While avoiding starting my homework, I was watching clips on YouTube from different TLC TV-shows. I quickly fell down the rabbit hole of watching clips from the Untold Stories of the ER and one particular video title stood out to me: “Girl with ‘Walking Corpse Syndrome’ Thinks She’s Dead!”
Intrigued, I clicked on it. Although poorly acted, the case presented was very interesting. It was about a young woman who believed she was dead and consequently refused to eat. She had Cotard’s Syndrome: a mental illness in which a person believes that they are dead, decaying, non-existent, or have lost internal organs or blood.
It was first described in 1880 by neurologist Jules Cotard who was presented with a patient known as Mademoiselle X who did not believe certain parts of her body existed. She believed she did not need to eat and explained that she was condemned to eternal damnation. She died of starvation, which unfortunately is a common consequence of the illness due to patients believing they do not need to eat. Cotard’s is described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th Edition) as a type of somatic delusion that involves bodily functions or sensations. Although not outlined in detail in the DSM, an individual is more likely to be afflicted with the disorder if they have schizophrenia or experience psychosis, neurological illness, another mental illness such as depression, brain tumors, or migraine headache.
The syndrome normally exists in three distinct stages. The first is the germination stage, in which depressive and hypochondria symptoms appear. The second stage is called the blooming stage, in which delusions of negation start appearing. The last stage is the chronic stage, in which the patient suffers prolonged severe delusions and chronic psychiatric depression. All three stages severely impact the patient’s ability to care for themselves, leading them to neglect their physical health and personal hygiene.
The syndrome can have severe impacts on a person’s interactions with the world; their negation of self often comes with a distorted view of the external world. For example, a patient described in the article “Betwixt Life and Death: Case Studies of the Cotard Delusion” was hospitalized in 1990 because he believed that he was dead. His mother took him to another country after he had been discharged. He believed that he was being taken to hell. He had lost touch of where he was in the world and he interpreted external sensory output differently. The weather which was hotter in the country they were visiting was seen as a reason to confirm that he was in hell. Because of the extremity and rarity of Cotard’s Syndrome, it is often hard to diagnosis and therefore treat, so the patient often suffers with the symptoms for an extended period of time.
When thinking about a lot of the pop culture representations of death, I often think they are over-dramatized or not emotional enough. One of the television shows which I often cite as having the best representations of death is the HBO show Six Feet Under. I started watching Six Feet Under a few years after it went off the air when I was in high school, partially because I remember my father watching it when I was a child and being told to leave the living room when it came on because of the very raw images of death and the way in which death is dealt with on a daily basis. Because of its overwhelming theme of death in all forms, it is a difficult show to handle and comprehend for a child. As an adult watching the show, it is even still difficult to handle at points, but also interweaves the humor of life in with tragedy. It is a show all about death and interpersonal relationships, but also addresses the fundamental human experience and issue from a novel perspective. The premise of the show is focused on a family that owns a funeral home in Los Angeles and all of the family drama that occurs after the patriarch (the mortician) dies. All of his three children deal with his death in a different way and these first initial reactions to his death inform the entire course of the five season show.
The show is controversial in its constant images of death, but also in turn downplays the taboo-ness of death by addressing the issues inherent in the life experience straight on with a great level of honesty. Never before have I seen a scripted show that discusses death on such a philosophical and emotional level as Six Feet Under. Even the theme song and accompanying imagery contains images of cadavers, gravestones, and plant-matter wilting away. The whole show has an underlying tone of death with dark, subdued colors and lifeless images of LA streets. Each episode begins with the death of an individual who eventually ends up in the funeral home owned by the family and interacting with the people embalming them and preparing them for the funeral. Thus, the show poses an interesting paradox about how we, as humans, often feel that the dead are not completely dead and communication is often still possible with someone who is no longer living. The discussion between the dead and the mortuary workers allows the dead to be seen as more than the dead that they must prepare for the funeral. Also, the show presents the mortuary purposes that are often hidden from families and the public by showing what happens during the embalming process or the plastic surgery used to make the dead look more alive.
Death in popular culture, especially television, is often used as a plot device to end or further the storyline of one of the characters. Six Feet Under does not utilize this strategy in the usual sense, but rather uses death as a metaphor for life and emphasizes how the obsession with death and funeral practices consume one’s life if there is no acceptance of death. The inevitability of death is addressed so wholeheartedly in Six Feet Under that one cannot help, but to examine one’s personal perception of death and the death of family members. Unlike shows such as CSI that focus on the biomedical and criminal aspect of after death, Six Feet Under focuses on the philosophical and emotional which is a respite from the usual treatment of death as detached from life. I think that Six Feet Under provides an antidote to the views of death currently portrayed in a lot of television shows as violent or bio-medically defined.
Side note: Six Feet Under famously has one the most well crafted finales. In the spirit of not spoiling I will not reveal what happens, but if you want to see a beautiful ending to a TV show all about death look it up!
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.