Category Archives: Uncategorized

The Dead Make an Appearance at the Family Reunion

The Malagasy people of Madagascar have built a way of life around death. They perform a ritual called a famadihana ceremony, also known as “the turning of the bones”, to celebrate and reconnect with the deceased. Once every five or seven years, a family has a celebration at their ancestral crypt where the bodies are exhumed, wrapped in fine silk, sprayed with wine or perfume, and brought to community festivities. The ceremony consists of two-day festivities and family members will sometimes even travel days on foot to attend.

The first thing that occurs is the bodies are removed from the tomb, cleaned, and the old garments are replaced with new silk garments. Women who are having trouble getting pregnant will take fragments of an old shroud from an ancestor and place it under their mattress to induce pregnancy. Once the deceased has been dressed, there is a festival with a live band and the family members will dance to music with the bodies of their ancestors. It is a chance for the living to pass family news to dead and ask for their blessings.

Once stories of the dead are finished being told and the festivities have commenced, the bodies are returned to the tombs. They are re-buried with gifts of money and alcohol. The bodies are placed upside down to close the cycle of life and death and after a final cleaning, the tomb is closed to end the previous celebrations. This ritual practiced by the Malagasy people is very similar to the ritual of Ma’Nene’ performed by the Tana Toraja in Indonesia, where they practiced “cleaning of the corpses”.

Today the ritual of famadihana is on decline due to the expense of the celebrations and opposition from some Christian organizations. The festivals are a costly affair including meals to feed hundreds of guests and expensive silk to wrap the dead. Some of the poor do not have a family crypt and will save up money to build one and will hold a ceremony for their own ancestors. The bone-turning ceremony is a collective expression of respect and love for the ancestors and is a very unique ritual not seen in other cultures.

Bearak, B 2010, Dead Join the Living in a Family Celebration, 5 September 2010, The New York Times. Available from:

Munnik, J & Scott, K 2016, Famadihana: The Family Reunion Where the Dead Get an Invite, 18 October 2016, CNN. Available from:

Cremation Jewelry: Another Way of Remembering

When someone passes away, there is an impulse to find ways to remember the dead. Mourning jewelry is always a good choice: it contains some part of the dead’s remains, for example, hair. The part of the remains will be placed inside a necklace or a ring and the jewelry will be given to families and friends.

The Popularity of Cremation Jewelry 

This tradition was gaining popularity, especially during 16th and 17th centuries. In the 18th century, as the child mortality rate increased to over 20 percent and the occurrence of the Civil War, mourning jewelry became a common practice: soldiers left their hair for their families in case they died on the battlefield; parents wore necklaces which had hairs of the deceased as a way to remember their children.

As a traditional casket burial takes more than $7000, cremation is gaining popularity because it only costs a third of the cost of a traditional casket burial. Because of that, there is a growing number of people who chooses to make cremations rings to honor their loved ones.

Today, cremation jewelry incorporates with various kinds of materials, including silver, gold, crystals, diamond and ashes left from the cremations. The range of choices caters to their preferences and enables families to personalize their way of remembering. The process of making a cremation ring can take up to six months or more, depending on the size of the diamond. The minimum cost of a cremation diamond is $2490 and the cost increases as the desired size increases.


However, cremation jewelry is a controversial topic to discuss. Taking someone’s ashes for making cremation jewelry could be against personal rights. It is common that family members could not reach a consensus on how to do with the body. The question of “who has the right to control the remains of the deceased” should be answered. In only fifteen states, statutes that create a list of persons who have power over the deceased person’s remains in order of their rights are established. If the descendants have a conflict on how to deal with the body, it is crucial to enforce by law who is the one that makes the final decision.


Barrett, N. (2014). You Can Turn Loved One’s Ashes into Jewelry. [online] ABC13 Houston. Available at: [Accessed 18 Mar. 2017].

The National Law Review. (2012). Legal Considerations of Cremation Jewelry. [online] Available at: [Accessed 18 Mar. 2017].



Death – The Great (In)Equalizer

A traditional Western European plague doctor; they were hired en masse during the “Black Death” epidemic. Retrieved from

Death is an omnipotent force, inescapable and looming. For this reason, it has been quite often referred to as the “Great Equalizer.” This designation masks the inequality of death as a culturally constructed process affected by social power dynamics. A quintessential case in the regard is the relationship between African-Americans in the United States and death.

The social oppression of individuals of African descent in the United States has been subject to scrutiny since the inception of American slavery, a “peculiar institution,” according to Frederick Douglass via his published autobiography (1845). Hence, we know that there is no facet of African-American culture that remains unaffected by the history of racism and prejudice in the United States. The experience of death is no different.

For African-Americans (and perhaps other marginalized groups) death remains a queer dyad, consisting of the social death in addition to the physical death. The concept of social death was originally described by Orlando Patterson in Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (1982) where he argued that the dehumanization of enslaved Africans related to the enforced erasure of their culture and deprivation of what are now more widely considered universal human rights constructed a slave as a “socially dead person.” He writes: “Alienated from all “rights” or claims of birth, he [the slave] ceased to belong in his own right to any legitimate social order.” In other words, an individual who does not possess capacities that are conventionally seen as common to all living humans cannot be rightfully considered to be alive in the typical sense. This state of existence can, and should, be applied contemporarily to African-Americans who still do not have equitable access to fundamental resources such as housing, education, healthcare, and education. It should also be noted that physical death rates between Blacks and whites in the United States are also still unequal (Payne & Freeman, 2006). The realization of the tension African-Americans may feel between the social death and physical death can be seen in literature. August Wilson’s 1983 play Fences (and its 2016 film adaptation), an enduring gem of playwriting on African-American experiences, provides a stellar example of this.

Viola Davis and Denzel Washington in their roles as Rose Maxson and Troy Maxson, respectively, in the 2016 film Fences

Viola Davis and Denzel Washington in their roles as Rose Maxson and Troy Maxson, respectively, in the 2016 film Fences. Retrieved from Taken by Joan Marcus

(**Spoiler Alert**) Though the protagonist of Fences, Troy Maxson, dies physically at the age of 62, the story told by the play is very much concerned with the social death. Frequent references to death and dying throughout the play avail readers of the characters’ relationship with the end of life. Gabriel, Troy’s younger brother, who was wounded in World War 1 causing him to have a mental disability, says of St. Peter, the Christian apostle: “[He] Ain’t got my name in the book. Don’t have to have my name. I done died and went to heaven. He got your name though. One morning St. Peter was looking at his book, marking it up for the judgment, and he let me see your name.” This is a representation of the social death Gabriel underwent, as his disability caused him to become a ward of the state, unable to make decisions for himself.

Troy, a sanitation worker, expresses his dissatisfaction with his own life several times throughout the play, illuminating his awareness of his social death. He says: “Woman . . . I do the best I can do. I come in here every Friday. I carry a sack of potatoes and a bucket of lard. You all line up at the door with your hands out. I give you the lint from my pockets. I give you my sweat and my blood. I ain’t got no tears. I done spent them[…] I go out. Make my way. Find my strength to carry me through to the next Friday. (Pause.) That’s all I got, Rose. That’s all I got to give. I can’t give nothing else.”

By characterizing tears and strength as objects external to himself, Troy positions himself here without basic characteristics of humans. This aligns with Patterson’s above definition of socially dead.

Finally, the following impassioned dialogue occurs between Troy and Rose, who are married:

“Troy: Rose, you’re not listening to me. I’m trying the best I can to explain it to you. It’s not easy for me to admit that I been standing in the same place for eighteen years.

Rose: I been standing with you! I been right here with you, Troy. I got a life too. I gave eighteen years of my life to stand in the same spot with you. Don’t you think I ever wanted other things? Don’t you think I had dreams and hopes? What about my life? What about me?”

During the exchange, which occurs following Troy’s reveal that he has impregnated another woman, both Troy and Rose lament their long unfulfilled, i.e. dead, hopes and dreams, cuing us in to the social death they have experienced as a poor African-American couple circa 1960.

Nina Simone once said, “An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.” August Wilson beautifully reflected the aberrant relationship between African-Americans and death by telling the story of the two deaths, which serve as a testament to the inequality of death.

 Works Cited

DOUGLASS, F., & GARRISON, W. L. (1845). Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American slave. Boston: Anti-slavery Office.

PATTERSON, O. (1982). Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

PAYNE, R., & FREEMAN, H. (2006). Racial Attitudes and Health Care Disparities in African American Communities: Historical Perspectives and Implications for End-of-Life Decision- Making” in Key Topics on End-of-Life Care for African Americans. North Carolina: Duke University

WILSON, A. (1983). Fences. New York: Plume.


Although widely culturally variable, it is often an important ritual in death to mark the grave or otherwise physically memorialize the deceased. This is certainly widely practiced in the United States. An epitaph is in inscription that somehow memorialized the dead, and in American culture, usually inscription on a tomb stone. Epitaphs are often one of the earliest applications of written language in a culture and were important in ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman societies. These verses usually give biographical information, memorialize the deceased or relay message. They often convey family lineage, great achievements, valued character traits, birth and death dates, cause of death or advice. Epitaphs are highly culturally revealing. They are lasting communication between the dead and the living, an immortalization and commemoration of a life. They convey cultural values, ideology, political climate, religious beliefs, mortuary rituals, and aesthetic taste. An epitaph contains what a society believes is important in defining death and remembering life. As such, they are important in study of anthropology, archaeology, literature, and history.

Ancient Grecian epitaphs are a wonderful example. From Histories by Herodotus, appears a epitaph, “This is the tomb of the glorious Megistias, whom once the Medes killed when they crossed the river Sperchius: he was a seer, who recognized clearly that the Spirits of Death were approaching then, but could bring himself to desert Sparta’s leaders.” This verse identifies the deceased, and reveals the importance of glory and significance of a heroic death in battle in Grecian society. On a grave mound at the site of the Battle of Thermopylae, a famous epitaph by Simonides reads an inscription to commemorate the entire army, “Here four thousand from the Peloponnese once fought against three million” and specifically for the Spartans, “Stranger, report to the Spartans that we lie here, obedient to their words.” In this inscription, the dead are actually given a voice to communicate with an unknown, living audience. They declare their obedience and courage, and are immortalized.

A reproduction of the epitaph at Thermopylae

Epitaphs reveal attitudes toward death, expressions of grief and mourning, or sometimes comedy. There are many famous epitaphs, and each reveals an aspect of culture surrounding death, as well as life. A selection are listed below:

The gravestone of Leonard Matlovich, the first member of the U.S military to publically out himself and a recipient of a Purple Heart

A renowned gunslinger in the Old West with his own moral code

A family recipe promised upon Kay’s death

Shakespeare’s epitaph meant to prevent his corpse from being excavated for research

A Holocaust survivor

An honest personal memory

Works Cited (2016). Battle of Thermopylae – New World Encyclopedia. [online] Available at: [Accessed 6 Mar. 2017].

Conradt, S. (2015). 29 Unforgettable Epitaphs. [online] Available at: [Accessed 6 Mar. 2017]. (2017). Epitaphs – body, funeral, life, history, time, human. [online] Available at: [Accessed 6 Mar. 2017].

Jiang, T. (2015). The Value of Epitaph Words Study. Open Journal of Modern Linguistics, 05(03), pp.232-237.

Lattimore, R. (1960). Greek lyrics. 1st ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Living longer- How long is too long?

Image of various pills  Following a paradigm shift from infectious to chronic disease, life expectancy rose for individuals, currently at 78.8 years of age (U.S based). The article linked below addresses how the drug rapamycin has been given to dogs in order to prolong life, in which questions as to how this drug might also prolong life for humans are mentioned. It’s interesting to consider that society already takes drugs in order to prolong life, ones that mitigate and help to control threatening symptoms or conditions. But what if there were a pill made specifically with the purpose to extend life beyond the average life expectancy? Perhaps one that slows the natural process of the body ‘shutting down’. For me, this is an acceptable but somewhat strange concept. Firstly, I think the concept can be problematic in terms of the incentive for creating or using such a drug. This is not to say that its use should be thought of as negative, especially considering how many individuals could continue to contribute to society beyond ages that would typically render them otherwise. However, I think this concept doesn’t necessarily stem from a desire to further innovation or even to improve society, I think it stems from a deep rooted fear of death and desire for control.

I also think that the concept of taking a drug to ‘extend’ life, falls into the general nature of western biomedical practices being aggressive, and purposed towards creating a more efficient and acceptable society. It seems within this discourse of integrating something into one’s life in order to enhance or improve the current status quo, questions arise that address why humans might be dissatisfied with a very natural and common phenomenon such as death. Again, I think this relates back to issues of control and fear of the unknown, in which taking a pill to extend the period of coming to terms with the end of life will be furthered. But at what point, if any, is extending life too much? I don’t think this is something that can be quantified in years, but is rather a consideration of  the extent that society is willing to go in order to avoid an inevitable process.

For reference:

Hindu Perspectives on Death: Karma and Its Implications

Diagram illustration of karma

Hindu beliefs about death, specifically about karma, have always intrigued me. While I’m not religious, I’ve been exposed to Hindu beliefs my entire life, and examining them through a more scholarly lens for this post has proved fascinating. Hindu perspectives on death center on the idea that a person’s spirit (atman) is permanent; it lives beyond a biological death. In stark contrast, the physical body is almost like a temporary inhabitation, something disposable that you leave behind with the rest of your material belongings when you die. One of the Hindu holy books, the Bhagavad Gita, describes it this way: “As a man casts off his worn-out clothes and takes on new ones, so does the embodied soul cast off his worn-out bodies” (Bhagavad Gita 2:22). Notably, however, reincarnation (or samsara) has the end goal of moksha: the final release from rebirth. Your atman is reborn many times, when the soul returns to the physical realm in a new body, but ultimately the cycle will end and you will attain moksha.

One of the most interesting points I came across was the idea of karma, the “law of cause and effect which teaches that all actions have corresponding results.” Essentially, Hinduism dictates that your status in this life hinges on the merit of your previous life (samchita karma), and your actions in this life determine your position in the next life (agami karma). These lives are by no means limited to human forms; you may have had prior lives as plants, animals, or divine beings. “Remember that, the next time you step on and crush a bug; according to the idea of reincarnation, it could be your great uncle or future grandchild,” a BBC article cautions.

Hindu symbol for karma

The concept of karma really piqued my interest, because to me, it seems like a double-edged sword. On one hand, it indubitably motivates people to work harder, striving for a higher station in their next lives. This is similar to ideas like the Protestant work ethic; Protestants are renowned for their dedication to work, because they believe that combining hard work, frugality, and discipline constitutes the key to salvation. This work ethic is largely credited with forming the crux of the capitalist system we all operate within. However, in the case of karma, the other side of the coin is considerably less appealing: the idea that dire circumstances, such as poverty, oppression, discrimination, etc., can be explained away by karma. It may become entirely too easy to dismiss social issues as directly attributable to a person’s performance in their previous life—and, by extension, wholly their fault, rather than the fault of problems inherent to modern societies. I believe this sort of viewpoint has the potential to warp thinking in a manner reminiscent of popular ideologies of previous eras, such as Social Darwinism, which was harnessed to justify atrocities. However, I acknowledge the nuance in Hinduism’s portrayal of karma, and would love to delve further into the topic in the future to form a more thorough, developed opinion.



“BBC – GCSE Bitesize: Hinduism and Death.” BBC News. BBC, 8 Aug. 2012. Web. 03 March. 2017.

“Protestant Ethic.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 5 Oct. 2006. Web. 03 Mar. 2017.

“Social Darwinism.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 12 Nov. 2014. Web. 03 Mar. 2017.

Political Leaders’ Body on Display

In 2013, the body of Hugo Chavez, who is the former president of Venezuela from 1999 to 2013, was to be embalmed and kept in a crystal casket for display at a military museum.

He is not the first political leader to be embalmed and displayed in public. Before him, Ho Chi Minh, Lenin, Mao Zedong and Kim Hong are also examples of political leader that were embalmed.

Beijing, Tiananmen Square, Monument to the People's Heroes and the Mao Zedong Mausoleum

Photo by Arian Zwegers

How they were embalmed?

Most of the political figures that were embalmed and kept in the mausoleums or memorial hall are founding fathers, such as Mao Zedong and Kim Il l Sung. To ensure the body to last long, a comprehensive record of the body condition should be conducted, including weight, height, and facial features so that it could be referred for long time maintenance. The process of embalming includes regular baths for the corpse, constant hydration and temperature control, secret preservation recipes and electronic wires that provide enough hydration of the corpse. The technique of preservation of corpses draws from the cases of well-preserved bodies in archaeology. During embalming, major vessels and veins are opened to take away the blood to eliminate the food source for bacteria in order to build a sterile environment. Large volumes of alcohol and formalin are used to maintain the hydration of the body and kills bacteria, fungus and spores away from the body. Furthermore, temperature and humidity have to be strictly controlled daily.

Political Implication of Embalming and My Visit

The move has “some logic to it,” says Margo Light, Professor Emeritus at the London School of Economics, “in order to retain the sprirt of revolution.”

Embalming political figures aims to keep them ostensibly alive and maintain the spirit and ideology. Last year, when I visited Chairman Mao Memorial Hall in the center of Tiananmen Square in Beijing, I was surprised by the number of people lining up to view Chairman Mao, despite he had been on display for almost forty years. Some of the visitors said that it was their first time to travel and they chose Beijing as their first destination. These people were so eager to see “The Great Chairman Mao” that they pushed people in front of them to force the line move faster. When viewing the body, absolute silence was required and phones should be switched off to maintain the solemnity and show respect to the body. Thus I believe the political impact of embalming political figures is profound and keeping them on display is a way of memorizing what they have done to the country.



BBC (2011) Who, what, why: How do you embalm a leader? Available at: (Accessed: 27 February 2017).

Westcott, K. (2013) Why are some leaders’ corpses preserved? Available at: (Accessed: 27 February 2017).

Dewey, C.D.C. (2013) A photographic guide to the world’s embalmed leaders. Available at: (Accessed: 27 February 2017).





Grief: Ritual Finger Amputaion

The death of a loved one can be a traumatic experience and causes emotional pain and suffering. However, in some cultures the loss can result in physical pain as well. Certain cultures believe this physical representation of emotional pain is essential to the grieving process. This can be seen in the Dani tribe in Papua, New Guinea. Some tribe members have cut off the top of their finger upon attending a funeral. This ritual is specific to the woman population of the Dani tribe. A woman will cut off the top of her finger if she loses a family member or child. The practice was done to both gratify and drive away the spirits, while also providing a way to use physical pain as an expression of sorrow and suffering. The Dani tribe members have the religious belief that if the deceased were a powerful person while living, their essence would remain in the village in lingering spiritual turmoil.

The practice is performed by first tying a string tightly around the upper half of the finger for about 30 minutes. This allows the finger to become numb for a “near” painless removal. The finger is removed by using an ax and the open sore is cauterized both to prevent bleeding and to form new-calloused fingers. The left over piece of finger is dried and then either burned to ashes or stored in a special place. This ritual is now banned in New Guinea, but the practice can still be seen in some of the older women of the community who have mutilated fingertips. The practice of causing physical pain to show grief and deal with mourning can be seen in a numerous amount of other cultures as well. Cutting arms, legs and body, shaving off hair from the head, and burning skin are rituals used by other cultures during the grieving process. Grieving is a natural response to losing someone and everyone has different ways of dealing with grief.


Zimmerman, F 2011, Sioux Mourning Ritual, 18 October 2011, American Indian History Blog Spot. Available from:

Sumitra, M 2011, Tribe Practices Finger Cutting as a Means of Grieving, 16 December 2011, Oddity Central. Available from:

Clarity in Dying

Katie Cooper

There are just somethings that we do not like to talk about. Like how often you wear the same pair of socks, or how you take phone calls while sitting on the toilet, or how we all are dying. Talking about death is not the most comfortable point of conversation. It is so much a problem that there are millions of books, arties, and movies on just talking about death. While these might be very helpful, they also seem to leave us wondering about the little things. Like what is dying like?

This is where Claire and The Clairity Project come in. Claire Wineland is an 18-year-old girl with Cystic Fibrosis. Cystic Fibrosis is a genetic disease that causes a thick buildup of mucus in the lungs, pancreas, and other organs. It clogs up airways, traps in bacteria leading to infection, and prevents the body to function correctly. Throughout her entire life Claire has been told that she is going to die. It has become a normalized facet of her everyday life. About 2 years ago she started making YouTube videos to share her personal story of living with a terminal illness and coping with dying. Her witty and lively personality shines through when she talks about that it is like to be dying. The way she talks about the subject of dying goes against the hush-hush nature of most conversations of death.

I find Claire and her openness as a refreshing change and someone I can relate to. Growing up my dad was diagnosed with an acute chronic case of pancreatitis. He has been hospitalized more time than I can count and almost died a few times. I and my family have normalized the entire process to the point where we can make jokes. To many people making jokes about death may seem completely wrong. Yet, I see it as a way of being about to openly accept dying. I think the way that Claire can openly talk about her illness and dying is a way of accepting death. She is showing others that it is ok to talk about death and being sick. These topics do not need to be such a taboo.

Videos to check out:

  1. My Life Expectancy
  2. What It’s Like to Be in A Coma




The Clairity Project 2015, My Life Expectancy, YouTube video. Available from:


The Clairity Project 2015, What’s It’s Like To Be In A Coma, YouTube video. Available from:



Wineland, Claire. The Clairity Project, Facebook Page. Available from:


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: