandhi and Martin Luther King to name a few. Media was one of the mediums that we considered helps in this immortalization of people, particularly celebrities, icons and other people who are in the public eye. Considering how Google has become such a huge part of our culture and everyday lives, which can be proven by the fact that many people today even use it as a verb (i.e. I’m googling it, wait up.), I’d like to suggest that these doodles are a modern way people are immortalized. What do you think about this? Do you agree? What are ways people are immortalized  in modern society today?

Taiwanese Funeral Strippers

Most would consider a traditional funeral service to feature mourning, commemorations, prayers, and rituals including gift-giving. Gifts may include flowers, mementos, money and things of that sort. Customs certainly vary between cultures and religious affiliations. However, if we search far and beyond we may be surprised by some of the funeral practices we discover. Let us turn our attention to say, East Asia. Interestingly enough, in the rural parts of Taiwan, a typical funeral service involves colorful lights, loud hollering and showgirls, or more commonly known as funeral strippers. Now, most would find that funerals and stripping should have no relation whatsoever. I would also assume that many would question how funeral stripping is in any way beneficial to the memory of the deceased. According to Taiwanese culture, death should encourage members of society to celebrate, rather than persistently mourn the loss of a loved one. Pole dancing and stripping in front of men, women, children, and the dead corpse, during the funeral procession, is another method of ancestral worship. Funeral stripping is a common practice used to help overcome the grieving process, honor the dead person and most importantly to “appease the wandering spirits,” the latter reason often the most quoted.

There has certainly been a considerable amount of opposition towards this Taiwanese practice, including from those who reside in the urban centers of Taiwan. There have been efforts to ban funeral stripping in Taiwan. Many claim that those who either engage in or approve of such practices are clearly struggling with the separation between sexuality and religion. The Young Turks, an online show, covered a story on this ritual practice and hosts, Ana Kasparian and Steve Oh, brought up a very good point as to why this ritualistic practice became so popular in rural Taiwan. They stated that urban centers do not need funeral strippers because plenty of sexual outlets are available to the public at their discretion. Rural areas, on the other hand, are not as developed as their counterparts and are perhaps more sexually deprived therefore it is no wonder the opportunity to include sexuality in traditional funeral customs was rapidly embraced. In fact, those who participate in funeral stripping claim that this ritual is not only an offering to gods and dead spirits but it also makes for a more entertaining  and memorable experience.

Click here for TheYoung Turk story on funeral stripping in Taiwan:

The concept of anti-structure definitely applies to this ritual performed by funeral strippers. This practice was carefully planned to take place during a very serious and traditionally structured ceremony. As we now have been informed, many cultures find that it is during this time of death and the preparation of the dead corpse, chaos and disorder, typically considered to be unacceptable, become part of the norm. Individuals do not have to seek approval to exhibit irrational behavior. The death of a person can be a very depressing and emotional period for those related to or in some way impacted by the deceased. I am certain the usual perception of mourning is not completely absent from Taiwanese funerals. However, Taiwanese funerals are more so characterized by very abnormal social conduct, or anti-structure. Although this practice is considered taboo in many communities, those who acknowledge this practice find it essential and extremely valuable to their traditional funeral rites.

Please refer to the following Huffington Post article for more details about Taiwanese funeral stripping:

Animal Mummies: How we cherish pets beyond life

In the time of ancient Egypt, mummification was a common tradition for the treatment of human remains after death. Less frequently discussed is the inclusion of animal remains in the practice of this rite. Mummified animals were often meant as offerings to the gods or goddesses, of which they were representative (cats for Bastet, crocodiles for Sebek, baboons for Thoth, just to cite a few examples), and were even bred specifically for such a sacrificial purpose. But animals were also mummified for other intents and motives.

Cat mummies and Bastet statues at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

Cat mummies and Bastet statues at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

The practice of mummification was used for the remains of the cherished pets of Egyptian individuals, signifying the affection that Egyptians, just like modern Americans, feel towards their animal companions. Although this may be a matter of projection in terms of attributing our values to the lives of the ancient Egyptians, evidence would suggest that the emotion, the feeling of mourning felt with the passing of a human relative, could also be felt in response to the death of a non-human associate, a pet. In these cases, the Egyptians performed the same rituals with respect to the preservation of remains on animals as were used on humans.

Crocodile mummies at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

Crocodile mummies at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

I think this topic of animal mummification provides an opportunity to reflect on how our society deals with the death of pets, and in which ways we differ with and are the same as the Egyptians. I would argue just on my own personal, anecdotal account that we lack the same sort of tradition to deal with this aspect of life (and death). Funerals for pets are relatively infrequent and are often not regarded with the same formality and ritual as that of a human. I would assume these differences might stem from our contradictory perspectives on the state of the after-life. For the Egyptians, their pets would join them as companions in the next realm of paradise. But I am not aware of any similar concept held by those who believe in the Heaven of the Christian faith.

I also know of a semi-recent small trend that has developed with the taxidermizing of pets, so that their memory is practically frozen in place. I thought it was amusing when I visited the museums in Vienna, that in Naturhistorisches Museum is Empress Maria Theresa’s stuffed dog. So in a way, taxidermy of pets is almost a more modern form of pet mummification.


I would also be interested in hearing the perspectives of individuals with other cultural backgrounds on how the treatment of animal corpses differs not just between two societies from vastly separated time periods, but also within a more modern, contemporary context.

Two Massacres and No Funeral

We’ve been talking about in class how central the funeral is to the mourning process.  The funeral takes care of the body and gives mourners closure.  So what happens when there is no funeral?

This is unfortunately usually the case in war or genocide.  The dead are piled into mass graves or sometimes just left where they were killed.  Throughout history, the innocent have been massacred and their bodies unceremoniously abandoned.  One example is the recent archaeological discovery of a 5th century massacre in Sweden.  The remains show that the individuals experienced violent deaths and were left where they fell, since the dead were usually cremated during this time period.  Read more here:

Viking Mass Grave

Viking Mass Grave

This regrettably still happens all over the world.  It happened during the Holocaust, the genocide in Bosnia and Serbia, and in Liberia.  The massacre in Liberia took place at a refugee camp twenty years ago, with the victims dumped into an unmarked mass grave.  Action is only being taken now to bring the perpetrators to justice.

The victims of these massacres are not cared for after death by their loved ones.  They did not get the ceremony they wanted or that their beliefs mandated.  Their loved ones did not get to say good-bye to their deceased.  What happened in these communities? How did they deal with their loss?  How did their community not break down in the absence of this most important rite of passage?

I think that when something this terrible happens, the community just has to reset and move on.  Since the violent situation often makes it impossible to loved ones to go back and claim the bodies of their deceased, people just have to accept it and move on.  This sounds rather harsh but I think that this is the community’s survival mechanism.  If they tried to go back and claim the bodies for a funeral, it would take a very long time or they could be killed themselves.  They have to come to terms with the fact that they won’t be able to care for the body as they wish and they must honor them in some other way.

The lack of a funeral tends to lend itself to the building of a memorial monument, such as the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.  When individuals of a community can’t honor their own dead, the community honors them collectively, thus giving the mourners closure and the dead their respect.

Ophelia: Making Suicide Beautiful

Ophelia, Sir John Everett Millais, 1852

Above is the famous painting by John Millais of drowned Ophelia from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Her face his soft and almost restful with her “weedy trophies” floating alongside her. But hold on a second and think of what has happened in this painting. She has just drowned, whether by accident or her own doing, we don’t know. But the fact remains that this is a corpse, however, to me, she still looks distinctly alive and human. Drowning is not pretty. But this depiction is.

L’inconnue de la Seine, Death Mask

New York Public Radio’s Radiolab has a podcast that has a similar occurrence. It’s called Death Mask and you can listen to it here . The death mask of a young woman is passed around the aristocracy of France in the 19th century and across Europe, because of the beauty of the face. The story goes that this girl was abandoned by her lover and because of her misery she flung herself in the Seine River. She was taken to the morgue and displayed behind glass so that someone might recognize her and reclaim the body. The man who ran the morgue was so struck by her beauty, he made a plaster cast of it.

The similarity of both of these cases is that these women still look very graceful and beautiful  but they have drown. As explained by one of Radiolab’s interviews in the podcast, it is amazing that the women looks so peaceful because when a body has been drown, the skin will swell and the face no longer resembles the way it looked in life. So why make them beautiful? Even the Queen in Hamlet cannot help but give a beautiful description of Ophelia’s death as she drift to her watery grave: “Her clothes spread wide,/And mermaid-like awhile they bore her up” and “Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious for/To muddy death.”

Are there any more examples of this kind of phenomenon that you can think of? And why exactly do we do this? Especially it seems to scorned or love sick women? Is it because we cannot bear the harsh reality of their death or that we want to remember some idealized version of the face of death? Does doing this kind of give them back their dignity in a way even though it doesn’t tell the true story?




Finally about the Walking Dead

The Walking Dead has been a hit TV show for the past four years. While I have watched it religiously, the theme of death in the show never stood out to me before. There have always been themes of staying alive and sticking together as a group, but the zombie as a character had never been discussed. The show is based around the main character, Rick Grimes; an ex-sheriff who wakes up as a patient in an abandoned hospital and quickly learns that he is in the middle of the zombie apocalypse. For three full seasons, Rick has lead his group into different battles and through a variety of adventures while simultaneously trying to avoid being bitten by a zombie. Although at least one zombie has been present in each episode, these undead characters and their hunger for human flesh have been a side-story to the drama and strife between “survivors.”

The episode that aired this past Sunday was the season premiere for Season 4. In one of the opening scenes, a bunch of the children from the group are standing by the chain-link fence that encloses the group’s camp. As they stand and giggle at the zombies struggling against the fence to get in, one girl starts to name the zombies and encourages the other children to remember the names. At the same time, Rick’s son, Carl, storms up to the group of children and yells at them for naming the zombies. He states that they can’t have names because they aren’t people anymore. They are dead. The young girl replies that they are still people because they walk and are hungry but they are just different types of people now. This is the FIRST time during the show that the zombies have been discussed in a non-violent and contemplative manner.

A bit later in the episode, a few individuals from the group decide to go on a grocery run at the nearest corner shop. While they are there, several zombies break in to the building and start attacking them. The cinematography during this scene is unlike any that has been used in the show before. Instead of filming different shots far enough to include the zombie and the “living” person it is attacking, the camera focuses on the zombie’s missing limbs as they move to illustrate their animated death. I believe that this focus on the animation of an incomplete and rotting corpse forces the viewer to re-evaluate what it means to be “living.”

The past three seasons, which have been marked by drama between the “survivors,”  has included infidelity, murder, racism and deception… But has always seemed a bit average. However, this new focus on the zombies as the “living dead” instead of soulless animals is sure to bring a new layer to the show that will make the fourth season new and inventive.




Over the break I watched the movie “Silence of the Lambs,” which follows the story of a woman FBI agent on her mission to stop a serial killer, being aided by a convicted cannibal along the way. This movie raised many interesting questions about the symbolism of human flesh in the public consciousness.


(but really why haven’t you seen Silence of the Lambs?)

For those of you ignoring the spoiler warning, the main issue I found with the movie was the sacredness of human flesh, particularly of the skin. Part of what makes the movie so disturbing is that the serial killer uses the skin of his victims to form a sort of skin suit so that he can become a woman. I found this defilement of human flesh to be particularly disturbing, so I wanted to think about why I experienced such a strong reaction to this abuse of flesh.

Possibly part of the reason the tampering of skin is so disturbing is because skin is what constitutes a person’s unique physicality. A person’s facial features are integrated into their skin, and after having seen a body without skin, the person is basically unrecognizable without their skin. Thus, when a person loses their skin, they lose an important part of their identity. To add onto this, the serial killer dons the skin of his victims, in a sense robbing and adopting part of their identity.

Compounding this disrespect for flesh is the character of Hannibal, who is a cannibal. Cannibalism occupies a particularly heinous place in public consciousness by being almost beyond comprehension. Why is this? One of the most violent scenes in the movie occurs during a scene in which Hannibal eats part of a man’s face. Building off of the idea of the skin as an important part of a person’s identity, imbibing skin could be seen as both a flagrant disregard for someone’s identity and as a disregard for the sacredness of the human body as a whole. Even when dead, the human body retains part of its status as a person through the imposition of moral limits on treatment of the dead body. Eating human flesh will always be disturbing, regardless of if the body is dead or still alive.


Death Cafes

In American society, one of the strongest taboos is against death. Death is viewed as a sensitive and uncomfortable subject that many individuals choose to avoid due to the negative connotation associated with it. Due to this, death is not something discussed openly in public, therefore, there has recently been an outburst in what is known as death cafes. These death cafes are exactly what they sound like; cafes dedicated to the topic of death.

Originally starting in Europe, death cafes have spread to America in the past several years. They provide a comfortable setting where people who have lost someone can openly grieve with others and relate with one another. The people who go to these cafes come from various backgrounds, varying from a widow to a hospice nurse. One of the interviewees from the article is a pastor and what really struck me as surprising is how he views death as a “great intimacy than sex.” Because death is viewed as such a private matter, many individuals do not get the support they need when someone they love dies. Friends and family members only give the person a certain time period to mourn for their loss and then grieve in silence. Thus, these death cafes provide a place of relief and complete openness where no emotions or thoughts have to be censored.


The need to create these death cafes demonstrates how uneasy death makes society feel— to the point where death cafes to serve as a safe place where people who have dealt with death can cope and feel free to express themselves. I thought this really tied in to what we have talked about in class before of how in many cultures dealing with death is a very private affair or mourners are given a certain time frame where they are allowed to grieve and afterwards they can no longer grieve in public. This mentality shows why the creation of death cafes has become so popular and also shows how sad it is that in order to talk about death freely, it must be in a secluded area away from the majority of society. This shows that we have a long way to go on our approach towards death and the taboo that surrounds it.