We need to talk about death

Why ignoring our darkest fears only makes them worse

It’s a universal human experience. So why do we act like we need to confront it alone?

We need to talk about death: Why ignoring our darkest fears only makes them worse
(Credit: P_Wei via iStock)

“I don’t want to die. It’s so permanent.”

So said my terminally ill grandmother, a kick-ass woman who made life-size oil paintings and drank vermouth on the rocks every afternoon.

This isn’t an anecdote I’d be likely to mention in regular conversation with friends. Talk about ruining everyone’s good time. (“Ick, that’s so morbid,” everyone would think.) But earlier this month, the New York Times released its 100 Notable Books of 2014, and among the notables was not one but two – two! – nonfiction titles about death. This seemingly unremarkable milestone is actually one that we should celebrate with a glass of champagne. Or, better yet, with vermouth.

Right now our approach to death, as a culture, is utterly insane: We just pretend it doesn’t exist. Any mention of mortality in casual conversation is greeted with awkwardness and a subject change. That same taboo even translates into situations where the concept of death is unavoidable: After losing a loved one, the bereaved are granted a few moments of mourning, after which the world around them kicks back into motion, as if nothing at all had changed. For those not personally affected by it, the reality of death stays hidden and ignored.

For me this isn’t an abstract topic. There’s been a lot of death in my life. There was my grandmother’s recent death, which sent my whole crazy family into a tailspin; but also my dad’s sudden death when I was 20. Under such circumstances (that is, the unexpected sort), you quickly discover that no one has any clue whatsoever how to deal with human mortality.

“Get through this and we’ll get through the worst of it,” someone said to me at my dad’s funeral, as if the funeral itself was death’s greatest burden, and not the permanent absence of the only dad I’ll ever have.

Gaffes like that are common. But insensitivity is just a symptom of much deeper issues, first of which is our underlying fear of death, a fear that might only boil to the surface when we’re directly confronted by it, but stays with us even as we try our best to ignore it. It’s a fear that my grandmother summed up perfectly when she was dying — the terror of our own, permanent nonexistence. Which makes sense. After all, it’s our basic biological imperative to survive. But on top of that natural fear of death, there’s another, separate issue: our unwillingness, as a culture, to shine a light on that fear, and talk about it. And as a result, we keep this whole huge part of the human experience cloistered away.



“We’re literally lacking a vocabulary to talk about [death],” said Lennon Flowers, a co-founder of an organization called the Dinner Party, which brings together 20- and 30-somethings who have lost a loved one to discuss “the ways in which it continues to affect our lives.”

That lack of vocabulary is a big problem, and not just for people who directly experience loss. It’s a problem for all of us, because it means we each grapple alone with the natural fear of our own expiry. We deny the fear, we bury it under an endless stream of distractions. And so it festers, making us all the more invested in keeping it buried, for how painful it would be to take it out and look at it after letting it rot for so long.

But why all the self-enforced agony? Maybe it’s because a more honest relationship with death would mean a more honest reckoning with our lives, calling into question the choices we’ve made and the ways we’ve chosen to live. And damn if that isn’t uncomfortable.

Of course, if there’s one thing our culture is great at, it’s giving instruction on how to live. There are the clichés — “live each day to the fullest” and “dance like no one’s watching” — and beyond them an endless stream of messages telling us how to look better, feel better, lose weight, have better sex, get promoted, flip houses, and make a delicious nutritious dinner in 30 minutes flat. But all of it is predicated on the notion that life is long and death is some shadowy thing that comes along when we hit 100. (And definitely not one minute before then!)

To get a sense of how self-defeating each of these goals can be, consider this chestnut given to us by a Native American sage by the name of Crazy Horse:

“Today is a good day to die, for all the things of my life are present.”

No, today is not a good day to die, because most of us feel we haven’t lived our lives yet. We run around from one thing to the next. We have plans to buy a house or a new car or, someday, to pursue our wildest dreams. We rush through the day to get to the evening, and through the week to get to the weekend, but once the weekend comes, we’re already thinking ahead to Monday morning. Our lives are one deferral after another.

Naturally, then, today isn’t a good day to die. How about tomorrow? Probably not. What number of days would we need to be comfortable saying what Crazy Horse said? Probably too big a number to count. We preserve the idea of death as an abstract thing that comes in very old age, rather than a constant possibility for us as fragile humans, because we build our whole lives atop that foundation.

What would we gain from finally opening up about death? How about the golden opportunity to consider what’s really important, not to mention the chance to be less lonely as we grapple with our own mortality, and the promise of being a real friend when someone we love loses someone they love. Plus it would all come back to us tenfold whenwe’re the ones going through a loss or reeling from a terminal diagnosis.

Sounds like a worthy undertaking, doesn’t it?

And that’s where there’s good news. Coming to grips with death is, as we’ve already established, really hard. But we at least have a model for doing so. Let’s consider, for example, the Times notable books I mentioned earlier. One of them, the graphic memoir “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant,” provides an especially honest — and genuinely funny — account of author Roz Chast’s experience watching her parents grow old and die. The other book, Atul Gawande’s “Being Mortal,” reveals just how much even our medical establishment struggles with the end of life. Doctors are trained to treat sickness, of course, but often have little or no training in what to do when sickness is no longer treatable.

What both of these books do especially well is provide a vocabulary for articulating just how difficult a subject death can be for everyone — even the strongest and brightest among us. As a universal human experience, it isn’t something we should have to deal with alone. It doesn’t make a person weak or maladjusted just because he or she struggles openly with death. And what Chast and Gawande both demonstrate is that talking about it doesn’t have to be awkward or uncomfortable, because these are anxieties that all of us have in common.

It’s a common refrain that what distinguishes humans from other animals is that humans can understand, on a rational level, the full magnitude of our mortality. But what also distinguishes humans is the richness of our relationships and the depths of our empathy — the ability we have to communicate our experiences and support those around us. Death is a deeply unsettling prospect, no matter who you are. But it doesn’t need to be a burden you face alone.

The following is a list of resources for those looking for an organized platform to discuss the topic of death:

  • Atul Gawande serves as an advisor to the Conversation Project, a site that encourages families to talk openly about end-of-life care — and to choose, in advance, whether they want to be at home or in a hospital bed, on life support or not — in short, to say in unequivocal terms what matters most when the end is near.
  • Vivian Nunez is the 22-year-old founder of a brand-new site called Too Damn Young. Nunez lost her mom when she was 10 and her grandmother – her second mother – 11 years later. “Losing someone you love is an extraordinarily isolating experience,” she said. “This is especially significant when you’re talking about teenagers, or a young adult, who loses someone at a young age, and is forced to face how real mortality is, and then not encouraged to talk about it.” She founded Too Damn Young so that bereaved teenagers will know they’re not alone and so they’ll have a public space to talk about it.
  • The Recollectors is a groundbreaking project by writer Alysia Abbott, that tells the stories of people who lost a parent to AIDS. She’s exploding two big taboos – death and AIDS – in one clean shot.
  • Get Your Shit Together is another great one, a site launched by a young widow who learned the hard way that everyone should take some key steps to get their financial matters in order in case of an untimely death. “I (mostly) have my shit together,” the site’s founder says. “Now it’s your turn.”
  • There’s also Death Cafe, dedicated to “increasing awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives.” And Modern Loss, a site that’s received coverage from the New York Times and the Washington Post, shies away from nothing in its quest to tell stories about end of life and living with loss. “Death Cafe and Modern Loss have attracted a loyal following,” said Nicole Bélanger, author of “Grief in the Rearview: Three Motherless Years.” “They offer the safe space we crave to show up as we are, without worrying about having to polish up our grief and make it fit for public consumption.”

Perhaps these communities will start to influence the mainstream, as their emboldened members teach the rest of us that it’s OK, it’s really OK, to talk about death. If that happens, it will be a slow process – culture change always is. “Race and gender and myriad other subjects were forever taboo, but now we’re able to speak truth,” said Flowers of the Dinner Party. “And now we’re seeing that around death and dying.”

If she’s right, it’s the difference between the excruciating loneliness of hiding away our vulnerabilities and, instead, allowing them to connect us and bind us together.

Secrets of the crematory

“Hey, come in here and help me get this big guy on the table”

You won’t be there to realize what’s happening, or what the mortician is saying. Here’s what you will be missing

Secrets of the crematory: “Hey, come in here and help me get this big guy on the table”
Caitlin Doughty (Credit: YouTube/OrderoftheGoodDeath)

The day started innocently enough. “Caitlin!” Mike hollered from the preparation room, “Hey, come in here and help me get this big guy on the table.”

Actually, I remember him saying, “Hey, come in here and help me get this big Mexican on the table.” But that cannot be right. Mike was always politically correct in his terminology. (He once referred to the victims of Oakland’s gang violence as “young urban men of color.”) I have trouble believing “this big Mexican” is not just a trick of my memory. Regardless, the man we transferred from the stretcher to the prep table was neither big nor Mexican. He was massive and El Salvadorian, an insurance salesman who weighed well over 450 pounds. Should you ever wish to understand the phrase “dead weight” in all its gravitational glory, attempt to lift the corpse of a morbidly obese man off of a perilous, wobbly stretcher.

Juan Santos died from an overdose of cocaine. His body went undiscovered for two days in his apartment in the East Bay. He was autopsied by the medical examiner and his chest sewn back up leaving a dramatic Y-shaped stitch stretching from his clavicle to his stomach. “Did you catch this guy’s bag of viscera in the back of the reefer?” Mike asked.

“Viscera? All his organs and stuff ?”

“Yeah, the medical examiner takes the organs out and piles them in those red hazmat bags. Comes in to the funeral home with the body.”

“Just, like, tucked up next to ’em or something?” I asked.

Mike grinned. “No, Chris carries them slung over his shoulder like Santa Claus.”

“Really?”

“No, man, no. What the hell—that’s gross,” Mike said.

Ah, Mike in a jovial mood. I tried to play along with his yuletide-themed organ humor. “So that’s where the legend of ‘Chris’ Kringle comes from? Is it the good or bad kids that get internal organs for Christmas?”

“I guess it depends on how morbid a kid you are.”

“Does it all get put back in the body?”

“Eventually. When Bruce comes in this afternoon to embalm him. There’s a service tomorrow, so he’ll soak them in embalming sludge and stick them back in,” he explained.

After hoisting Juan onto the table with a theatrical heave, Mike brought out a tape measure. “The family bought a casket, too. I’m going to measure him. I hope he fits because I really don’t want to call this family back and tell them they need the oversized casket. Maybe I’ll make you do it,” Mike said, smiling at the thought.



The World Health Organization (along with any of the forty-five extreme-weight-loss television programs) tells us that the United States has more overweight adults than any other country in the world. It’s no surprise that the market for oversized caskets is booming.

The website for Goliath Casket, Inc. features this charming origin story:

Back in the 70’s and 80’s oversize caskets were hard to get and poorly made. In 1985, Keith’s father, Forrest Davis (Pee Wee), quit his job as a welder in a casket factory and said, “Boys, I’m gonna go home and build oversize caskets that you would be proud to put your mother in.” . . . The company started in an old converted hog barn on their farm, by offering just two sizes and one color.

We could have used Pee Wee’s ingenuity, because there was no way Juan was going to fit into a regular-sized casket. The man, bless his departed soul, was almost as wide as he was tall. “Go ahead, cross his arms, like he’s in the casket,” Mike instructed.

I stretched myself across Juan’s body to access both appendages. “No, cross them harder, harder, harder,” Mike insisted, extending the tape measure across his shoulders. By now I was fully spread out over the body. “Keep going, keep—there we are! Boom. He will totally fit.”

“Oh, c’mon, he will not!” I said.

“We’ll make him fit. The family is already paying more than they can afford for this service. I’m not going to tack on the extra $300 for an oversized casket if I can help it. Just telling them their son needs an oversized casket is hard enough.”

Later that day, as the Cremulator whirred through the backlog of bones, Bruce arrived to embalm Juan. After seeing him laid out, Bruce, always one for tact, yelled into the crematory: “Caitlin! Caitlin, this is a lot of Mexican. It’s gonna stink. Bigger people always stink.”

“Why does everyone keep calling him Mexican?” I yelled back over the rumble of the cremation machines.

Bruce was wrong about Juan’s country of origin, and surely he was also wrong about fat people stinking. Yet emanating from the preparation room was the most ferocious smell my nostrils e’er had smell’d. You would think such an odor would have repelled me, but for some reason it aroused a desire in me to find the pot of gold at the end of the olfactory rainbow.

I had seen Bruce embalm bodies, but I was in no way intellectually or emotionally prepared to see 450 pounds laid out before me. Autopsied bodies require the embalmer to cut open the stiches from the Y-shaped incision and, as Mike had said, to chemically treat the deceased’s internal organs from Santa Chris’s red hazmat bag. Bruce had just begun that portion of the preparation when I walked in.

To describe the scene as a “swampy mire” simply would not do it justice. It was more guts and blood and organs and fat I could ever have imagined a single human body containing. Bruce, who was pulling the organs out of the bag, launched into a narrative immediately: “I told you it would stink, Caitlin. Bigger people just decompose faster. That’s science, girl. It’s the fat; the bacteria love the fat. By the time they get here after going in for an autopsy, phew.”

To Bruce’s credit, this turned out to be true. His “bigger people always stink” comment wasn’t based on prejudice, it was a fact.

“All that stuff is bubblating in that body. I call it bubblating. At least this guy didn’t die in the tub. Tubs are the worst. The worst. You go to take a body out of the tub and the skin just pulls right off. The tissue gas bubbles up, all oily, and the smell.” Bruce whistled for dramatic effect. “Psychologically, you’ll be smelling that for the rest of the day, rest of your life sometimes.”

He kept on talking. “Look at this guy. Cocaine overdose? More likely he had a heart attack. Look at this,” Bruce said as he reached into Juan’s chest cavity, picked up his heart, and presented it to me. “Look at his heart! All this fat around it. You know he was sittin’ there with his friends at the bar eating a hamburger and doin’ his lines of coke. All this stuff”—he pulled his gloved hands apart to reveal the yellowed deposits—“this is why you can’t be fat!”

I must have looked insulted at this accusation, because he quickly added, “Naw, I don’t mean you specifically can’t be fat, girl, you got a good figure. But I know you must have fat friends. Tell your fat friends.”

I had no reply.

For Bruce, the former instructor, this demonstration was not done for shock value, but for the benefit of my education. Obese people smell particularly bad after an autopsy due to their faster rate of decomposition. Fact. Not that we would ever share this fact with a decedent’s family. You couldn’t have paid me any sum of money to explain to Juan’s mother the truth about why her son smelled the way he did. These facts were only for the ears of the deathmongers, the initiated behind the scenes.

Much of our negative reaction to a decomposing corpse like Juan’s is raw instinct. We’ve evolved to be disgusted by things that would hurt us to eat, rotting meat being one of the top contenders in that category. Some animals, like vultures, can safely consume rotting flesh because of their highly corrosive stomach acid. But humans would prefer to avoid spoiled food altogether rather than having to fight off the ill effects after the meat has entered our bodies. Recall the Wari’, consuming their decomposing brethren and being forced to leave the ritual, have a bit of a vomit, and return to eat again.

“Bruce, seriously Bruce,” I said. “This might be the worst thing I have ever smelled.”

For those of you who have not had the privilege of smelling Eau de Decomposition, the first note of a putrefying human body is of licorice with a strong citrus undertone. Not a fresh, summer citrus, mind you—more like a can of orange-scented industrial bathroom spray shot directly up your nose. Add to that a day-old glass of white wine that has begun to attract flies. Top it off with a bucket of fish left in the sun. That, my friends, is what human decomposition smells like.

Bruce was apologetic. “Yeah, I’d tell you not to smell it, but that would be like tellin’ a little kid, ‘Son, don’t you dare push the big red button!’”

Except for the rare decedent like Juan Santos who slips past the system, decomposition and decay have all but disappeared from our way of death. The modern corpse has two options: burial with preservative embalming, which grinds decomposition to a halt into perpetuity (or at least until the body starts to harden and shrivel like a mummy); and cremation, which turns the body into ash and dust. Either way, you will never see a human being decaying.

Because we’ve never encountered a decomposing body, we can only assume they are out to get us. It is no wonder there is a cultural fascination with zombies. They are public enemy number one, taboo extraordinaire, the most gruesome thing there is—a reanimated decomposing corpse.

There is a misconception that “burial” involves placing a body directly into the earth, leaving us vulnerable should the zombie apocalypse come about. Like in Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video, a decayed hand shoots up through the dirt and the body hops easily out of its grave. Burial in that fashion used to be the case, but in the developed world the paradigm no longer fits. Instead, a body is chemically embalmed, then laid in a sealed casket, which is then placed in a heavy concrete or metal vault beneath the earth, surrounding the body in several layers of artificial embrace, separating it from the world above. The headstone is placed on top of the whole affair, like the cherry on a death-denial sundae.

Vaults and caskets are not the law; they are the policy of individual cemeteries. Vaults prevent the settling of the dirt around the body, thus making landscaping more uniform and cost effective. As an added bonus, vaults can be customized and sold at a markup. Faux marble? Bronze? Take your pick, family.

Rather than let author and environmentalist Edward Abbey be buried in a traditional cemetery, his friends stole his body, wrapped it in a sleeping bag, and hauled it in the back of his pickup truck to the Cabeza Prieta Desert in Arizona. They drove down a long dirt road and dug a hole when they reached the end of it, marking Abbey’s name on a nearby stone and pouring whiskey onto the grave. Fitting tribute for Abbey, who spent his career warning humanity of the harm in separating ourselves from nature. “If my decomposing carcass helps nourish the roots of a juniper tree or the wings of a vulture—that is immortality enough for me. And as much as anyone deserves,” he once said.

Left to their own devices, human bodies rot, decompose, come apart, and sink gloriously back into the earth from whence they came. Using embalming and heavy protective caskets to stop this process is a desperate attempt to stave off the inevitable, and demonstrates our clear terror of decomposition. The death industry markets caskets and embalming under the rubric of helping bodies look “natural,” but our current death customs are as natural as training majestic creatures like bears and elephants to dance in cute little outfits, or erecting replicas of the Eiffel Tower and Venetian canals in the middle of the harsh American desert.

Western culture didn’t always have this aversion to decomposition. In fact, our relationship to rot used to be altogether intimate. In the early days of Christianity, when the religion was still a small Jewish sect fighting for its survival, those who worshipped the new messiah faced harsh persecution, sometimes dying for their faith. These martyrs came to grisly ends. You had your beheadings, your stonings, your flayings, your crucifixions, your hangings, your boilings in oil, your eatings by lion, and so forth. As a reward, the martyrs went straight to heaven. No purgatory, no Judgment Day: just a direct shot into the kingdom of God.

For medieval Christians, these martyrs-cum-saints were celebrities. When the emperor Constantine declared Christianity legal in 324 CE, the bodies of martyred saints became major attractions. Having the dead body of a famous martyr in your church—or even just a heart, bone, or vial of blood—brought hordes of worshippers. It was believed that the souls of the saints lurked around their corpses, dispensing miracles and general holiness to those who came to pay tribute.

Diseases were cured! Droughts were ended! Enemies were defeated! But why stop at just paying a visit to a dead saint when you could be buried in the same church? It stood to reason that being buried for all eternity ad sanctos (literally “at the saints”) would ingratiate you to the saint in the afterlife, ensuring protection for your immortal soul.

As the Christian faith grew, more and more members of the congregation insisted on being buried in and around the church to reap the benefits of saint proximity. This burial practice spread throughout the empire, from Rome to Byzantium and to what is now present-day England and France. Entire towns grew up around these corpse churches.

Demand rose and the churches supplied it—for a fee, of course. The wealthiest church patrons wanted the best spots, nearest the saints. If there was a nook in the church big enough for a corpse, you were sure to find a body in it. There were, without hyperbole, dead bodies everywhere. The preferred locations were the half circle around the apse and the vestibule at the entrance. Beyond those key positions, it was a free-for-all: corpses were placed under the slabs on the floor, in the roof, under the eaves, even piled into the walls themselves. Going to church meant the corpses in the walls outnumbered the living parishioners.

Without refrigeration, in the heat of the summer months, the noxious smell of human decomposition in these churches must have been unimaginable. Italian physician Bernardino Ramazzini complained that “there are so many tombs in the church, and they are so often opened that this abominable smell is too often unmistakable. However much they fumigate the sacred edifices with incense, myrrh, and other aromatic odors, it is obviously very injurious to those present.”

If you weren’t rich or influential enough to score a spot inside the church, you would go into one of many graves in the church’s courtyard, some pits thirty feet deep, containing up to 1,500 corpses. This practice reflected a seismic shift from the pre-medieval Roman and Jewish belief that dead bodies were impure, and best kept on the far outskirts of town. The medieval church courtyard turned cemetery was the place to see and be seen. It was the center of town life, a place of socialization and commerce. Vendors sold beer and wine to the crowds and installed communal ovens to bake fresh bread. Young lovers took nightly strolls; speeches were made to gathered crowds. The Council of Rouen in 1231 banned dancing in the cemetery or in the church, under pain of excommunication. To require such a forceful ban, it must have been a popular pastime. The cemetery was the venue where the living and the dead mingled in social harmony.

Historian Philippe Ariès, author of a brilliant, sweeping study of a millennium of Western death entitled “L’Homme devant la mort,” declared that “henceforth and for a long time to come, the dead completely ceased to inspire fear.” Ariès may have been exaggerating, but even if the Europeans of the Middle Ages were afraid of death, they got over it, because the sublime benefits of being near the saints outweighed the drawbacks of living with unseemly sights and smells.

Medieval death was my first true (academic) love. I was captivated by the dancing skeletons, the maggot tomb décor, the charnel houses, the putrefying bodies in the church walls. The brazen acceptance of human decomposition in the late Middle Ages was so different from what I grew up with. The only two funerals I had been to as a child were Papa Aquino’s, with his heavily embalmed and made-up face sneering up from his casket, and the memorial service for a mother of a childhood friend. Her body was absent from the service altogether, and instead of speaking directly of her death, the pastor running the memorial spoke only in euphemisms: “Her soul was a tent, and the cruel winds of life came through the palm trees and blew our sister’s tent down!”

Decomposition was rare even behind the scenes at Westwind. At ye olde warehouse of modern secular death, the majority of our clients died in contained medical environments like nursing homes or hospitals before being swiftly whisked away to our cold-storage fridge, which, while not freezing, maintained a steady temperature below 40 degrees. Even if the bodies had to hang out there for a few days while the proper state permits were filed, most corpses were cremated long before they ever made it to the smellier phases of decomposition. One morning I came in, opened the freezer door, pushed aside the plastic strips, and was blasted by the unmistakable, unforgettable smell of human decomposition.

“Chris, dear God man, why? Who is it that smells like that?” I asked.

“His name is Royce, I think. Picked him up yesterday. It’s not good in there, Cat,” Chris answered, shaking his head with a seriousness I appreciated. This vile, corrosive smell was indeed no laughing matter.

So it is you, Royce, source of the horrible, infernal stench emanating from the fridge. I worked my little fingers to the quick to file his death certificate with the city so I could then cremate him as quickly as possible. When I opened his cremation container, I found a man who could best be described as “boggy.” Royce was vivid green, like the color of a 1950s Cadillac. He was a “floater,” the unfortunate funeral-industry term for bodies found dead in the water— in Royce’s case, the San Francisco Bay. I sent him to the flames, satisfied that my day of decay had come to an end.

But the smell did not go away. Royce was gone—and yet—the smell persisted. This matter required investigation. Investigation of the worst possible kind. Sifting through the cardboard boxes of bodies sniffing away until . . . You!— Ellen! The woman from the Medical Examiner’s Office. ’Tis, in fact, you who stinks more putridly than the worst smelling thing ever to smell. You, with your skin flaking away. What happened to you? You were fifty-six and your death certficate says you worked in “fashion sales.”

Unlike Royce, who had floated in the SF Bay for several days, I never found out what had happened to Ellen. When at last I was able to send the poor woman to the pyre, I sat down and read a chapter of Octave Mirbeau’s “The Torture Garden,” a book I first encountered during my decadent French literature phase. Not three lines into the chapter a character was described as “a lusty dilettante who reveled in the stench of decomposition.” My first reaction was, “Lovely, just like me!” But really? No. Not just like me, not like anyone who worked at Westwind. It may have been an academic interest, but that didn’t mean I took some perverse, maniacal delight in decomposition. I didn’t walk into the fridge every day, inhale deeply, and cackle with delight, dancing around naked in the cold miasma, transgressing with obscene pleasure. Instead, I wrinkled my nose, shuddered, and washed my hands for the twelfth time that day. Decomposition was just another reality of death, a necessary visual (and aromatic) reminder that our bodies are fallible, mere blips on the radar of the vast universe.

That reminder of our fallibility is beneficial, and there is much to be gained by bringing back responsible exposure to decomposition. Historically, Buddhist monks hoping to detach themselves from lust and curb their desire for permanence would meditate on the form of a rotting corpse. Known as the nine cemetery contemplations, the meditation would focus the different stages of decomposition: “(1) distension (choso); (2) rupture (kaiso); (3) exudation of blood (ketsuzuso); (4) putrefaction (noranso); (5) discoloration and desiccation (seioso); (6) consumption by animals and birds (lanso); (7) dismemberment (sanso); (8) bones (kosso); and (9) parched to dust (shoso).”

The meditation could be internal, but often the monks employed images of the stages of decay or took trips to the charnel grounds to meditate over a real decomposing corpse. There is nothing like consistent exposure to dead bodies to remove the trepidation attached to dead bodies.

If decomposing bodies have disappeared from culture (which they have), but those same decomposing bodies are needed to alleviate the fear of death (which they are), what happens to a culture where all decomposition is removed? We don’t need to hypothesize: we live in just such a culture. A culture of death denial.

This denial takes many forms. Our obsession with youth, the creams and chemicals and detoxifying diets pushed by those who would sell the idea that the natural aging of our bodies is grotesque. Spending over $100 billion a year on anti-aging products as 3.1 million children under five starve to death. The denial manifests in our technology and buildings, which create the illusion that we have less in common with road kill than with the sleek lines of a MacBook.

The way to break the cycle and avoid embalming, the casket, the heavy vault, is something called green, or natural, burial. It is only available in certain cemeteries, but its popularity is growing as society continues to demand it. Natural burial is what transpired with Edward Abbey’s remains, minus the whole stealing-the-corpse and hightailing -itinto- the-desert thing. The body goes straight into the ground, in a simple biodegradable shroud, with a rock to mark the location. It zips merrily through decomposition, shooting its atoms back into the universe to create new life.

Not only is natural burial by far the most ecologically sound way to perish, it doubles down on the fear of fragmentation and loss of control. Making the choice to be naturally buried says, “Not only am I aware that I’m a helpless, fragmented mass of organic matter, I celebrate it. Vive la decay!”

By this stage of my time at Westwind, I had already decided on a green burial for my own body. I understood that I had been given my atoms, the ones that made up my heart and toenails and kidneys and brain, on a kind of universal loan program. The time would come when I would have to give the atoms back, and I didn’t want to attempt to hold on to them through the chemical preservation of my future corpse. There was one such natural burial cemetery in Marin, right across the bridge from Westwind. There, I could sit among the cemetery’s rolling hills, looking down over the mounded graves and contemplate my date with decay. The monks found liberation through their discomfort, and in a way I was doing the same. Staring directly into the heart of my fear, something I could never do as a child, and ever so gradually, starting to break clear of it.

Excerpted from “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: And Other Lessons From the Crematory” by Caitlin Doughty. Published by W.W. Norton and Co. Copyright © 2014 by Caitlin Doughty. Reprinted with permission from the publisher. All rights reserved.

Caitlin Doughty is a licensed mortician and writer living in Los Angeles.  She is the founder of The Order of the Good Death and the host of the “Ask a Mortician” webseries. W. W. Norton will publish Caitlin’s memoir, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory,” on September 15. Follow on Twitter at @TheGoodDeath

 

http://www.salon.com/2014/09/27/secrets_of_the_crematory_%E2%80%9Chey_come_in_here_and_help_me_get_this_big_guy_on_the_table%E2%80%9D/

New Yorker Cartoonist Roz Chast’s Remarkable Illustrated Meditation on Aging, Illness, and Death

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Making sense of the human journey with wit, wisdom, and disarming vulnerability.

“Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead,” John Updike wrote in his magnificent memoir. “So why, one could say, be afraid of death, when death comes all the time?” It’s a sentiment somewhat easier to swallow — though certainly not without its ancient challenge — when it comes to our own death, but when that of our loved ones skulks around, it’s invariably devastating and messy, and it catches us painfully unprepared no matter how much time we’ve had to “prepare.”

Count on another beloved New Yorker contributor, cartoonist Roz Chast, to address this delicate and doleful subject with equal parts wit and wisdom in Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?: A Memoir (public library) — a remarkable illustrated chronicle of her parents’ decline into old age and death, pierced by those profound, strangely uplifting in-between moments of cracking open the little chests of truth we keep latched shut all our lives until a brush with our mortal impermanence rattles the lock and lets out some understanding, however brief and fragmentary, of the great human mystery of what it means to live.

The humor and humility with which Chast tackles the enormously difficult subject of aging, illness and death is nothing short of a work of genius.

But besides appreciating Chast’s treatment of such grand human themes as death, duty, and “the moving sidewalk of life,” I was struck by how much her parents resembled my own — her father, just like mine, a “kind and sensitive” man of above-average awkwardness, “the spindly type,” inept at even the basics of taking care of himself domestically, with a genius for languages; her mother, just like mine, a dominant and hard-headed perfectionist “built like a fire hydrant,” with vanquished dreams of becoming a professional pianist, an unpredictable volcano of anger. (“Where my father was tentative and gentle,” Chast writes, “she was critical and uncompromising.” And: “Even though I knew he couldn’t really defend me against my mother’s rages, I sensed that at least he felt some sympathy, and that he liked me as a person, not just because I was his daughter.”)

Chast, like myself, was an only child and her parents, like mine, had a hard time understanding how their daughter made her living given she didn’t run in the 9-to-5 hamster wheel of working for the man. There were also the shared family food issues, the childhood loneliness, the discomfort about money that stems from having grown up without it.

The point here, of course, isn’t to dance to the drum of solipsism. (Though we only children seem particularly attuned to its beat.) It’s to appreciate the elegance and bold vulnerability with which Chast weaves out of her own story a narrative at once so universally human yet so relatable in its kaleidoscope of particularities that any reader is bound to find a piece of him- or herself in it, to laugh and weep with the bittersweet relief of suddenly feeling less alone in the most lonesome-making of human struggles, to find some compassion for even the most tragicomic of our faults.

From reluctantly visiting her parents in the neighborhood where she grew up (“not the Brooklyn of artists or hipsters or people who made — and bought — $8 chocolate bars [but] DEEP Brooklyn”) as their decline began, to accepting just as reluctantly the basic facts of life (“Old age didn’t change their basic personalities. If anything, it intensified what was already there.”), to witnessing her father’s mental dwindling (“One of the worst parts of senility must be that you have to get terrible news over and over again. On the other hand, maybe in between the times of knowing the bad news, you get to forget it and live as if everything was hunky-dory.”), to the self-loathing brought on by the clash between the aspiration of a loving daughter and the financial strain of elder care (“I felt like a disgusting person, worrying about the money.”), Chast treks with extraordinary candor and vulnerability through the maze of her own psyche, mapping out our own in the process.

Chast also explores, with extraordinary sensitivity and self-awareness, the warping of identity that happens when the cycle of life and its uncompromising realities toss us into roles we always knew were part of the human journey but somehow thought we, we alone, would be spared. She writes:

It’s really easy to be patient and sympathetic with someone when it’s theoretical, or only for a little while. It’s a lot harder to deal with someone’s craziness when it’s constant, and that person is your dad, the one who’s supposed to be taking care of YOU.

But despite her enormous capacity for wit and humor even in so harrowing an experience, Chast doesn’t stray too far from its backbone of deep, complicated love and paralyzing grief. The book ends with Chast’s raw, unfiltered sketches from the final weeks she spent in the hospice ward where her mother took her last breath. A crystalline realization suddenly emerges that Chast’s cartooning isn’t some gimmicky ploy for quick laughs but her most direct access point to her own experience, her best sensemaking mechanism for understanding the world, life and, inevitably, death.

Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant? is an absolutely astounding read in its entirety — the kind that enters your soul through the backdoor, lightly, and touches more parts of it and more heavinesses than you ever thought you’d allow. You’re left, simply, grateful.

Images courtesy of Bloomsbury © Roz Chast; thanks, Wendy

After you’re gone, what happens to your social media and data?

Web of the dead: When Facebook profiles of the deceased outnumber the living

Web of the dead: When Facebook profiles of the deceased outnumber the living

There’s been chatter — and even an overly hyped study — predicting the eventual demise of Facebook.

But what about the actual death of Facebook users? What happens when a social media presence lives beyond the grave? Where does the data go?

The folks over at WebpageFX looked into what they called “digital demise,” and made a handy infographic to fully explain what happens to your Web presence when you’ve passed.

It was estimated that 30 million Facebook users died in the first eight years of the social media site’s existence, according to the Huffington Post. Facebook even has settings to memorialize a deceased user’s page.

Facebook isn’t the only site with policies in place to handle a user’s passing. Pinterest, Google, LinkedIn and Twitter all handle death and data differently. For instance, to deactivate a Facebook profile you must provide proof that you are an immediate family member; for Twitter, however, you must produce the death certificate and your identification. All of the sites pinpointed by WebpageFX stated that your data belongs to you — some with legal or family exceptions.

Social media sites are in in general a young Internet phenomena — Facebook only turned 10 this year. So are a majority of their users. (And according to Mashable, Facebook still has a large number of teen adapters.) Currently, profiles of the living far outweigh those of the dead.



However, according to calculations done by XKDC, that will not always be the case. They presented two hypothetical scenarios. If Facebook loses its “cool” and market share, dead users will outnumber the living in 2065. If Facebook keeps up its growth, the site won’t be a digital graveyard until the mid 2100s.

Check out the fascinating infographic here.

h/t Mashable

http://www.salon.com/2014/06/24/web_of_the_dead_when_facebook_profiles_of_the_deceased_outnumber_the_living/?source=newsletter

The Afterlife of Pia Farrenkopf

March 27, 2014

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Sometime in early 2009, Pia Farrenkopf died in the back seat of her Jeep, which was parked in the garage of her home. Around her, life in the suburban community of Pontiac, Michigan, went on. No one knew that she’d died. By all accounts, her neighbors hadn’t known her very well, though some of them would mow her grass when it got too high, according to a report in USA Today. They kept on doing so for five years, until, last month, her body was finally discovered.

Neighbors told reporters that Farrenkopf travelled abroad for business, which is why, they assumed, they never saw her, and had taken it upon themselves to manicure her lawn. Farrenkopf had left her job as a contractor with Chrysler Financial a few months before her death, according to USA Today, so no one was expecting her at work. Her family lived far away and had lost touch with her, according to Reuters.

Farrenkopf also had a bank account with a very large sum in it, and—this is the postmodern crux of the story—she had set up her mortgage and utility bills to be paid automatically from it. As her body decomposed in her garage, the funds went out regularly. Last year, Farrenkopf’s money finally ran out. Her mortgage payments stopped, and the bank foreclosed on the house. Earlier this month, a contractor employed by the bank was examining the home when he discovered Farrenkopf’s body—which has been called “mummified”—in her car in the garage. Since then, police have been attempting to piece together the details of her life and death, to find some answers to the mystery of who she was and why she is gone.

Between those two moments—when she died and when her body was discovered—she was a kind of Schrödinger’s cat, biologically dead but also, in a way, among the living, paying for her power and phone, the roof over her head. Until her body surfaced, Farrenkopf’s institutional ties were the only things keeping her “alive.”

Farrenkopf had a kind of institutional doppelgänger, as do we all: a presence that forms as we post on social media, shop online, send e-mails, and use the Internet for paying bills, banking, and dozens of other financial and technological transactions. Some of us have more than one. The institutional doppelgänger is hard to see because it shadows our everyday lives so closely. Every so often, though, the curtain twitches, reminding us of its existence. The term “identity theft” is a curious one, describing a scenario in which the doppelgänger—not the most obvious you, with your weird cuticles and inner monologue and assorted love problems, but that other you, who has a Social Security number and neatly profiled buying habits and a checking account at Bank of America—can be hijacked by an utter stranger, compromised, put on the market, sold, and used to buy three MacBook Airs, all while you’re sitting on your couch Netflix-bingeing on “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”

In Farrenkopf’s case, these odd circumstances seem less like a moral issue—no one would argue that there was maliciousness on the part of the utility companies or the bank, which can hardly be expected to consult their paying customers on a regular basis to make sure that they haven’t shuffled off this mortal coil—and more like a mundane aspect of the digital age.

Karl Marx believed that the product of human labor was separate from and hostile toward its maker. The same might be said of the product of our commercial activities on the Internet. You might not believe that your institutional doppelgänger works against you, but it does not seem like a stretch to argue that the sum of your activity as a consumer—your social-media posts, credit history, the freakishly accurate profile advertisers have of you—is its own creature, and can move about independently of you. You can also assign any number of automated tasks to your doppelgänger, which it will perform tirelessly.

In “Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television,” Jeffrey Sconce writes that the digital world has raised many questions about the dissociation of our minds, bodies, space, and time. Our culture has been obsessed with the idea that consciousness can be transmitted—that it can be separated from a person’s body—since the advent of the telegraph. It’s just gotten more intense in the past few decades. He points out that much of our science-fictional language about the actual transfer of human consciousness via electricity is just that—fictional—but, at the very least, something can be learned about our cultural dependence on ideas of identity existing beyond the body. Our institutional doppelgängers might not be sentient or spiritual—Farrenkopf’s spirit didn’t somehow live on in her online transactions—but they are a part of modern existence, and tell us something about the way we mete out pieces of our lives. Technology gives us the ability to rely on automatic processes, and we are only too happy to do so. It is no surprise that such dependence came together in such a dystopian fashion; perhaps the surprise should be that it didn’t happen sooner.

On a Facebook page dedicated to Farrenkopf’s story, among the posts with information about the investigation, a woman who identifies herself as Farrenkopf’s niece gives us bits of her aunt’s life—letters from old co-workers, details about her extended family, a black-and-white high-school photograph. Our institutional doppelgängers are real—but, as Farrenkopf’s story unfolds, it is a reminder that they are not us.

Photograph by Daniel Mears/Detroit News/AP.

http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/currency/2014/03/the-afterlife-of-pia-farrenkopf.html?utm_source=tny&utm_campaign=generalsocial&utm_medium=google+&mbid=social_google+

Don’t Want to Die? Just Upload Your Brain

March 5, 2014, 11:32 PM
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l haven’t seen “Her,” the Oscar-nominated movie about a man who has an intimate relationship with a Scarlett Johansson-voiced computer operating system. I have, however, read Susan Schneider’s “The Philosophy of ‘Her’,” a post on The Stone blog at the New York Times looking into the possibility, in the pretty near future, of avoiding death by having your brain scanned and uploaded to a computer. Presumably you’d want to Dropbox your brain file (yes, you’ll need to buy more storage) to avoid death by hard-drive crash. But with suitable backups, you, or an electronic version of you, could go on living forever, or at least for a very, very long time, “untethered,” as Ms. Schneider puts it, “from a body that’s inevitably going to die.”

This idea isn’t the loopy brainchild of sci-fi hacks. Researchers at Oxford University have been on the path to human digitization for a while now, and way back in 2008 the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford released a 130-page technical report entitled Whole Brain Emulation: A Roadmap. Of the dozen or so benefits of whole-brain emulation listed by the authors, Andrew Sandberg and Nick Bostrom, one stands out:

If emulation of particular brains is possible and affordable, and if concerns about individual identity can be met, such emulation would enable back‐up copies and “digital immortality.”

Scanning brains, the authors write, “may represent a radical new form of human enhancement.”

Hmm. Immortality and radical human enhancement. Is this for real? Yes:

It appears feasible within the foreseeable future to store the full connectivity or even multistate compartment models of all neurons in the brain within the working memory of a large computing system.

Foreseeable future means not in our lifetimes, right? Think again. If you expect to live to 2050 or so, you could face this choice. And your beloved labrador may be ready for upload by, say, 2030:

A rough conclusion would nevertheless be that if electrophysiological models are enough, full human brain emulations should be possible before mid‐century. Animal models of simple mammals would be possible one to two decades before this.

Interacting with your pet via a computer interface (“Hi Spot!”/“Woof!”) wouldn’t be quite the same as rolling around the backyard with him while he slobbers on your face or watching him dash off after a tennis ball you toss into a pond. You might be able to simulate certain aspects of his personality with computer extensions, but the look in his eyes, the cock of his head and the feel and scent of his coat will be hard to reproduce electronically. All these limitations would probably not make up for no longer having to scoop up his messes or feed him heartworm pills. The electro-pet might also make you miss the real Spot unbearably as you try to recapture his consciousness on your home PC.

But what about you? Does the prospect of uploading your own brain allay your fear of abruptly disappearing from the universe? Is it the next best thing to finding the fountain of youth? Ms. Schneider, a philosophy professor at the University of Connecticut, counsels caution. First, she writes, we might find our identity warped in disturbing ways if we pour our brains into massive digital files. She describes the problem via an imaginary guy named Theodore:

[If Theodore were to truly upload his mind (as opposed to merely copy its contents), then he could be downloaded to multiple other computers. Suppose that there are five such downloads: Which one is the real Theodore? It is hard to provide a nonarbitrary answer. Could all of the downloads be Theodore? This seems bizarre: As a rule, physical objects and living things do not occupy multiple locations at once. It is far more likely that none of the downloads are Theodore, and that he did not upload in the first place.

This is why the Oxford futurists included the caveat “if concerns about individual identity can be met.” It is the nightmare of infinitely reproducible individuals — a consequence that would, in an instant, undermine and destroy the very notion of an individual.

But Ms. Schneider does not come close to appreciating the extent of the moral failure of brain uploads. She is right to observe an apparent “categorical divide between humans and programs.” Human beings, she writes, “cannot upload themselves to the digital universe; they can upload only copies of themselves — copies that may themselves be conscious beings.” The error here is screamingly obvious: brains are parts of us, but they are not “us.” A brain contains the seed of consciousness, and it is both the bank for our memories and the fount of our rationality and our capacity for language, but a brain without a body is fundamentally different from the human being that possessed both.

It sounds deeply claustrophobic to be housed (imprisoned?) forever in a microchip, unable to dive into the ocean, taste chocolate or run your hands through your loved one’s hair. Our participation in these and infinite other emotive and experiential moments are the bulk of what constitutes our lives, or at least our meaningful lives. Residing forever in the realm of pure thought and memory and discourse doesn’t sound like life, even if it is consciousness. Especially if it is consciousness.

So I cannot agree with Ms. Schneider’s conclusion when she writes that brain uploads may be choiceworthy for the benefits they can bring to our species or for the solace they provide to dying individuals who “wish to leave a copy of [themselves] to communicate with [their] children or complete projects that [they] care about.” It may be natural, given the increasingly virtual lives many of us live in this pervasively Internet-connected world, to think ourselves mainly in terms of avatars and timelines and handles and digital faces. Collapsing our lives into our brains, and offloading the contents of our brains to a supercomputer is a fascinating idea. It does not sound to me, though, like a promising recipe for preserving our humanity.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

http://bigthink.com/praxis/dont-want-to-die-just-upload-your-brain

People with a death-wish

February 12, 2014, 11:55 AM
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ONE of my childhood buddies died unexpectedly at the age of eighteen. That was many years ago, in Hamm, Germany. While alive, he was a known brawler, a brutish drunk, and a pot-head. His parents divorced, he dropped out of high school, had a lady who supported him, collected music on vinyl, did shoplifting for a while, and he always had this excruciating wish to die gloriously: “I won’t turn 30!” he once bragged, and: “I enlist in the army, if I have to!” His boldness, his fearlessness, and the unbending commitment toward his own ruin left a deep impression on me.

Lots of young men I knew quit. A Chinese MA candidate, barely twenty-two years of age, at the University of Edinburgh, once had dinner with us, then, two weeks later on the second day of Christmas, we heard news that he jumped off his 8-story dormitory building. “Tade yunqi bu hao,” they would say –his luck left him. His fate was cut and sealed in China already, where his overbearing parents had him prepared for a career in law, a decision that evidently crushed his soul. He probably didn’t even comprehend how he, the only-child of Chinese farmers, a burned-out, hopelessly damaged adolescent, could end up lying on the cold pavement of Richmond Place, in the capital of Scotland. His life made little sense to him -it was kaput.

Another fellow, a sturdy Scotsman, frequently got so boozed up, we thought his self-destruction had a rather cunning plot to it. He was intelligent, yet cared little about his safety, letting alone his health of which he seemed to have stashed away plenty. During a trip to Australia, however, he got himself the worst for a drink. Canned and wasted, he fell into a comatose state and refused to wake up when the fire alarm begged him to do so. “And if this hadn’t happened,” rumors said, “he would still be doing dangerous things.”

The list goes on. At Peking University, a doctoral candidate in his decisive, final year panicked over his flawed thesis and committed zisha. His desk in his tiny dorm room was allegedly plastered with those yellow motivational self-stickers –with quotes from successful people like US rapper 50 Cents’ “Get Rich or Die Tryin.” People say the candidate spent eight years in solitary, had no hygiene, no friends, and no reason to go on living. Other graduates attain more posthumous fame – like Hai Zi. He destroyed himself at the age of twenty-five; only to become one of Beijing’s most celebrated dead poets.

Literature, to be sure, is full with people dominated by self-destructive behavior. And it is certainly true that we admire people who died for a cause like, say, Socrates, Jesus, or Hannibal; we even worship this class of artists who single-mindedly minister to their doom, either by way of overwork and exhaustion, or from carrying soul-devouring, shameful secrets –Vincent Van Gogh, Novalis, and Nietzsche come to mind. And, yes, we also delight in building legends around performers and musicians who were evidently haunted by mania, depression, and severe addiction – James Dean, Elvis Presley, Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, Leslie Cheung, Marilyn Monroe, Yukio Mishima, or the late Philip Seymour Hoffman- to name but a few.

Death can be seen as climax or as the final act; alas, it all boils down to this: Do we want, metaphorically speaking, to die in battle when we were strongest, or do we prefer to run and wait for the Reaper to drive by our nursing home when we are at our weakest? Both are legitimate ends to Man.

All those people above, famous or not, often entertained unrealistic goals, had low self-esteem, severe mental problems, or they simply got lost in life. Most others hang on to it, though, as long as they still see an iota of hope, another gig they could achieve, another moment of bliss that will extend their welcome; they keep going on with life which Buddhist know is mostly about suffering. Arthur Schopenhauer, the German philosopher of existentialism, rather pessimistically interpreted all this as the unbound Will to Live; but the truth is, some people are just procrastinating a feverishly diabolical and incurable wish to die.

Image credit: Martien van Gaalen/Shutterstock.com