Death + Biology Death + Technology Death + the Economy Death Ethics Suicide

Radically Extending Life and Choosing to Die

Living to 120 and Beyond: Americans’ Views on Aging, Medical Advances and Radical Life Extension
Pew Research Center (August 2013)
If new medical treatments could slow the aging process and allow people to live to age 120 and beyond, would you want to? A new survey by the Pew Research Center finds that most Americans say “no” – they personally would not want a radically extended life span. But roughly two-thirds think that most other people would.


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.


Fatal Mercies
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.


Nurse Charged with Assisting in Her Father’s Death
by Richard Knox, National Public Radio (July 31, 2013)


Pew Research Center Reports on Life Extension, Bioethics, Religion, and Ethnic Groups
To Count Our Days: The Scientific and Ethical Dimensions of Radical Life Extension

Religious Leaders’ Views on Radical Life Extension

Racial and Ethnic Groups View Radical Life Extension Differently


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.


The Associated Press: Aging America: Living to 120? No thanks, many say in new survey
The Associated Press highlights several findings from the Pew Research survey on radical life extension, including that most Americans say they want to live to be 79 to 100 years old; the median age to which survey respondents want to live is 90 years.

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.

Death + the Economy Death Ethics

Unclaimed Dead Bodies and the US Economy

No funeral money? What to do
By Geoff Williams, U.S. News & World Report (May 30, 2013)
What’s worse than dying? Maybe dying broke.

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.

Death + the Economy Death + the Law Funeral Industry

Live Free or Die…in a Hand Crafted Benedictine Monk Casket Part II

Louisiana Monks Go to Court to Sell Their Caskets
Robert Barnes, Washington Post (May 30, 2012)
Not very long after God told some at St. Joseph Abbey that the way out of financial hardship might be selling the monks’ handcrafted caskets, the state of Louisiana arrived with a different message.

In August 2010, I posted some articles and information about an intriguing legal case in the great state of Louisiana. The case involves a group of Benedictine monks being told by the state of Louisiana that they are not allowed to sell their handcrafted wooden caskets. Robert Barnes excellent article in the Washington Post explains both the backstory and the litigation’s most recent developments.

Death + Crime Death + the Economy Death + the Law

Prisoner Cemetery for the Unclaimed Dead in Texas

Texas Prisoner Burials Are a Gentle Touch in a Punitive System
Manny Fernandez, New York Times (January 05, 2012)
At a cemetery in Texas, murderers and other convicts whose bodies are unclaimed can be interred and, for a few moments, remembered.

Here’s a really interesting article on the cemetery used by Texas prison officials. These are for the unclaimed dead bodies of convicted prisoners, who are given a burial more respectful than you might expect out of this tough-on-crime state.

It reminds me of the post on Hart Island, where New York’s unclaimed dead bodies are buried.

I’d like to create an entire map of all unclaimed dead body cemeteries/repositories around the world. Welcome to 2012’s big project.

Captain Joe Byrd Cemetery TX DOC photo by Cranky Amy on Flickr

cremation Death + the Economy

More Americans Choosing Cremation to Save Money

In Tough Times, a Boom in Cremations as a Way to Save Money
Kevin Sack, The New York Times (December 09, 2011)
If current American trends hold, in 2017, more bodies will be cremated than buried, and funeral directors say the cost is a major factor in the decision.

When the Death Reference Desk started in July 2009, we immediately began discussing death, dying, the dead body and the economy. You can read all of those posts in the Death + the Economy section. I mention these pieces on the postmortem economy (for lack of a better term) since most of the articles tell, and then eventually re-tell, the same story. The New York Times, as one example, has repeatedly run articles with the same basic lead: overall funeral costs have gotten so high that many Americans are choosing cremation instead of burial to save money.


The wider socio-economic picture is complicated but on the whole this analysis is correct. What makes this particular New York Times article slightly different than its progenitors is the focus on how different communities make funeral choices based on costs. The article discusses how African-Americans in parts of Virginia historically resisted cremation since it suggested poverty. There are some significant religious reasons involved too, i.e., a long tradition of the Black Church funeral complete with a burial.

The shift towards cremation for American funerals will not change. Indeed, it appears that more Americans than not will be choosing cremation in the very near future.

Death + Crime Death + the Economy Death + the Law Death Ethics

Cook County Gives Unclaimed Dead Bodies a Two Week Notice (sort of…)

Under Recent Policy, Cook County Begins Donating Unclaimed Bodies after 2 Weeks
Cadavers that are left in morgue are given to medical research
Becky Schlikerman, William Lee and Ronnie Reese, Chicago Tribune (October 04, 2011)


Medical Examiner: Families Who Object to Body Donation Can Opt for Burial
Becky Schlikerman, Chicago Tribune (October 05, 2011)

There was a bit of a dead body tug-of-war this week in Chicago. According to an October 4 article in the Chicago Tribune, any dead body left unclaimed for two weeks in the Medical Examiner’s office will be handed over to the Illinois Anatomical Gift Association.

But wait, that’s not totally true.

According to an October 5 article in the Chicago Tribune, the Medical Examiner’s office will not donate any unclaimed body to the Anatomical Gift Association when the ME’s office knows that the next-of-kin cannot afford to have the dead body claimed and the next-of-kin want a burial.

Here is the bigger issue in this story: the overall costs for retrieving a body from a Medical Examiner’s office have become too expensive for many families.

We started covering this situation in 2009, when the Death Reference Desk launched. You can look over all those previous posts in the Death + the Economy section.

More and more county morgues across America are dealing with not only unclaimed dead bodies, but unclaimed dead bodies and families who know exactly where said dead body is located but can’t afford to do anything about it.

As a result, the Cook County story is hardly surprising.

Given the economic difficulties more and more American families face, this story represents not an anomaly but the future.

For more on Medical Examiners and their work, watch the fantastic Frontline documentary Post Mortem: Death Investigation in America

Death + the Economy Death + the Law Death Ethics

The War On Death

Death and Budgets
David Brooks, New York Times (July 15, 2011)
Much of the budget mess may stem from a deep cultural antipathy toward recognizing our own mortality.


The Quagmire: How American Medicine is Destroying Itself
Daniel Callahan and Sherwin B. Nuland, The New Republic (July 15, 2011)

Since the American political system (read: mostly the Republican party) seems hell bent on watching the federal government go into default I thought that I would revisit a recent column by David Brooks in the New York Times. Earlier in July, Brooks wrote about spending on End-of-Life care and Medicare. For those who don’t understand the idiosyncrasies of the American health care system, Medicare is the medical insurance all US citizens receive at age 65. It’s a good program. Both my parents use it.

One of the financial issues that Medicare faces is that more and more people are living to be older than before. Well into their 80s. The extension of age, by itself, isn’t an issue. Where the problems begin are with medical costs soaring in the last few months of life.

The second article at the top, by Daniel Callahan and Sherwin B. Nuland (which Brooks references), explains the costs this way:

In a 2006 article, Harvard economist David Cutler and colleagues wrote, “Analyses focused on spending and on the increase in life expectancy beginning at 65 years of age showed that the incremental cost of an additional year of life rose from $46,800 in the 1970s to $145,000 in the 1990s. … If this trend continues in the elderly, the cost-effectiveness of medical care will continue to decrease at older ages.” Emory professor Kenneth Thorpe and colleagues, summing up some Medicare data, note that “more than half of beneficiaries are treated for five or more chronic conditions each year.” Among the elderly, the struggle against disease has begun to look like the trench warfare of World War I: little real progress in taking enemy territory but enormous economic and human cost in trying to do so.

One of the most important ways to address these cost issues is by talking about death and dying. The crux of David Brooks article is that:

…we think the budget mess is a squabble between partisans in Washington. But in large measure it’s about our inability to face death and our willingness as a nation to spend whatever it takes to push it just slightly over the horizon.

I agree. Callahan and Nuland also make a similar argument. Indeed, the Death Reference Desk ran a piece in August 2009 on exactly this issue: America and End-of-Life Care: Death, Dying, and Mortality.


In fact, most of the death with dignity posts on Death Ref deal with the question of death acceptance in one way or another.

So, what’s to be done. Until the US budget issues are sorted, not much. The first step, which isn’t easy by any means, is telling people that death is ok. Especially at the end of life, when compassionate care will go a long ways towards extending quality of life instead of fixating on the quantity of days.

Callahan and Nulland make a quick reference to the “…war against death” in their essay.

They are absolutely correct. A war is being fought against death, particularly in America.

And we modern humans will lose that war. Every single time.

Cemeteries Death + the Economy Monuments + Memorials

No More Big Dead Tombs in China

As China’s Income Gap Grows, Tombs Are a Target
Sharon LaFraniere, The New York Times (April 22, 2011)

Since 1997, official policy limits the size of cemetery plots in China, promoting low cost funeral arrangements regardless of the wealth of the deceased. That doesn’t mean it happens. From the bottom end of this article:

Most Chengdu mourners interviewed expressed skepticism about the tomb limits. At Temple of the Lighted Lamp cemetery, Kuang Lan, 42, said: “My personal opinion is if you have the money to make a bigger tomb, make a bigger one. If not, make a smaller one.”


But Yang Bin, 48, who earns roughly $150 a month chiseling tombstones at Zhenwu Shan cemetery, quietly criticized the excesses of “capitalists” who “are everywhere now.”


“This is how the Chinese are,” he said, after trudging down the cemetery’s steep hill in his thin, black cloth shoes. “If they have money, they want to show off their face. If you don’t have money, you have to work.”

And for everything that I could say, I have only one comment. It comes from the 1980s band Men Without Hats:

Death + the Economy Death + the Law Death Ethics

Donating Dead Bodies to Save Money

Donating Body Can Save Families Money
Dan McFeely, The Indianapolis Star (February 08, 2011)

A short post on a perennial topic for the Death Reference Desk: how the dead body is transformed into some kind of cash value. Rarely, if ever, does this postmortem value involve direct cash exchanges, mostly because the law frowns upon such things. No, these are situations where a dead body is handed over to an institution of some kind in exchange for compensation of some kind.

So, as this article discusses, families donate a body to the Indiana University Medical School and in exchange for their donation receive significantly reduced if not totally free funeral services. More often than not, this means that the cremation of the remains (post dismemberment, more or less, by medical students) is covered by the institution receiving the body.

Most American medical schools accept cadaver donations and gladly thank the next-of-kin with a non-cash gift of some kind. It’s true that even though money isn’t being exchanged there is still a quid pro quo involved…but not too many people that participate in any of this complain.

The bigger question to ask is this: What happens when medical schools, for example, start paying families with cold, hard cash for a dead body? The historians amongst you will already be thinking about Burke and Hare in Scotland, and that’s the historical example that usually scuttles these kinds of questions.

But I’m not so sure, given the economic conditions which many people currently face, that it won’t come to pass.

We’ve been adding story after story about these kinds of dead body transactions and you can see them all here: Death + the Economy.
Never say never…especially when dead bodies are involved.

Death + Technology Death + the Economy


Donate Your Brain, Save a Buck
Gary Stix, Scientific American (January 4, 2011)
Hard times are making tissue donation more appealing


The Great Recession changed the way many people live—and its repercussions appear to be altering how some people choose to die. At least two prominent tissue banks have seen an increase in the number of individuals who are interested in donating their bodies to research in exchange for a break in funeral costs.

This is isn’t an entirely new story: people donating their postmortem brains for medical science research in order to save on funeral costs. Death Ref has featured regular stories on this very topic in the Death + the Economy section. In fact, at one point in Autumn 2009 the Body Farm at the University of Tennessee stopped accepting dead bodies because it had received too many unclaimed bodies from local morgues. The Body Farm studies dead body decomposition, as well as other postmortem issues, to assist forensic investigators. Unclaimed dead bodies are not that extraordinary but the 2009 situation was different. In many cases, next-of-kin knew that the body was at the county morgue but couldn’t afford to retrieve said corpse.


So the uptick in cadaveric brain donation for research, and by extension a cut in funeral expenses is hardly surprising.

Indeed, the brain donation example is one of the current ways that the human corpse is being redefined as a source of biovalue.

Not purely a commodity but something rather close to it.

More on this in the future.

Death + the Economy Death Ethics

Body Fishing Up Ahead

Bodies floating in the Yellow River near Changpo Village in China’s Gansu Province. Photo credit: Tom Lasseter/MCT

This story has affected me in a way that many others about death have not. The complete and utter sense of tragedy permeating it is hard to shake and the mental imagery conjured up while reading it is the stuff of nightmares. In what has got to be one of the more grim and disturbing jobs in the world, CNN and other outlets reported this week on the “body fisherman”; mostly men who trawl for murder, suicide and the occasional drowning victim that floats down the Yellow River, about 20 kilometers to the west of Lanzhou, China. Those who perform this grim work advertise their services and cell phone numbers on hand painted signs that read “Body Fishing Up Ahead”.

The story, which has been picked up here and there since September, appeared in the Asia Times and various McClatchy news service outlets. Most recently, CNN reported on it just this week.

There seems to be two overarching threads in these stories. Some believe the people who would do such work are nothing more than ruthless mercenaries taking advantage of grief-stricken families. Charging what would be exorbitant fees—even by Western standards—the fisherman turn bodies over to families only as a fee is paid. Others say that the work they do is a necessary public service that local authorities cannot or will not provide. Who is right? It is clear that there are no easy answers and very little offered in the way of solutions to help stem the deathly tide.

In 2008, a documentary called The Other Shore, brought the practice to light for those outside of China. The film profiles Wei Zhiqian from Xiaoxia village in Gansu, a longtime body fisherman who recently ended his life’s work due to the building of a giant dam upriver. In his place, new families have taken over the trade despite increasing pressure from authorities to stop. There is still potentially much money to be made.

Lun Lun, 24, stated to CNN, “I have worked on this section of the river for several years. I’ve seen hundreds of bodies float downstream. They gather around here and we fish them out one by one. I’d like to say I’m a boat operator but really, I search for the dead.”

While China’s economy continues to grow, perhaps other unforeseen odd and gruesome jobs such as this one will present themselves. Scores of bodies will be needed to support and feed the industrial engine of the world’s second largest economy. It is sad to think that many of those bodies will be casualties in this accelerated march toward “progress” and empire building.

Death + Technology Death + the Economy Funeral Industry

Coffin Making: Now with Barcodes and Touch Screens

Bringing the Coffin Industry Back From the Dead
How barcodes and touch screens are resuscitating a casket factory
Ben Austen, The Atlantic (December 2010)

Modern, industrial casket making is a manufacturing business like any other, but for the fact that most people never think about modern, industrial casket making. The above article in The Atlantic does an excellent job of capturing how American casket making has become a largely automated industry, similar to the auto business.

This article is also about changes to the American labor force but in a decidedly niche business. It turns out that the American casket industry is suffering from many of the same problems faced by manufacturers all across the country. You can read about many of those death and dead body industries in the Death + the Economy section.

Out of curiosity, I went to YouTube to look for casket/coffin making videos and found the following vintage 1970s film. The YouTube video is actually instructive because it shows how the casket industry used to manufacture caskets before the introduction of the automation technologies.