This article originally appeared on The Order of the Good Death. I have already written, here and here, about the death positive movement, to which this post is meant as a small contribution.
“As soon as the grave is filled in, acorns should be planted over it, so that new trees will grow out of it later, and the wood will be as thick as it was before. All traces of my grave shall vanish from the face of the earth, as I flatter myself that my memory will vanish from the minds of men”.
This passage from the will of the Marquis de Sade has always struck a chord with me. Of course, he penned it as his last raging, disdainful grimace at mankind, but the very same thought can also be peaceful.
I have always been sensitive to the poetic, somewhat romantic fantasy of the taoist or buddhist monk retiring on his pretty little mountain, alone, to get ready for death. In my younger days, I thought dying meant leaving the world behind, and that it carried no responsibility. In fact, it was supposed to finally free me of all responsibility. My death belonged only to me.
An intimate, sacred, wondrous experience I would try my best to face with curiosity.
Impermanence? Vanishing “from the minds of men”? Who cares. If my ego is transient like everything else, that’s actually no big deal. Let me go, people, once and for all.
In my mind, the important thing was focusing on my own death. To train. To prepare.
“I want my death to be delicate, quiet, discreet”, I would write in my diary.
“I’d prefer to walk away tiptoe, as not to disturb anyone. Without leaving any trace of my passage”.
Unfortunately, I am now well aware it won’t happen this way, and I shall be denied the sweet comfort of being swiftly forgotten.
I have spent most of my time domesticating death – inviting it into my home, making friends with it, understanding it – and now I find the only thing I truly fear about my own demise is the heartbreak it will inevitably cause. It’s the other side of loving and being loved: death will hurt, it will come at the cost of wounding and scarring the people I cherish the most.
Dying is never just a private thing, it’s about others.
And you can feel comfortable, ready, at peace, but to look for a “good” death means to help your loved ones prepare too. If only there was a simple way.
The thing is, we all endure many little deaths.
Places can die: we come back to the playground we used to run around as kids, and now it’s gone, swallowed up by a hideous gas station.
The melancholy of not being allowed to kiss for the first time once again.
We’ve ached for the death of our dreams, of our relationships, of our own youth, of the exciting time when every evening out with our best friends felt like a new adventure. All these things are gone forever.
And we have experienced even smaller deaths, like our favorite mug tumbling to the floor one day, and breaking into pieces.
It’s the same feeling every time, as if something was irremediably lost. We look at the fragments of the broken mug, and we know that even if we tried to glue them together, it wouldn’t be the same cup anymore. We can still see its image in our mind, remember what it was like, but know it will never be whole again.
I have sometimes come across the idea that when you lose someone, the pain can never go away; but if you learn to accept it you can still go on living. That’s not enough, though.
I think we need to embrace grief, rather than just accepting it, we need to make it valuable. It sounds weird, because pain is a new taboo, and we live in a world that keeps on telling us that suffering has no value. We’re always devising painkillers for any kind of aching. But sorrow is the other side of love, and it shapes us, defines us and makes us unique.
For centuries in Japan potters have been taking broken bowls and cups, just like our fallen mug, and mending them with lacquer and powdered gold, a technique called kintsugi. When the object is reassembled, the golden cracks – forming such a singular decoration, impossible to duplicate – become its real quality. Scars transform a common bowl into a treasure.
I would like my death to be delicate, quiet, discreet.
I would prefer to walk away tiptoe, as not to disturb anyone, and tell my dear ones: don’t be afraid.
You think the cup is broken, but sorrow is the other side of love, it proves that you have loved. And it is a golden lacquer which can be used to put the pieces together.
Here, look at this splinter: this is that winter night we spent playing the blues before the fireplace, snow outside the window and mulled wine in our glasses.
Take this other one: this is when I told you I’d decided to quit my job, and you said go ahead, I’m on your side.
This piece is when you were depressed, and I dragged you out and took you down to the beach to see the eclipse.
This piece is when I told you I was in love with you.
We all have a kintsugi heart.
Grief is affection, we can use it to keep the splinters together, and turn them into a jewel. Even more beautiful than before.
As Tom Waits put it, “all that you’ve loved, is all you own“.
We shouldn’t fear autopsies.
I’m not using this term in its strict legal/medical meaning (even though I always advise anybody to go and see a real autopsy), but rather in its etymological sense: the act of “seeing with one’s own eyes” is the basis for all knowledge, and represents the first step in defeating our fears. By staring directly at what scares us, by studying it and domesticating it, we sometimes discover that our worries were unfounded in the first place.
This is why, on these webpages, I have often openly explored death and all of its complex cultural aspects; because the autoptic act is always fruitful and necessary, even more so if we are addressing the major “collective repressed” in our society.
Bringing forward these very ideas, here is someone who has given rise to a real activist movement advocating a healthier approach to death and dying: Caitlin Doughty.
Caitlin, born in 1984, decided to pursue a career as a mortician to overcome her own fear of death; even as a novice, picking up corpses from homes in a van, preparing them, and facing the peculiar challenges of the crematorium, this brilliant girl had a plan – she intended to change the American funeral industry from the inside. Modern death phobia, which Caitlin directly experienced, has reached paradoxical levels, making the grief elaboration process almost impossible. This irrational anxiety towards dead bodies is the reason we delegate professionals to completely remove the corpse’s “scandalous” presence from our familiar environment, thus depriving relatives of the necessary time to understand their loss. Take the extreme example of online cremation services, through which a parent, for instance, can ship out his own child’s dead body and receive the ashes a few days later: no ritual, no contact, no last image, no memory of this essential moment of transition. How can you come to terms with grief, if you even avoid watching?
From these premises, her somewhat “subversive” project was born: to bring death into people’s homes, to give families the opportunity of taking back their loved ones’ remains, and to turn the undertaking profession into a support service, not preventing relatives from preparing the body themselves, but rather assisting them in a non-invasive way. Spending some time in contact with a dead body does not usually pose any sanitary problem, and could be useful in order to concretely process the loss. To be able to carry out private rituals, to wash and dress the body, to talk to our loved ones one last time, and eventually to have more disposal options: such a positive approach is only possible if we learn to talk openly about death.
Caitlin therefore decided to act on several fronts.
On one hand, she founded The Order of the Good Death, an association of funeral professionals, artists, writers and academics sharing the will to change the Western attitude towards death, funerals, and grief. The Order promotes seminaries, workshops, lectures and organizes the annual Death Salon, a public gathering in which historians, intellectuals, artists, musicians and researchers discuss the various cultural aspects of death.
On the other hand, Caitlin created a successful YouTube channel with the purpose of answering user submitted questions about what goes on behind the scenes of the funeral industry. Her Ask A Mortician webseries doesn’t draw back from any horrific detail (she talks about the thorny problem of post-mortem poo, about the alleged presence of necrophiliacs in the industry, etc.), but her humorous and exuberant approach softens the darker tones and succeeds in passing the underlying message: we shouldn’t be afraid of talking about death.
Finally, to reach an even wider and heterogeneous audience, Caitlin published the thought-provoking Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, an autobiographical account of her time as a funeral home apprentice: with her trademark humor, and to the reader’s secret delight, Caitlin dispenses several macabre anecdotes detailing her misadventures (yes, some chapters ought to be read on an empty stomach), yet she does not hesitate to recount the most tragic and touching moments she experienced on the job. But the book’s main interest really lies in following her ruminations about death and the way her own feelings evolved – eventually leading her to actively try and change the general public attitude towards dying. Smoke Gets In Your Eyes immediately became a best-seller, as a further proof of the fact that people actually want to know more about what is socially kept out of sight.
As an introduction to her work for the Italian readership, I asked Caitlin a few questions.
Has working as a mortician affected the way you look at death?
It has made me more comfortable being around dead bodies. More than that, it has made me appreciate the dead body, and realize how strange it is that we try our best as an industry to hide it. We would be a happier, healthier culture in the West if we didn’t try to cover up mortality.
Did you have to put up some sort of psychological defense mechanism in order to deal with dead bodies on a daily basis?
No, I don’t think so. It’s not the dead bodies that are the issue psychogically. It is far more difficult on the emotions working with the living, taking on their grief, their stories, their pain. You have to strike a balance between being open to the families, but not bringing everything home with you.
“He looks like he’s sleeping” must be the best compliment for a mortician. You basically substitute the corpse with a symbol, a symulacrum. Our society decided long ago that death must be a Big Sleep: in ancient Greece, Tanathos (Death) and Hypnos (Sleep) were brothers, and with Christianity this analogy solidified for good – see f.i. the word “cemetery”, which literally means “sleeping, resting place”. This idea of death being akin to sleep is clearly comforting, but it’s just a story we keep telling ourselves. Do you feel the need for new narratives regarding death?
“He looks like he’s sleeping” wouldn’t necessarily be a compliment to me. I would love for someone to say “he looks dead, but he looks beautiful. I feel like seeing him like this is helping me accept he’s gone”. It’s harder to accept the loss when we insist that someone is perpetually sleeping. They’re not. They’re dead. That’s devastating, but part of the acceptance process.
In your book, you extensively talk about medicalization and removal of death from our societies, a subject which has been much discussed in the past. You made a step further though, becoming an activist for a new, healthier way to approach death and dying – trying to lift the taboo regarding these topics. But, within every culture, taboos play an important role: do you feel that a more relaxed relationship with death could spoil the experience of the sacred, and devoid it of its mystery?
Death will always be mysterious and sacred. But the actual dying process and the dead body, when made mysterious and kept behind the scenes, are made scary. So often someone will say to me, “I thought my father was going to be cremated in a big pile with other people, thank you for telling me exactly how the process works”. People are so terrified of what they don’t know. I can’t help people with spiritual life after death, I can only help with the worldly realities of the corpse. And I know education makes people less afraid. Death is not taboo in many cultures, and there are many scholars who think it’s not a natural or ingrained taboo at all, only when we make it one.
Has the internet changed the way we experience death? Are we really on the verge of a revolution?
The internet has changed death, but that’s not really something we can judge. Everyone got so angry at the teenagers taking selfies at funerals, but that’s just an expression of the new digital landscape. People in the United States in the 1960s thought that cremation was pagan devil sinful stuff, and now almost 50% of Americans choose it. Each generation takes things a step in a new direction, death evolves.
By promoting death at home and families taking care of their own dead, you are somehow rebelling against a multi-million funeral industry. Have you had any kind of negative feedback or angry reactions?
There are all kinds of funeral directors that don’t like me or what I’m saying. I understand why, I’m questioning their relevancy and inability to adapt. I’d hate me too. They find it very difficult to confront me directly, though. They also find it difficult to have open, respectful dialogues. I think it’s just too close to their hearts.
Several pages in your book are devoted to debunking one of the most recent but well-established myths regarding death: the idea that embalming is absolutely necessary. Modern embalming, an all-American practice, began spreading during Civil War, in order to preserve the bodies until they were carried back home from the front. As this procedure does not exist in Italy, we Italians are obviously unaware of its implications: why do you feel this is such an important issue?
First of all, embalming is not a grand important historical American tradition. It’s only a little more than a hundred years old, so it’s silly to pretend like it’s the fabric of our death culture. Embalming is a highly invasive process that ends with filling the bodies with dangerous chemicals. I’m not against someone choosing to have it done, but most families are told it’s necessary by law or to make the body safe to be around, both of which are completely untrue.
The Order of the Good Death is rapidly growing in popularity, featuring a calendar of death-positive events, lectures, workshops and of course the Death Salon. Most of the organizers and members in the Order are female: why do you think women are at the front line in the death awareness movement?
This is the great mystery. Perhaps it has to do with women’s historical connection to death, and the desire to reclaim it. Perhaps it is a feminist act, refusing to let men have control of our bodies in reproduction, healthcare, or death. There are no solid answers, but I’d love someone to do a Phd on this!
Considerations about death in the age of social media
Take a look at the above Top Chart. Blackbird is a Beatles song originally published in the 1968 White Album.
Although Paul McCartney wrote it 46 years ago, last week the song topped the iTunes charts in the Rock genre. Why?
The answer is below:
Italian articles about “daddy Blackbird”.
Chris Picco lives in California: he lost his wife Ashley, who died prematurely giving birth to litle Lennon. On November 12 a video appeared on YouTube showing Chris singing Blackbird before the incubator where his son was struggling for life; the child died just four days after birth.
The video went immediately viral, soon reaching 15 million views, bouncing from social neworks to newspapers and viceversa, with great pariticipation and a flood of sad emoticons and moving comments. This is just the last episode in a new, yet already well-established tendency of public exhibitions of suffering and mourning.
Brittany Maynard (1984-2014), terminally ill, activist for assisted suicide rights.
A recent article by Kelly Conaboy, adressing the phenomenon of tragic videos and stories going viral, uses the expression grief porn: these videos may well be a heart-felt, sincere display to begin with, but they soon become pure entertainment, giving the spectator an immediate and quick adrenaline rush; once the “emotional masturbation” is over, once our little tear has been shed, once we’ve commented and shared, we feel better. We close the browser, and go on with our lives.
If the tabloid genre of grief porn, Conaboy stresses out, is as old as sexual scandals, until now it was only limited to particularly tragic, violent, extraordinary death accounts; the internet, on the other hand, makes it possible to expose common people’s private lives. These videos could be part of a widespread exhibitionism/vouyeurism dynamics, in which the will to show off one’s pain is matched by the users’ desire to watch it — and to press the “Like” button in order to prove their sensitivity.
During the Twentieth Century we witnessed a collective removal of death. So much has been written about this removal process, there is no need to dwell on it. The real question is: is something changing? What do these new phenomenons tell us about our own relationship with death? How is it evolving?
If death as a real, first-hand experience still remains a sorrowful mystery, a forbidden territory encompassing both the reality of the dead body (the true “scandal”) and the elaboration of grief (not so strictly coded as it once was), on the other hand we are witnessing an unprecedented pervasiveness of the representation of death.
Beyond the issues of commercialization and banalization, we have to face an ever more unhibited presence of death images in today’s society: from skulls decorating bags, pins, Tshirts as well as showing up in modern art Museums, to death becoming a communication/marketing/propaganda tool (terrorist beheadings, drug cartels execution videos, immense websites archiving raw footage of accidents, homicides and suicides). All of this is not death, it must be stressed, it’s just its image, its simulacrum — which doesn’t even require a narrative.
Referring to it as “death pornography” does make sense, given that these representations rely on what is in fact the most exciting element of classic pornography: it is what Baudrillard called hyper-reality, an image so realistic that it surpasses, or takes over, reality. (In porn videos, think of viewpoints which would be “impossibile” during the actual intercourse, think of HD resolution bringing out every detail of the actors’ skin, of 3D porn, etc. — this is also what happens with death in simulacrum.)
We can now die a million times, on the tip of a cursor, with every click starting a video or loading a picture. This omnipresence of representations of death, on the other hand, might not be a sign of an obscenity-bound, degenerated society, but rather a natural reaction and metabolization of last century’s removal. The mystery of death still untouched, its obscenity is coming apart (the obscene being brought back “on scene”) until it becomes an everyday image. To continue the parallelism with pornography, director Davide Ferrario (in his investigative book Guardami. Storie dal porno) wrote that witnessing a sexual intercourse, as a guest on an adult movie set, was not in the least exciting for him; but as soon as he looked into the camera viewfinder, everything changed and the scene became more real. Even some war photographers report that explosions do not seem real until they observe them through the camera lens. It is the dominion of the image taking over concrete objects, and if in Baudrillard’s writings this historic shift was described in somewhat apocalyptic colors, today we understand that this state of things — the imaginary overcoming reality — might not be the end of our society, but rather a new beginning.
Little by little our society is heading towards a global and globalized mythology. Intelligence — at least the classic idea of a “genius”, an individual achieving extraordinary deeds on his own — is becoming an outdated myth, giving way to the super-conscience of the web-organism, able to work more and more effectively than the single individual. There will be less and less monuments to epic characters, if this tendency proves durable, less and less heroes. More and more innovations and discoveries will be ascribable to virtual communities (but is there a virtuality opposing reality any more?), and the merit of great achievements will be distributed among a net of individuals.
In much the same way, death is changing in weight and significance.
Preservation and devotion to human remains, although both well-established traditions, are already being challenged by a new and widespread recycling sensitivity, and the idea of ecological reuse basically means taking back decomposition — abhorred for centuries by Western societies, and denied through the use of caskets preventing the body from touching the dirt. The Resurrection of the flesh, the main theological motivation behind an “intact” burial, is giving way to the idea of composting, which is a noble concept in its own right. Within this new perspective, respect for the bodies is not exclusively expressed through devotion, fear towards the bones or the inviolability of the corpse; it gives importance to the body’s usefulness, whether through organ transplant, donation to science, or reduction of its pollution impact. Destroying the body is no longer considered a taboo, but rather an act of generosity towards the environment.
At the same time, this new approach to death is slowly getting rid of the old mysterious, serious and dark overtones. Macabre fashion, black tourism or the many death-related entertainment and cultural events, trying to raise awareness about these topics (for example the London Month of the Dead, or the seminal Death Salon), are ways of dealing once and for all with the removal. Even humor and kitsch, as offensive as they might seem, are necessary steps in this transformation.
Human ashes pressed into a vinyl.
Human ashes turned into a diamond.
And so the internet is daily suggesting a kind of death which is no longer censored or denied, but openly faced, up to the point of turning it into a show.
In respect to the dizzying success of images of suffering and death, the word voyeurism is often used. But can we call it voyeurism when the stranger’s gaze is desired and requested by the “victims” themselves, for instance by terminally ill people trying to raise awareness about their condition, to leave a testimony or simply to give a voice to their pain?
Jennifer Johnson, mother of two children, in her last video before she died (2012).
The exhibition of difficult personal experiences is a part of our society’s new expedient to deal with death and suffering: these are no longer taboos to be hidden and elaborated in the private sphere, but feelings worth sharing with the entire world. If at the time of big extended families, in the first decades of ‘900, grief was “spread” over the whole community, and in the second half of the century it fell back on the individual, who was lacking the instruments to elaborate it, now online community is offering a new way of allocation of suffering. Condoleances and affectionate messages can be received by perfect strangers, in a new paradigm of “superficial” but industrious solidarity.
Chris Picco, “daddy Blackbird”, certainly does not complain about the attention the video brought to him, because the users generosity made it possible for him to raise the $ 200.000 needed to cover medical expenses.
I could never articulate how much your support and your strength and your prayers and your emails and your Facebook messages and your text messages—I don’t know how any of you got my number, but there’s been a lot of me just, ‘Uh, okay, thank you, um.’ I didn’t bother going into the whole, ‘I don’t know who you are, but thank you.’ I just—it has meant so much to me, and so when I say ‘thank you’ I know exactly what you mean.
On the other end of the PC screen is the secret curiosity of those who watch images of death. Those who share these videos, more or less openly enjoying them. Is it really just “emotional masturbation”? Is this some obscene and morbid curiosity?
I personally don’t think there is such a thing as a morbid — that is, pathological — curiosity. Curiosity is an evolutionary tool which enables us to elaborate strategies for the future, and therefore it is always sane and healthy. If we examine voyeurism under this light, it turns out to be a real resource. When cars slow down at the sight of an accident, it’s not always in hope of seeing blood and guts: our brain is urging us to slow down because it needs time to investigate the situation, to elaborate what has happened, to understand what went on there. That’s exactly what the brain is wired to do — inferring data which might prove useful in the future, should we find ourselves in a similar situation.
Accordingly, the history of theater, literature and cinema is full to the brim with tragedy, violence, disasters: the interest lies in finding out how the characters will react to the difficulties they come about. We still need the Hero’s Journey, we still need to discover how he’s going to overcome the tests he finds along the way, and to see how he will solve his problems. As kids, we carefully studied our parents to learn the appropriate response to every situation, and as adults our mind keeps amassing as much detail as possible, to try and control future obstacles.
By identifying with the father playing a sweet song to his dying son, we are confronting ourselves. “What is this man feeling? What would I do in such a predicament? Would I be able to overcome terror in this same way? Would this strategy work for me?”
The construction of our online persona comes only at a later time, when the video is over. Then it becomes important to prove to our contacts and followers that we are humane and sympathetic, that we were deeply moved, and so begins the second phase, with all the expressions of grief, the (real or fake) tears, the participation. This new paradigma, this modern kind of mourning, requires little time and resources, but it could work better than we think (again, see the success of Mr. Picco’s fund-raising campaing). And this sharing of grief is only possible on the account of the initial curiosity that made us click on that video.
And what about those people who dig even deeper into the dark side of the web, with its endless supply of images of death, and watch extremly gruesome videos?
The fundamental stimulus behind watching a video of a man who gets, let’s say, eaten alive by a crocodile, is probably the very same. At a basic lavel, we are always trying to acquire useful data to respond to the unknown, and curiosity is our weapon of defense and adaptation against an uncertain future; a future in which, almost certainly, we won’t have to fight off an alligator, but we’ll certainly need to face suffering, death and the unexpected.
The most shocking videos sometimes lure us with the promise of showing what is normally forbidden or censored: how does the human body react to a fall from a ten story building? Watching the video, it’s as if we too are falling by proxy; just like, by proxy but in a more acceptable context, we can indentify with the tragic reaction of a father watching his child die.
A weightlifter is lifting a barbell. Suddenly his knee snaps and collapses. We scream, jump off the seat, feel a stab of pain. We divert our eyes, then look again, and each time we go over the scene in our mind it’s like we are feeling a little bit of the athlete’s pain (a famous neurologic study on empathy proved that, in part, this is exactly what is going on). This is not masochism, nor a strange need to be upset: anticipation of pain is considered one of the common psychological strategies to prepare for it, and watching a video is a cheap and harmless solution.
In my opinion, the curiosity of those who watch images of suffering and death should not be stigmatized as “sick”, as it is a completely natural instinct. And this very curiosity is behind the ever growing offer of such images, as it is also what allows suffering people to stage their own condition.
The real innovations of these last few years have been the legitimization of death as a public representation, and the collectivization of the experience of grief and mourning — according to the spirit of open confrontation and sharing, typical of social media. These features will probably get more and more evident on Facebook, Twitter and similar platforms: even today, many people suffering from an illness are choosing to post real-time updates on their therapy, in fact opening the curtain over a reality (disease and hospital care) which has been concealed for a long time.
There’ll be the breaking of the ancient Western Code / Your private life will suddenly explode, sang Leonard Cohen in The Future. The great poet’s views expressed in the song are pessimistic, if not apocalyptc, as you would expect from a Twentieth century exponent. Yet it looks like this voluntary (and partial) sacrifice of the private sphere is proving to be an effective way to fix the general lack of grief elaboration codes. We talk ever more frequently about death and disease, and until now it seems that the benefits of this dialogue are exceeding the possible stress from over-exposure (see this article).
What prompted me to write this post is the feeling, albeit vague and uncertain, that a transition is taking place, before our eyes, even if it’s still all too cloudy to be clearly outlined; and of course, such a transformation cannot be immune to excesses, which inevitably affect any crisis. We shall see if these unprecedented, still partly unconscious strategies prove to be an adequate solution in dealing with our ultimate fate, or if they are bound to take other, different forms.
But something is definitely changing.