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.
While avoiding starting my homework, I was watching clips on YouTube from different TLC TV-shows. I quickly fell down the rabbit hole of watching clips from the Untold Stories of the ER and one particular video title stood out to me: “Girl with ‘Walking Corpse Syndrome’ Thinks She’s Dead!”
Intrigued, I clicked on it. Although poorly acted, the case presented was very interesting. It was about a young woman who believed she was dead and consequently refused to eat. She had Cotard’s Syndrome: a mental illness in which a person believes that they are dead, decaying, non-existent, or have lost internal organs or blood.
It was first described in 1880 by neurologist Jules Cotard who was presented with a patient known as Mademoiselle X who did not believe certain parts of her body existed. She believed she did not need to eat and explained that she was condemned to eternal damnation. She died of starvation, which unfortunately is a common consequence of the illness due to patients believing they do not need to eat. Cotard’s is described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th Edition) as a type of somatic delusion that involves bodily functions or sensations. Although not outlined in detail in the DSM, an individual is more likely to be afflicted with the disorder if they have schizophrenia or experience psychosis, neurological illness, another mental illness such as depression, brain tumors, or migraine headache.
The syndrome normally exists in three distinct stages. The first is the germination stage, in which depressive and hypochondria symptoms appear. The second stage is called the blooming stage, in which delusions of negation start appearing. The last stage is the chronic stage, in which the patient suffers prolonged severe delusions and chronic psychiatric depression. All three stages severely impact the patient’s ability to care for themselves, leading them to neglect their physical health and personal hygiene.
The syndrome can have severe impacts on a person’s interactions with the world; their negation of self often comes with a distorted view of the external world. For example, a patient described in the article “Betwixt Life and Death: Case Studies of the Cotard Delusion” was hospitalized in 1990 because he believed that he was dead. His mother took him to another country after he had been discharged. He believed that he was being taken to hell. He had lost touch of where he was in the world and he interpreted external sensory output differently. The weather which was hotter in the country they were visiting was seen as a reason to confirm that he was in hell. Because of the extremity and rarity of Cotard’s Syndrome, it is often hard to diagnosis and therefore treat, so the patient often suffers with the symptoms for an extended period of time.
This 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 are
The 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.