Monthly Archives: April 2017

“Am I Dying”

In this class, we have discussed preparation for death in multiple instances. In “The Undertaking” a couple prepares for the death of their child and elderly plan their funerals. We know psilocybin mushroom can help ease the fear of death in terminal patients. We have discussed the importance of advanced directives. We don’t often consider the moment right before death.

Mathew O’Rielly, an emergency medical technician, gave a Ted Talk about the moment a critically injured person asks, “Am I going to die?” Early in his career, Mathew expected his patients to be consumed by the well-recognized fear of death that we see in American people. He wanted to treat this fear as he would any other symptom, and provide as much relief as possible. So, he lied to the patients to comfort them. He didn’t want their last moments to be moments of terror and desperation.

One patient in a motorcycle accident changed his approach. The patient was imminently dying and the EMTs were powerless to save him. Mathew decided to this time tell the truth, and inform the man that he was dying. Mathew was shocked by his reaction. He, “Laid back and had a look of acceptance on his face… I saw inner peace.” It was not fear, it was not terror. In the moment before death, the patient accepted death, and Mathew says this is the reaction he has gotten from almost all patients in his career.

Mathew also observed a pattern of three commonalities in imminently dying patients. First, they needed forgiveness. Whether it was “sin” or just regret, there is something they wish they had done differently and they seek forgiveness. Second, they want to be remembered. I was surprised that Mathew said many patients ask, “will you remember me?” It is not just a need for the family or loved ones to remember them after death, but a more general desire. Finally, they wanted to know that their lives had meaning; that they made a difference and their lives are not menial. Mathew seemed to think most people underestimated the positive influences they had.

It is difficult to imagine how we would react to death if confronted with it in such an immediate way. We have discussed at length our society’s fear of death and how that influences our behavior, but Mathew’s experience provides a perspective not many people know. I think his experiences might challenge the way we think about the fear of death in our culture, at least to understand our relationship with death is complicated and nuanced.

Roman and Greek Necromancy

Necromancy, also known as nigromancy, describes a theoretical magical practice of communicating with the dead.  This happens either through raising them by summoning the spirit. Generally, the goal of this practice is to use the dead for divination; the practice of acquiring knowledge about the unknown or the future through supernatural means.

In classical antiquity, a term associated with the history of the ancient Greece and ancient Rome, there was much fascination about the practice of Necromancy. This time period looked at ghosts and the wisdom that they could provide. In their attempts, they would visit oracles, try to reawaken skulls and corpses, and sleep on tombs. The personal involved in ancient Necromancy included the likes of zombies, early vampires, shamans, Chaldeans, Roman emperors, sorceress, ghosts and witches.

There was a general understanding that even during the time of Classical Antiquity that majority agreed that it was better to leave the dead unmolested and only a few people engaged in this practice. I think this runs parallel to our culture now where there is a general understanding that we do not defile the dead once they are gone but also likewise that there are people who choose to act against that grain. Overall Necromancy during this time was seen more prominently in literature.

Do I believe in the legitimacy of this practice? No. Do I believe in ghost, spirits, the dark arts? Not really. It’s not something that I have explored extensively but I do believe in supernatural powers in more biblical/Christian way. Necromancy addresses a question that we have explored in ANT Death and Burial. Which is where do our spirits go when we die? With Necromancy there is this idea that even after death you are able to actively contribute to society. After you die your legacy lives on; whether it is big, small, good or bad.

Home-goings: A Black American Funeral Tradition

On April 7, 2017, my family and I hosted a home-going to celebrate the life of my great aunt. A home-going is a traditional African American, Christian funeral service held to rejoice the deceased person’s returning to heaven, and this elaborate funeral ritual has a deep history dating back to the arrival of African slaves in America in the 1600s. There are several aspects that set this service apart from the traditional funeral, including the week-long visitation to the bereaved family’s home, the wake, and the elaborate funeral procession. About a week prior to the service, a plethora of friends, neighbors, co-workers, and family members who live in different areas of the world travel to visit the bereaved family every day to offer their condolences (the same people may or may not visit the family every day). A wake is then held for the deceased between 2 to 3 days prior to the funeral, and this allows family members and friends to have few personal moments with the deceased. On the day of the funeral, a group of police escorts arrive to the bereaved family’s house, and the family is escorted to the church. During this process, the family bypasses certain traffic laws, such as passing through red lights. At the church, some of the women of the family act as flower girls, and their job is to remove the elaborate bouquets of flowers that will be placed on the casket during the funeral. The service itself is often an emotional, high energy event that entails family members singing African American hymns and a boisterous eulogy by the pastor. Afterwards, the funeral procession travels to the gravesite, and people wait until the body is partially buried before leaving to return to the church or to the family’s house to dine with one another.

I never realized that my burial practice was significant or distinct to Black American people until taking this class, which is unnerving to me because home-going services are integral to my family’s traditions. They allow us to celebrate the life of our loved one while showering them with expensive items, such as custom caskets, support a black business (an African American mortuary), and re-connect with family. These services also allow me to learn about the richness and history of my family and our culture through our conversations as well as through visiting the gravesite because generations of my family are buried in a black owned gravesite in Atlanta.

(Note: There are several variations to these services, but I am sharing my experiences with home-goings.)


Works Cited:

New Brain-Imaging Scans for Patients in Vegetative States

The other day I read a headline regarding a woman waking up from a vegetative state after seven years. After reading many articles about the Terri Schiavo case, I had to read about this woman. It turns out that she fell into a coma after giving birth due to developing sepsis, a deadly blood poisoning disease. It seemed almost impossible to me that she woke up from this vegetative state after reading about the true definition of a vegetative state. After doing some research I began to find more cases in which patients have woken up after being labeled as “vegetative.”

A woman named Maggie Worthen fell into a coma after suffering a massive stroke at the age of 22. She woke up from a deep coma two weeks later and began her recovery; however, two months after therapy she became unresponsive and was labeled as “vegetative.” Her family claimed that she was responding to certain things but only one doctor believed them (similar to Terri Schiavo) and she was transferred to a hospital to experience new high-tech imaging that assesses brain activity. The technology did, in fact show that she was responsive and she was now labeled as “minimally conscious.”

This new technology can help people in these comas or vegetative states be properly diagnosed. Some neurologists are claiming that these new brain imaging scans prove that “some seemingly vegetative patients are actually teetering between consciousness and unconsciousness.” While this is definitely a break through in the medical world, it still makes things very murky. The definitions of these so-called labels are still obscure. When are these patients considered alright to die? Are they ever, because some people are waking up from these states? All of these questions emerge when new technology comes about. Imagine if this was around during the Terri Schiavo case. However, we can only hope that this new brain-imaging technology can help patients with severe brain injuries and damage to recover.

Aboriginal Mortuary Rituals

Similar to many practices that we’ve discussed in the blog and in class, Aboriginal mortuary rituals in Australia are much different than Western ideas. The rituals begin with a smoking ceremony. The purpose of this ceremony is to drive away the deceased’s spirit. In order to do this they smoke in the deceased home. Next, they paint ochre in places the deceased lived and put up a flag to mark that the deceased has died. There is another ceremony called the death ceremony. The body is left inside the deceased’s home while mourners celebrate before it is wrapped up and placed on a platform where it will decompose as opposed to a tomb/coffin. Instead of mourning the deceased in sadness, they feast and celebrate with singing and dancing.

Another interesting part of their mortuary rituals is that Aboriginal people in Australian avoid saying the name of the dead or depicting them in photos or films. According to ancient law, saying or depicting a dead person’s name would disturb their spirit. As can be seen from their mortuary rituals, driving the deceased’s spirit away is incredibly important. Therefore, disturbing the spirit would be just as harmful. They also believe in the rebirth of the soul; therefore, driving the spirit onward to it’s next life is crucial.

Upon reading about these burial practices, it became apparent that many of their rituals are similar to other cultures we discussed including the Tana Toraja and the Malagasy people. Mortuary rituals are extremely important to these cultures and while they may seem obscure to Western cultures, their practices hold a crucial role in their society. Many of these cultures interact with the deceased in a way that allows for celebration. The burial and funerary practices take precedence over many of the other rites of passages in these cultures. In contrast to our society, mortuary rituals aren’t even thought about usually, until someone has died.



Abra, Cadaver, Alakazam!

an empty grave


On April 17, Dr. Daina Barry of the University of Texas-Austin delivered the 2017 Grace Towns Hamilton lecture at Emory University in which she explored the history of domestic trade in cadavers in the United States. This history, which is chronicled in her book The Price for Their Pound of Flesh, reaches back into the antebellum period, when corpses of enslaved Black people were sold for the purposes of medical research. Using data including, but not limited to, autopsies, medical college anatomy course notes, and grave-robbery notices, Dr. Barry pieced together narratives of how these bodies were obtained and what happened once they were. She reported a statistic asserting that anywhere between 4200 – 8000 human dissections were performed by medical college students between 1760 and 1876. Many Black bodies were mutilated during this course of affairs because they were legally considered chattel, or property, before 1865 and after the creation of state anatomy laws in the 1880s such as The Pennsylvania Anatomy Act of 1883, they were less protected under the law than whites. Dr. Barry utilized Grandison Harris, a Black man purchased by 7 faculty at the Medical College of Georgia in 1852, to illustrate this point. Mr. Harris was hired solely to disinter bodies to be dissected in anatomy classes at the college and robbed many bodies from Cedar Grove Cemetery, a historically Black burial ground, because it was received less protection from thieves than white cemeteries. One particularly interesting element of her historical interpretation is the metaphor of “cultivating the corpse,” much like a crop that must be first planted (buried) then later harvested (exhumed).

This work on the cadaver trade expands the scholarship that explores death as a historical and cultural phenomenon. By digging into evolution of the relationship between institutions such as the law and education, we can understand that death in the United States is culturally constructed. Furthermore, it has serious implications at the intersection of race specifically. For example, if Black bodies were more likely to be disinterred, or disturbed from their final resting place, we should expect the African-American culture to reflect this. Accordingly, Dr. Vanessa Siddle Walker added during the Q&A of the talk that as an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill in 1976 she was warned to be careful on campus after dark, lest she “end up as a cadaver in the medical school.” Thus, histories of interacting with death and the deceased have far-reaching consequences of our cultural organization and social institutions.

The Effects of a Changing Ecosystem on Parsis End of Life Rituals

Tower of Silence

The Parsis people of India came from Persia over one-thousand years ago and brought with them their Zoroastrian religion and burial practices. These practices, similar to the Tibetan Sky Burial practice, include the use of vultures in what is known as the Tower of Silence. For the Parsis people, after prayers and a ceremony, the dead are taken to the Tower of Silence. It is at this tower that the corpses are exposed to the sun, elements, and birds of prey. Largely, vultures have filled the roll of cleaning the meat from the bones of the dead as the Parsis feel that traditional burial or cremation pollutes the environment. This practice has been threatened in recent years as the vultures across India have been disappearing. By 2007 the vulture population across India had fallen by 99 percent. This loss was due to an NSAID called diclofenac that was given to cattle to help with joint pain. This drug causes kidney damage and death in vultures taking a massive toll on populations. This change in ecosystem has left the Parsis people with the problem of how to deal with their dead and honor their traditions.

The Parsis people have had to turn to man-made ingenuity to help compensate for the absence of the vultures in the form of solar energy concentrators. These devices help to speed up the dehydration and decomposition of the bodies but only on days where the sun shines. This causes problems during monsoon seasons in India. Without the help of vultures the process of cleaning a body and returning it to the earth goes from hours to weeks. It has also caused problems with neighboring communities who take issue with the sight and smell of a Tower of Silence. Several Tower of Silences have already had to be relocated because of issues with the smell and sight. The Indian government has outlawed the use of the drug responsible for damaging the vulture populations and vulture sanctuaries have been working for the past several years to breed and release populations back into the wild. For the Parsis people of India, the reintroduction and reemergence of the vultures would mean the continuation of their religion and end of life rituals.



Funeral Home Makes Missing Body Parts

A funeral home in Shanghai, China has started a 3D printing repair service in an attempt to repair damaged or disfigured corpses. Body mutilation is very common in Chinese corpses over recent years, as hundreds of people have died due to industrial accidents, natural disasters, and traffic accidents. At the Longhua Funeral Parlor, multiple layers of material are built on top of each other to create a 3D product. This technology is intended to complete the faces of loved ones when laid to rest at memorial services. With a combination of 3D printing, hair implants, and makeup, loved ones can receive reconstructed faces up to at least 95 percent of similarity.

Traditionally in Chinese funeral homes, substances such as sludge and wax were used to repair the shape of corpses’ faces. However, these substances did not recreate the skin to accuracy. 3D printing technology allows lost loved ones to look more like themselves and maintain their character as if they were living, which aids in the emotional closure of relatives. Facial reconstructions in China would cost anywhere from $620 to $776. This service, as first offered by the Longhua Funeral Parlor, is part of Shanghai’s implementation of China’s 13th Five Year Plan. Specifically in February 2015, plans were issued to develop the country’s 3D printing industry. Services are expected to grow from 3D parts, such as skin and hair, to 3D organs in the efforts to aid disabilities and organ donor shortages.

This article posed many questions to me as I thought about unveiling caskets at funeral services in my own culture. I remember gazing at faces of loved ones that appeared glossy and plastic. Although the details of a face may seem so small in the grand scale of a funeral, but I believe these are the details that can bring us the most closure as we mourn and try to move on.

I am incredibly curious as to what materials are used to reconstruct the faces, due to the price range. I also wonder how often these services are used and if they are only seen in the mortuary rituals of middle or upper class families. We know that socioeconomic status, amongst other inequalities, shapes our funeral services and death processes. Yet, I’m interested if this Five Year Plan in China serves to really aid everyone affected by China’s industrial accident problem.

Reference: Ma, A. (2016, August 01). A Chinese Funeral Home Is 3D Printing Body Parts For Damaged Corpses. Retrieved April 8, 2017, from

Maternal Deaths in the U.S.

mother holding baby

Photo Credit: Elisa Talentino, New York Times

When most American couples get pregnant their attentions immediately turn to the bundle of joy they are about to bring into the world. They worry whether they will be good parents and whether their child will be born healthy. They have financial worries. They nest. But they most likely do not consider leaving the hospital without the mother of the child in toe.

On a global scale, rates of maternal mortality rates have taken a sharp turn for the better. However, as the rest of the world makes improvements, maternal death rates have increased in the United States. According to the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation, American rates have increased by more than half since 1990. Among other rich nations, the United States is the only country to experience an increase in maternal birth rates. Unlike the maternal deaths of 19th century caused by eclampsia, this recent increase is associated with chronic medical conditions such as diabetes and obesity, especially among African American women. Additionally,women are giving birth at older ages. Although maternal deaths are hard to count, many experts claim that the deaths are indeed on the rise.

 Maternal mortality hits very close to home, especially for one American family, the Buhanan-Deckers. Jared Buhanan-Decker, who shared his story on the podcast, Strangers, lost his wife to a rare condition called amniotic fluid embolism. This condition occurs when the amniotic fluid leaks into the blood stream of the mother and triggers a severe immune reaction in which oxygen is cut off to all non-vital organs. The uterus is considered a non-vital organ; therefore oxygen supply is cut off from the baby. In many cases, both mother and baby die. In Jared’s case, on the very same day his son was born his wife died. He claims his wife gave up her life for that of their child. Although, amniotic fluid embolism is an extremely rare condition that accounts for 7.5% to 10% of maternal deaths in the U.S., it is a reminder that women still die while giving life. 

Maternal deaths show us how closely linked death and life are and how dangerous giving birth continues to be. Accompanied by great grief is great joy. While mourning the death of the child’s mother, the surviving parent must create an environment for a baby to flourish and grow. The surviving parent will someday have to explain to their child why and how his or her mother died. For Jared, when those questions arise, he plans to tell his son that it was not his fault that his mother died. If anything she chose to save him by sacrificing her own life. In making meaning of his wife’s death, Jared is able to come to turns with her death and mourn the future they would have shared together.

Maternal death may conjure images of women bleeding to death during childbirth in an unsanitary environment. But in reality, maternal death continues to be an issue in the sterile, equipped hospitals in the United States of America.


Thau, L 2017, Wouldn’t it be Nice, audio podcast, Strangers, Radiotopia, PRX, 2 April. Available from [13 January 2017].

Tavernise, S, ‘Maternal Mortality Rate in U.S. Rise, Defying Global Trend, Study Finds’, New York Times, 21 September. Available from [2 April 2017].

Promession: The Most Ecological Way to Bury Our Dead?

The final product of over 20 years of research and testing from Swedish scientist Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak, promession is a new, eco-friendly burial option for those wishing for their corpse to leave the smallest ecological impact possible. Concerned with the negative impact current burial practices have on the environment, Wiigh-Mäsak came up with this method to return our bodies to the ground in a way that gives nutrients back to the earth instead of damaging it.

There are several steps to promession. The first occurs after the funeral services or ceremonies have taken place and the body is placed into the Promator machine. Once there, the body will be frozen using liquid nitrogen to -196° C (or -321° F). This process takes about two hours, and all of the liquid nitrogen used will evaporate into the air harmlessly. After it has been frozen, the body will then be transported onto a belt, which will use ultrasonic vibrations to shatter the body into tiny, millimeter-sized pieces. It only takes one minute to break the body down in this way. Next, the body is placed into a vacuum chamber where the remaining water is extracted from the body and which will then evaporate into the air. After this, only 30% of the body’s total composition remains. The remaining dry particles go through electrical currents which will remove any metal left in the body (such as dental fillings and prosthetic hips), and this metal will then be recycled. Finally, the remains are placed into a small, bio-degradable coffin, which is then buried very shallowly. The body and coffin will be completely decomposed within 6-12 months, which can be contrasted to the several years it can take for a typical burial.

As someone who tries to live in an environmentally-conscious way, I find this method of burial very attractive. However, with all the expensive equipment and technology that is used, I could easily see this being an extremely expensive way to be buried.