Category Archives: grief and mourning

Valle de los caídos

One of my favorite aspects of my study abroad experience in Spain last spring was learning about the recent history of the country, mostly pertaining to Franco’s rule. Many Americans are not taught this history in school and I had little to no knowledge of Franco before I arrived in Spain. Francisco Franco or “el Generalissimo”  was head of state for Spain from the late 1930s until he died in 1975. He assumed power after the civil war in the 1930s between the Republicans and the Nationalists (a sect of fascism). Being a military man that fought for Spain in North Africa, he ruled the country with strict rules and regulations. Soon, his rule turned into a dictatorship. Franco’s nationalists were supported by Hitler and Mussolini, which demonstrates the oppression found in the country at the time of the civil war and at the early points of Franco’s reign. The country was closed off to the rest of the world for many years until a tourism boom in the 1950s exposed the country to the other European countries and even the U.S. The oppression and violence Franco used during his rule has had everlasting effects on the Spanish population, which is why his burial and gravesite continue to be so controversial.


photo by Jaume Escofet

photo by emercado90

photo by emercado90

With this quick background knowledge, I imagine you can believe that Franco is a sore spot in history for many of the Spanish. It seems unlikely that his grave would turn into a tourist site right? Well that is the opposite of the case. His funeral and open casket drew huge numbers of people to the cathedral in Madrid. Many people can be seen crying in the news coverage. Another large part of the population that attended his funeral were there to show their hatred and disdain for the dictator. While Franco was still alive, he had Republican prisoners start building his memorial site right outside of Madrid. He purposely chose the spot he did because it is close to the resting places of the Spanish kings at El Escorial. The building is massive. When driving between Madrid and Northwest Spain, you can easily see the Valley of the Fallen from the highway. It has a towering cross and a huge mausoleum complex buried in the hill. As I have heard, after Franco’s death and burial the monument was spun to represent the fallen during the Spanish Civil War. The building is extremely controversial and the Spanish are not sure what to do with the monument.

photo by Javier Lastras

photo by Javier Lastras

Do you allow a building to continue to stand that symbolizes so much oppression? Is it possible to repurpose this gravesite to mean something else? Spain has an intriguing law, la ley de la memoria, that has condemned Franco’s rule and has mandated that all street names and other references to Franco be changed. I believe it is difficult to change this monument because it pertains to death and may disrespect the dead if there are any changes to the monument. The law also prohibits political events to take place at the site of Franco’s grave. This demonstrates that there still are tensions in the community due to the dictatorship and the sight of the grave of a controversial leader can reignite these fractures in society. Because the Valley of the Fallen houses many other victims of the Civil War, it is almost impossible to know how to approach this issue without hurting the individuals involved.  Franco’s grave presents an example of how even after someone dies, their influence can continue and can be perpetuated by how they were buried.

Death on Social Media: A Virtual Living-Dead

When the creators of Facebook first produced a social networking website designed to connect people to people, they simultaneously produced an opportunity to connect people to the deceased. While death on Facebook is only one medium in which recent technological advancement is problematic, its impact is felt in a variety of forms.

Facebook has altered the ways in which death is processed, communicated, and shared. It is a virtual reality that resembles a sort of living reality in problematic ways. Individuals navigate informing groups of people on the death of a loved one through status updates, sharing pictures, and writing on the deceased profile wall. It often elicits an immediate response from individuals whose lives were touched by the deceased in one way or another. It provides a medium for individuals who know the deceased to express their condolences apart from the mortuary ritual, and gives those who do not attend it a place to grieve within a virtual community. Another layer of complexity is added when people interpret others’ Facebook posts or comments on the deceased without knowledge of their relationship to the deceased. While posting something for one person may be cathartic, another may view it as disrespectful. This is one area where individual worldviews can be disputed.

In my experience, posting comments about the cause of death is extremely controversial especially in cases of unexpected deaths. This leads to a number of questions on what is considered respectful to the deceased in virtual forums. Facebook has a peculiar paradoxical quality of seeming both private and public. If we take this problem further we encounter how the mere existence of the deceased profile affects the living.

Facebook acknowledges these kinds of issues by providing information in its Help Center.

Societies develop rituals to deal with the process of death. Is Facebook beneficial or detrimental in allowing unlimited access to grief and mourning?

Comfort in Contact, Solace in Sharing

In New York City, a photographer named Brandon has made a career of photographing people in the streets, recording their story, and posting them together on Facebook. Started in 2010, his Humans of New York Facebook page has since accumulated over 15 million followers and garnered international fame. His candid photographs and either concise or multi-part stories reveal intimate stories to the public, connect individuals all over the world, and create a beautiful network of strangers related only by a common humanity.

Stories portray a range of human experiences- the joys of falling in love, the losses of family members during wars and genocides, the violence in poor neighborhoods, and moments of personal struggle, defeat and successes that will trigger tears in crowded coffeeshops, laughter in silent libraries, and long reflection during the busiest of days. Among the most poignant of stories are the ones revolving around death and dying. One recent post depicts a woman whose spirited smile defies her 86 years of age.

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Although the photographer emphasizes that the fear of death seems to be a human universal, she denies sharing this feeling. Her matter of fact assertion that she does not fear death is attributed to her longing for her husband. Does this woman believe death will reconnect them in the afterlife? Or does the sheer pain of life without him cause her to forsake life itself? Regardless of her reasoning, the yearning for her husband is powerful enough to neutralize a fear so intense it is referred to as “a natural condition of living”,  and readers are left with heart wrenching empathy for this woman’s literally undying love and loss of her husband.

Other stories touch on the spiritual.

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A young woman describes the close relationship she had with her grandfather- a man who deeply valued education. He suffered a major stroke and remained on life support, while his granddaughter went on to college. Her descriptions of the college graduation at his bedside preceeded his death later that night. Whether an eerie coincidence or a divine sign, the news of his granddaughter’s academic successes seemed to provide him with a sense of completion and finality- allowing him to pass from this life to whatever lay ahead.

Stories like these go on for pages. While their faces represent the full range of physical diversity, their words are identical in candor and intimacy. Why are these people so willing to share such tragic, uplifting, and intensely personal moments of their lives with millions of strangers? Is there something inherently palliative about confiding in others? Perhaps the social dialogue revolving around death is a way for us to cope with the dread it invokes. By addressing death, we lessen its power. The thoughts and narratives on platforms like Humans of New York provide vital outlets for survivors to share the burdens of tragedy. By sharing their stories and forming connections, people around the globe are healing from the wounds of mortality.




Can the Intensity of Grief Vary Depending on the Type of Death?

I recently came across a news article about a 9 year old boy who passed away suddenly after collapsing while walking to his neighbor’s home to deliver cookies. The statement released by the boy’s father was heartbreaking. The news report has been shared all over social media, accompanied by heartfelt condolences from strangers across the country. The death of this boy and the response it created in the community made me wonder how the intensity of grief can vary depending on how the death occurred. We discussed in class how the death of a young child results in a different type of grief from both the parents and the community because a child was not given a fair chance at life. This aspect is obvious in the case of this young boy because he had his whole life ahead of him. However, I think the aspect of a sudden death increases the intensity of grief because there are no warning signs. The unknown is many people’s greatest fear and if a death is very unexpected it could create a more intense grief. Thus, the death of a loved one may be even more difficult to accept and move on from. The loss of a child is hard enough and the addition of not being able to prepare for a loss, especially something biological that is out of the child and parent’s control, creates an even worse situation. I think it is easier for us to accept death if there is a concrete reason for the passing of a loved one. A sudden death could result in a parent or loved one blaming themselves, even if there is nothing they could have done to save the deceased.

The Island Crematorium

One of the most eye-opening experiences I’ve had regarding death was on a tour of The Island Crematorium in Cork, Ireland. I’d never been inside a crematorium, or funeral home for that matter, and I was very taken aback by how the layout and architecture of the crematorium impacted one’s thoughts as well as emotions. As one of the directors led us around, I found that the atmosphere was very peaceful and seemed to be separated from the outside world; perhaps this was due to the high walls and tunnels or that it is on an island. The director took us into the different sections and rooms of the crematorium and explained what occurred or happened during funerals. He discussed how a ceremony would typical run and even showed us what the audience would see when the body would be taken back to be cremated at the end of the ceremony. The casket laid in a little cut out section of the wall in the front of the room and painted glass doors book-ended each side. Once the ceremony ended, the doors closed together, hiding the casket. To see this acted out, it was very surreal and also I felt like the closing of the doors could act as a type of closure for the friends and family of the deceased. The director took us then to a room with all the urns people could choose from. It was interesting to see the variety in the different kinds of urns. They ranged from small boxes, to vase-like urns or decorative jars and there was even one that was inside of a teddy bear. This tour made me think about how important it is for us, as humans, to deal with death through ritual and made me reflect on how I think about death.

Here is a link to the site of The Island Crematorium.  It has a really nice virtual tour of The Island Crematorium and I definitely recommend using it!

Acknowledging Death with a Cup of Tea

Discussing death in the United Kingdom was previously considered a taboo topic, despite its inevitability for everyone. Death has always been and will be, an event in which one finds themselves experiencing first hand and/or through friends and family, yet discussing it openly is not socially ‘correct’. This attitude of not addressing the topic both before and after it has occurred is slowly shifting as discussed in the article ‘Anyone for Tea and Sympathy? Death Cafes Embrace Last Taboo’ by Harriet Sherwood. Originating in London, death cafes have begun appearing in various countries to provide a safe space in which one can discuss anything relating to death (pre or post). These cafes are an innovative and well intentioned idea in my opinion as they bring about a topic that most people do not feel comfortable talking to with other people or feel wrong for even bringing up in fear being the harbinger of dark subjects. The ability to be in a safe space to talk to complete strangers (or friends) allows people to explore topics they may not have even thought about, such as after death procedures and preferences.  Death cafes are able to bring light and perhaps more lighthearted talk, on morbid issues and help to reduce the stigma and fear that permeates the process of dying. Unlike a wake and more like an AA meeting, people are able to participate at their own leisure and structure their meetups like an open forum.

In addition to death cafes, the topic of death is also being embraced through conventions such as the Ideal Death Show and websites like Final Fling. The convention weekend of ‘celebration’ for death is designed with the intention of allowing people to explore after death options such as customized urns/coffins, types of bereavement, discussion panels and other ways in which to handle death in a healing fashion rather than a silenced mourning. Websites like Final Fling are designed to allow people to set up basic procedures surrounding death and helping with their end-of-life planning. Conventions, end-of-life websites, and death cafes are meant to embrace the losses people may have experienced through death by acknowledging it as well as providing persons with company who share a similar loss. They all three also serve to reclaim one’s individual preferences and conceptions from the professionals who have inadvertently (or intentionally) designed the hushed, coveted treatments of the dead.

It is unclear where this growing acknowledgment of death in everyday lives and public spheres arose but there are a few theories presented in the article. Some believe it derives from the baby boomer generation currently aging and beginning to face their large mortality rate. Others claim the openness is required due to the reduction of religious guidance (influences from the church) and beliefs of afterlife. Another theory is that is has become more socially acceptable to be ‘vulnerable’ in public versus stoic. I agree more with the last theory however, that people are rejecting the “power dynamics of death and dying” and seeking to have more self-determination in societies where we have cleanly organized and dictated how death should be confined and treated. Humans are curious by nature and the idea to challenge common conventions and discuss taboo topics such as death in a previously thought of “happy space” appeals to them.

The article ends with the thoughts that discussing death is not the same as wishing for it- a notion that previously preoccupied minds and is actively being altered through specific measures in order to reduce its taboo status. Additionally, that by addressing death openly, humans are accepting its inevitability, which I think is a step in the right direction in order for healing to take place as well as for people to become more comfortable with end-of-life decisions that are extremely difficult for the survivors to handle without guidance.

Article available here:


Emory Shooting

In the past two years the threat of a school shooting has gone up by 158%. Social media allows students to send messages faster and to a greater audience. Last weekend, fall break 2015, a 21 year old Oxford student sent a threat through Yik Yak saying “I’m shooting up the school. Tomorrow. Stay in your rooms. The ones on the quad are the ones who will go first.”

I want to discuss why have student become more prone to this violence? Is death being taken more lightly because it is so much easier to purchase a gun? Is it because we see these killing occur all around the country so often? I am not sure. It seems to me that these occurrences seem like a fantasy until they occur close to you. I was personally taken aback by the whole thing. After watching the video it made me angry how lightheartedly the students took the threat. It is said that the threat was a joke, but killing is not a joke. The students who were interviewed kept laughing as they answered the questions, one even claimed that he had not taken it seriously. All of it is fun and games until parents end up mourning their children.

To the young adults of today it was common to see threats and death everywhere in the news, it was simple to become numb. Television brainwashes this generation into becoming blind to the cries of people on the screen. It has become such a problem that they are no longer morally repulsed by the idea of getting a gun and murdering their fellow students. There are so many issues surrounding this movement of violence; the ease of getting a gun, the ability to shoot it, the idea of going on a website and posting the plans. It seems to me that the people who keep shooting up schools are drawn to posting things online announcing it, all they want is recognition in a sea of people. The problem being how do we stop this.


Pregnancy Loss

In her article, 7 empathy cards for someone who’s lost a pregnancy. Because it’s hard to know what to say, Laura Willard presents the idea of “[acknowledging] the loss of a pregnancy the way we [address] any significant loss.” This is an idea that we have recently discussed in class but this article gives new insight on how to help those who have come face to face with this type of loss. A miscarriage is something that as a society we have a hard time addressing because most people really just don’t know what to do or what to say to those who have faced this type of loss. I am sure that most people understand that this can be a painful and tragic situation but coming up with the right words to say to a couple or individual that has lost a pregnancy can be impossible at times. For this reason, Dr. Jessica Zucker has come up with empathy cards that could be given to those who have lost a pregnancy. These cards sum up the words that many of us have difficulty coming up with. They are suited to all kind of tastes and I love the idea because it really helps bring this problem to light. My personal favorite is the one that finishes off with “I may not always know the right thing to say, but I’m going to try. I love you like crazy.” It perfectly summarizes the “loss for words” problem that surrounds this topic but offers a good approach to ease into the subject.


According to the article, roughly 20% of pregnancies end in loss. That means that one in five couples or individuals face this. That is an overwhelmingly high statistic but to some extent, there is no working around it. As the article says, that’s just molecular biology, in other words, that’s life, or at least the consequences of trying to make it. These cards help “change the culture of conversation – and lack of it – around miscarriage, pregnancy loss, and stillbirth” and will hopefully inspire people to face it with a little more grace.

Link to article:


A Novel Popular Culture Perspective on Death

When thinking about a lot of the pop culture representations of death, I often think they are over-dramatized or not emotional enough. One of the television shows which I often cite as having the best representations of death is the HBO show Six Feet Under. I started watching Six Feet Under a few years after it went off the air when I was in high school, partially because I remember my father watching it when I was a child and being told to leave the living room when it came on because of the very raw images of death and the way in which death is dealt with on a daily basis. Because of its overwhelming theme of death in all forms, it is a difficult show to handle and comprehend for a child. As an adult watching the show, it is even still difficult to handle at points, but also interweaves the humor of life in with tragedy. It is a show all about death and interpersonal relationships, but also addresses the fundamental human experience and issue from a novel perspective. The premise of the show is focused on a family that owns a funeral home in Los Angeles and all of the family drama that occurs after the patriarch (the mortician) dies. All of his three children deal with his death in a different way and these first initial reactions to his death inform the entire course of the five season show.

The show is controversial in its constant images of death, but also in turn downplays the taboo-ness of death by addressing the issues inherent in the life experience straight on with a great level of honesty. Never before have I seen a scripted show that discusses death on such a philosophical and emotional level as Six Feet Under. Even the theme song and accompanying imagery contains images of cadavers, gravestones, and plant-matter wilting away. The whole show has an underlying tone of death with dark, subdued colors and lifeless images of LA streets. Each episode begins with the death of an individual who eventually ends up in the funeral home owned by the family and interacting with the people embalming them and preparing them for the funeral. Thus, the show poses an interesting paradox about how we, as humans, often feel that the dead are not completely dead and communication is often still possible with someone who is no longer living. The discussion between the dead and the mortuary workers allows the dead to be seen as more than the dead that they must prepare for the funeral. Also, the show presents the mortuary purposes that are often hidden from families and the public by showing what happens during the embalming process or the plastic surgery used to make the dead look more alive.

Death in popular culture, especially television, is often used as a plot device to end or further the storyline of one of the characters. Six Feet Under does not utilize this strategy in the usual sense, but rather uses death as a metaphor for life and emphasizes how the obsession with death and funeral practices consume one’s life if there is no acceptance of death. The inevitability of death is addressed so wholeheartedly in Six Feet Under that one cannot help, but to examine one’s personal perception of death and the death of family members. Unlike shows such as CSI that focus on the biomedical and criminal aspect of after death, Six Feet Under focuses on the philosophical and emotional which is a respite from the usual treatment of death as detached from life. I think that Six Feet Under provides an antidote to the views of death currently portrayed in a lot of television shows as violent or bio-medically defined.

Side note: Six Feet Under famously has one the most well crafted finales. In the spirit of not spoiling I will not reveal what happens, but if you want to see a beautiful ending to a TV show all about death look it up!

The City Museum of St. Louis: Perpetuating Life After Death

“Do not be too timid and squeamish about your actions. All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better. What if they are a little coarse and you may get your coat soiled or torn? What if you do fail, and get fairly rolled in the dirt once or twice? Up again, you shall never be so afraid of a tumble.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson

September 26, 2015 marked the four-year anniversary of the death of Bob Cassilly, a renowned sculptor, creative director, and entrepreneur-extraordinaire. His accidental death, at the age of 61, occurred while building his project Cementland. Cassilly was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri—where he applied his active imagination and passion towards creating places in which joy can be shared and realized by the collective-individual.

Perhaps the crowning jewel of his legacy is The City Museum. Founded in 1997, this unique place serves all-ages as an urban playground dedicated to co-explorative, co-creational learning. The City Museum encompasses many pedagogical aspects—architecture, history, science, religion, culture, art, and various artisan crafts intermix for the sake of experimentation and fun.

On the airplane wing, The City Museum, St. Louis, MO. Photograph by Brianna Murphy.

On the airplane wing, The City Museum, St. Louis, MO. Photograph by Brianna Murphy.

Bob Cassilly’s death inspired his work companions, devotedly dubbed the Cassilly Crew, to maintain his legacy and just keep building. Bob Cassilly left a mark on the community of St. Louis—a mark that is a gift of perpetual opportunity to engage growth, learning, and understanding in a manner that provokes the imagination in the most remarkable of ways.

I first visited The City Museum in November of 2007, during an era of Bob Cassilly’s vitalized creation. Upon my recent re-visit in August of 2015, I felt shock and awe for the sheer amount of change that had taken place during the time in-between. The staff’s reaction is a story in and of itself. They took great reverence and pride in how their actions reflected the legacy of Bob Cassilly. Rather than swallowing the negative emotions whole, his death ignited a zest for carrying on with his dream and best intentions. The evidence: the perpetual construction, commitment, prosperity, and devotion of the community towards benevolent engagement represented by The City Museum.

Death is a complex process constructed through biological and socio-cultural definitions. The lines that connect these processes of meaning-making become arbitrary as we delve further into the processes of death itself. Ultimately, the way in which we die is intimately linked to how we live. When we ask what constitutes a good or bad death, we expose how the concept of death is known and shaped by predispositions and expectations. Bob Cassilly’s sudden and unexpected death was bad, but the good of his life is exhibited through all that it inspires. His death prevails through what he chose to make with his life.