Tag Archives: death

The Desire and Fear of the Immortal

A phrase from the immensely popular series, A Song of Ice and Fire, valar morghulis is translated as “all men must die,” an idea prevalent in human culture.  Humans tend to define many things in duality: light and darkness, positive and negative, life and death. These concepts are thought of to only exist in relation to one another; without light, there can be no darkness. So, can life as we define it exist without the notion of death; in other words, is something that doesn’t die even alive.

The Fantasy

From the desire to create Philosopher’s Stone, to the search for the Fountain of Youth, to modern stories of vampires, the idea of immortality pervades much of human history. What exactly about the notion is so fascinating? I believe it stems from a fear of death, or the unknown that follows. It is a completely normal fear to have due to the modern world’s obsession with “cheating death.” The idea of living indefinitely seems great, ignoring the looming downsides. These include the loneliness that comes with knowing everything around you is mortal or becoming bored when you’ve seen  and done everything. Immortality is rarely depicted as perfect; however, it is still viewed romantically and longed for.

However, even if someone doesn’t long for immortality, it seems that almost everyone is afraid of another’s immortality. This can be most readily seen in fiction writing. For example, the demon or such that cannot be killed by normal means (i.e. Voldemort, Dracula). This is typically shown as being achieved through a Faustian deal or something similar. The soul is given up, but the consciousness remains in the body. Is this why the notion is scary? Why are these characters shown as bad for achieving something that is so desired? I really can’t answer this, but it is an interesting double-standard nonetheless.

The “Reality”

Aside from the fantasy of immortality, the actualization of immortality is becoming not so far off. For better or worse, it may not be humans that will attain this immortal status. Research into AI (artificial intelligence) is moving forward every single day. In my biology classes, we discussed that consciousness is probably not be a single entity, but rather the various regions of the brain all working together (this theory is called the neural correlates of consciousness).

This theory is what many researchers in AC (artificial consciousness) are studying; although they must first discover what a consciousness is. But is it possible to synthetically create a consciousness? Is the consciousness equivalent to the soul, is the AC truly alive, can humans use similar technology to extend their existences? These have always been topics in science-fiction, but it may eventually become science-fact. Regardless if an AC is created in a decade, a century, or never, it still remains that we need to redefine life and death. How can we define a living being if it is no longer a requirement that it will eventually die?

The Obsession with Death, But Fear of Dying

In my observation of society there has always been an obsession with death. Death is everywhere in pop culture from blazing articles on tabloid pages at the supermarket to brutal deaths being common place on the television screen. Yet as a culture we also seem to have this intense fear of dying.

Painting of a mourning female statue

Mount Olivet Cemetery – Nashville, TN by Don

Recently I found myself binge watching Buzzfeed’s Unsolved series, a YouTube series where two men try to prove that ghosts are real or dig into famous mysteries usually pertaining to gruesome, to unsolved deaths. I do not know why I started watching it, but clearly other people are doing the same for their most recent video, posted less than 24-hours ago, has over a million views. While the ghost and demon episodes will often get my heart racing, it is the one’s that explore real unsolved deaths or murders that stick with me. In a completely morbid sense it is compelling. One would think that because we are so open about death and exploring how someone might have died, that the process of dying should not be a taboo topic. But, as soon as death is brought up in the personal sense the discussion ends. Suddenly, it is completely unreasonable to talk about death. A guy’s head being put on a spike on Game of Thrones = fine, but talking about your own opinions surrounding your unavoidable death = over sharing.

There are exceptions to this of course. I am very lucky to still have three of my grandparents alive, and recently the topic of dying has been a discussion between my maternal grandparents and me. While at first I was uncomfortable, after taking a deep breath I realized the topic was not morbid at all. In fact, it was in some ways heartwarming. My grandfather described his desire to have his and my grandmother’s ashes mixed and my grandmother told me their plan to meet at “the pearly gates of heaven,” though they have yet to decide on which side of the gate. Here were two people I love with all my heart talking about their own deaths and it brought a smile to my face. 

 

Heavenly image of a sun peaking through the clouds

susan.clue_n_you

But, this is a discussion I know many do not have. My grandmother recounted a story of her friend that refuses to talk about his own imminent death with his grandchildren, “because it is too sad.” And I can understand that point of view. Everyone should be able to make their own decision on their level of comfort when it comes to discussing death, but from my personal experience I feel reassured after my discussions with my grandparents. While the thought of losing them breaks my heart, it is also mended by the fact that I know that they are not scared of what death may bring. I am becoming more and more curious as to why these conversations on death cannot be public discussions, as well as private ones.

Older couple hugging

Hug by Namor Trebat

 

Death in the Spotlight

A look at what happens when the rich and famous die.

Many of us are familiar with death whether it is someone close to us or a friend of a friend. The deceased is often remembered and mourned for in a relatively private way. However, all the rules seem to be thrown out of the door when the deceased is not the elderly man next door, but a celebrity.

An interest in the lifestyles of the rich and famous is something that seems universal across the globe. Their every move is documented, publicized, and largely criticized. Pictures are taken and articles published for tasks as insignificant as grocery shopping or jogging. Celebrities, for some, have reached a god-like status. Their fans are dedicated, passionate, and quick to combat the haters. The life of a celebrity is seemingly not their own. It belongs to the fan, the critic, and the consumer. The same goes for their deaths. The death of a celebrity often prompts more fanfare and acknowledgment than the deaths of millions at the hands of disease and hunger. A celebrity death tends to prompt news specials, award show tributes, and sometimes public displays of distress by people who were merely fans of the individual. The public mourns the celebrity’s  ability to inspire, encourage, and provide an escape. The fan is mourning the loss of a connection, a figure that to them was maybe more than a person.

An LA Times article referenced the phenomenon saying, “We don’t cry because we knew them, we cry because they helped us know ourselves.” The way we ritualize death often seeks to serve the needs of the living over the needs of the dead. We view death from how it affects us. The death of an ordinary person is made more about those left behind then celebrating the person who is no longer here. The celebrity experiences this to a greater extent. For most it was not the loss of Prince the person that caused tears to roll down their face, but the loss of hundreds of unrecorded songs and the persona of a man who dared to defy the status quo. The connection between the fan and the artist is one that is cherished by many.

Some celebrities are defined by their deaths as much as their life especially when their death is a “bad” one such as suicide, a drug overdose, or murder. Their legacy, more so than the average person’s, is shaped by this death. Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, and Prince will always be remembered for their indelible contribution to music. In the same breath their overdose related deaths will forever be tied to their name in the public sphere. It is through the death of a celebrity that we get a glimpse of life in the spotlight. Despite what we learn we cannot help but place their death back under the same spotlight. It seems as if their celebrity demands consumption by the public, even when they are no longer alive.

Whitney Houston on stage

Whitney Houston Welcomes Heroes by PH2 Mark Kettenhofen licensed under Wikimedia Commons

K-pop star Jonghyun

Jonghyun at 2016 Korean Pop Culture an Art Awards by Im’ Sorry licensed under Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sources:

http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-0427-friedman-public-grieving-prince-20160427-story.html

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Death – The Great (In)Equalizer

A traditional Western European plague doctor; they were hired en masse during the “Black Death” epidemic. Retrieved from http://www.themiddleages.net/plague.html

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 fromhttp://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=126195963. 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.

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:

http://www.cnn.com/2016/10/06/health/rapamycin-dog-live-longer/

https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/life-expectancy.htm

Cryonics and Death

     A few months ago, there was a story in the news that relates to an interesting aspect of death— cryonics. Cryonics is the science of using extremely cold temperatures to preserve a human body, with the hope that life can be restored in the future, when we have the technology/ knowledge to do so. The news article explored the case of a 14 year old girl who died of cancer, whose dying wish was to be cryogenically frozen (the court ended up ruling in her favor and if you’re interested, the articles can be accessed below).

     The concept of cryonics is one thing and the ethics of cryonics, another. Personally, I don’t think cryonics is, or ever will be, feasible— the vast majority of science deem it an impossible task, and I think we’re simply wasting resources, time and research that can be put to better use. However, if we did manage to revive the actual human body— the cadaver— reviving the human brain is an infinitely more complex and intricate task. But let’s go along with this idea. If both the human body and brain were revived, how can we ensure the health/ quality of life or that the revival would result in the same individual? Would personality or memories, the very essence of a person, be preserved? If so, to what quality or to what extent? It’s incredibly hard to believe that after cryopreservation, that the mind, body and brain would not be fundamentally changed. Again, let’s play along and suppose that all the logistics of cryonics were perfected and the same individual could be brought back to life. The bigger question then arises— is it ethical and should we do it?

     Successful cryonics would shatter our very notion of life and death. In my opinion, humans were not meant to be brought back to life; it’s against our very nature. Life is a natural of death and death is a natural part of life. I understand that many people are uncomfortable and afraid of death and what it entails, but on the flip side, what would an essentially immortal life mean for humanity? Imagine what life would be like, waking up hundreds of years later, in a completely unfamiliar place and time, with no family or friends. What quality of life would you have? Cryonics would affect virtually every aspect of society — the economy, environment, religion, education, population etc… The desire for immortality has intrigued humans for thousands of years, yet death is natural for humans and I think that cryonics, especially if you benefit financially (like cryonic companies do), is little cruel because you may very well be giving people false hope, in one of their most vulnerable states.

     On a last note, however, my stance is softened a little bit when I consider cases like this little girl, where she didn’t get a chance to live her life. It’s one thing, if you want to be immortal or have a longer life for selfish reasons, but another, to simply want a chance to experience the world, because at the end of the day, I do think that everyone should at least deserve a chance at life.

The news article links:

https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/nov/18/teenage-girls-wish-for-preservation-after-death-agreed-to-by-court

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/11/18/cancer-girl-14-is-cryogenically-frozen-after-telling-judge-she-w/

 

History of Cannibalism and Cultural Differences

From one of our initial discussions in class, the subject of cannibalism stuck out to me because I didn’t know too much about it. Having grown up in a modern, developed society, most of us have an intrinsic aversion to this concept (at least I would hope)— eating another human being’s flesh is unfathomable and inhumane. However, do all societies feel this way and has it always been this way? And the answer is no.

I think a good place to start would be from an evolutionary standpoint, after all human beings are simply organisms— a highly adapted and specialized species— nonetheless, mere animals. In the animal kingdom, the ingestion of other members of species is not uncommon, and is in fact, a strategy for survival. In many species, eating another member is natural, even logical, in that you’re increasing your own fitness, while eliminating competition. This practice is seen in cobras, fish, praying mantis, spiders, cats, lobsters, octopuses, sharks, polar bears, and crabs, to name a few. So, I guess I can understand how an argument could be made that it wouldn’t be that weird for a human to eat another human (I mean I still think it’s incredibly unsettling though). But my research showed that, in fact, cannibalism was a rather common part of human history.

Both archeological and genetic accounts indicate that cannibalism has been practiced for thousands of years and were an important part of rituals and cultures (ex. removing the flesh, by eating, before burying the bones) and of survival (during periods of food shortages and starvation). There are many instances throughout history that we see cannibalism (Fun fact: for a while in the 16th century, Egyptian mummies were ground up and sold as medicine) and even some cannibalistic accounts exist still even today. While researching for this post, I ran into an interesting book written by Beth Conklin: Consuming Grief: Compassionate Cannibalism in an Amazonian Society, which depicts modern cannibalistic practices in the Wari’ Indian tribe of the Amazonian rainforest, as an expression of compassion and a way for the loved ones to grieve and accept their loss. She explores their concept and culture of person, body, and spirit to explain why they prefer cannibalism to cremation or other burial practices, which I thought was a novel, yet interesting, take on this concept.

Then, when did we begin to see our Western cultural aversion in society? I contend that it was a myriad of factors: the increase in life longevity, religious practices and views, legal restrictions on fundamental human rights, and perhaps most importantly, an increase in interpersonal relations. In the past, disease was rampant, which meant lifespans were short. You didn’t really have time to form bonds and relations with other people, whether it be with your family or friends. Because the increase in scientific and medical knowledge and technology, our life expectancies are longer and intimate relationships are more likely to continue for years. This allowed for the development and stability of interpersonal relationships, which remain an important resource across our lifespan now, significantly reducing the need/ desire for cannibalism.

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

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/18/nyregion/dying-alone-in-new-york-city.html

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: https://www.flickr.com/photos/robertsharp59/20635914503

Water color version of the now famous photo taken of Aylan Kurdi’s body. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/robertsharp

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?

 

http://www.wsj.com/articles/image-of-syrian-boy-washed-up-on-beach-hits-hard-1441282847

http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2015/09/03/437336063/image-of-dead-syrian-child-shakes-up-media-coverage-of-refugee-crisis