Category Archives: grief and mourning

Disparate Attitudes Towards Death 

             In an article entitled, Endings: A Sociology of Death and Dying, Michael Kearl discusses the statistics behind death. I was shocked to find that the rate of suicide among men aged 85 and older is 155% higher than of the age group aged 15-24. I found this extraordinarily telling of elderly citizens opinions toward death and wondered if the recent increase parallels the development of life sustaining technology. Are these statistics telling us something about American’s desire to die in control? Do they reflect a failing system of geriatric care? Or does it reveal something more profound about the dwindling quality of life as one ages?

             In August of this year, renowned neurologist, researcher and writer Oliver Sacks passed away after being diagnosed with cancer. Upon learning the diagnosis he published an article in the New York Times entitled, My Own Life, where he reflected on his accomplishments and philosophized about the end of his life. He compared his thoughts on death to those of philosopher David Hume who wrote, “It is difficult to be more detached from life than I am at present.” Sacks elaborated on Hume’s idea stating, “Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life. On the contrary, I feel intensely alive…” He goes on to detail the life events that brought him joy and reflect on what he has yet to accomplish. Months later, he composed another statement that was published in the Times where he concluded, “And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life — achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.”

In light of the courage and genuine contentedness of Sack’s words, I found it difficult then, to understand why elderly suicide statistics are exceedingly high. What could foster such a drastic difference of attitude towards one’s death? Is there a biological explanation why some people desire death to the point of suicide while others publish articles on their deathbed asserting they are not yet finished with life? Could this be an effect of education, economics or religion? Investigating attitudes towards death would educate society about this oftentimes-taboo topic and hopefully allow us to view our own lives as the “enormous privilege and adventure” that Oliver Sacks did.



Ghanaian “Fantasy Caskets”

While the idea of being buried in a casket spans multiple societies, Ghanaians have put a modern twist on this tradition. “Fantasy coffins,” as they have been dubbed by reporters, are caskets shaped like something relevant to the person being buried. From cars to animals to mobile phones or even a camera, Ghanaians are requesting increasingly diverse casket shapes. Just what do these unique caskets represent? For some families, the casket shape represents what the person loved to do- a pineapple shaped coffin for a man who grew pineapples, one that is fish shaped for a fisherman, etc. Others can represent some sort of ambition- a woman who had never flown before was buried in a casket shaped like a plane. The choice of casket design can be a reflection of status, with some being shaped as luxury cars or other high end products. Of course, some people choose a more religious design. One carpenter in Accra told BBC reporters one of his most popular designs is the Bible.

Robot casket

An example of a “fantasy casket” shaped like a robot. Photo credit: “Robot casket” by sshreeves licensed by CC 4.0

While the casket designs may seem lighthearted, Ghanaians still take death very seriously. By purchasing an elaborate casket, it is a way of showing respect for the family member who has passed. Also, the price tag of these custom made caskets is very high, starting at around 1000 Ghanaian cedi or approximately $250; many Ghanaians make this much in a year. Casket design can also be a point of contention among the family members of the dead if the deceased never left a clear indicator of what they would like their casket to be shaped liked, with family members disagreeing about what design is most appropriate to take the body into the afterlife. However, most families can agree that the purpose of the casket is to provide a respectful and meaningful vessel for the deceased.

Death in the Media

In the era of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram it seems as though images are constantly being uploaded, shared, and “liked.”  While most publicly shared photos are flattering selfies or snapshots of kittens and babies, they occasionally showcase a darker subject matter—death.

Two weeks ago a photo went viral. In this photo, the lifeless body of a little Syrian boy, later identified as 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, is pictured facedown in the sand of a Turkish beach, his small Velcro shoes still strapped to his feet. Aylan and his family had been traveling to Greece in order to flee the civil unrest in Turkey when the boat they were on capsized, killing several passengers including Aylan, his older brother, and their mother.  Their bodies were later found and  the infamous image of Aylan’s was captured by photographer Nilulfer Demir, so to “make his scream heard.”

Water color version of the now famous photo taken of Aylan Kurdi's body. Soruce:

Water color version of the now famous photo taken of Aylan Kurdi’s body. Source:

Although it has not been long, several news sites including The Wall Street Journal claim that this image will join a collection of photos, such as ones from the Great Depression and the Vietnam War, thought to have changed history. Both David Cameron and Manuel Valls, Prime Minsters of the United Kingdom and France respectively, have increased efforts to support and provide resources for refugees in response to this photo.  Why is it though, that despite the countless photos of Syrian refugees that have been published, this one has made such an impact? If I had to guess, the answer revolves around death, especially that of a young child.

In an article from NPR, Los Angeles Times editor Kim Murphy admits that she is usually hesitant to publish photographs of corpses but her take on this photo was different.  It is not violent or graphic, but rather heartbreaking in a way that makes people stop and think. I think the photo of Aylan poses a lot of questions about publishing images of death online and in the media.  Is there a benefit to displaying such images or is it insensitive?


Mandela’s Funeral Attracts Hundreds and the Famous: An Opportunity for South African locals?

Nelsen Mendela continues to be a symbol of freedom and democracy for all, and is respected and revered by many. His legacy easily makes him extremely famous and his funeral is attracting the attendance of several key individuals including President Bill Clinton, President Obama, and and several other dignitaries. Several world leaders will be in South Africa for this extremely public event, and this is not a surprise to me. It seems as though our culture today expects large, lavish funerals for those who are famous or have contributed greatly to society, and that the public has automatically demanded a right to grieve along with family of the dead. What is interesting about this to me  is the fact that several, several people are going to benefit economically from this momentous event. Suddenly, Mandela regalia has a large demand, and South African locals are benefiting greatly from the influx of visitors.

In the article above, it is said that Mandela’s funeral will be an event for hundreds and it is attracting the attendance of several world-renown icons. South Africa is expected to receive hundreds, even thousands of visitors who will be coming to pay homage to the great leader. Nelson Mandela, at the age of 95, passed away earlier this week, on Thurs Dec 5th, and since then there have been grand plans being made for his funeral. As discussed in class, there is great attention payed to the funeral services of the famous, and this funeral is bound to be a grand event. His funeral is expected to be one week long, and is to included days of prayer and mourning, among other activities.

What is not spoken about is the industry that will benefit from this funeral. The article hints at the business that the state airline, South Africa Airlines, will receive. They will be providing private chartering of flights for several dignitaries to attend, and they will accommodate hundreds of people who will be entering the country in the next week or so.  They also mentioned the increase in Mandela merchandise, such as shirts, posters, pictures, or other regalia. This, along with the revenue from hotels, restaurants, or other services, will be enough for the South African locals to benefit from. In many senses, Mandela’s death will benefit several individuals.

This is similar to the deaths of recent public figures; Micheal Jackson, Whitney Houston, or Princess Diana. This is slightly problematic, but yet a fact of life; people benefit from the death of others. Especially famous people. Almost anything can become a commodity, can’t it?


How Close is Too Close?

Yesterday I watched the TLC show My Strange Addiction after getting home from our Death and Burial class. My timing has never been so perfect. The episode that was on was about Casie, a 26-year-old widow who became addicted to eating her dead husband’s ashes after his premature death. According to Casie, she first tasted his ashes when after spilling some on her hand. Instead of washing the remains off, she decided to eat them so as not to waste them. Ever since that moment, Casie has eaten a total of one pound of her husband’s ashes. The most interesting part of the story is that Casie sought help from the TLC show because she understood that the ashes would run out eventually. She feared that the total loss of her husband once the six pounds of his ashes were completely consumed would be too much for her to handle.

This case is extremely interesting because the thought of the physical harm that the ashes could cause to her body is overshadowed by Casie’s intense need to be close with her late husband. As many of us know, human ashes include many toxins, including carcinogenic formaldehyde, which is used to preserve the body for funeral rituals before the actual cremation. Surely a part of Casie always knew that eating her husband’s ashes was not healthy, regardless of the extent to which she understood this. However, when asked about this possible physical harm, Casie expressed that she never worried about it. To her, the ashes could never be as harmful to her body as the death of her husband was to her soul.

Casie’s story offers a few ideas to think about. Firstly, why did Casie feel that she needed to eat her husband’s remains? In her interviews, Casie repeatedly talks about how she feels a bond with her husband that she has missed. But this would only be in her mind. I don’t think that there can be any physiological explanation for the happiness that eating her husband’s remains brings to Casie, other than a possible high from the chemicals. Secondly, at what point did Casie realize she needed help? It is actually extremely admirable that Casie was able to understand that she needed help. I could imagine that someone in such a sad emotional state would have the insight to seek help!

In Casie’s case, the grief of her lost loved one never came to an end. As we have discussed before, societies have burial rituals in order to transport an individual who has lost a loved one from a state of extreme grief and bereavement to a state of acceptance. Whether it was due to the inability of her society or herself to facilitate a successful burial ritual for her husband, Casie’s grief was never brought to a close. It is possible that after her husband’s cremation, Casie did reach a state of understanding and acceptance. However, after tasting her husband’s ashes, all acceptances were shattered. In the end, Casie was treated for a mental illness and was prescribed anti-depressants and talk therapy sessions.

This is not the first time that such a case has been discussed. There are multiple articles online about spouses who choose to eat their dead partners’ cremated remains. Most of them say it is because their grief is allayed because of the act. Would there still be a reason to treat these individuals for a mental illness if these remains did not pose a physical threat? Is it really that bad to want to eat your dead partner?




Space Burials

Aside from health purposes, burials are widely recognized as the most common and appropriate ritual to bring closure to the family and to demonstrate respect for the dead. With the advent of new technology, new methods to fulfill the aforementioned have manifested. In fact, most recently, a unique opportunity for the bereaved proves to be a viable option to memorialize the life of the deceased. Elysium Space is preparing to extend their mortuary services by launching human ashes into space. It is the hope of the company that by 2014 they will begin sending cremated human parts into space via a memorial spaceflight.

It is estimated that the cost of a space burial will be set at $2,000, much lower than the national average for burials in the United States and thus making it a more affordable option. According to Elysium Space, customers receive an ash capsule that will contain a “symbolic portion” of ashes and on which they can engrave a limited number of initials. Once the capsule arrives at the company’s launch site, they will engrave a personalized remembrance message to be attached to the spacecraft. Finally, the capsule is launched into space only to return to Earth a few months later from orbit, where it will ultimately burn up. The most captivating part about this space burial experience is that the bereaved can track their loved one’s ashes while in orbit through a mobile application. Also, when the ashes burn up while re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere, it will resemble a shooting star.

This is a very interesting proposal and so I look forward to seeing the success rate of such a unique mortuary experience. It is reported that there have been interests for the services of Elysium Space from people in both the United States and Japan. A concern, though, of many individuals will probably be the fact that by launching these particles into space, we would be adding to the already significant space polluting issue. Also, there will also be a number of those who think that this is another method of making money off of the dead, perpetuating  the use of practices that commercialize death. So, not all will be thrilled with such an innovation. However, space burials prove to be an economic advantage to those who cannot afford a traditional funeral service and they also provide a memorable experience that should guide the bereaved during their period of grief, but also help to facilitate the healing process. I do think that it may be wise for the company to offer cremation services in addition to the launch of the memorial spaceflight. Even so, space burials are an alternative that definitely should not be ignored.

For more information about the Elysium Space Company and space burials, follow the link below to access the Launching to Heaven: Space Burial Company to Send Human Ashes into Orbit article:

Acceptance and Denial of Death

In the season 8 finale of Grey’s Anatomy, a plane with many of the leading doctors of Seattle Grace crashed in the middle of nowhere.  Everyone is injured and scattered throughout the forest they crashed in.  Meredith Grey, Mark Sloan, and Cristina Yang are searching for Meredith’s half-sister Lexie.  They find her crushed under a piece of the plane.  Although Mark, Meredith, and Cristina are injured as well, they try to move the piece of the plane off of Lexie.  Realizing that they can’t remove it, Sloan holds her hand while she’s dying.  She realizes and understands that she’s going to die and tells him that, but he refuses to believe it.  He tells her that she isn’t going to die because they are going to spend the rest of their lives together.  Eventually, Lexie passes away while still holding onto Sloan’s hand.

When I watched this season finale in the past, I didn’t think much of it.  It was sad that Lexie passed away because she was a major character in the series, but I didn’t realize how she was accepting her death while Sloan was in denial of it.  It raises the question of how to console your loved ones when you know that you’re dying and they don’t want to accept it.  Are you supposed to attempt to comfort them as much as possible? Or is it okay to pass away knowing that at least you accepted your own death even if your loved ones didn’t?  Most people would probably say that being at peace with your death is considered “good,” but I wonder if that is valued more than whether or not your loved ones are at peace with it.  I also wonder if people who accept their death feel unsettled if their family or spouses don’t accept it as well.

The Funeral Selfie

A fellow archaeology focused student at Tulane found this:

The fad of taking selfies spreads to going to funerals.

As odd as this is. It shows some expected views of grief i.e. some of the girls in the photos frowning, dressing in black, and the captions with “cried off all my makeup”. But it all seems so contrived and the comments on my friend’s post of this were mostly negative concerning these people’s lack of respect for a funeral, or that this is another reason they have lost faith in humanity. Maybe this is another way for grief expression for this generation. It obviously does not fit with many others’ view of grief and expression of it. How do these pictures differ from our prescribed views of how to  grieve and how are they trying to conform?

Taiwanese Funeral Strippers

Most would consider a traditional funeral service to feature mourning, commemorations, prayers, and rituals including gift-giving. Gifts may include flowers, mementos, money and things of that sort. Customs certainly vary between cultures and religious affiliations. However, if we search far and beyond we may be surprised by some of the funeral practices we discover. Let us turn our attention to say, East Asia. Interestingly enough, in the rural parts of Taiwan, a typical funeral service involves colorful lights, loud hollering and showgirls, or more commonly known as funeral strippers. Now, most would find that funerals and stripping should have no relation whatsoever. I would also assume that many would question how funeral stripping is in any way beneficial to the memory of the deceased. According to Taiwanese culture, death should encourage members of society to celebrate, rather than persistently mourn the loss of a loved one. Pole dancing and stripping in front of men, women, children, and the dead corpse, during the funeral procession, is another method of ancestral worship. Funeral stripping is a common practice used to help overcome the grieving process, honor the dead person and most importantly to “appease the wandering spirits,” the latter reason often the most quoted.

There has certainly been a considerable amount of opposition towards this Taiwanese practice, including from those who reside in the urban centers of Taiwan. There have been efforts to ban funeral stripping in Taiwan. Many claim that those who either engage in or approve of such practices are clearly struggling with the separation between sexuality and religion. The Young Turks, an online show, covered a story on this ritual practice and hosts, Ana Kasparian and Steve Oh, brought up a very good point as to why this ritualistic practice became so popular in rural Taiwan. They stated that urban centers do not need funeral strippers because plenty of sexual outlets are available to the public at their discretion. Rural areas, on the other hand, are not as developed as their counterparts and are perhaps more sexually deprived therefore it is no wonder the opportunity to include sexuality in traditional funeral customs was rapidly embraced. In fact, those who participate in funeral stripping claim that this ritual is not only an offering to gods and dead spirits but it also makes for a more entertaining  and memorable experience.

Click here for TheYoung Turk story on funeral stripping in Taiwan:

The concept of anti-structure definitely applies to this ritual performed by funeral strippers. This practice was carefully planned to take place during a very serious and traditionally structured ceremony. As we now have been informed, many cultures find that it is during this time of death and the preparation of the dead corpse, chaos and disorder, typically considered to be unacceptable, become part of the norm. Individuals do not have to seek approval to exhibit irrational behavior. The death of a person can be a very depressing and emotional period for those related to or in some way impacted by the deceased. I am certain the usual perception of mourning is not completely absent from Taiwanese funerals. However, Taiwanese funerals are more so characterized by very abnormal social conduct, or anti-structure. Although this practice is considered taboo in many communities, those who acknowledge this practice find it essential and extremely valuable to their traditional funeral rites.

Please refer to the following Huffington Post article for more details about Taiwanese funeral stripping:

Animal Mummies: How we cherish pets beyond life

In the time of ancient Egypt, mummification was a common tradition for the treatment of human remains after death. Less frequently discussed is the inclusion of animal remains in the practice of this rite. Mummified animals were often meant as offerings to the gods or goddesses, of which they were representative (cats for Bastet, crocodiles for Sebek, baboons for Thoth, just to cite a few examples), and were even bred specifically for such a sacrificial purpose. But animals were also mummified for other intents and motives.

Cat mummies and Bastet statues at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

Cat mummies and Bastet statues at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

The practice of mummification was used for the remains of the cherished pets of Egyptian individuals, signifying the affection that Egyptians, just like modern Americans, feel towards their animal companions. Although this may be a matter of projection in terms of attributing our values to the lives of the ancient Egyptians, evidence would suggest that the emotion, the feeling of mourning felt with the passing of a human relative, could also be felt in response to the death of a non-human associate, a pet. In these cases, the Egyptians performed the same rituals with respect to the preservation of remains on animals as were used on humans.

Crocodile mummies at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

Crocodile mummies at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

I think this topic of animal mummification provides an opportunity to reflect on how our society deals with the death of pets, and in which ways we differ with and are the same as the Egyptians. I would argue just on my own personal, anecdotal account that we lack the same sort of tradition to deal with this aspect of life (and death). Funerals for pets are relatively infrequent and are often not regarded with the same formality and ritual as that of a human. I would assume these differences might stem from our contradictory perspectives on the state of the after-life. For the Egyptians, their pets would join them as companions in the next realm of paradise. But I am not aware of any similar concept held by those who believe in the Heaven of the Christian faith.

I also know of a semi-recent small trend that has developed with the taxidermizing of pets, so that their memory is practically frozen in place. I thought it was amusing when I visited the museums in Vienna, that in Naturhistorisches Museum is Empress Maria Theresa’s stuffed dog. So in a way, taxidermy of pets is almost a more modern form of pet mummification.


I would also be interested in hearing the perspectives of individuals with other cultural backgrounds on how the treatment of animal corpses differs not just between two societies from vastly separated time periods, but also within a more modern, contemporary context.