Throughout this past week a series of news articles appeared in The Guardian newspaper about end-of-life decision making and assisted dying in the UK.
One of the very first posts that I ever wrote for the Death Reference Desk was on assisted dying in the UK. Over the past five-years, I’ve written countless variations on that same post. Again and again.
During the coming 31 Days of Death, I’ll spend time focusing on some of the specific reasons for the UK debate.
This week saw the coming together of different but related events. Professor John Ashton, who is president of the Faculty of Public Health in the UK stated that individual’s should be helped to die if and when they’ve decided a terminal condition is no longer worth fighting. This led Bonnie Ware, a Palliative Care Nurse, to say that she agreed and that more people should pay attention to the growing Death Midwife movement.
The entire week was capped off by author Terry Pratchett saying that he couldn’t attend an event in his honour because his Alzheimer’s Disease was finally stopping him. Pratchett personally entered the UK’s assisted dying debate in 2010 when he called for the creation of a tribunal to review a person’s request to end their life.
Three days into the 31 Days of Death and I’m already writing about necrophilia. It was going to happen, this much I knew, but I didn’t think so soon. So it goes.
Necrophilia is one of those topics that always grabs a person’s attention. Most recently, allegations of necrophilia appeared in the UK news and involved the deceased and publicly disgraced Jimmy Savile. An editor at The Conversation, a news and information platform that features articles by academics, asked if I could address why it is people find necrophilia simultaneously fascinating and disgusting.
That article is at the top of the page.
This request wasn’t entirely random. Indeed, I’m asked to discuss necrophilia at least 2-3 times a year and there’s a good reason for the requests. In 2008, I published one of the few peer reviewed academic journal articles on necrophilia and necrophilia laws. That article, Abuse of a Corpse: A Brief History and Re-theorization of Necrophilia Laws in the USA is available on the Academia.edu website.
If Meg, Kim and I have learned anything these past five years it’s that stories about dead bodies and sex, especially dead bodies being used for sex, will always attract attention on the interwebs. And then, if you’re lucky, people will start e-mailing you their tasteful nude photography taken in cemeteries. This really happened. I’m not making it up.
I have a hunch that before these 31 Days of Death are over I will end up discussing necrophilia at least once more. Maybe twice.
You should also check out Carla Valentine’s blog posts on necro topics.
I watched the Selfies at Funerals Tumblr link roll across the internet this week and after seeing the images I immediately knew what was going to happen. People would complain about how the kids today were so self-absorbed that civilisation was near its collapse and how today’s youth don’t have any respect. I also knew that after this immediate condemnation, another group of voices would rise up to support the forsaken youth.
And this, Death Ref faithful, is exactly what happened.
But then, as should always be expected, another group of people took a more nuanced stand per the Selfies.
My good friend Caitlin Doughty at the Order of the Good Death wrote a strong defense of the kids on Jezebel and I mostly agree with her thoughts on the images. Where I disagree with Cailin is in arguing that these images represent a broader social disengagement with the reality of death. If anything, these photos show young people engaging with death, and doing so with a specific language that they’ve developed.
We humans invented all of our human death rituals. As a result, this means that all death rituals are constantly being changed, altered, and turned into hybrids. There is nothing innate about any ritual (given its human construction) so I think that it’s important to say that I would be more surprised if young people weren’t taking Selfies at funerals. This is the world they know but that doesn’t mean that today’s youth somehow lack any education about death.
Ironically enough, the Selfies at Funerals Tumblr page probably caused thousands more people to discuss actual death and funerals this week because of its supposedly disrespectful tone. Maybe, just maybe, the kids beat the adults at their own ‘We NEED to talk about death game.’
Katy Waldman at Slate took a wise step and waited a few days before writing anything. She presents a good critique of responses to the images but also brings everything back to the kids using the photographs as forms of grieving. I agree with this point and I kept waiting for someone to roll out a broader discussion about the relationship between photography and death.
Photography has a long standing relationship with funerals, especially in America. The camera phone is only the most recent example of a technology we humans use to capture images at funerals. Another way of looking at these photos is this– what else would anyone in the First World expect teenagers to do with their camera phones at funerals? Megan Garberoct at The Atlantic wrote an uncannily timed article on 19th century postmortem photography and the ability of Victorian era photographers to capture ‘Sprit’ images with their cameras.
But more than the photos themselves, it seems that the people criticising the kids just don’t like the technology involved, i.e., the camera phone that produced the self-taken image.
Here, then, is the key lesson for everyone loving to hate and hating to love the Selfies at Funerals: We humans remain deeply conflicted when mixing all forms of technology with death.
The great science fiction writer Douglas Adams (who died far too young) made the following observation about humans and technology in The Salmon of Doubt:
I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:
1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.
Given that my own research in the University of Bath’s Centre for Death and Society examines how technology and death intermingle all the time, I want to let everyone know that Selfies at Funerals represent only the beginning of a much longer future. We should already be asking ourselves what happens when a person wearing a computing machine, such as Google Glass, captures images and video at a funeral. Is a line being crossed there and why? How? I ask these questions, because it is going to happen and happen soon.
Just remember, and not so long ago, the idea of using the internet for anything to do with death seemed inappropriate. So did playing pre-recorded music on a CD (especially loud rock and roll music), having mourners draw or paint on a coffin, or even choosing to be to cremated.
What we humans forget is that death’s persistence means that we will persistently invent new kinds of death rituals. No ritual lives forever. Will Coldwell’s Guardian article on Dark Tourism highlights how easily the very idea of established and appropriate ‘death rituals’ can be changed.
Earlier this year, Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror television series ran an episode called Be Right Back that effectively dramatised how the not-to-distant future might offer new kinds of technology for human grieving. Here is the show’s description:
Martha and Ash are a young couple who move to a remote cottage. The day after the move, Ash is killed, returning the hire van. At the funeral, Martha’s friend Sarah tells her about a new service that lets people stay in touch with the deceased. By using all his past online communications and social media profiles, a new ‘Ash’ can be created. Martha is disgusted by the concept but then in a confused and lonely state she decides to talk to ‘him’…
Trust me when I say that if the technology imagined in Black Mirror suddenly appeared, the Selfies at Funerals shock and outrage would quickly wash away into the sea of human memory.
So where does this week take us? It’s hard to say, because I have a feeling most people have already forgotten about the Selfies at Funerals and moved on to other more pressing issues.
But I do think that it is now time to officially launch a new Death Reference Desk rule about death and technology. To wit:
The Death Ref Technology Law: Any use of new technology that involves death, dying, and/or the dead body will be simultaneously rejected as a breakdown in human civility as well as embraced as an innovative turn for human grieving.
Or, as my friend Max summed up the situation on Facebook:
I was disgusted by this until I remembered I took a selfie at the last funeral I went to. Now I’m okay with it.
Dying with Dignity and the Final Word on Her Life
by Michael Winerip, New York Times (August 05, 2013)
Those closest to Jane Lotter recalled her as spunky, self-aware and wise beyond her 60 years. So when she told her family that she planned to write her own obituary, they weren’t surprised.
by Frank Bruni, New York Times (August 11, 2013)
The assisted-suicide prosecution of a Pennsylvania woman who allegedly gave her father the morphine he requested seems both imprudent and inhumane.
Some Further Articles on the Pew Report Slate: Fear of Immortality
Americans don’t want to extend their declining years. But what if you could stay young?
by William Saletan, Slate (August 06, 2013)
The Atlantic: Cheating death and being okay with God
Among the widespread coverage of the Pew Research report on radical life extension was this piece in The Atlantic, which highlights the fact that one-in-four Americans believe that, by the year 2050, the average person will live to be at least 120. The article also looks at some religious leaders’ reactions to that possibility.
Over the last few weeks, a series of death-related articles overlapped. One series of stories focused on a recent Pew Research Center report on Life Extension. The other stories discussed assisted dying. The overlap was interesting because if and when radical (or even medium-ish) life extension is achieved, then an entirely new kind of assisted dying debate will ensue.
For those not up to speed on the life extension arguments, I suggest reading through the Pew materials. What’s key with any plausible life extension model is that it increases human lifespan while significantly decreasing (or stopping) human ageing. In other words, if you live to be 500 years old, you do not want a body that is physically 500 years old. For most life extension arguments to succeed, then the human bodies biological systems will have to be augmented or changed to prevent ageing.
Assisted dying and suicide debates have followed alongside life extension discussions since individuals with radically longer life-spans (where physical ageing is stopped) may choose to simply end their lives as opposed to waiting another 100 years for death.
These are all speculative points, but worth contemplating now as really important thought experiments.
Here is another way to think about the connections between human mortality, death, and ageing. All of the health problems we humans associate today with old age (arthritis, cancer, alzheimer’s disease and dementia in particular) might also be ways of saying ‘ageing.’
So, if you want to live forever then you better stop the body’s physical breakdown, otherwise death will become preferable to life at all costs.
A Life-or-Death Situation
by Robin Marantz Henig, New York Times Magazine (July 21, 2013)
As a bioethicist, Peggy Battin fought for the right of people to end their own lives. After her husband’s cycling accident, her field of study turned unbearably personal.
For Bioethicist With Ailing Spouse, End-Of-Life Issues Hit Home
Fresh Air with Terry Gross, National Public Radio (July 25, 2013)
In 2008, a cycling accident left bioethicist Margaret Battin’s husband quadriplegic and dependent on life support technology. The accident forced Battin, a right-to-die advocate, to reflect on the positions she’s taken in the past and decide whether she still believes in them.
Last week, the New York Times and the radio programme Fresh Air with Terry Gross ran really good stories on US Bioethicist Peggy Battin. Both pieces are linked to above, and both are worth reading/listening to.
Peggy Battin has written about and been involved in end-of-life and right to die cases for thirty years. Her writings have always focused on individual autonomy when choosing to die. What makes Battin’s work (which is good) all the more compelling is this–five years ago her husband Brooke had a bicycling accident that resulted in him becoming a quadriplegic. He also relies on life support machinery for assisted breathing and to keep him fed.
Both the Times article and the Fresh Air interview focus on how Battin’s ideas about the right to die have changed since her husband’s accident. She freely discusses her own desire to see her husband continue living, even though he may ultimately decide to finally end his life. And her thinking on all these issues opens up the nuance and complexity of discussing what kind of death and what quality of death, a loved one wants.
I highly recommend both the article and the radio interview.
Future Death. Future Dead Bodies. Future Cemeteries
Illustrated lecture by Dr. John Troyer, Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath
20th June 2013
Doors at 6:30 / Talk begins at 7:00 pm
Ticket price £7
The Last Tuesday Society at 11 Mare Street, London, E8 4RP
This coming Thursday, June 20, 2013 I’m giving a public talk for the Morbid Anatomy Library and the Last Tuesday Society in London. The Morbid Anatomy Library talks are normally located in the lovely Gowanus Canal area of Brooklyn (don’t pay any attention its Superfund site classification) but its Librarian-in-Chief Joanna Ebenstein is currently in London to organise this lecture series.
Joanna has been a good friend to the Death Reference Desk and one of our earliest supporters. Indeed, the very first Morbid Anatomy talk that I ever gave (in Brooklyn) was in July 2009. That was the same month and year that Death Ref launched.
It’s been an adventurous four years.
So come to this talk on Thursday if you can or, even better, go to one of the many other fantastic talks curated by Joanna at the Last Tuesday Society.
You will not be disappointed.
Future Death. Future Dead Bodies. Future Cemeteries
Illustrated lecture by Dr. John Troyer, Deputy Director of the Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath
20th June 2013
Doors at 6:30 / Talk begins at 7:00 pm
Ticket price £7
Approximately 1500 people die every day across the United Kingdom, roughly one person a minute. And unless you are a person who works in a profession connected to the dying, chances are good you rarely (if ever) see any of these 1500 dead bodies. More importantly– do you and your next of kin know what you want done with your dead body when you die? In the future, of course, since it’s easier to think that way. Dr. John Troyer, from the Centre for Death & Society, University of Bath, will discuss three kinds of postmortem futures: Future Death, Future Dead Bodies, and Future Cemeteries. Central to these Futures is the human corpse and its use in new forms of body disposal technology, digital technology platforms, and definitions of death.
Dr John Troyer
Dr. John Troyer is the Deputy Director of the Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath. His interdisciplinary research focuses on contemporary memorialisation practices, concepts of spatial historiography, and the dead body?s relationship with technology. Dr. Troyer is also a theatre director and installation artist with extensive experience in site-specific performance across the United States and Europe. He is a co-founder of the Death Reference Desk website (http://www.deathreferencedesk.org) and a frequent commentator for the BBC. His forthcoming book, Technologies of the Human Corpse (published by the University of North Carolina Press), will appear in 2013.
The Last Tuesday Society is honoured to house this exhibition and lecture series cultivated in collaboration with Joanna Ebenstein of the rightfully venerated ‘Morbid Anatomy’ Library, Museum & Blog.
Talks take place at The Last Tuesday Society at 11 Mare Street, London, E8 4RP
It has been a while since an unclaimed-dead-bodies-continue-to-be-a-problem story appeared in the news. Within weeks of the Death Reference Desk launching in July 2009 (four more years! four more years!) we were already amassing all kinds of terrible news items on not just unclaimed dead bodies left at the morgue but next-of-kin choosing to leave a dead body unclaimed because they couldn’t afford the various fees which came with claiming a body. This recent article by Geoff Williams at U.S. News & World Report focuses on the numerous financial obstacles confronting many, many people when arranging a funeral, but I was struck by the re-emergence of the unclaimed dead body narrative. Williams introduces the unclaimed dead body problem this way:
It’s a serious problem that seems to have grown worse over the years and one that spiked during the recession. There is no organization that tracks unclaimed bodies, but coroners throughout the country, in local news stories, have reported that the numbers are climbing. In 2011, Oregon cremated 30 percent more unclaimed corpses than the year before. In 2012, in Myrtle Beach, S.C., the coroner asked the county to create a special cemetery for unclaimed bodies due to a lack of dignified space to put the remains.
The problems involving unclaimed dead bodies became so rampant four years ago that we created a Death Reference Desk tag for unclaimed bodies. You can read those stories here.
And, as most readers will figure out, the US spike in unclaimed dead bodies is largely due to the economic recession. Williams succinctly sums up that situation. Not coincidentally, Death Ref also started a Death + the Economy section at the same time that the unclaimed bodies tag was born.
One thing is certain. In the decades to come, historians will look back at the economic straits currently being experienced (around the world, really) and make a point of discussing how dead bodies went uncollected.
That historical situation will give people pause, but only until another more exciting story comes along and diverts everyone’s attention.
For those keeping up with the UK’s ongoing Assisted Dying debate, this news item will certainly generate further discussion. Melvyn Bragg is a UK institution and well-respected across the board.
I was particularly struck by the article’s lead:
The veteran 73-year-old arts critic, novelist and broadcaster was deeply affected by watching Alzheimer’s take its toll on his 95-year-old mother for five years until her death last year, and said assisted suicide was an issue for people his age. “It’s happening to my generation – they see what happens when people get close to death, and we’re saying, ‘We don’t want that.'”
Bragg is right about his generation and the end of life control many of them want.
Death Ref hasn’t run a long(ish) update on the UK Assisted Dying debate in a while, so I will start pulling items together.
Until then, keep listening to In our Time with Melvyn Bragg. It’s the best programme on the BBC Radio 4.
This post first ran in November 2009. We’re linking back to it again today in anticipation of this week’s US Supreme Court cases regarding same-sex marriage. Most people do no realize the legal obstacles same-sex partners often face when attempting to claim their partner’s corpse given the lack of either a marriage license or any statutory recognition of the relationship. This 2009 story from Rhode Island demonstrates all the issues. See our section on same-sex partners for more information. Two final notes. Donald Carcieri is no longer Rhode Island’s Governor and in January 2010 the RI Legislature overrode the Governor’s veto.
Terry Gross, of Fresh Air and National Public Radio fame, interviewed Dr. Sam Parnia regarding his new book on human death experiences. It’s one of the most interesting near death/after death discussions that I have heard in a long time. It’s a fascinating topic, laden with metaphysics and theology, but Parnia’s research approach seems to use science, medicine, philosophy, and religion.
Anyone in Generation X, such as myself, Parnia’s work will automatically conjure images of an after death Kevin Bacon in the 1990 classic Flatliners.
Weighing the End of Life
Louise Aronson, New York Times (February 3, 2013)
How can we measure the quality of life, for our beloved pets or for older, infirm people?
The Old Gray Lady (also known as the New York Times) has been on quite a death-dying-end-of-life-dead body streak of late. In today’s Times, gerontologist Dr. Louise Aronson writes about determining when to put her elderly dog “to sleep” and how that decision-making process gave her pause when thinking about her own human patients.
I am frequently asked about the pet-human relation when it comes to choosing death. So, for example, if a family can choose to humanely end a pet’s life, then why can’t that same family go along with a loved one’s decision to die? The distinction(s) between non-human animals (particularly pets) and human beings are fairly well entrenched in the twenty-first century first world, so I do not see that changing soon.
That said, given the human impulse to make sure that pets do not suffer at the end of life and that a pet’s death is ‘a good death,’ the same philosophical, ethical, moral (dare I say), and practical principles will also be applied to human beings.
The application of these principles and questions will persist. How the law and the modern nation–state decides to view a citizen’s choice to die is a different story altogether.
The Bitter End
Radiolab short (January 15, 2013)
We turn to doctors to save our lives — to heal us, repair us, and keep us healthy. But when it comes to the critical question of what to do when death is at hand, there seems to be a gap between what we want doctors to do for us, and what doctors want done for themselves.
This past week, the WNYC’s Radiolab ran a really good short on death, dying, and end-of-life choices. The show, The Bitter End, focused on the fascinating Johns Hopkins Precursors Study which asks Medical Doctors the following:
What are your preferences “…for treatment given a scenario of irreversible brain injury without terminal illness.”
The study has found time and time again that Medical Doctors do not want most (if any) medical treatments that would prolong their lives in this given situation. This finding stands in contrast to members of the general public who generally do want aggressive, life-prolonging treatments. The Radiolab reporters do a good job discussing these medical options with all kinds of people. You should also read the Radiolab blog post, which covers the Precursors Study.
The show flagged up, once again, an issue that the Death Reference Desk has been asking readers since it started: How much and what kind of end-of-life care you want?
This is a question, as most people can see, that only individuals can answer themselves and we here at Death Ref would encourage everyone to have this conversation with their next-of-kin. The Radiolab story captures precisely this kind of conversation between host Jad Abumrad and his Medical Doctor father.