Investigating The World’S Different Approaches To Death And The Dead
In Death’s Summer Coat, readers get to take a unique and not-so-deadly-serious look at death.
Through this book, we explore the different views cultures all around the world has on death and how those views have changed throughout history.
We also gain a better understanding of what it means to have a “good death,” and why modern medicine led to body-snatching.
Plus, we learn about mourning from the Wari’ tribe and discover that our attitude towards death can be vastly different depending on who or where you are.
All these things combine to create an intriguing look at how people from all backgrounds view the inevitability of death, yet still find ways of coping with it.
The Brain’S Inherent Capacity For Categorization Makes Us Uncomfortable With Death
It’s a fact that the human mind is hardwired to put things into categories, and it seems to be something imprinted upon us even before we are born.
Harvard psychologists actually discovered that people born blind display the very same neural pathways for creating categories as those who were blessed with sight.
But our category-forming brain can often cause us distress when an event occurs that isn’t easily categorized by us.
Death is a perfect example of this – it’s an ending but also a continual process, without clear distinctions between life and death.
This contradiction presents a challenge for our minds, which naturally rely on categorization for understanding.
It can lead to anxiety about the reality of mortality, especially since reminders of death are everywhere – from dust made up of dead skin cells to the ever-ticking clock that serves as a stark reminder of time passing by.
The fact is, human beings have an innate need to make sense of their reality through classification – but when faced with something like death, we struggle to reconcile our expectations with what we see in front of us.
Achieving A ‘Good Death’ Has Been Relevant Since Ancient Times
The concept of a “good death” has been around since the eighth century BC, when hunter-gatherer societies gave way to more communal societies and longer lifespans.
During that time, people started aiming for a good death which meant taking care of your spiritual needs and arranging for your affairs to be taken care of after you passed on.
This requires having time to prepare and reflect on one’s life before passing.
Unfortunately, this is not available to everyone in our modern society.
Although it is reported that 70 percent of Americans would like to have a peaceful demise, only 25 percent have the resources necessary to make it happen.
Taking the initiative to plan ahead is key if one wants to honor their family and settle their affairs.
Writing an autobiography or having photographs taken during the final stages of life can provide a great deal of comfort for both friends and relatives alike.
Ultimately, preparing for such an event requires some financial resources as well as forethought – but those are invaluable when facing death.
Body Snatching: When Digging Up Corpses Was A Lucrative Business
During the 19th century, death stopped being treated as the sacred event it used to be.
With a surge of interest in medical science, more and more cadavers were needed for students to dissect.
To provide these dissection specimens, many people began desecrating graves to steal corpses for profit and education.
The United Kingdom even issued the Anatomy Act in 1832 which allowed anatomy schools to use unclaimed bodies from deceased poor people as teaching materials.
However, given that there weren’t enough cadavers available, grave robbing or body-snatching began occurring regularly.
In America particularly, body snatching had racist overtones.
In the UK however, most of the bodies stolen were those of poor white people.
There was a lot public outcry though when corpses were taken away from affluent families.
In spite of this outcry, body snatchers continued with their activities till the end of 19th century.
The Definition Of Death: How Modern Medicine Challenges Humans To Re-Evaluate Life And Death Decisions
Modern medicine has made it possible to artificially prolong life, blurring the lines between what defines death.
In 1947, heart specialist Claude Beck discovered cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), changing the prevailing definition of death from a stopped heart to the lack of detectable brain activity.
However, thanks to modern science, it is now possible for patients to recover from brain failure, creating ethical dilemmas and huge conflicts.
This was particularly evident in 2013 during Jahi McMath’s case – a 13-year-old Californian girl who suffered brain failure due to complications following a tonsillectomy.
While doctors declared her dead, her parents disagreed and went to court in an effort to keep her in an artificial coma.
The battle over the definition of death still continues today.
We can also see confusion surrounding the concept of life and death when looking at Lia Lee’s case — a Laotian refugee living in California who was kept alive for 22 years after suffering from a coma.
Even when Lia contracted pneumonia which caused her heart to stop beating, her parents only considered her dead then.
We Could All Benefit From A More Intimate Relationship With The Dead
Some early cultures, such as the Wari’ tribe from the Brazilian rainforest, utilized necrophagy as an essential part of their funeral ceremonies.
During this ritual, mourners would gather around the corpse and wail in order to ward off evil spirits; after that, the men dismembered and cooked the edible remains over a fire and everyone in attendance made sure to consume every piece of meat.
The practice was not only a sign of love and respect for the deceased but also a way for the living to deal with grief.
It’s an interesting example of how one culture strengthened its bond with the deceased even after passing – something modern cultures could stand to learn from.
While no one is suggesting we start consuming our dead, looking at how other cultures have had different relationships with death can help us find ways to form stronger connections with those we’ve lost.
When Death Becomes A Part Of Life: How Memento Mori Photos Captured A Growing Ambiguity In 19Th Century Victorian England
Memento mori photography in Victorian England demonstrates just how important grief was to the people of that era and shows the ambiguity they felt when it came to death.
These photographs, which portrayed a dead loved one in a life-like posture and everyday setting with living family members, were highly sought after and expensive – so much so that these memento mori photos might have been the only photograph a family possessed.
Cameras at this time were heavy, costly machines that took considerable time to produce a photograph; very few could afford more than one image taken, making them decide to save for this meaningful memento mori shot.
This trend also highlights an unease with death as these images show the dead person in such a peaceful pose yet with careful inspection it is possible to spot “smallpox quarantine” signs or other reminders of mortality which demonstrate the human capacity for denial of death especially when trying to make their loved ones ‘live on.’
Making The Deceased The Life Of The Party: New Trends For Remembering Those Who Passed Away
As the world progresses, we are seeing some innovative and intriguing new funeral rituals emerging as modern memorial traditions.
One such example is life reenactment funerals.
In 2014, an eccentric New Orleans family held a funeral for their deceased mother that included costuming her in sunglasses and dressing her in items she loved – beer, cigarettes, music and a spinning disco ball.
Another interesting custom is Christopher Rivera’s mortuary pose where his corpse was placed standing just outside of a boxing ring to commemorate the deceased boxer’s life with dignity.
Lastly, technology has completely changed the way we remember those who have passed away.
The advent of social media platforms such as Facebook created a platform for us to pay tribute to our loved ones who have left this world by creating memorials that last forever online.
Currently there are 30 million Facebook profiles that keep running even after their user’s status has been updated to “Deceased”.
Furthermore, with an app called If I Die, users can even write messages for their loved ones intended for future special dates even after they have died!
The main takeaway from Death’s Summer Coat is the importance of developing a healthier relationship with death and being more open-minded about what it means to be dead.
Through centuries past, society has been less fearful of death and more willing to engage in dealing with it properly.
In order to help us and our loved ones grieve better, we should plan our funerals – key rituals that can help ease the transition and allow us to express our grief.
It’s also essential to talk openly about our plans for after we’ve gone and encourage those close to us do the same before it’s too late.