Category Archives: grief and mourning

What Would You Do?

Equality.

A term flaunted in many public circles, political campaigns, and social justice movements. In these instances, “equality” refers to fairness and justice in life; the act of viewing all people without bias or discrimination. Our society is obsessed with rallying behind crusades that foster impartiality in every aspect of life…but what about death? Is there equality in dying?

With current advancements in artificial intelligence, it is no surprise that self driving cars are on the horizon.  In an effort to gather information about how humans make decisions, researchers at MIT created the “Moral Machine.” This database contains a variety of what-would-you-do scenarios involving car crashes and vehicular manslaughter in attempt to create an algorithm for decision making based on how humans act in life-and-death situations.  For example:

This scenario incites intense debate over what the car should or should not do. If the car continues in a straight path, one woman and her unborn child will die. However, if the car is programmed to swerve, five people will die. If only provided with the number of deaths, many people would choose to have the car continue straight, saving the most lives. But what happens when we place value on those lives? When the victims are women and children, versus criminals, how do we decide which lives to value more and which deaths to value less?  That is the heart of what the Moral Machine aims to uncover.  By categorizing people into different groups based on their social value, we assign significance to individual deaths. After perceiving the criminals’ role in society, many people may change their minds and program the car to swerve, taking a greater number of lives but saving (arguably) more important or worthy ones.

The dilemma in the various circumstances boils down to the modern perception of death and the processes to follow. Our society has cultivated an environment that fights against death. People do not want to die “before their time” and thus are bred to accept death only when they feel that their life is complete or that they have nothing more to give. These personal sentiments are subconsciously broadcast into situations like the self-driving car, where knowing the demographics of a person ranks them on a scale ranging between “worth-saving-at-any-cost” to “not-a-huge-loss.”  It sounds gruesome but it’s true. 

Additionally, our determination of what the car should do originates in the process after a death. We can justify the decision to kill the five criminals if we consider that the pregnant woman and baby would be heavily mourned and grieved whereas the convicts probably would not.

Inadvertently, we place values on life and death based on our culture’s view of death and the proceedings to follow. Death and life seem to have an linear relationship; the more we value someone’s life the more we value their death. Is this a true embodiment of equality though? Can equality be extended to the grave? And lastly, what would you do?

 

To see other related scenarios, click here.

References

http://moralmachine.mit.edu/

The Obsession with Death, But Fear of Dying

In my observation of society there has always been an obsession with death. Death is everywhere in pop culture from blazing articles on tabloid pages at the supermarket to brutal deaths being common place on the television screen. Yet as a culture we also seem to have this intense fear of dying.

Painting of a mourning female statue

Mount Olivet Cemetery – Nashville, TN by Don

Recently I found myself binge watching Buzzfeed’s Unsolved series, a YouTube series where two men try to prove that ghosts are real or dig into famous mysteries usually pertaining to gruesome, to unsolved deaths. I do not know why I started watching it, but clearly other people are doing the same for their most recent video, posted less than 24-hours ago, has over a million views. While the ghost and demon episodes will often get my heart racing, it is the one’s that explore real unsolved deaths or murders that stick with me. In a completely morbid sense it is compelling. One would think that because we are so open about death and exploring how someone might have died, that the process of dying should not be a taboo topic. But, as soon as death is brought up in the personal sense the discussion ends. Suddenly, it is completely unreasonable to talk about death. A guy’s head being put on a spike on Game of Thrones = fine, but talking about your own opinions surrounding your unavoidable death = over sharing.

There are exceptions to this of course. I am very lucky to still have three of my grandparents alive, and recently the topic of dying has been a discussion between my maternal grandparents and me. While at first I was uncomfortable, after taking a deep breath I realized the topic was not morbid at all. In fact, it was in some ways heartwarming. My grandfather described his desire to have his and my grandmother’s ashes mixed and my grandmother told me their plan to meet at “the pearly gates of heaven,” though they have yet to decide on which side of the gate. Here were two people I love with all my heart talking about their own deaths and it brought a smile to my face. 

 

Heavenly image of a sun peaking through the clouds

susan.clue_n_you

But, this is a discussion I know many do not have. My grandmother recounted a story of her friend that refuses to talk about his own imminent death with his grandchildren, “because it is too sad.” And I can understand that point of view. Everyone should be able to make their own decision on their level of comfort when it comes to discussing death, but from my personal experience I feel reassured after my discussions with my grandparents. While the thought of losing them breaks my heart, it is also mended by the fact that I know that they are not scared of what death may bring. I am becoming more and more curious as to why these conversations on death cannot be public discussions, as well as private ones.

Older couple hugging

Hug by Namor Trebat

 

Death in the Spotlight

A look at what happens when the rich and famous die.

Many of us are familiar with death whether it is someone close to us or a friend of a friend. The deceased is often remembered and mourned for in a relatively private way. However, all the rules seem to be thrown out of the door when the deceased is not the elderly man next door, but a celebrity.

An interest in the lifestyles of the rich and famous is something that seems universal across the globe. Their every move is documented, publicized, and largely criticized. Pictures are taken and articles published for tasks as insignificant as grocery shopping or jogging. Celebrities, for some, have reached a god-like status. Their fans are dedicated, passionate, and quick to combat the haters. The life of a celebrity is seemingly not their own. It belongs to the fan, the critic, and the consumer. The same goes for their deaths. The death of a celebrity often prompts more fanfare and acknowledgment than the deaths of millions at the hands of disease and hunger. A celebrity death tends to prompt news specials, award show tributes, and sometimes public displays of distress by people who were merely fans of the individual. The public mourns the celebrity’s  ability to inspire, encourage, and provide an escape. The fan is mourning the loss of a connection, a figure that to them was maybe more than a person.

An LA Times article referenced the phenomenon saying, “We don’t cry because we knew them, we cry because they helped us know ourselves.” The way we ritualize death often seeks to serve the needs of the living over the needs of the dead. We view death from how it affects us. The death of an ordinary person is made more about those left behind then celebrating the person who is no longer here. The celebrity experiences this to a greater extent. For most it was not the loss of Prince the person that caused tears to roll down their face, but the loss of hundreds of unrecorded songs and the persona of a man who dared to defy the status quo. The connection between the fan and the artist is one that is cherished by many.

Some celebrities are defined by their deaths as much as their life especially when their death is a “bad” one such as suicide, a drug overdose, or murder. Their legacy, more so than the average person’s, is shaped by this death. Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, and Prince will always be remembered for their indelible contribution to music. In the same breath their overdose related deaths will forever be tied to their name in the public sphere. It is through the death of a celebrity that we get a glimpse of life in the spotlight. Despite what we learn we cannot help but place their death back under the same spotlight. It seems as if their celebrity demands consumption by the public, even when they are no longer alive.

Whitney Houston on stage

Whitney Houston Welcomes Heroes by PH2 Mark Kettenhofen licensed under Wikimedia Commons

K-pop star Jonghyun

Jonghyun at 2016 Korean Pop Culture an Art Awards by Im’ Sorry licensed under Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sources:

http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-0427-friedman-public-grieving-prince-20160427-story.html

 

 

 

 

 

Funeral Traditions in Tana Toraja

Death is something that is unavoidable. Whether you have experienced the death of a close one or have yet to do so, it is a universal experience. However, it is not experienced in the same way all over the world. In Tana Toraja, located in the Sulewesi highlands of Eastern Indonesia, cultural anthropologist, Kelly Swazey, explores how death is not a singular event in her TedTalk, “Life that doesn’t end with death.” The physical cessation of life is not considered the same thing as death. Instead, the deceased are referred to as “to Makala” (a sick person) or “to mama” (a person who is asleep). These people continue to live with and be members of the household, where they are “symbolically fed and cared for.” It is during this time, that families will begin a series of ritual orders that informs the community that a member of their family is transitioning into the Puya (the afterlife). The deceased member is considered truly dead only when the extended family reaches an agreement and when the family has enough resources to hold a funeral ceremony that is deemed appropriate for the status of the deceased.

These funeral ceremonies are lively affairs that can last from a few days to weeks. They are considered the most important social moment in someone’s life, outweighing births and weddings. Through these ceremonies, a reciprocal debt society exists within the community that depends on the number of animals, such as water buffalo, pigs, and chickens, that are given and sacrificed in honor of the deceased. In a way, the sacrifice of the water buffalo and the ritual display of wealth is a way for the family to exhibit the status of the deceased member and by default, the family. These funeral ceremonies are required to take place in front of the entire community and involves everyone’s participation. Once a person is deemed physically dead, their body is placed in a special room in the tongkonan (a traditional residence). The tongkonan represents both the family’s identity and the life cycle. The shape of the tongkonan that you are born into is the same structure that brings you to your ancestral resting place.

A Torajan family with a deceased relative shown in Kelly Swazey's TedTalk

A Torajan family with a deceased relative shown in Kelly Swazey’s TedTalk

While the Torajans practice ways to live long, healthy lives, they do not put as much effort in prolonging life if they have reached an old age or have a terminal illness. They believe that everyone has a predetermined amount of time to live that is like a thread, and that it should be “allowed to unspool to its natural end” without artificial interruptions. While this funeral practice may be something that is foreign to us, it is familiar in that it is a way for people to come to terms with the death of a loved one. The Torajans recognize that their relationships with other people do not end with the physical death of someone close. They are able to extend their relationship with the deceased by transitioning from a relationship to a living person to a relationship with the deceased as an ancestor.

Southern Christian Mourning

In the fall of my sophomore year, my friend Kalyssa, who attended Georgia State University, killed herself. While suicide is in itself worthy of a discussion post, I was struck by the radical differences in funeral and funerary processes between her culture and mine. Kalyssa Fuentes and I had attended the same middle and high school, we had the same friends, and shared an unrivaled passion for Rihanna. Yet at her funeral, I felt entirely out of place.

I have attended my fair share of funerals for grandparents and family friends, but always from a Jewish perspective. Our funerals, at least in my synagogue’s practice, are short affairs that take place at the cemetery. We tear our clothes and inter the body quickly. Following the burial, we sit shiva for a week and do not work, look into mirrors, or bathe in warm water. For the Fuentes family, the funeral took place at a church, following a viewing with an open casket. It is the casket that stands out most clearly in my mind; I had never seen a body before. Kalyssa’s body was blocked from direct view by a veil, but she was still able to be seen. She looked like she was made of plastic, and she had been dead for two days, so I assume that she was embalmed. There was no smell. 

The funeral itself took place in an African Methodist Episcopal church, where the Fuenteses had found a community after immigrating from Trindidad. The word that immediately came to mind during the service was ostentatious — the people did not look, to me, to be in mourning. The women wore large hats, the choir wore bright robes, and they passed around pamphlets featuring Kalyssa’s face. There was a section of the service devoted to a memorial film, featuring Kalyssa singing a solo in our high school choir during a trip to Rome. Despite this, it was evident that everyone present, for whom this sort of service was the norm, was deeply moved.

Since attending Kalyssa’s funeral, I have been to a handful of others that were christian, all of which also involved a viewing of the body before burial. Although personally I feel a bit disturbed by the practice, I believe that the process of seeing the body prior to burial to be important to some people in order to accept the death of their loved ones. Viewings may not be a part of my own culture, but are an interesting way to explore the grief.

Home-goings: A Black American Funeral Tradition

On April 7, 2017, my family and I hosted a home-going to celebrate the life of my great aunt. A home-going is a traditional African American, Christian funeral service held to rejoice the deceased person’s returning to heaven, and this elaborate funeral ritual has a deep history dating back to the arrival of African slaves in America in the 1600s. There are several aspects that set this service apart from the traditional funeral, including the week-long visitation to the bereaved family’s home, the wake, and the elaborate funeral procession. About a week prior to the service, a plethora of friends, neighbors, co-workers, and family members who live in different areas of the world travel to visit the bereaved family every day to offer their condolences (the same people may or may not visit the family every day). A wake is then held for the deceased between 2 to 3 days prior to the funeral, and this allows family members and friends to have few personal moments with the deceased. On the day of the funeral, a group of police escorts arrive to the bereaved family’s house, and the family is escorted to the church. During this process, the family bypasses certain traffic laws, such as passing through red lights. At the church, some of the women of the family act as flower girls, and their job is to remove the elaborate bouquets of flowers that will be placed on the casket during the funeral. The service itself is often an emotional, high energy event that entails family members singing African American hymns and a boisterous eulogy by the pastor. Afterwards, the funeral procession travels to the gravesite, and people wait until the body is partially buried before leaving to return to the church or to the family’s house to dine with one another.

I never realized that my burial practice was significant or distinct to Black American people until taking this class, which is unnerving to me because home-going services are integral to my family’s traditions. They allow us to celebrate the life of our loved one while showering them with expensive items, such as custom caskets, support a black business (an African American mortuary), and re-connect with family. These services also allow me to learn about the richness and history of my family and our culture through our conversations as well as through visiting the gravesite because generations of my family are buried in a black owned gravesite in Atlanta.

(Note: There are several variations to these services, but I am sharing my experiences with home-goings.)

 

Works Cited:

https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/01/black-funeral-homes-mourning/426807/

http://www.pbs.org/pov/homegoings/film-description/

Ebola: Public Safety Issue or Cultural Violation?

Locals observe foreign health officials burying an Ebola victim. WHO Guidelines for Ebola Burials

The 2014 Ebola Outbreak claimed about 11,000 lives and transcended country borders. Ebola presents with frightening symptoms: more frightening was that it kept spreading. Thanks to Anthropologists, health officials knew why: local burial practices endangered the lives of those partaking in burial rituals. We will look at how those practices influenced Ebola policies and procedures:

Initial Resistance

When the first responders to Ebola came to Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, they were determined to stop Ebola’s transmission at any cost. The Ebola virus is transferred through infectious bodily fluids, so foreign health officials took over disposing of the dead and developed a procedure to handle mass casualties. The African locals did not respond well to this practice, often resisting health officials’ efforts to bury the dead.

Anthropologists’ Observations

Anthropologists were tasked with understanding the locals’ resistance. Anthropologists discovered common practices and beliefs among locals:

  1. Handling of the body with the bare hands
  2. “Love Touch”: loved ones either touch the face or lie on top of the deceased in order to unify the living and ancestral spirits, and even receive spiritual gifts from the deceased.
  3. Importance of a proper burial: many locals believe in life after death. If a proper burial does not occur, then the deceased cannot achieve spirithood, and therefore the angry spirit will return and punish the living relatives.
  4. Mistrust of government: foreign health officials had to have communicated with the government to assist, so many Africans thought their governments did not respect them. As a result, many locals mistrusted their leaders and did not want to comply.

Solution

Anthropologists realized that in isolating deceased Ebola victims, the health officials were dishonoring locals’ culture and beliefs. Anthropologists relayed these findings to policymakers, who formed coalitions with government officials, tribal and religious leaders in order to come up with burial techniques that would honor the dead and living while halting Ebola.  As a result, locals allowed their leaders and foreign officials to assist and Ebola transmission slowed. It was one of the first times that foreign health officials recognized that religious and cultural practices and political beliefs strongly influence health promotion techniques on an epidemic level. They adjusted their procedures accordingly.

Evaluation

It was important to recognize the cultural factors at play, but was recognition and adjustment too late? How many have to die before world aid organizations adjust their policies and procedures to accommodate many different cultures and societies? Although these organizations are powerful, they sometimes adopt a “savior” mentality, and forget that they can still learn. Another outbreak could happen: public safety is of great importance, but so is cultural relativism.

Works Cited:

Manguvo, Angellar and Benford Mafuvadze.”The Impact of Traditional and Religious Practices on Spread of Ebola in West Africa.” The Pan African Medical Journal. Vol 22 Issue 9. 10 October 2015. Accessed 12 March 2017. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4709130/

Maxmen, Amy. “How the Fight Against Ebola Tested a Culture’s Traditions.” National Geographic. 30 Jan 2015. Accessed 12 March 2017. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/01/150130-ebola-virus-outbreak-epidemic-sierra-leone-funerals/

Dia de los Muertos- Celebrating the dead

Individuals in Mexico, with painted faces as skulls and holding marigolds, walk together during this holiday to honor and celebrate their loved ones who have passed.

Dia de los Muertos- Day of the dead

Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a tradition and holiday that originates in Mexico, but is celebrated across Latin America. On November 1st, individuals come together and partake in festivals and parades in order to both honor and celebrate loved ones that have passed. As seen in the picture above,  prominent symbols of this holiday are skulls and skeletal depictions, complemented by festive and lively dress, flowers, and light. Family and friends prepare the favorite foods of the deceased, which serves as an invitation for the dead to awake and join in the celebration of their lives. I have always found Dia de los Muertos to be a very respectable and insightful tradition, one that represents the perception of death more as an inevitable occurrence that should acknowledge the lives of the deceased in a positive, communal way. Its believed that the dead would be insulted by grief and mourning, and as such, the dead should rather be honored with a lively celebration that commemorates those that have passed.

When comparing Dia de los Muertos to Halloween, obviously very different in their origin and practice presently, death is represented in ways that starkly contrast the other. Halloween seems to follow the idea that death is scary and gruesome (imagine how skeletons and the dead are made to look), whereas during Dia de los Muertos, the dead are depicted more beautifully, often with colorful skulls and clothing. In my opinion, the latter depiction helps, especially with children, to better normalize the occurrence of death in a way that is not feared or avoided. In fact, during this holiday, death is seemingly transformed into a human experience that is natural and beautiful; a time where the dead can be remembered in a lively and festive manner, in which their lives are honored through food and activities that bring everyone together.

The holiday actually occurs over two days, on November 1st and 2nd, in which children and the elderly have respective days that they honored through different symbols and activities. Ultimately the holiday as a whole commemorates those that have passed, but continue to be loved and celebrated.

References:

“Dia de los Muertos.” National Geographic Society. National Geographic , 09 Nov. 2012. Web.

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.

A Child’s View on Dying

     Families are sometimes reluctant to talk about death, and so, children first learn through fantasy: books, movies, games, and television shows. Gareth Matthew’s research showed that young children define death as a sleep-like state that one awakes from. By elementary school, they begin to view death as irreversible, and by the time they’re 9-10 YO, their perception of death becomes more adult-like, a total cessation of mental and physical function.

    Historically, western fairy tales tied death to morality and faith. Bad people stayed dead, and good people are immortalized. Not shielding children gave them the resources to confront the fear of death. Children constructed an idea of the natural death as peaceful. And by the early 20th century, Peter Pan’s childish notion that dying would be “an awfully big adventure” seemed forebode the overarching zealotous sentiment of WWI that confronting death was heroic. Afterwards, death was essentially unmentionable in children’s books and cartoons until the 70’s. With the decline of childhood mortality, talking about death with children became just more and more taboo.

    The majority of death in present-day media for children is portrayed as violent deaths. Specifically, there’s an idea in games where players can cause death or die without much consequence, beyond waiting to respawn. And perhaps an intrinsic aspect of escapist fiction is constructing a “safe” world where death does not apply. But, many children usually can dissociate these ideals from true dying. They form an image of natural death as peaceful, perhaps surrounded by loved ones, and with hope in a kind of immortality. While one route can be disney-esque, portraying resurrection as possible with love, another route in children stories is by showing a character’s death as irreversible, authors further the message that their live’s were valuable and precious.  People must leave when their “job is done”. It’s tragic otherwise. But, they also learn they’re not alone in their grief. Life cut short are central to the narratives children routinely experience. In times of crisis, adults seem to revert back to these preserved childhood definitions. and perhaps discover solace even if they no longer believe in the fantasy.