Monthly Archives: April 2018

A new meaning to New Year, New Me

As I was browsing Netflix in search of a new show – an extremely terrible idea with finals’ season approaching – a trailer for a new Netflix original series began to play. After being in this class for nearly a full semester, the first lines of the preview immediately caught my attention:

“Your body is not who you are. You shed it like snake sheds its skin.”

So, against my better judgement, I watched the first episode of Altered Carbon. (Don’t worry, I will not spoil anything). The show centers on the character Takeshi Kovacs who has just awoken in a new body after 250 years ‘on ice.’ While this is extraordinary to me, and I am assuming to you readers as well, for him and everyone else in his society this body replacement is perfectly normal. In this sci-fi universe, set about 300 years into the future, everyone gets a “stack” implanted at the base of their skull when they turn one. Each person’s stack stores and codes their consciousness. When they die their stack can be implanted into a new body, or “sleeve,” and they can continue living, but only if they can afford it. Sleeves are extremely limited. Thus far, it has not been made explicitly clear, but these sleeves seem to be the bodies of prisoners. Regardless, no one truly dies unless their stack is destroyed. It is technology that permits brain transplantation and with slightly less mess than previously imagined.

This kind of innovation would completely change the human perception of life and death. Humans would be able to outlive their own bodies. It would put immortality within reach. If someone had the means, they could go on living indefinitely. But brain transplantation would also create huge ethical dilemmas. We would have to determine if it is even morally sound to inhabit a new body. We would be forced to decide whose bodies would be for sale. Would we, like this show, use prisoners? Or, like Get Out, kidnap Black people? Or use losers in wars? Or would we, by then, have the technology to upload people into robots? We would also have to decide who could receive a new body, at what point in their lives, and how many times they could be transplanted. It would change everything.

Do you think our society will ever reach this point? Do you think brain transplantation is ethical? What are your ideas on whose bodies should/would be used? Would you ever want to be put into a new body?

The Basics of Mass Suicide

Mass suicide is not as uncommon as you’d think nor is it a modern phenomenon or even an event confined to crazed cults. Mass suicide is defined simply: when a large amount of people kill themselves at the same time. There are several different types of mass suicide events that can occur, each for a different reason and for different goals. The most infamous events of mass suicides are those that are related to religious groups or cults. These predominately occur when the group is being threatened and is close to being defeated causing them to resort to mass suicide instead of being captured. Another common reason that mass suicide can occur is due to a suicide pact being agreed on by a small group of people who are depressed or hopeless. Most times, the people participating have thought of committing suicide outside of the group setting and chose to do it with others for moral support. The third reason that people may choose to participate in a mass suicide is due to wanting to create a political statement or protest.

Regardless of the circumstances, mass suicide creates a shock factor. They are not, however, always seen in a negative light as one might assume. A societies’ attitude towards mass suicide may change depending on the time, place or circumstances in which it took place. For example, people who chose mass suicide rather than giving into an oppressive regime or person are often seen in a heroic light. In comparison, mass suicides that take place because of a cult leader’s request are often seen in a more negative light.

Mass suicide has been recorded in a magnitude of different cultures and under a variety of different circumstances. One of the earliest reordered examples of mass suicide is that of the people of Astapa in 206 BCE. They killed themselves and burned down their city knowing that they would inevitably be captured and their city destroyed by the Roman General Publius Cornelius Scipio. There is also a stereotype that mass suicide is performed at the request of or because of the leadership of a man, however history has shown this is not always the case. When the Turkish ruled Greece, the women in the town of Souli threw their children off a mountain and jumped after them in order to escape the Ottomans who were pursing them in event now known as the Dance of Zalongo.

In some cultures, mass suicide has also been known to hold a ritual status. In Balinese culture, it is called puputan which means finishing or ending. It is symbolic and is often tied to theatre where it is seen as the ‘last act of a tragic dance-drama’.

While it is easy to speculate what drives a large amount of people to commit suicide together, often times there is no one reason and many components play a role in driving the event.

Zalongos Dance by Claude Pinet depicts the mass suicide of the women of Souli.


Cats, Computers, or Doctors: Who’s the best at predicting death?

In society, there are many omens associated with impending death. Some may say they had a dream about death while others may associate death with the portrayal of the grim reaper. In the case of Steere House nursing home in Rhode Island, impending death is in the form of a black and white cat named Oscar. He was adopted as a kitten by the medical staff and his sharp acumen has never led him astray. As soon as the doctors see Oscar curl up next to a patient, they inform families to come visit their loved one for one last time. Out of the 50 patients the cat has cuddled up next to, all 50 have died within a short span of time after their visit with Oscar.

This story was first published in 2007 in the New England Journal of Medicine and has stuck with oncologist, Dr. Mukherjee, since. While he may not have the ability to smell the air of death like Oscar, his medical knowledge has helped him predict the viability of a patient’s condition. However, what happens if your predictions are wrong?

Oscar, the cat that can sense death in Steere House nursing home in Rhode Island

Oscar, the cat that can sense death in Steere House nursing home in Rhode Island

In the case of a 32-year-old plumber (patient X) suffering from esophageal cancer, treatments and surgery left this patient with a good prognosis. While there were no signs of tumor left in his body after surgery, Dr. Mukherjee prudently approached the topic of relapse. It was unlikely that the cancer would return; however, the small chance of a relapse still remained. Dr. Mukherjee believed that it might be better for X to have a conversation with his family about this possibility and plans for the future. X was reluctant to follow through with this because he had just defeated cancer and what was the point in worrying about a distant (and unlikely) future anyways? Two months after X was released from the hospital, he relapsed and only the highest doses of painkilling drugs that left him spending his last living weeks in a coma-like state could treat it. His family was devastated and accused the doctor of misleading them about his diagnosis.

Armed with their medical knowledge and results from medical tests, doctors still have a difficult time predicting the death of their patients. For some physicians, they are able to accurately predict how much longer their patients have to live, others tend to underestimate this time, or even overestimate it. This variability makes it difficult to find “the sweet spot of palliative care.” However, what if a computer with an algorithm could predict how long you have left to live?

In 2016, a Stanford medical team and an engineer developed an algorithm that could be taught to identify patients that had 3 to 12 months to live. This was the ideal window of time for doctors to treat patients in the manner that was most effective and appropriate for the patient. Any time less than three months was not enough time to prepare for death and more than twelve months could place an unnecessary strain on the already limited resources in hospitals. As the algorithm underwent a deep learning process and absorbed patient data from more than 100,000 cases, the results were startlingly accurate. Computers using this algorithm were able to correctly predict which patients were going to die within 3 to 12 months nine out of ten times.

However, what is it that this algorithm has that doctors don’t? They both have access to medical information such as a patient’s diagnosis, how many medical tests are ordered, procedures conducted, prescriptions ordered, and the duration of stay in the hospital. Yet, this algorithm, that was recently developed, was better at predicting which patients had 3 to 12 months to live than physicians. It turned out the analyses differed. In the case of a patient diagnosed with bladder and prostate cancer, he was assigned a high probability of 0.946 of impending death. While doctors did not consider the patient’s MRI scan of his spinal cord as a sign of impending death, the algorithm recognized this as a predictor and was able to accurately predict the amount of life left in the patient.

The development of this “dying algorithm” is a huge step in technological advancement. From a medical perspective, it allows physicians to administer palliative care. From a patient perspective, it gives them ample time to discuss goals and futures with their loved ones. However, this also opens up a different side to medicine. What happens when a computer with a dying algorithm is able to understand death better than most humans, including your doctor? Would this result in a decrease in trust in physicians and turn into machine vs. doctor phenomenon? While this may be an issue in the near future, there is much room for growth in both the algorithm and physicians in predicting impending death. So how would you like to be told when you’re going to die? Would you rather be told by a fluffy black and white cat that will cuddle up next to you, an analytical computer spewing algorithmic probabilities, or a human M.D.?


When Expectations Do Not Match Reality

Over the course of this class we have read and seen many examples of how different people relate to death. That being said, there has always been a sort of unspoken rule that discussing death should always be done in a respectful and mature way. What happens when that is completely turned on its head?

Well adorned casket set up for viewing

Casket, Museum of Funeral Customs, Springfield, Illinois, 2006 by Robert Lawton

The musical Fun Home has a lot of layers to discuss. It follows the true life story of Alison Bechdel, an American cartoonist who grew up in her father’s funeral home. The musical goes on to follow Alison discovering her sexuality, dealing with her closeted gay father’s infidelity to her mother, and ultimately her father’s apparent suicide. There is a lot to unpack there. However, one of the most striking moments for me, the moment that really turns all expectations on its head, is the song “Come to The Fun Home.” This song is the imaginary advertisement child age Alison and her siblings try to make for their family’s funeral home. 

Photo by mohamed_hassan

When you witness children running across stage, singing a happy and childlike melody, but having the lyrics “You’ve got to bury your mama / But you don’t know where to go” or “Our caskets (ooo) / Are satin-lined (ooo)” you cannot help but laugh. This humor comes from the inherent disconnect between children playing around and a song about funeral home practices. The catchy little rhymes continue as they mention that the Bechdel Funeral Home has folding chairs, smelling salts, ample parking, and more. It goes so drastically against our perceptions of a funeral home and those who work there that it is hard to even frame them in the same mental image. The fact is we think of funeral homes as somber locations and playing children are practically the symbol of life.

Now why else is this so shocking? For one our western society has the tendency to try to hide or diminish death from young children, not let them play sword fight with aneurysm hooks. This openness with death with those so young immediately sets off alarm bells. Also there is a lack of reverence to death within the lyrics, the staging (the kids playing on a casket), and the melody that completely disorients our normal perception of the processes and rituals surrounding death. All of this leaves the audience hysterically stunned.  What I believe the general public should take from this moment within the play Fun Home is the reminder that death is not inherently somber. Our relationship with death is entirely a societal convention and while it is not necessarily bad to be conditioned in such a way, it is important to recognize that it is there.

Watching Fun Home was one of the most powerful theatre experiences I’ve had in recent years and I highly recommend either seeing the show, reading the graphic novel it was based on, or listening to the soundtrack if anyone is interested. Keep your eye out for this particular scene and see if it challenges how you view death.

Do we really want to live forever?

Society has always been an obsession with immortality, with living forever and never having to fear death. This fascination with immortality can be found throughout legends and stories, from the Greek gods, to books such as Tuck Everlasting and movies like Peter Pan. Living forever seems like the perfect storybook ending where we can all live “happily ever after”.

Recently, immortality has come into the spotlight even outside the world of fiction with research by Dr. Julian Chen on DNA. While the normal cell may shrink and loose some of its DNA as the years go on, this study has potentially found a way to stop DNA shrinkage that leads to cell and organism death. The potential is in telomeres, which are protective capping structures on DNA. These caps act like the plastic at the end of shoelaces: without them, the strand would become frayed and we would not be able to tie our shoes anymore. In the cell, the loss of telomeres leads to DNA unraveling and an inability of the cell to divide, both of which lead to cell death, weakness, illness, organ failure and organism death.

This shrinking of telomeres is due to time, cellular divisions, and the telomere regulatory enzyme called telomerase. These enzymes keep cells from aging too fast by adding telomeres back onto aging DNA and adding lost DNA nucleotides back into place in the DNA strand. Dr. Chen hopes to target the telomerase, accelerating its activity to slow down the degradation of DNA and the resulting cell death. If he were to be successful, he would be creating immortal cells that can continuously divide and support life.

This study shows that the immortality may not just be found not in stories or myths or legends, but through science and in our own bodies. Yet as these scientific advancements take place, we must ask ourselves: is science going too far? Do we really want to live forever?

My original response to this was an optimistic yes, as I thought of all the good we could do. Without death, lives would not taken and no one would have to be separated from their loved ones. But after reading Dr. Chen’s article the potential to create immortal cells, I began to wonder if having immortal bodies would be worse than dying. What would happen with exponentially rising numbers of immortal bodies? How would the world deal with overpopulation, lack of resources, fighting, wars, and more? There is a lot that could go wrong with this model, and the errors would have a presence in society forever.

So while evading death may seem like a fairytale ending, immortality has the potential of leading to many social problems, such as overpopulation and lack of resources, that are currently only solvable by death. Therefore, death may be what is saving us in the end from suffering even though we try to fight it each and every day.




Chen, Y., J.D. Podlevsky, D. Logeswaran and J.J.-L. Chen. A single nucleotide incorporation step limits human telomerase repeat addition activity. EMBO, 2018 DOI: 10.15252/embj.201797953

Arizona State University. “Hidden secret of immortality enzyme telomerase: Can we stay young forever, or even recapture lost youth?.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 27 February 2018. <>.

Today’s Forecast: Heavy rains, rising seas, and floating bodies


While scouring the internet for additional information for my Op-ed, I came across an article onan un usual consequence of inclement weather: floating caskets. I’ve never heard of anything thing like this before and I had no idea of how this could even be possible. Apparently floating caskets are all too common in New Orleans. The city is located below sea level on a piece of land that was formally a swamp. So in order to adapt to this environment,  citizens traditionally “bury” their dead above ground. While initially an ingenious idea, obviously burying dead people out in the open comes with some significant flaws, particularly in the face of major flooding. Whenever there is flooding in New Orleans, coffins and old bones can be found floating throughout the city alongside debris from severe weather.

Over the years, the city has worked to fortify the ground to prevent this from becoming a recurring issue, but unfortunately, Mother Nature continues to overcome their efforts. As a result of Hurricane Katrina, nearly a thousand dead bodies escaped their burial grounds and drifted around the city. Even in 2016, after two feet of rain fell in less than 72 hours, cemeteries were flooded and caskets were displaced once again. Now Louisiana requires that all coffins have some form of identification. But of course, there are still additional barriers that continue to  complicate things. Death certificates placed in coffins are often destroyed and labels wash away. Arbie Goings, of the Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team, suggested placing bar codes on every casket, but there’s a lot more work that needs to be done  in order to accomplish this.

Even though displaced caskets are shocking and may be difficult for some to have to experience the burial ritual again, it is common for people of New Orleans to  interact with their dead by altering the burial site. Families in New Orleans typically use the same tomb or plot for each dead person. So when someone dies, the oldest coffin in a tomb or grave is removed and destroyed. Their remains are put into a body bag and placed in the corner of the tomb or grave to make way for the new addition. Some families have even used the same tombs for more than 150 years. Some organizations  establish large “society” tombs for their members to be buried. The Swiss society has its own tomb and the Italian and Portuguese society  has their own as well.  

In a Wednesday, March 16, 2016 photo, caskets float away from a nearby cemetery during flooding from heavy rains in Calcasieu Parish, La. The parish Coroner’s Office earlier this month completed the recovery of caskets and vaults or lids that floated from their resting places during flooding March 12 and beyond. Officials said 85 caskets were recovered, most from Niblett’s Bluff Cemetery in Vinton. The recovered remains have been placed in refrigerated trucks parked at the coroner’s office as investigators begin the identification and re-interment process. (Emily Dalfrey via AP)

New Orleans has very unique cemetery practices that have proven unsuitable for severe weather. It’s humorous as an outsiderbecause I’ve never imagined anything like this before but understandably disheartening for the loved ones who have to deal with this issue. I am not sure if there will ever be a permanent solution to keeping the caskets in their place. However, if this issue eventually becomes unbearable, residents of New Orleans  could consider using other funerary options such as cremation or mausoleums.

Are Selfies Worth the Risk?

What would you do for the perfect selfie?

The emergence of the front-facing camera has revolutionized the way we make memories and document our lives. We can’t go anywhere without documenting our latest vacation or trip to the most artsy place in town. If we don’t take a selfie, where we even there at all?

It turns out there have been a number of accidental deaths linked to this seemingly innocent activity. In 2016 alone there were more selfie related deaths than shark attacks.

  1. In 2015 a man reportedly died from a lightning strike that hit his selfie stick, electrocuting him and killing him.
  2. A 66 year old tourist fell backwards down the steps of the Taj Mahal in 2015. He sustained head trauma that led to his death. Witnesses stated that they saw him trying to execute a selfie before the man lost his balance.
  3. In the past few years there was a series of incidents in which young people trying to show off guns on live video accidentally shot themselves and died.

In our society there is the pressure to get the perfect selfie. This causes people to become less aware in their surroundings, opening the door for accidents to happen. Apps like Snapchat have instituted warnings to not take selfies while moving/driving in order to limit the amount of car crashes due to distracted driving. It seems that anything, even the most innocent of actions, when taken to the extreme or done in an unsafe environment can cause harm. The deaths of each of these individuals is tragic. The adage, with more power comes more responsibility, should hold true in our use of technology. As we are able to do more and more things due to technology, we must remember that are actions have consequences. It is wonderful that we can text and call people while we are on the go, but killing ourselves our someone else in a car accident because we were busy texting is not the way to embrace the strides we have made.

The #SelfieOlympics, a viral selfie phenomena a few years ago, shows how the art of the selfie has evolved. The goal was to take the craziest most elaborate photos, all while in the comfort of one’s bathroom. The use of props was encouraged, and the more one could defy gravity the better.  Eventhough social media crazes such as the #SelfieOlympics are super fun and relatively harmless, we should be mindful that actually living our lives is more important than capturing every second of them.

The reality is that while trying to capture every moment of our lives, we are actually letting a lot of it slip past. We must ask ourselves is having the wildest selfie worth it? Maybe not if it means we are risking our lives or the lives of others.

Here’s a video of selfie fails that resulted in accidents, but nobody died. Enjoy.



Like this blog post or you will die in your sleep tonight

The year is 2007. Your razr–hot pink–chimes. You just received a message. There is a blurry image of a girl you’ve never seen before. The text underneath reads:

This is Kelsey Mason. Back in 2004, Kelsey was reading in her room by an open window. Her brother ran in wearing a mask to scare her. She startled back and fell out of the window. Her brother screamed, and her family rushed outside and saw her lying on the ground with her neck cracked. She was dead.

A year later, Brandon Madison was reading a message about Kelsey. He did not forward it to his friends. That night, as he was sleeping, he was snatched out of bed and thrown out of his window. His family discovered him the next morning on the ground with his neck cracked.

If you don’t forward this message to 10 of your closest friends in the next 5 minutes, Kelsey Mason will come into your room tonight and kill you.  

Uh-oh. The threat is definitely fake… but are you willing to take that risk? To put your life on the line? It doesn’t take you long to make your decision. After all, you only have five minutes.

Message Forwarded

Eleven years later and spooky chain texts and emails have faded away, but only to be replaced by slightly less ridiculous Instagram and Facebook posts stating things like:

Like this post or your dad will die in a car accident this week.

Repost this image or (insert random name) will kill you tonight.

Every time I see a post like this, no matter how absurd it is, I get just a little bit paranoid. Do I want to die over a like? Or for my mom to die? She is not even involved in this situation. Who makes these posts? No matter the year or the technological developments, it seems that people will always have an obsession with targeting the universal fear of death for likes or for reposts or, more simply, for fun. Maybe they love chaos. Whatever their motivations, these posts do receive likes and reposts. Death is perceived as so random and uncontrollable that people are often unwilling to risk it, especially for something so stupid.

What are your thoughts on these kinds of posts? Have you ever like or reposted anything along these lines? Or forwarded a chain email or text in your youth?

Immortality: no longer fiction?

The great unknown associated with dying has resulted in a societal fascination – no, obsession – with death. Death is everywhere from our newsfeeds, to our music, to our literature and movies. Yet as frequently as death comes up in our lives, so does its opposing force: immortality.

From legends of the fountain of youth throughout history, to religions which qualify the afterlife as a form of “eternal life”, to fantasy shows like Game of Thrones, in which characters die and resurrect left and right, we are just as enamored by the concept of evading death as we are exploring it. Science fiction has toyed with the idea of immortality through technology since the beginning of the genre. However, in a time when we are maybe 20 years from roads exclusively populated by self-driving cars, some people have claimed that immortality through science may no longer be fiction.

One such individual is leading ‘futurologist’ Dr. Ian Pearson, who predicts that humans could outlive the restraints of physical bodies by the year 2050. This estimation refers to proposed virtual reality worlds where people could upload their consciousness before their bodies fail. Personally, I’m more fascinated with the idea that genetic engineering could slow or even reverse cellular ageing, making biological immortality a plausible concept.

For my non-sciencey counterparts out there, gene editing is the phenomenon in which scientists locate a problematic gene in an organism, use enzymes to snip it out, and replace it with the functional or desired copy of the gene. The most popular and groundbreaking system for gene editing at this time is CRISPR-Cas, which I’m sure lots of you have heard of. At this point, genetic engineering research revolves around diseases and disorders which could be greatly reduced or even eradicated with this technology. However, when most people hear ‘genetic engineering’, they think about ‘designer babies’ and dystopias like that portrayed in the 1997 film GATTACA (10/10 would recommend). Because of our society’s focus on the fantastic applications of this technology, it’s not surprising that there is talk of regenerative medicine as a means of achieving immortality.

The ethics of gene editing is a hotly debated topic, both for the discomfort it stirs up in the general public, as well as more imminent scientific concerns. A group of prominent scientists urged for a ban on all human genetic engineering in the U.S. in 2015. This general ban did not pass, but genetic engineering of humans is tightly regulated in the US. It is for this reason that I disagree with claims that immortality through genetic engineering could be achieved in our lifetime. Many people are rightfully hesitant to consider messing with nature by ridding the world of mitochondrial disease, for example, which we already have all the essential parts to do. While I think our society is capable of the technology required for this kind of science, I don’t think humans will be able to accept a life without death anytime soon.


Death Machine

Right to die groups over the year have tried to portray death as a positive experience. They want to desensitize the general public to death, removing the negative connotations of assisted suicide. Dr. Philip Nitschke is looking to revolutionize the controversial topic of euthanasia with his death machine, the Sarco.

In 1997, Nitschke founded Exit International, a nonprofit that advocates for the legislation of euthanasia. This followed him administering the first legal, lethal, voluntary injection to a terminally ill patient in history. This occurred under the short-lived Australian Rights of Terminally Ill Act, but it shifted his perspective of self-inflicted suicide. Rather than being a concept reserved for the terminally ill, he believed that any rational adult should be allowed to experience a “good” death. Modern medicine can keep individuals alive for far longer than previously possible, leaving people in deteriorating states.

The majority of Exit Internationals members are the elderly, providing them with information on how to die with dignity. What Nitschke is currently striving for is to provide individuals with a death that is more than just “dignified.” He wants the passing into the afterlife to be a euphoric experience. Therefore, the Sarco was designed to have a spaceship-like aesthetic to make it seem as if an individual is “journeying to the great beyond.” This would remove the stigma that was often associated with the doctor’s prior machines. The previous inventions tended to reinforce the macabre stereotype of death, which served to put people off. Rather than dying strapped to a plastic bag, an individual can choose where and when to initiate the procedure.

The main draw behind the Sarco is that in concept it can be transported anywhere. No longer will people be restricted to hospitals to administer the euthanasia, they will have the opportunity to take into account the critical factor of where you die. The process is also painless and provides one of the most soothing feelings before death. The machine euthanizes individuals through hypoxia, where the oxygen level is lowered to the point that a person can still breath easily to receive the intoxicating sensation. The user then subsequently looses consciousness and dies.

The process to utilize the machine is also very personal, limiting outside interventions. A user has to fill out a survey which declares if they are mentally fit to make the decision, and they then receive a 24-hour access code to use at any Sarco machine in the world. When the code is entered at a device, the process commences. It’s an exciting concept, providing individuals with a possible alternative that could make their experience more personal and unique. In the end, it allows individuals the opportunity to achieve what they could consider being a “good” death on their own terms.


Meet the Elon Musk of Assisted Suicide