In our society, when someone is on the brink of death it is common for the patient’s loved ones to ask for prayers. We pray for the person to overcome whatever it may be that is ailing them and hope they get back on their feet as soon as possible. If this person should die, it is natural for everyone who has been praying for them become sad. Following the death, a mourning period ensues with the goal of remembering the life of the patient and in a good amount of situations still wishing he or she were alive. But, is this always the case? Are there instances where we wholeheartedly hope that someone dies or celebrate instead of mourn when they do pass away?
I came across a video on Facebook recently, and I got thinking about whether it is morally wrong to celebrate an evil person’s death. This video I saw was from a MLB game featuring the Philadelphia Phillies vs the New York Mets in Philadelphia on May 1, 2001. May 1, 2001 was the day the U.S. successfully executed a mission to kill Osama bin Laden. The video showed the Phillies fans celebrating in the stadium upon learning through their phones and word of mouth about the death of the Bin Laden. At that point, the baseball game took a clear back seat, and the crowd was in a frenzy.
I do not have a clear opinion on whether it is morally “wrong” to celebrate an evil person’s death, but I am able to see both sides of the coin regarding this question. Technically speaking, one human life isn’t worth more than that of another human. However, we as a society are quick to label people as “good” or “bad” and these labels no doubt affect the value we place on people. With Bin Laden though, I think it is fairly safe to claim as a whole most people find him to be a person with evil intentions. As mentioned before, however; his life isn’t worth any less than a “good” person’s life, per se.
Although the majority of people thought similarly, obviously not everyone believed Bin Laden was an evil person. For example, his followers and other extremists certainly didn’t think of Bin Laden in a bad light, and most even saw him as a respected leader. Those who respected him definitely had a different reaction than the Phillies fans the day Bin Laden was killed. These questions can be applied to Adolf Hitler as well, a man who may be regarded as the evilest person in human history. As an American, I was proud to hear about Bin Laden’s death. I believe he was an evil person and that was the only just punishment for him. Ultimately, I think mourning or celebrating a person who is considered evil on the level of Bin Laden comes down to several factors. One of them is how you value a life. If you think that all lives are equal, then perhaps you may think it is wrong to mourn ANYONE’S death. Another factor is obviously your relationship to the person. All Americans were happy about Bin Laden’s death but as mentioned before the rest of Al-Qaeda was probably not. I do not advocate for either side, but I certainly do think this is a viable question that has several variants of both sides of the coin.
To see the atmosphere at the Phillies game, take a look at this video.
A staged version of the Japanese ritual suicide known as Seppuku or Hara-Kiri, circa 1885. The warrior in white plunges a knife into his belly, while his second stands behind him, ready to perform the decapitation. (Photo by Sean Sexton/Getty Images)
As an anime fan, one thing that I have grown to love and appreciate is the diversity and uniqueness of both modern and traditional Japanese culture. One practice that does stand out to me is the practice of the honorable death known as Seppuku. Seppuku, death by self-disembowelment, became a ritualized and institutionalized form of suicide among the Samurai in Feudal Japan; and it was seen has a form of honor and courage reserved for the Samurai, the traditional Japanese military. I was interested in learning a little bit more about this practice especially with our recent class discussions of what constitutes a “good” death or a “bad” death.
The deaths of Minamoto Yorimasa, a poet, and Minamoto Tametono, a samurai, describes the earliest known acts of Seppuku. Seppuku, which describes a process of slicing the stomach open, was considered the most courageous, straightforward and bravest way to die because the stomach was considered to be where the human spirit resided. In these practices, witnesses would sit discreetly to the side while the samurai, dressed in white, would kneel on large white cushion. The Samurai would then inflict the fatal injury to his stomach and his Kaishakuin, second in command or assistant, would make sure the Samurai did not experience prolonged suffering and ensured a honorable death.
Seppuku’s adoration and inspiration in Japanese culture has remained even today and can be seen depicted in movies, plays, novels, anime and more. During WWII, in the Pacific Islands, American soldiers witness Japanese militia committing this ritual right before their very eyes. After losing the war, some men and women performed the ritual in order to serve as an apology to the Emperor of Japan. But for people who are not Japanese the practice has been held with horrid fascination.I think this is because each individual has their own qualms about the topic of death and even more so suicide. So for me, it is interesting to see how understanding death is highly influenced by the culture, the society and the time and how they all play a major role in determining what constitutes a “good” or “bad” death.
In our society, death is thought of as something that needs to be overcome. If someone dies, others ask what they could have done to prevent it. If someone commits suicide, they say “I should have helped before it was too late”, if someone dies in a car wreck: “I shouldn’t have let them go out that night”, if someone dies of lung cancer: “they shouldn’t have smoked so much” or “if only they had gotten a new lung in time”. Because of all these wishes and beliefs towards death, it becomes difficult to see what constitutes as a “good” death in our current society. One would think that with all the prevention techniques, or aspirations for cures, that a good death can no longer occur; all death is now considered bad. This becomes a problem for the sick and dying, which can no longer aspire to die with dignity.
In seeing and hearing ads, I notice that this concept is everywhere.
As an organ donor, I was initially proud to make the decision to “donate life” to others after my own death. I saw people who chose not to get the red heart on their license as unnecessarily greedy and as people who didn’t care about the needs of strangers. But after talking about the position on organ transplants in other countries, I realized valid reasons to not donate. Who are we to say who should get new, life-saving organs and who shouldn’t? Should young mother receive an organ before an old man? Should a smoker be refused lungs before a non-smoker? Who has the right to answer these questions in order to make life-changing choices? The organization Donate Life supports the donations of skin, eye, blood, and organs. I commonly hear their commercials on the radio, with inspiring stories such as mothers who wouldn’t have had children without a new heart. They encourage you to help this person who needs a new organ in order to live. At which point are we helping someone at the sake of another?
Another common theme I see in ads all the time is the idea of working together in some way to discover cures to many types of cancers. People walk to end breast cancer and donate money for all kinds of other terminal conditions. Everyone wants to live in a world in which they don’t have to worry about their parents and grandparents getting Alzheimer’s. But deaths caused by cancer are very common. Without these, how will people die?
All of these hopeful preventions want to create a world in which there is no death caused by “bad” or “unfortunate” means. But without them, how will we die? How do we want to die? Will we become like the elderly in The Giver and have programmed deaths before we become too old and lose our place in society? Although this is an interesting perspective and does provide for a “good death” in which every person gets a happy and proper send off, it is hard to imagine this being accepted in a culture that will not accept physician assisted suicide.
Several months ago I saw Gus Van Sant’s 2011 movie Restless for the first time. I admit I was originally drawn to it because Henry Hopper, Dennis Hopper’s son, was playing one of the leads and I was curious as to what the son of director and costar of Easy Rider fame would bring to the big screen. As I watched, however, my attention was drawn to the presence of death in the film and the differences in the way those who have to face their own passing and those who have to face the death of a loved one deal with it.
Restless follows the story of two young adults, Enoch and Annabel, who both have had more than their faire share of experience with death. After meeting at a funeral Annabel was attending and Enoch crashing, the two develop a relationship. However, because Annabel is suffering from a brain tumor the two are only projected to have three months together, during which time they are forced to come to terms with Annabel’s imminent death.
Annabel has a calm understanding of her situation right from the beginning, while those around her are much less accepting and are sometimes even frustrated by her seemingly blasé way of talking about her own death. Throughout the film it’s clear that living with the constant presence of death, whether in the form of another patient’s funeral or her own prognosis, has drastically changed her view on life. At one point while talking with her sister, Annabel says that only having three more months doesn’t really both her since in the large scheme of things the existence of humanity itself is just a small speck on the universe’s timeline. Many times she also mentions that there’s a type of songbird that thinks it dies every time the sun goes down and sings in happiness every morning when the sun rises because it realizes it’s still alive.
Enoch on the other hand was never able to properly grieve the death of his parents, resulting in unresolved anger and an inability on some levels to deal with death. Though at first it seems he’s accepted that his girlfriend only has 3 months to live, it becomes clear later on that what seemed to be acceptance was really denial. The final half hour of the film focuses on his coming to terms with Annabel’s approaching death, partially facilitated by his interactions with his “ghost friend,” a kamikaze pilot called Hiroshi with whom he talks and plays battleship.
While rewatching the film this week there were two points in the film that especially made me think of discussions we’ve had in Death and Burial this semester. About halfway through the film Annabel mentions that she’d like to donate her body to science. Enoch is very unhappy with her decision and states that he doesn’t like the idea of people cutting her into pieces and “putting her eyes in jars.” This made me think about the potential effect on family members when someone decides to donate their body to science or for organ donation. Do most people consult their loved ones before making that decision? Should loved ones have a significant say, since in the end they’re the ones who are really affected by what happens after death? Later on in the film Enoch and Annabel rehearse a “death scene” they’d prepared for Annabel. She’d planned out precisely how she wanted to die. This reminded me of the way medieval good deaths were organized and also how some people plan out their funerals ahead of time to the last detail. I did find it somewhat odd that she was planning out her death scene, not her funeral, though this does go back to the importance, even today, of the moment of death in how an individual’s death is viewed. Many films contain death-related material, but not many flat out address it as Restless does. Often when a film’s focus is death the film is somewhat confrontational, while Restless managed to introduce and discuss the concept in a surprisingly open and comforting way.
This blog is a platform of communication for a college course at Emory entitled "The Anthropology of Death and Burial". The purpose is to use this blog to invite the world into our classroom by drawing on current events or phenomena that surround us and that are relevant to our exploration into the topic of death and how people deal with it.
The course is explicitly cross-disciplinary and besides anthropology we also explore the topic of death through the lens of biology, history, religious studies, medicine, law, philosophy, sociology, literature and art. Feel welcome to explore and participate!
Who we are
The contributors to this blog are all undergraduate students at Emory University in Atlanta GA (USA).
The course is taught by Dr. Liv Nilsson Stutz who is an archaeologists with a special interest in mortuary archaeology and ritual studies. She is also a regular contributor.