Author Archives: Claire Dillenbeck

“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.


Although widely culturally variable, it is often an important ritual in death to mark the grave or otherwise physically memorialize the deceased. This is certainly widely practiced in the United States. An epitaph is in inscription that somehow memorialized the dead, and in American culture, usually inscription on a tomb stone. Epitaphs are often one of the earliest applications of written language in a culture and were important in ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman societies. These verses usually give biographical information, memorialize the deceased or relay message. They often convey family lineage, great achievements, valued character traits, birth and death dates, cause of death or advice. Epitaphs are highly culturally revealing. They are lasting communication between the dead and the living, an immortalization and commemoration of a life. They convey cultural values, ideology, political climate, religious beliefs, mortuary rituals, and aesthetic taste. An epitaph contains what a society believes is important in defining death and remembering life. As such, they are important in study of anthropology, archaeology, literature, and history.

Ancient Grecian epitaphs are a wonderful example. From Histories by Herodotus, appears a epitaph, “This is the tomb of the glorious Megistias, whom once the Medes killed when they crossed the river Sperchius: he was a seer, who recognized clearly that the Spirits of Death were approaching then, but could bring himself to desert Sparta’s leaders.” This verse identifies the deceased, and reveals the importance of glory and significance of a heroic death in battle in Grecian society. On a grave mound at the site of the Battle of Thermopylae, a famous epitaph by Simonides reads an inscription to commemorate the entire army, “Here four thousand from the Peloponnese once fought against three million” and specifically for the Spartans, “Stranger, report to the Spartans that we lie here, obedient to their words.” In this inscription, the dead are actually given a voice to communicate with an unknown, living audience. They declare their obedience and courage, and are immortalized.

A reproduction of the epitaph at Thermopylae

Epitaphs reveal attitudes toward death, expressions of grief and mourning, or sometimes comedy. There are many famous epitaphs, and each reveals an aspect of culture surrounding death, as well as life. A selection are listed below:

The gravestone of Leonard Matlovich, the first member of the U.S military to publically out himself and a recipient of a Purple Heart

A renowned gunslinger in the Old West with his own moral code

A family recipe promised upon Kay’s death

Shakespeare’s epitaph meant to prevent his corpse from being excavated for research

A Holocaust survivor

An honest personal memory

Works Cited (2016). Battle of Thermopylae – New World Encyclopedia. [online] Available at: [Accessed 6 Mar. 2017].

Conradt, S. (2015). 29 Unforgettable Epitaphs. [online] Available at: [Accessed 6 Mar. 2017]. (2017). Epitaphs – body, funeral, life, history, time, human. [online] Available at: [Accessed 6 Mar. 2017].

Jiang, T. (2015). The Value of Epitaph Words Study. Open Journal of Modern Linguistics, 05(03), pp.232-237.

Lattimore, R. (1960). Greek lyrics. 1st ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.