AboutThis blog is a platform of communication for a college course at Emory entitled "The Anthropology of Death and Burial". The purpose is to use this blog to invite the world into our classroom by drawing on current events or phenomena that surround us and that are relevant to our exploration into the topic of death and how people deal with it. The course is explicitly cross-disciplinary and besides anthropology we also explore the topic of death through the lens of biology, history, religious studies, medicine, law, philosophy, sociology, literature and art. Feel welcome to explore and participate!
Who we areThe contributors to this blog are all undergraduate students at Emory University in Atlanta GA (USA). The course is taught by Dr. Liv Nilsson Stutz who is an archaeologists with a special interest in mortuary archaeology and ritual studies. She is also a regular contributor.
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Author Archives: kimli
Have you ever heard about Carl Tanzler?
If not, you may want to check this out.
Long story short, he fell in love with a woman who never loved him back. After that poor woman died, he got the body and preserved it (in crude ways), made it a wax face with glass eyeballs and slept with it (sexually active too) for more than 7 years until the woman’s sister discovered. Carl was not charged with any crimes because of the statute of limitation. The body was reburied in a secret place and Carl went on making an life-size effigy of the woman which he lived with till his death.
The story was romanticized by the mass media and he actually gain a lot sympathy. Then the shocking part comes: the government decided to publicly display the reconstructed body. This has deeply troubled me (think about how much we talked about protecting bodies and the problems came with exhumed bodies–they easily crossed the line here). Because the case is very old, I couldn’t find out more about why the government made this decision, but on the web page below, you can read the recount of this public display from a kid who went (now in his sixties). Apparently a traumatized childhood experience.
A Demented Love
Suicide Forest: Jukai
One amazing piece of documentary on the subject of suicide in Japan. It is filmed by VICE magazine in 2011.
In the film, geologist Azusa Hayano introduced Aokigahara to us, a forest at the foot of Mt. Fuji, commonly known as Jukai (Sea of Trees). Apart from being a famous tourist attraction, Jukai is also on the list of world’s most notorious suicide sites. About 100 people die in the vast forest every year. In fact, Hayano himself alone has found over 100 bodies in his years patrolling the forest.
In the documentary, you see people leaving tapes on the tree trunks just in case they change their minds and decide to find their way back. The man Hayano encountered during the filming camped right in the middle of the trail, as if he wanted to be found. Those people who enter the forest are troubled, yes, but many are still struggling over their options.
(A sign in the forest urging people to reconsider; at the bottom, they provide phone numbers of the Suicide Prevention Association. Unfortunately, because of the size of the forest, it is difficult for the local government to spare enough resources to be more effective in preventing suicides.)
People do not just kill themselves in a forest. They consciously choose Jukai and often travel a long way to reach it. Local residents seldom even enter the forest. Somehow the notion of dying in a place where a lot others have done the same gives them some courage. Maybe a comforting thought of not being alone? — then you see those flowers offered on the site from families or friends of the deceased. They were NOT alone.
The idea of going to a popular suicide site to die reminds me a lot of the suicide clubs in Japan.
It is true that people meet online in those virtual “clubs” to find partners and arrange deaths together. However, it is not always as simple as we might think. Such online sites also allow people to share the most unspeakable fear, hatred, anger, and their deepest desperation. In a way, it contains some therapeutic value. Like the personal experience described by the interviewee in the article, people often back out of the plan and reconsider the action. Such hesitation may come from the attention they received from their “suicide partners”, connections they established in the club, consolations in the knowledge of shared suffering, or just simply a sudden fear of the reality of death. Whatever the reason is, a withdrawal often deters the partner’s suicidal plan as well.
Just to add a fun (?) fact to the dismal topic. Another famous suicide site in Japan is Kiyomizu (pure water) Temple in Kyoto. It is at the top of a hill and has a gorgeous scenery.
The famous veranda/stage (see above in the picture) in Kiyomizu has an old saying among Japanese:
清水の舞台から飛び下りる (to jump off the stage at Kiyomizu), the equivalent of English expression “to take the plunge.” However, many people, and I mean MANY, have taken it literally…
Few days ago, a friend started a conversation about mass death. The first thing came to my mind was Jonestown. The notorious event left its name as one of the largest mass murder in modern history and resulted in the largest single loss of American civilian life before September 11, 2001. I remembered myself watching the documentary “Witness to Jonestown” on MSNBC and struck by what I learned. The tragedy happened on November 18, 1978, a day many survivors will never forget. In the middle of the jungle in Guyana, 909 people lay dead after drinking poisons, another five people were killed near the jet outside Jonestown on an airstrip.
The story began with a man named Jim Jones who started the Peoples Temple, a religious organization. At the beginning, Jones promoted socialistic ideals, creating a set of values that was strongly felt and believed by his followers. The particular historic background of late sixties and early seventies gave Jones’ preaching a powerful attractiveness. Violence flooded the media with news from the street fights, the Vietnam War, and political assassinations. People sought for peace and an ideology that would guide them through the chaotic reality. Jones made use of the opportunity in the vulnerable crowd and became the spiritual leader of his religious cult group. This very same person, who once brought his followers hope of a better world, commanded people to die on November 18, 1978.
The Jonestown incident was shocking not only because so many people died, but also because Jim Jones claimed that it was a “revolutionary suicide,” protesting an “inhumane world.” The word “suicide” possesses meanings more than just “death.” It indicates a voluntary property in the choice of death that inevitably brings up the question of “why.” Suicide challenges the social orders in an extremely problematic way. In a suicide, there is not a killer to blame to, because the killer is at the same time the victim. People barely know how to react to suicides. There is not a socially acceptable appropriate way to react. Families and the public are left with perplexing feelings. Such conflict results in an attempt to explain the act by environmental causes, such as social structure, expectations and stress. A mass suicide of 914 people could have been a ground-shaking challenge to the society, shouting for an explanation.
Fortunately for the social structure, we later learned that the “mass suicide” Jones claimed was actually a mass murder. It’s noteworthy how quickly the media and the public changed their views and attitudes after learning about the forced deaths of more than 900 followers. All of a sudden, people knew who to blame and what to say. Rightly enough, the psychopathic Jim Jones degenerated from a fraud to a mass murderer. Anger, fear, despise, and sadness, sympathy, grief… All these feelings that were suppressed for suicides were then allowed to be expressed and released. This reminds me of how mourning is not just a personal experience, but also a socially regulated process. We respond to different deaths within each cultural context accordingly.
“Witness to Jonestown” has covered many original sources from the news of that period and recovered audiotapes from Jonestown. It also interviewed survivors extensively. It provides a comprehensive view of how the Peoples Temple developed and degraded from a dream people held, to a nightmare they could not escape from.
Video clips from the documentary “Witness to Jonestown”: