Author Archives: Joyce Shin

The Importance of Mortuary Rituals

Written by Saher Fatteh

After listening to the podcast How Stuff Works in which Dr. Stutz discusses mortuary rituals and their importance, I thought of a specific scene in The Undertaking. The movie includes a heartbreaking story of a young family in which the only child had been diagnosed with a neurological disease that would take his life before he reached three years. The parents sought refuge in the structure of rituals involving death in our society. The young mother explained the calming effect of arranging for funeral services before her son’s death. It seemed as though having the funeral service in place allowed the parents to answer the question, “What now?” after their son’s death. As discussed in the podcast, ritual is powerful as a transformative tool. The ritual of funerals and burial allowed the parents to have a set time in which they could transition into their new life. Although they knew that their son was dying, the process of burial allowed them to cope in steps and at their own speed. Each part of the burial process served an important role in their processing of death. The mother explained that the closing of the casket was extremely symbolic and powerful. It allowed her to accept for the first time the loss of her son’s physical body. To me, this scene illuminates the vital importance of mortuary rituals. Though at times they may seem silly or unnecessary, they allow a slight measure of control in an uncontrollable situation.

Dealing with Dead Bodies

Written by Saher Fatteh

During class on Tuesday, we watched a short film called The Undertaking. The movie investigates the life and work of Thomas Lynch, the director of a funeral home. The film follows three independent stories of death ranging in age and type and in doing so, comments on the way that Americans perceive death and dying. One aspect of the film that stood out to me was my immediate aversion to the idea of dressing and embalming a corpse. As I watched the funeral home worker paint the face of a deceased elderly woman in preparation for her funeral service, I thought about if I could ever carry out the same task. Each time I thought about placing myself in his shoes, I felt an innate sense of discomfort. I began to think about why I might react so strongly and negatively to the idea of dressing a body for a funeral service. This made me begin to think about the aspects of death that make me most uncomfortable and why that might be. After some reflection, I realized that the dead body itself, in its absolute stillness, is quite unnerving to think about. Maybe this is because, as a society, we are constantly shielded from ever viewing death in its physical state. We rarely ever see dead bodies outside of certain contexts including hospitals and funeral services. Perhaps if we were exposed to death and dead bodies more often, I would not have felt so uneasy watching a man prepare a dead body for a service. I began to wonder how people who work in the funeral service industry become adjusted to constantly seeing dead bodies and discussing death. Do they also have the same immediate negative reaction that most of us do towards seeing a dead body?

Cryonics and Death

     A few months ago, there was a story in the news that relates to an interesting aspect of death— cryonics. Cryonics is the science of using extremely cold temperatures to preserve a human body, with the hope that life can be restored in the future, when we have the technology/ knowledge to do so. The news article explored the case of a 14 year old girl who died of cancer, whose dying wish was to be cryogenically frozen (the court ended up ruling in her favor and if you’re interested, the articles can be accessed below).

     The concept of cryonics is one thing and the ethics of cryonics, another. Personally, I don’t think cryonics is, or ever will be, feasible— the vast majority of science deem it an impossible task, and I think we’re simply wasting resources, time and research that can be put to better use. However, if we did manage to revive the actual human body— the cadaver— reviving the human brain is an infinitely more complex and intricate task. But let’s go along with this idea. If both the human body and brain were revived, how can we ensure the health/ quality of life or that the revival would result in the same individual? Would personality or memories, the very essence of a person, be preserved? If so, to what quality or to what extent? It’s incredibly hard to believe that after cryopreservation, that the mind, body and brain would not be fundamentally changed. Again, let’s play along and suppose that all the logistics of cryonics were perfected and the same individual could be brought back to life. The bigger question then arises— is it ethical and should we do it?

     Successful cryonics would shatter our very notion of life and death. In my opinion, humans were not meant to be brought back to life; it’s against our very nature. Life is a natural of death and death is a natural part of life. I understand that many people are uncomfortable and afraid of death and what it entails, but on the flip side, what would an essentially immortal life mean for humanity? Imagine what life would be like, waking up hundreds of years later, in a completely unfamiliar place and time, with no family or friends. What quality of life would you have? Cryonics would affect virtually every aspect of society — the economy, environment, religion, education, population etc… The desire for immortality has intrigued humans for thousands of years, yet death is natural for humans and I think that cryonics, especially if you benefit financially (like cryonic companies do), is little cruel because you may very well be giving people false hope, in one of their most vulnerable states.

     On a last note, however, my stance is softened a little bit when I consider cases like this little girl, where she didn’t get a chance to live her life. It’s one thing, if you want to be immortal or have a longer life for selfish reasons, but another, to simply want a chance to experience the world, because at the end of the day, I do think that everyone should at least deserve a chance at life.

The news article links:


History of Cannibalism and Cultural Differences

From one of our initial discussions in class, the subject of cannibalism stuck out to me because I didn’t know too much about it. Having grown up in a modern, developed society, most of us have an intrinsic aversion to this concept (at least I would hope)— eating another human being’s flesh is unfathomable and inhumane. However, do all societies feel this way and has it always been this way? And the answer is no.

I think a good place to start would be from an evolutionary standpoint, after all human beings are simply organisms— a highly adapted and specialized species— nonetheless, mere animals. In the animal kingdom, the ingestion of other members of species is not uncommon, and is in fact, a strategy for survival. In many species, eating another member is natural, even logical, in that you’re increasing your own fitness, while eliminating competition. This practice is seen in cobras, fish, praying mantis, spiders, cats, lobsters, octopuses, sharks, polar bears, and crabs, to name a few. So, I guess I can understand how an argument could be made that it wouldn’t be that weird for a human to eat another human (I mean I still think it’s incredibly unsettling though). But my research showed that, in fact, cannibalism was a rather common part of human history.

Both archeological and genetic accounts indicate that cannibalism has been practiced for thousands of years and were an important part of rituals and cultures (ex. removing the flesh, by eating, before burying the bones) and of survival (during periods of food shortages and starvation). There are many instances throughout history that we see cannibalism (Fun fact: for a while in the 16th century, Egyptian mummies were ground up and sold as medicine) and even some cannibalistic accounts exist still even today. While researching for this post, I ran into an interesting book written by Beth Conklin: Consuming Grief: Compassionate Cannibalism in an Amazonian Society, which depicts modern cannibalistic practices in the Wari’ Indian tribe of the Amazonian rainforest, as an expression of compassion and a way for the loved ones to grieve and accept their loss. She explores their concept and culture of person, body, and spirit to explain why they prefer cannibalism to cremation or other burial practices, which I thought was a novel, yet interesting, take on this concept.

Then, when did we begin to see our Western cultural aversion in society? I contend that it was a myriad of factors: the increase in life longevity, religious practices and views, legal restrictions on fundamental human rights, and perhaps most importantly, an increase in interpersonal relations. In the past, disease was rampant, which meant lifespans were short. You didn’t really have time to form bonds and relations with other people, whether it be with your family or friends. Because the increase in scientific and medical knowledge and technology, our life expectancies are longer and intimate relationships are more likely to continue for years. This allowed for the development and stability of interpersonal relationships, which remain an important resource across our lifespan now, significantly reducing the need/ desire for cannibalism.