Monthly Archives: October 2013

Frozen But Not Forgotten

When Grandpa Bredo Morstol died in 1989, he began a journey far different from what many might consider a “normal” burial. Coming from a family captivated by the science of cryonics, the process of deep-freezing the bodies of those who have died with the hope that healing and resuscitation may be possible in the future, Grandpa Bredo’s children forwent a traditional funeral and instead packed their father’s body in dry ice. From there he was shipped across the pond from their home in Norway to a cryonics facility in California. Nearly four years later when the Morstol children decided they’d rather keep their father close to home, the whole family moved to a modest home in the small town of Nederland, Colorado – with Grandpa Bredo residing in an ice-packed shed in back. The Morstol family maintained the integrity of Grandpa Bredo’s body by hiring an “ice man,” a caretaker who refreshes the dry ice supply once a month to keep Grandpa safely frozen.

When the town of Nederland heard the news that a local family was keeping their Grandpa frozen in the backyard, intrigue led to family-operated tours, which in time escalated into a full-fledged winter celebration. Now officially known as “Frozen Dead Guy Days” this three-day festival has been referred to as Nederland’s own Mardi Gras. Nearing on its 14th year, this festival is based on death-themed activities, including but not limited to coffin races, parade of decorated hearses, frozen-turkey bowling, Grandpa-look-a-like costume contests, and more. This quirky festival is not just celebrated by the people from Nederland, but by those all over the world who fly in to enjoy the fun.

Underneath the clear oddities of this festival (i.e. frozen salmon tossing contest) lie deeper matters of interest. First are the implications of the family’s choice to freeze their father’s body. Although sources indicate that the family had a deep interest in cryonics, can this interest be interpreted as their way of dealing with grief? Instead of accepting that one day their father and eventually themselves will cease to exist, does a devotion to cryonics represent a refusal to accept the finality of death? Perhaps there is comfort in the idea that since the body is prepped to be revived, it is not truly gone.

A second oddity is the festival goers’ undeniable deviation from how many Americans “normally” respond to encountering a dead body. The dead are often associated with fear and sadness, and viewing the dead leaves us upset and troubled. In contrast, Grandpa’s dead body is not only a spectacle people long to view, but a spectacle that has inspired an entire festival of celebration and happiness. What is it about this dead body, specifically, that doesn’t ignite feeling of fear?

A final point of consideration that’s highlighted by this unconventional festival is the right of the dead. Grandpa Bredo’s body has now been preserved in dry ice for 25 years, and has been a public display for almost 20. While it has been advertised that his childrens’ motives for preserving the body were in line with their father’s reverence for cryonics, there is no way of truly knowing whether Grandpa would have liked his body to become a public spectacle. Would Grandpa be distraught with his body’s use as an entertainment and tourist attraction, or would he enjoy the attention? Since we’ll never truly know, Grandpa’s spot in the limelight will remain.

 

 

Vietnamese Grief over General Vo Nguyen Giap’s death

On October 4th, Vietnam has been shaken by the news of General Vo Nguyen Giap’s death (at 103 years old). He is one of the most respected and well known military leaders in Vietnam after Ho Chi Minh. He led the North Vietnamese in the war against both France and America. Every Vietnamese, who grew up in Vietnam, learned about Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap’s contribution in unifying the country, or at the least have heard of his name. General Vo Nguyen Giap’s death was carried out as a national funeral, which is similar to America’s state funeral, in order to honor his achievement and contribution to the country. This is one of the rare death events, in which I was able to see death and its impact on people on such a grand scale.

When people think about death, they often think about the grief that the living people experienced. Grief has many forms and is handled according to the culture. In many cultures, grief in public supposed to be a calm and solemn display of emotion. After the news of Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap’s death, thousands of Vietnamese from all over the country traveled to North Vietnam, where his family is to pay condolences. The line of people waiting to come into Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap’s house and pay respect wrapping around many streets in Hanoi was an extremely significant picture. There were many adults, children, elders, as well as retired soldiers standing in the heat of Hanoi. People from all over Vietnam coming to Hanoi brought flowers, poems, and songs written about Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap. People who come to funeral are not supposed to disturb the solemn mood and have to pay condolences in prescribed way of that culture. In Vietnam, waiting in line in public is not a common practice and is considered as a recently “imported” cultural behavior. However, people were waiting patiently for hours in Hanoi in order to express their grief and sincerity.

It was surprising to see grief experienced by that many people toward one person. There has to be some form of bonding between the dead and the people who experienced grief. This bond can be biologically made (such as in family) or culturally made. In cases of natural disasters or mass murders, people often feel sympathy for the tragic death of the victims. It is a cultural behavior to express sympathy to show your humanity side. ”Bad death” also often provokes extreme emotion such as anger and depress.  In Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap’s case, his bond with the people in Vietnam is culturally made by people learning about and seeing him through book, television and the news.

When a person’s social status is high, having a good death including a good funeral is important. In many cultures, having a lot of people attending a grand scale’s funeral proves that the dead person was a beloved and important person when he was alive.

 General Vo Nguyen Giap’s obituary from New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/05/world/asia/gen-vo-nguyen-giap-dies.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0).

Images: Google Image

Tikker—The wristwatch that counts down your life

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As a college student I always feel like I do not have enough time to do everything need and want to do. Time management is something I’m still figuring out how to do even as a senior. A wristwatch has been a useful tool and fashion accessory I have been able to use to help me out with this.

 Tikker is a wristwatch that has already surpassed (and almost doubled) its Kickstarter funding goal of $25,000 in just 8 days of being launched. For those of you who are not familiar with Kickstarter it is an online platform used to fund projects. Fundraising campaigns are all-or-nothing, so only projects that reach and/or surpass their funding goal are successfully funded. If you are interested in seeing this project through you can become a backer by even just pledging $1.

Basically this wristwatch is one that allows you to count down your life. The display will show you how many years, months, days, hours and seconds you have left to live. The idea is that by knowing how much time you have left to live, you will come to cherish, appreciate and use the time you have to do the things that are important to you. You can see the promotional video for it here.

One of the biggest questions I have is how exactly does this watch know how much time you have left on this earth. The wristwatch comes with a questionnaire that you fill out which helps deduce how much time you have left. Although this is addressed I feel like the creators of Tikker could have elaborated greater on what formula or methods they are using to figure this out because the whole premise of this watch relies this calculation. It is also important to assume that the watch probably doesn’t take into account unforeseen circumstances that might lead to death such as an accident. I see a lot of ethical dilemmas arising if Tikker’s calculations aren’t correct. If people are actually relying on this watch to make important life decisions, what happens when you die before you were supposed to or when you don’t die when you were expecting? How liable will Tikker be for a miscalculation? A product like this plays with peoples’ expectations and emotions and I can just see things going wrong if this watch isn’t accurate, which I think is difficult/pretty impossible to do due to the many variables involved.

What fascinates me about this wristwatch is how much interest it has received 10 days from the launch of the campaign. It has raised over 194% of it’s funding goal as of this point. People are obviously interested and excited about owning a product like this. Why is this? Is this because they genuinely want to live life to the fullest and they believe this will help them achieve it? Or is it more because they feel like they will have a sense of control over their future by knowing how much time they have left? I believe the large amount of interest received in a product like this confirms that death is an event that we do not look forward to and thus one must thoroughly live and enjoy the time they have.

What do you think about this product? Would you like to know how long you have to live? What would you do with the time you have left on this earth?

Here the Link to Tikker’s Kickstater

 

“The Things Nobody Tells You About Grief”

A friend of mine recently had her mother pass away due to cancer. She posted this link, The Things Nobody Tells You About Grief, written by another blogger whose mother also passed away. It was both interesting and sad to read about death from someone else’s perspective. To me, it really brought out how we have these prescribed cultural norms that are supposed to ease the process of letting someone go, but when in reality, it does not change the cold, hard truth: that person is gone.

The blogger specifically calls out the never ending awkward and very cliche phrases that people feel the necessity to speak when talking to someone who has suffered a loss.

“They wouldn’t have known anything about it. It would have been quick.”
“Anything I can do, just call.”
“They’re in a better place.”
“They’re not suffering anymore.”
“They’re with Grandma and Fido now.”

I think of these comments as “prescription phrases”. We say them because society tell us to, but we have only a vague idea of what they actually mean. Similar to taking medicines from the doctor, we take them without really understanding the pathophysiology behind it.

In light of our recent discussions, this blog post emphasized the role of grief and mourning for the living more so than the dead. The rituals, the process, and the time that go into mourning the death of a loved one is more than just recognizing someone’s existence. It’s about finding closure and life after the death of a loved one. For the people that are coping, it is the little things like comfort and sanity that matter most. This post also points out many of the behavioral changes that accompany death, such as “muddled mind”, “tears”, “triggers”, etc. I think as an outsider it is easier to dismiss these subtleties in grief. Maybe we simply accept them as natural or normal without having any adequate methods of dealing with these issues.

It seems our go-to-response in the face of death, grief, or mourning is to dismiss, ignore, and forget rather than acknowledge, provide, or remember the impacts the death of a loved person can have.

“You don’t know what you’ve got, till it’s gone.”

 

Dead Men Do Tell Tales

The last two weeks in class have been spent on grief and mourning, with last class getting started on looking at rituals of burial. On Friday, we looked at the PBS documentary, The Undertaking, which showed a very emotional and personal look at the way survivors are experiencing death and the rituals that the little Michigan town inhabitants take after the death of someone.

There is a book by the late Florida forensic anthropologist William R. Maples, Ph.d. called Dead Men Do Tell Tales. This look at death, it seems to me, is distinctly different from the way that the PBS documentary sees it. To Dr. Maples it is another day on the job and a puzzle to solve. In first chapter, called “Everyday is Halloween”, he says, “I have gazed on the face of death innumerable times, witnessed it in all its grim manifestations. Death has no power to freeze my heart, jangle my nerves or sway my reason. Death to me is no terror of the night but a daylit companion, a familiar condition, a process obedient to scientific laws and answerable to scientific inquiry” (Maples 2). His attitude towards death is very different from the average American, to him it a fact of life as he is around it daily. It is scientific, it can be quantified. Whereas the Lynch family in The Undertaking, who also deal with death on a daily basis, experience the emotional and ritualistic side of death. They understand that their death is about the survivors whereas here, Maples seems incredibly connected to the scientific dead body, mostly the bones. And there comes out of this attitude a sort of ruthlessness for the truth: “All too often in the past, under the old coroner system, the innocent have died unavenged, and malefactors have escaped unpunished, because investigators lacked the stomach, the knowledge, the experience and the perseverance to reach with both hands into the rotting remnants of some dreadful crime, rummage through the bones and grasp the pure gleaming nugget of truth that lies at the center of it all. Truth is discoverable. Truth wants to be discovered” (2).

But though he fancies himself very much connected the dead body, after all he is around it all day and, as he says, reaches in with both hands into those rotting remnants, how much is his work really for the living? Do the dead care if their case is solved? Do the dead care if the murderer is caught or is it the living? His search for the truth pertains as much to the living if not more as he believes it pertains to the dead. Think of the show Bones on Fox, it is about a forensic anthropologist, the same as Dr. Maples. Dr. Temperance Brennan constantly hallows the truth as her main objective and the things she fights tooth and nail to discover. How much do these scientists understand that their job is also so connected to the living as much as it is to the dead?

Maples, William P.h.d. Dead Men Do Tell Tales. New York: Broadway, 1994.

The Undertaking:  http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/undertaking/view/

Grieving a Stranger

Last week’s season 10 premiere of Grey’s Anatomy centered on saving Dr. Weber and Heather’s lives after they were both severely electrocuted.  Dr. Weber is the former chief of surgery at Seattle Grace Hospital, and Heather is a surgical resident there.  Although the doctors were able to save Dr. Weber, they weren’t so lucky with Heather.  This clip shows her fellow interns grieving her death, but the interesting thing is that they don’t seem to be grieving.  They openly discuss how they didn’t know her very well or even like her very much, but they still grieve for her death.  As they’re reminiscing on their time with her, the interns are trying to think of what to tell her mother when she comes to the hospital.

Stephanie and Jo grieve by trying to think of stories about when they liked Heather or when Heather did  something for them so that they can tell her mom that she was loved or cared for while being an intern with them.  Leah on the other hand grieves by telling the other interns about all the things she didn’t like about Heather, like how Heather made her white sweater pink and caused her to be late to work.  But even though Leah didn’t like Heather, she admits that she didn’t want Heather to die.  They eventually decide to drink alcohol as the solution since they don’t necessarily know what to do.  When they see Heather’s mom, they tell her made up stories about Heather just to console her.

The person who grieves the most differently is Shane.  He isn’t depicted much in the clip, but he grieves in a different way because he feels responsible for Heather’s death.  He was the one who was supposed to go find Dr. Weber in the basement of the hospital, but he lied to Heather and told her that an attending had asked her to go instead.  When Heather reached the basement and found Dr. Weber unconscious on the floor from electrocution, she accidentally stepped in the electrocuted water as well and fell victim to it too.  In this episode, Shane doesn’t tell anyone what he had done, but it will be interesting to see if grieving and guilt will combine to cause him to admit to sending Heather down to the basement.  Even when Heather’s mom comes, Shane is silent.  Heather’s mom assumes that this silence and sadness from Shane is because they were good friends, but Shane doesn’t refute this assumption.

But this raises the question of how to grieve someone you interacted with daily but never really knew or cared to like.  Do you even grieve at all? Is there a right way to grieve? How common is it for people to grieve a coworker’s death if he or she wasn’t close with the coworker? Is it different to grief the death of a person when it’s unexpected rather than if you knew they were dying of an illness or fatal condition?

Freedom to Worship? Shooting of Pastor in Worship Service Causing Grief and Bereavement for All

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Is it true that religion, or the church is to be a “safe haven” for individuals, a place where they can go and experience freedom and peace? Not for this Louisiana congregation on September 29th, 2013, as Pastor Ronald J. Harris, Sr. of Tabernacle of Praise Worship Center was shot and killed in the middle of a worship service. This situation is disturbing not only because it is yet another case of gun violence, but because this is a horribly “bad” death, and social and moral lines have been crossed yet again. These questions that comes to mind is: is anywhere safe? Shouldn’t the church be exempt from these heartless killings?

http://www.boston.com/news/nation/2013/09/29/sheriff-office-pastor-shot-twice-killing/9ik3bg2qJ9GzcxUGV9nh5M/story.html

For many, the church is they go in order to bury their dead or grieve the loss of the dead. For the congregation of Tabernacle of Praise Worship Center, the church was where they witness the violent death of their pastor. Culturally this is unheard of and is a horrifying death for all involved. The suspect, Woodrow Karey, was said to have been an ex-deacon for Tabernacle of Praise who left the church more than 5 years ago. The reason for this aggression is unknown and has left the entire congregation, especially the victim’s children and grandchildren reeling and confused. Despite his death his daughter continued to speak highly of him, even after death- His 31 year-old-daughter spoke of his saint like qualities, and said that he would say to his gunman, “I forgive you and I love you.”

This type of death goes beyond ethical boundaries for me. The church should be a place where they experience life, not death. This tragedy meets multiple criteria of a bad death: it was unexpected, in a public place, a result of great violence, and “unwarranted.” This pastor was greatly loved and respected in the community, and ‘m sure  is a tragic experience to witness your spiritual leader shot twice and killed in front of you. In putting myself in the shoes of a witness of the shooting, I would be both scared and enraged. What would make a man come into a church service and kill a man, who was in the act of worshiping, in front of everyone, even women and children? The question is why? Why would someone do such a thing?

Well, that is what everyone in this Louisiana church is wondering as well. We live in a culture where we want to know the cause of death and it is important in the mourning process to know this information. It brings about closure. It is also these type of violent deaths that cause a great grief and a sense of bereavement among those who loved the victim. In this case, not only his family will experience great loss, but the church immediately is without a pastor. This causes a great sense of functional loss as well as an emotional loss as well for those who knew this pastor. Thoughts?

 

 

 

 

The Realm of Fictional Serial Killers

Promotional image for Dexter. © Showtime Networks.

Not too long ago, the Showtime network aired the final episode of the television series Dexter. Before that AMC’s third season of The Killing focused intently on a series of murders in Seattle. Another recent show deals with the popular fictional serial killer Hannibal Lecter (Hannibal). These television shows are in addition to a recent tradition of literature and film that deal with those on the very outskirts of humanity, the serial killers. Why exactly are we so fascinated with these individuals who prey on other humans and seem to lack the facets of human life like emotions, empathy and a conscience (i.e. psychopathy/sociopathy)?

Beyond that, there has been a recent trend of not demonizing the murderers, but actually giving these fictional characters an essence of being protagonists. This specifically draws on the character of Dexter Morgan from the show Dexter, a serial killer who kills not the innocent or weak, but rather the more depraved and dangerous elements of our society. For some reason, the depiction of Dexter Morgan elicits not just intrigue, but support from the viewers. We, as viewers, grow to like him as a character, and to some degree, even revel in his work. I would say that this may be because we formulate the idea that the people he kills are deemed deserving of their end, the death prescribed to them by Dexter is somehow fitting for their savagery. So does this reveal an undertone in our society of a belief in ‘just’ killings?

Another character in popular culture, Hannibal Lecter also seems to draw a sort of respect or admiration. His power of intellect and cunning are seen as impressive, despite his, what I would describe as a pretty big character flaw, murderous, cannibalistic nature. He is certainly not as beloved as Dexter Morgan, but Hannibal Lecter elicits a certain set of emotions, that are not restricted to disgust.

This is not all to suggest that we are perfectly comfortable with the actions of these characters, simply there is something about them that really attracts our attention. This unique and new fictional archetype activates something about our culture or produces something entirely new that I find hard to understand, and I think is deserving of more research and study. Why do we find it so easy to empathize with someone so intensely doused in taboo as Mr. Morgan? I would be interested to see what your opinions on this are, whether you agree or disagree with my thoughts presented here.

P.S. Also, I would highly recommend watching Dexter if you are not too shy when it comes to gory subject matter, but must admit the quality of the series falls off after the fourth season.