Category Archives: ritual

The Basics of Mass Suicide

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.

 

When Expectations Do Not Match Reality

Over the course of this class we have read and seen many examples of how different people relate to death. That being said, there has always been a sort of unspoken rule that discussing death should always be done in a respectful and mature way. What happens when that is completely turned on its head?

Well adorned casket set up for viewing

Casket, Museum of Funeral Customs, Springfield, Illinois, 2006 by Robert Lawton

The musical Fun Home has a lot of layers to discuss. It follows the true life story of Alison Bechdel, an American cartoonist who grew up in her father’s funeral home. The musical goes on to follow Alison discovering her sexuality, dealing with her closeted gay father’s infidelity to her mother, and ultimately her father’s apparent suicide. There is a lot to unpack there. However, one of the most striking moments for me, the moment that really turns all expectations on its head, is the song “Come to The Fun Home.” This song is the imaginary advertisement child age Alison and her siblings try to make for their family’s funeral home. 

Photo by mohamed_hassan

When you witness children running across stage, singing a happy and childlike melody, but having the lyrics “You’ve got to bury your mama / But you don’t know where to go” or “Our caskets (ooo) / Are satin-lined (ooo)” you cannot help but laugh. This humor comes from the inherent disconnect between children playing around and a song about funeral home practices. The catchy little rhymes continue as they mention that the Bechdel Funeral Home has folding chairs, smelling salts, ample parking, and more. It goes so drastically against our perceptions of a funeral home and those who work there that it is hard to even frame them in the same mental image. The fact is we think of funeral homes as somber locations and playing children are practically the symbol of life.

Now why else is this so shocking? For one our western society has the tendency to try to hide or diminish death from young children, not let them play sword fight with aneurysm hooks. This openness with death with those so young immediately sets off alarm bells. Also there is a lack of reverence to death within the lyrics, the staging (the kids playing on a casket), and the melody that completely disorients our normal perception of the processes and rituals surrounding death. All of this leaves the audience hysterically stunned.  What I believe the general public should take from this moment within the play Fun Home is the reminder that death is not inherently somber. Our relationship with death is entirely a societal convention and while it is not necessarily bad to be conditioned in such a way, it is important to recognize that it is there.

Watching Fun Home was one of the most powerful theatre experiences I’ve had in recent years and I highly recommend either seeing the show, reading the graphic novel it was based on, or listening to the soundtrack if anyone is interested. Keep your eye out for this particular scene and see if it challenges how you view death.

Death Machine

Right to die groups over the year have tried to portray death as a positive experience. They want to desensitize the general public to death, removing the negative connotations of assisted suicide. Dr. Philip Nitschke is looking to revolutionize the controversial topic of euthanasia with his death machine, the Sarco.

In 1997, Nitschke founded Exit International, a nonprofit that advocates for the legislation of euthanasia. This followed him administering the first legal, lethal, voluntary injection to a terminally ill patient in history. This occurred under the short-lived Australian Rights of Terminally Ill Act, but it shifted his perspective of self-inflicted suicide. Rather than being a concept reserved for the terminally ill, he believed that any rational adult should be allowed to experience a “good” death. Modern medicine can keep individuals alive for far longer than previously possible, leaving people in deteriorating states.

The majority of Exit Internationals members are the elderly, providing them with information on how to die with dignity. What Nitschke is currently striving for is to provide individuals with a death that is more than just “dignified.” He wants the passing into the afterlife to be a euphoric experience. Therefore, the Sarco was designed to have a spaceship-like aesthetic to make it seem as if an individual is “journeying to the great beyond.” This would remove the stigma that was often associated with the doctor’s prior machines. The previous inventions tended to reinforce the macabre stereotype of death, which served to put people off. Rather than dying strapped to a plastic bag, an individual can choose where and when to initiate the procedure.

The main draw behind the Sarco is that in concept it can be transported anywhere. No longer will people be restricted to hospitals to administer the euthanasia, they will have the opportunity to take into account the critical factor of where you die. The process is also painless and provides one of the most soothing feelings before death. The machine euthanizes individuals through hypoxia, where the oxygen level is lowered to the point that a person can still breath easily to receive the intoxicating sensation. The user then subsequently looses consciousness and dies.

The process to utilize the machine is also very personal, limiting outside interventions. A user has to fill out a survey which declares if they are mentally fit to make the decision, and they then receive a 24-hour access code to use at any Sarco machine in the world. When the code is entered at a device, the process commences. It’s an exciting concept, providing individuals with a possible alternative that could make their experience more personal and unique. In the end, it allows individuals the opportunity to achieve what they could consider being a “good” death on their own terms.

References:

https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/sarco-death-philip-nitschke_us_5abbb574e4b03e2a5c7853ca

Meet the Elon Musk of Assisted Suicide

 

 

Putting the Fun in Funeral

What describes your life? Is it a camera? A football? Maybe a plane? I have a hard time picking an object that sums up my life, but some people have the perfect idea in mind.

That is where Paa Joe from the Ga tribe in coastal Ghana comes in. Unlike modern Americans, people in Ghana celebrate death and commonly commemorate it with elaborate and unique coffins. The living aim to honor their dead with coffins that represent their legacy. Paa Joe, after almost five decades in the business, now works with his son to handcraft these highly sought after caskets. His son explains that their coffins

“remind people that life continues after death, that when someone dies they will go on in the afterlife, so it is important that they go in style.”

Ghanian families and surrounding community members place much value on showcasing the part that contemporary African art plays life and death.  They strongly believe that the dead must be buried in something that represents the role they played while alive, in order to remember where they come from and what they have left behind as they move into the afterlife. Although these handmade coffins can cost upwards of $15,000, people of the Ga tribe believe that it is more honorable to live in lifelong debt because of the burial ceremony than it is to cut the costs of a proper funeral. In conjunction with the idea that the funeral is the culmination of all life events, it is extremely vital to allocate all resources to executing this ritual in the proper fashion.

I find it very interesting that although the casket appearance is intended to encapsulate someone’s entire life, the people within the casket actually have no say in deciding what that object will be. Family and friends are tasked with the job of determining what they commission Paa Joe to create. What object will a part time fisherman, talented artist, soccer-loving father be placed in?

Reducing a person to the representation of a singular object goes hand in hand with the impersonal nature of the cadaver. The cadaver may symbolize the person and the life they once had, but in itself is bereft of any form of personhood. Memories and stories take the place of the body in terms of remembering who the person was and what they were like. These exquisite coffins are by all means quite impressive, but many could argue that they are unnecessary. After 3-4 days of public display, they are lowered six feet under the ground and are never seen again. Culturally they still uphold values of social order and religion, but physically they play a minimal role in the end of life.

All things considered, would you want to be buried in a fantasy coffin, and if so…what would it be?

For more information and pictures, click here or watch this short clip.

References

https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4496430

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/nov/24/paa-joe-ghana-fantasy-coffin-artist-casket-funeral

https://www.cnn.com/2016/10/14/africa/gallery/ghana-coffins-mpa/index.html

 

 

 

 

Death of the Northern White Rhino

This week, the last male northern white rhino, Sudan, finally died from age-related complications along with a newly developed infection on the back of his right leg. To prevent the complete death of the species, Sudan had been kept under the protection of armed guards at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. Conservationists expected his death, but regardless, his passing still shocked the world.

Though most news outlets have reported that Sudan died at the age of 45, most chose to omit the fact that he was euthanized. Would it be that the news agencies are trying to steer the public perception of Sudan’s death away from the conceptual “bad” death? The problem with this is that according to Michael C. Kearl, Sudan died according to the predetermined scripture. By definition, his passing should be considered good as it was an “on time” and those closest to him had felt the warning of his death. This serves to bring up the idea that his putting down might have been left out of major news stories due to the negative stigma associated with human euthanasia. The putting down of animals is something that has garnered near universal support over the past couple of decades, even receiving approval from PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). Though Sudan is not considered a human being, the status he had garnered before his death on social media and in the news granted him the title of essentially a celebrity. Therefore, due to the social stigma associated with assisted suicide and euthanasia for human beings, certain news outlets might have chosen to omit this information due to Sudan’s transcendence of status.

The dismay felt by the world is not solely directed at his death but the “death” of the northern white rhino species as a whole. The issue that arises with Sudan’s death is while it should serve as the species’ death warrant, the intervention of medical practices and technologies are complicating the process. Similar to an extent to the case of Terri Schiavo, developing technologies are making individuals question whether this truly means the end for the species. The Schindler’s experienced the same confusion when doctors provided information on unproven therapies and treatments that could restore brain function to their daughter. What the general public is currently dealing with is the initiative by scientists to attempt to take sex cells harvested from northern white rhinos and use them through the method of IVF (In Vitro Fertilization) to impregnate southern white rhino surrogates. Though the technology is experimental, it leaves the general public in a state of uncertainty similar to that of Terri Schiavo’s parents, unsure of whether to mourn the death of the species or not.

References:

https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2018/03/northern-white-rhino-male-sudan-death-extinction-spd/

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-43468066

https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/features/euthanasia-for-animals-what-can-it-teach-us-about-assisted-suicide-in-humans-10405840.html

 

Coco: How Pixar uses Mexican culture to talk to kids about death

Miguel and Hector duet in a scene from Coco

This past Friday night, my Disney-obsessed best friend dragged me to watch Coco with her at Harland Cinema. Okay, okay, you got me, she didn’t have to drag me; I totally wanted to go because I, too, am Disney-obsessed. Coco is about a boy named Miguel and his family in Mexico celebrating ‘Día de Muertos’ – day of the dead – which is the night when souls can cross over from the spirit world to visit their living relatives. In the movie, Miguel flips the script and is sent to the Land of the Dead while he’s still alive to learn about the value of family. This animated movie is intended for a young audience, so I was pleasantly surprised that, besides being visually stunning, it successfully presented some mature topics with nuance and wisdom. These intense themes range from spousal resentment to old age and dementia, but for class we’ll focus on death and the concept of staying connected with those that have left this world.

In the world depicted in Coco, a person’s soul lives on in the Land of the Dead after they die. Each year on Día de Muertos, a bridge is constructed between the spirit world and the living world. Souls whose families remember them fondly can cross over this bridge to see their descendants once again. If a soul is not remembered fondly, and therefore not pictured on anyone’s ‘ofrenda’ – a ritual altar where the living place offerings for their ancestors – then they are not allowed to cross the bridge. This was the case with the soul of Miguel’s great-great-grandfather Hector, who was said to have abandoned the family and was ripped out of the photo with his wife and now elderly daughter Coco. The only problem for Hector initially was that he missed out on seeing Coco each year, which was devastating for him. However, his true problem arose due to Coco’s failing memory; when the time comes that everyone who remembers a soul during his/her life has died, the soul suffers “the Final Death”, disappearing from the Land of the Dead forever.

I find this concept to be the most intriguing part of the movie. Mexican culture very clearly embraces death as a natural part of life, as indicated by its festival to reconnect with deceased loved ones. However, the Land of the Dead in the movie is vivacious and doesn’t feel very different from Miguel’s living world. Yet the presence of this ominous final death shows that even cultures which encourage acceptance of human mortality still have a fear of death. This stirs up the question about what it is we are actually afraid of: is it the fact that the souls disappear into the unknown after their Final Death? Many fears stem from the unknown, such as nyctophobia (fear of the dark), or xenophobia (fear of foreign people or situations). Such can be said about a fear of death. However, there is a discrete point at which the souls in Coco experience the Final Death, which is when there is nobody left in the living world who remembers them. This suggests that perhaps fear of Final Death really is about a societal terror of being forgotten. With the rise of social media has come an increase in the prevalence and desire to live in the public eye. For people who prioritize fame in life, surely being remembered after death is also of serious concern.

Regardless of what property of death is so scary, Coco does an excellent job of creating a platform for parents to talk about death with their kids in a more approachable way, and to introduce them to a culture which has a healthy relationship with mortality.

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.

Aboriginal Mortuary Rituals

Similar to many practices that we’ve discussed in the blog and in class, Aboriginal mortuary rituals in Australia are much different than Western ideas. The rituals begin with a smoking ceremony. The purpose of this ceremony is to drive away the deceased’s spirit. In order to do this they smoke in the deceased home. Next, they paint ochre in places the deceased lived and put up a flag to mark that the deceased has died. There is another ceremony called the death ceremony. The body is left inside the deceased’s home while mourners celebrate before it is wrapped up and placed on a platform where it will decompose as opposed to a tomb/coffin. Instead of mourning the deceased in sadness, they feast and celebrate with singing and dancing.

Another interesting part of their mortuary rituals is that Aboriginal people in Australian avoid saying the name of the dead or depicting them in photos or films. According to ancient law, saying or depicting a dead person’s name would disturb their spirit. As can be seen from their mortuary rituals, driving the deceased’s spirit away is incredibly important. Therefore, disturbing the spirit would be just as harmful. They also believe in the rebirth of the soul; therefore, driving the spirit onward to it’s next life is crucial.

Upon reading about these burial practices, it became apparent that many of their rituals are similar to other cultures we discussed including the Tana Toraja and the Malagasy people. Mortuary rituals are extremely important to these cultures and while they may seem obscure to Western cultures, their practices hold a crucial role in their society. Many of these cultures interact with the deceased in a way that allows for celebration. The burial and funerary practices take precedence over many of the other rites of passages in these cultures. In contrast to our society, mortuary rituals aren’t even thought about usually, until someone has died.

 

Sources:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19112922?report=abstract

https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/people/mourning-an-aboriginal-death#axzz4edfY4S9X

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/