Category Archives: the process of death

The Importance of Mortuary Rituals

Written by Saher Fatteh

After listening to the podcast How Stuff Works in which Dr. Stutz discusses mortuary rituals and their importance, I thought of a specific scene in The Undertaking. The movie includes a heartbreaking story of a young family in which the only child had been diagnosed with a neurological disease that would take his life before he reached three years. The parents sought refuge in the structure of rituals involving death in our society. The young mother explained the calming effect of arranging for funeral services before her son’s death. It seemed as though having the funeral service in place allowed the parents to answer the question, “What now?” after their son’s death. As discussed in the podcast, ritual is powerful as a transformative tool. The ritual of funerals and burial allowed the parents to have a set time in which they could transition into their new life. Although they knew that their son was dying, the process of burial allowed them to cope in steps and at their own speed. Each part of the burial process served an important role in their processing of death. The mother explained that the closing of the casket was extremely symbolic and powerful. It allowed her to accept for the first time the loss of her son’s physical body. To me, this scene illuminates the vital importance of mortuary rituals. Though at times they may seem silly or unnecessary, they allow a slight measure of control in an uncontrollable situation.

Dealing with Dead Bodies

Written by Saher Fatteh

During class on Tuesday, we watched a short film called The Undertaking. The movie investigates the life and work of Thomas Lynch, the director of a funeral home. The film follows three independent stories of death ranging in age and type and in doing so, comments on the way that Americans perceive death and dying. One aspect of the film that stood out to me was my immediate aversion to the idea of dressing and embalming a corpse. As I watched the funeral home worker paint the face of a deceased elderly woman in preparation for her funeral service, I thought about if I could ever carry out the same task. Each time I thought about placing myself in his shoes, I felt an innate sense of discomfort. I began to think about why I might react so strongly and negatively to the idea of dressing a body for a funeral service. This made me begin to think about the aspects of death that make me most uncomfortable and why that might be. After some reflection, I realized that the dead body itself, in its absolute stillness, is quite unnerving to think about. Maybe this is because, as a society, we are constantly shielded from ever viewing death in its physical state. We rarely ever see dead bodies outside of certain contexts including hospitals and funeral services. Perhaps if we were exposed to death and dead bodies more often, I would not have felt so uneasy watching a man prepare a dead body for a service. I began to wonder how people who work in the funeral service industry become adjusted to constantly seeing dead bodies and discussing death. Do they also have the same immediate negative reaction that most of us do towards seeing a dead body?

Human Sacrifice in Maya Culture

Death is already an uncomfortable topic to talk about, let alone the idea of human sacrifices. From the pre-Columbian era, human sacrifices were pretty common in Maya culture. The Maya civilization covered a large area of land which included southeastern Mexico and northern Central America. The reasoning behind this ritual was due to the belief that it was offering of nourishment to the gods. The sacrifice of a living creature was a powerful offering and a human sacrifice was the ultimate one. Usually, only high status prisoners of war were sacrificed while other captives were used as the labor force.

There were several different ways these sacrifices occurred. The most common ways were decapitation and heart removal. Dedication to a new building or new ruler required a human sacrifice. Many of these were depicted in Maya artwork and sometimes took place after the victim was tortured (beaten, scalped, burned, etc.). If the sacrifice happened through heart removal it took place in the courtyard of the temple or summit of the pyramid-temple. The person was painted blue and wore a headdress while being held down by four attendants representing the cardinal directions. The nacom, or official, used a sacrificial knife to cut into the victims chest and pull out the heart. He then would pass the heart to the priest, known as the chilan, where then the blood would be smeared onto the image of the god. Once this occurred, the body was thrown down the steps and skinned by assistant priests but the hands and feet were left alone. The chilan then wore the skin of the victim and performed a ritual dance of rebirth.

These rituals provided hope and security to the Maya culture and demonstrated their own outlooks on death.



“Human Sacrifice in Maya Culture.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 07 Feb. 2017. Web. 22 Feb. 2017.

“Maya Civilization.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 19 Feb. 2017. Web. 22 Feb. 2017.

Reincarnation in Hinduism

The Western definition of death is known as “the irreversible cessation of all vital functions especially as indicated by permanent stoppage of the heart, respiration, and brain activity”. Although this is true to define the end of someone’s life, there are many who believe that there is more to life even after death. Those who worship Hinduism believe that death does not necessarily mean the end. They follow the idea of reincarnation which means that the soul is indestructible and repeatedly takes on a physical body until moksha. Moksha is a term in Hinduism which refers to the various forms of liberation or release which occurs when the cycle of dying and rebirth ends. It is the central concept in Hindu tradition and included as one of the four main goals in human life. These goals include dharma (virtuous, proper, moral life), artha (material prosperity, income security, and means of life), and kama (pleasure, emotional fulfillment). The four together are called Purusartha.

Since reincarnation is essentially another chance of life, there are some important things to keep in mind. Good intentions and actions lead to a good future while bad intentions and actions create the opposite outcome. This plays an important role in how one is reincarnated. There is no heaven or hell in Hinduism but more of a release from the cycles which brings freedom to the individual.  The death of a family member is seen more as a celebration rather than a time of mourning. Hindus are cremated due to the fact that burning the body releases the spirit from the person. 


  1. “Reincarnation.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 04 Feb. 2017. Web. 17 Feb. 2017.
  2. “A Memory – a lifetime of memories.” Customs and Protocols on Death, Dying and Funerals. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Feb. 2017.
  3. “Moksha.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 30 Jan. 2017. Web. 17 Feb. 2017.

Overcoming the Fear of Death Psychedelically

Researchers at NYU and Johns Hopkins Universities have found that a single dose of the psychedelic compound in magic mushrooms, psilocybin, can diminish depression and anxiety related to dying in advanced cancer patients. Roland Griffiths (researcher as Hopkins) believes that psychedelic drugs are powerful tools for treating conditions including drug/alcohol abuse, depression and PTSD; they are not just for exploring the human mind.

The Experiment

Volunteers came to doctors with a fear of dying and stress about their illness. People were interviewed and counseled for over 8 hours before they were chosen for the experiment. Griffiths and Stephen Ross (NYU researcher) administered laboratory-synthesized psilocybin to 80 patients with life-threatening cancer. More than 75% of participants reported significant relief from depression and anxiety. Administration of drug was carefully monitored and supported with counseling services.

The Experience

Overall, the experiment had a healing effect for all those involved. The dose of psilocybin doesn’t result in every participant believing in life after death. However, it was effective in creating a deeper meaning and understanding of the situation. The psilocybin was able to show patients that there is nothing to be fearful of and that everything is going to be okay. Participants were able reassure loved ones that it is okay and they don’t need to worry about what was to come because everything was going to work out. The psilocybin was helpful in relieving the agony of the inevitability of death. Many reported that their experience using psilocybin was one of the most important experiences of their life.

The Results

Griffith and Ross found that larger doses of psilocybin were more effective and ‘mystical-type experiences’ showed greater changes in levels of depression and anxiety. There are always concerns and risks that come with experiments. In the case of psilocybin, about 1/3 of patients reported a sense of fear or discomfort. Doctors were there to comfort patients and remind them of where they were and that they were under the influence of psilocybin. However, is almost all cases, the experience was cathartic and resulted in personal understanding.

Find out more:

How to (Suitably) Comfort the Grieving

Two weeks ago, I discovered this really touching Upworthy blog on social media about grief: The author of this blog has something really powerful to say. I think these words are especially pertinent to anyone who has ever tried to give solace or facilitate the grieving process for someone else.

We cannot assume that everyone in the world has experienced loss at some point. Some people have gone through life without ever having to lose someone close to them. Some people have lost so many of their loved ones that life becomes almost unbearable. Nevertheless, our society has expected/ prescribed words to relay to someone in response to death regardless of their experience with it. For example, people may say “My prayers are with you”, “My deepest condolences”, “He/She is in a better place (at peace) now”, “please let me know if there is anything I can do” etc. Those phrases might very well come from a place of good and sincere intentions, i.e. to offer support and strength to those who are in grief. However, the author of this article describes how these prescribed phrases serve as platitudes and can oftentimes do nothing to help the bereaved. She refers specifically to a phrase that people say to offer a sense of hope and direction – “everything happens for a reason.”

In fact, many things in life do not happen for a reason. Life is random. Death is random. Thinking that there is a pre-ordained reason that can warrant/ make sense of the loss of someone you loved becomes psychologically catastrophic. As the author beautifully states, “’Some things in life cannot be fixed. They can only be carried.’ Grief is brutally painful. Grief does not only occur when someone dies. When relationships fall apart, you grieve. When opportunities are shattered, you grieve…losing a child cannot be fixed. Being diagnosed with a debilitating illness cannot be fixed…These things can only be carried”

Therefore, the loss of someone you loved cannot be fixed, it can only be carried. In many ways, this devastation can lead to growth. However, the reality of the situation is that it oftentimes doesn’t. Death often destroys lives. The author contends that this is, in part, because “we’ve replaced grieving with advice—with platitudes.… By unleashing platitudes and “fixes” on those we claim to love, we deny them the right to grieve.”

So what’s the solution? We often offer platitudes because we don’t know what else to say. Well, according to the author, the solution is simple. We must simply acknowledge. The most powerful thing we can do is to say is, “I acknowledge your pain. I’m here with you” and say nothing more.

The key here is to say you’re there “with” someone instead of “for” them. Saying that you are there “for” them implies that you are going to do something to fix the situation which is not your place at all. However, standing “with” them in that zone of vulnerability, discomfort, and disbelief can be incredibly empowering.

The Lonely Death of George Bell

While I normally passively scroll through my Facebook newsfeed, an article posted by a high school friend caught my eye. The article, entitled “The Lonely Death of George Bell,” discussed just what one would assume—the lonely death of George Bell, a 72-year-old New Yorker.

Unlike most deaths, the death of George Bell went unnoticed. It was not until neighbors complained of a rotting smell, that police discovered Bell’s decomposing body amidst the many belongings that filled his overwhelmingly cluttered apartment. Despite many efforts to identify and contact Bell’s next of kin, no one came forth and his body remained in the Queens Hospital Morgue for months until further investigation was done. Without any family or friends to make arrangements for Bell’s home, belongings, and funeral, the tasks fell upon the office of the Queens Country public administrators.

Josh Haner/The New York Times

Josh Haner/The New York Times

Although a lengthy read, this article recounts the stories of all those who helped put Bell to rest when no one else was there to. From the public investigators who spent hours cleaning out this man’s apartment to the funeral director and undertaker who were the only ones to bid him farewell, each story touches on different aspects of death and subsequently life. With each story a piece of George Bell’s life comes to light and readers learns details of this man’s life and why it may have come to a lonely end.

“Yet death even in such forlorn form can cause a surprising amount of activity. Sometimes, along the way, a life’s secrets are revealed.”

While it was not an uplifting read, the writing in this piece beautifully articulate death and its vexing emotions. This article forced me to reflect on my life and my bonds and friendships with others. I encourage you all to read this article as well. I could not help but wonder what may be discovered about my life after I pass. Though Bell’s life had come to an end, through the efforts of investigators its details were unfolded and we see that, “[death] closes doors but also opens them.”

Josh Haner/The New York Times

Josh Haner/The New York Times

The Grim Reaper in Television

In the Middle Ages, the Black Plague broke out and left at least 25 million dead. Fear of death quickly began to spread and with this spread come the portrayal of death as the Dance of Death, or Danse Macabre. The Dance of Death was drawn as skeletons dancing while dragging or leading people to death.

The medieval dance of death.

This image led to the myth and image of the Grim Reaper. The Grim Reaper is said to appear as a tall figure in a black robe holding a scythe right before the death of a person. This was once a feared image and that is still somewhat true today. We have grim reaper costumes that are intended to scare others with a skeleton face or no face at all.

Also, in television shows there are representations of the Grim Reaper. For example, in Criminal Minds there is a serial killer who is labeled The Boston Reaper. As you can see below, he is dressed in a black sweatshirt with a faceless mask.  As part of his killing ritual, he would use their first names as a way to install more fear in them before he killed them, which is similar to the original Grim Reaper who would appear before the death of that person.

criminal minds grim reaper

However, we have also turned the Grim Reaper into a comical characters as well. For example in movies and in television shows such as Scary Movie and The Simpsons, they grim reaper is not a serious, scary figure. Instead, like in Scary Movie, he is sitting on the couch eating Doritos and talking on the phone.

homer grim reaper  scary movie grim reaper


There is also a children’s show originally aired on The Cartoon Network called The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy in which two children have gained the Grim Reaper as their best friend for eternity. It is an interesting premise for a children’s show because it not only comically portrays death, but on the other hand it also exposes children to monsters, characters dying after many episodes, and the images of death at an early age.

grim adventures grim reaper


Advanced Directives

    Numerous studies have found critical deficiencies in the healthcare of the dying, such as being unnecessarily prolonged, expensive, painful, and emotionally taxing for both the patient and their family members. Completing an advance directive could offer a solution, enabling people to plan for and communicate their end-of-life wishes in the event that they’re unable to communicate. In essence, advance directives describe four legal documents: the living will, the medical power of attorney, the DNR, and donor registry enrollment form. But they aren’t always about stopping care. They’re about having frank conversations with loved ones, making sure they get the care they want.

    While there’s little data on advance directives, a 2013 survey (n = 7946) of individuals ages 18+ showed that only 26.3% had advance directives. The chief issue was that many were unaware they existed. Higher advance directive completion correlated with age, education, and income; they were also less frequently completed among non-white demographics. This data points to racial, economic, and educational disparities, a result of several factors, including distrust in the health care system, cultural differences, and poor patient-doctor communication.

    During the 2009 healthcare debate about legislation to cover uninsured Americans, the government was accused of creating “death panel” where bureaucrats could choose whether the elderly deserved healthcare on a case-to-case basis. They pointed to Section 1233 of HR 3200, which reimbursed physicians for discussing end-of-life care options with patients. The issue was highly politicized. Many of the politicians who had attacked the Affordable Care Act for death panels previously supported advance directives. The result led to a removal of the provision. When the Obama administration tried to add them in to regulations again in 2010, the political climate wasn’t ready, and they backed off.

    A few months ago, a new Medicare rule was approved, finally allowing physicians to be reimbursed for end-of-life conversations as early as 2016. The underlying logic is that many physicians don’t have time to discuss in-length all of a patient’s end-of-life options without these payment incentives. Thus, the autonomy to decide can become more integrated into the consciousness of the elderly Medicare hopes to help. Even then, I question whether people will be inclined to visit the doctor’s office for mere consultations, if they aren’t receiving treatment or leaving with a prescription. But the majority of Americans naturally avoid addressing end-of-life, so advocacy on the part of physicians to discuss the topic could make the difference. 

     Doctors could be motivated by the desire to cut healthcare costs by pushing patients to avoid potentially lifesaving procedures. In my opinion, they’re more biased towards keeping people alive, because it’s deeply ingrained in their medical culture. To do less may be incompatible with what they’ve been taught. In placing the responsibility of interpreting advance directives on physicians, they lessen the burden on family members during the dying process. Further research should examine how health care professionals react: whether they adhere to, misinterpret or completely ignore what’s written.

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.