Death + Popular Culture Death + the Law Death Ethics Eco-Death Grief + Mourning Suicide

2015’s Most Memorable Death Essays and More

2015 was a good year for death. Without much hesitation writers and editors both agreed that death topics sold copy/generated clicks so the stories kept coming all year long.

I compiled a short(ish) list of what I consider to be the most memorable critical reflections on death during 2015. It is a mix of essays, radio stories, and videos.

I created this list by asking myself what things I watched/listened to/read that really stood out in my memory. Each of these essays is worth reading. You should also listen to the This American Life radio story and watch the UK Commons debate on Assisted Dying.

It’s a bit New York Times heavy, but then I think that the Old Gray Lady really deserves credit for publishing some of the year’s best essays on death and dying. Indeed, I think everyone should be reading the NYT’s ongoing essay series on the end-of-life simply called The End.

One final 2015 highlight. In October 2015, the Bristol Museum in Bristol, England opened a remarkable and quite beautiful exhibition called Death: The Human Experience. [Full Disclosure: I was an Advisor on the exhibition] The show runs through March 13, 2016 and is FREE. I highly recommend checking it out.

That’s it for 2015. The Death Reference Desk (Meg, Kim, and John) all look forward to keeping things real and deathy in 2016.

‘The Condition of Black Life Is One of Mourning’
by Claudia Rankine, New York Times (June 22, 2015)
The murder of three men and six women at a church in Charleston is a national tragedy, but in America, the killing of black people is an unending spectacle.


Getting Grief Right
by Patrick O’Malley, New York Times (January 10, 2015)
Don’t believe what you hear about closure and ‘stages’ of mourning.


New York Times Starts New Series on Death and Dying: The End.
The Death Reference Desk (February 1, 2015)


This American Life Episode 557: Act III About that Farm Upstate
Jonathan Goldstein (MAY 15, 2015)
While it’s hard to explain to kids how babies come into the world, it might be harder to explain that people leave the world too — especially to a kid whose mom or dad or brother or sister has died. There are grief counseling centers all over the U.S. that cater specifically to children. Reporter Jonathan Goldstein visited one in Salt Lake City, The Sharing Place.


Bereavement Can Overwhelm a Student – and Support is Sparse
Louisa Ackerman, The Guardian (March 05, 2015)
Nothing can prepare you for the shock of losing someone you love. But universities ought to know how to take care of a grief-stricken student​.


UK House of Commons Debate on Assisted Dying Bill
Video of Commons Debate (September 11, 2015)
The Bill seeks to enable competent adults who are terminally ill to choose to be provided with medically supervised assistance to end their own life. [Note: Click on ‘Watch Parliament TV: Assisted Dying (No. 2) Bill’ to watch the Debate].


Why ‘Natural’ Doesn’t Mean Anything Anymore
Michael Pollan, New York Times (May 03, 2015)
Whether we’re talking about food, politics or morality, we can’t agree on a definition.

Death + Art / Architecture Death + Popular Culture Grief + Mourning Monuments + Memorials

Seeing The AIDS Memorial Quilt in New York in 2014

Photos: See The AIDS Quilt On Governors Island
Gothamist (August 12, 2014)

On Monday and Tuesday of last week, a portion of the AIDS Memorial Quilt was on display in New York for the first time in over 10 years.

I posted about this chance to see the AIDS Quilt and then made a point of seeing it myself.

I last saw the AIDS Quilt twenty years ago.

There isn’t much to say other than this section of the AIDS Quilt was displayed on Governors Island in New York. Governors Island is beautiful and it’s been turned into a wonderful park area.

That said, seeing the Quilt this way made it feel like a Plague Island. Or an Anti-Contagion Zone of a kind.

Twenty or Twenty-five years ago, this section of the Aids Memorial Quilt would have been on display in Central Park.

I have no doubt.

You can see photos on the Gothamist page.

Burial Cemeteries Grief + Mourning

Day 26: Photos of London’s Afro-Caribbean Funerals

How great thou art: 50 years of Afro-Caribbean funerals – in pictures
Charlie Phillips, in The Guardian (July 25, 2014)
The spirituals sung, the Scotch bonnet berets worn, and the rum drunk at the graveside … Charlie Phillips’s photographs chart the rituals and the changes in African-Caribbean funerals in London since the Windrush generation, to preserve a part of British culture he feels has been overlooked. Here Phillips recalls the stories behind some of his most striking images

Any large city will always have a migrant population that dies and then fuses its own funeral traditions with the status quo.

These photos by Charlie Phillips of funerals in London’s Afro-Caribbean community are stunning.

If you’re interested, you can support his kickstarter campaign to create a book of these images.

Above image by Charlie Phillips.

Death + Popular Culture Grief + Mourning

Day 11: Planet of the Apes Grieving for Their Ape Kind Dead

Want to Understand Mortality? Look to the Chimps
Maggie Koerth-Baker, New York Times Magazine (June 25, 2013)

Today is the release date for the new Planet of the Apes movie, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

We’ll set aside all the timeline problems and alternative universes this specific reboot created. And no one should ever speak again of Tim Burton’s terrible remake.

What everyone should be discussing is how apes grieve for their dead. The New York Times Magazine ran an article in June 2013 on this topic. The Death Reference Desk has also written about Chimpanzees and grief before, in 2010 and 2009.

You can also read more generally about animals and death here.

Whenever we Humans start discussing our primate cousins and grieving, we run the risk of going on an anthropomorphising rampage. That said, it’s clear that our Great Ape relatives could teach us a few things about understanding mortality and the finality of time.

Grief + Mourning

Day 10: When People Die from Broken Hearts

Can You Die From a Broken Heart?
What happens to our bodies when the bonds of love are breached.
Kirsten Weir, Nautilus (July 10, 2014)

Death by broken heart. It’s the worst.

I wish I knew how to quit you!

We also recommend checking out Nautilus, which is good Science and Culture publication.

Burial Cemeteries Grief + Mourning

Grave Matters… Muahahahaha!

Grave Matters (podcast)
BackStory, with the American History Guys (May 23, 2014)

This week the genius history podcast BackStory rebroadcasted their show “Grave Matters” in honor of Memorial Day.

Did you know that the term “funeral parlors” was a marketing riff on the Victorian parlor room of the home, the inevitable site of the wake and funeral? To kick the dour image of death, the parlor eventually morphed into the “living” room. BOOM!

Do check it out. Always informative and entertaining, BackStory is one my (Meg’s) favorite podcasts.

Afterlife Death + Art / Architecture Death + Popular Culture Grief + Mourning

Gravity is a Movie about a Dead Child

Gravity (2013)
IMBD (December 22, 2013)


Do not read this Death Ref post if you have not seen the film Gravity and would rather not read about the plot before seeing it.

You have been warned.

After much talking and planning, I finally saw the movie Gravity by Alfonso Cuarón. It stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney.

Almost all of the reviews I’ve read or heard focused on Gravity’s use of 3D effects (which are very well done) and the somewhat existential-metaphysical-slightly New Agey-religious language used by Bullock’s character Ryan Stone.

What very few people seem to realise, I think, is that Gravity is a film about a dead child and parent grieving over the unexpected death of that child. In this case, it’s Bullock’s character and her daughter who accidentally died while playing tag at school.

It is also a film about living people talking to the dead and this is something that both secular and religious people do (whether they admit it or not) on a fairly regular basis. It’s completely normal and part of what is often referred to as a Continuing Bond after a person dies.

Case in point, near the end of the film George Clooney’s character Matt Kowalski suddenly reappears even though it’s clear that he must be dead. Bullock and Clooney have a conversation about how to get back to earth, which pulls Bullock’s character from choosing to die and instead motivates here to return home. The scene concludes with Clooney’s sudden disappearance and Bullock asking him to say hello to her dead daughter.

Sure sure, the world’s entire fleet of space stations and ships are ripped apart by space debris during the film and there’s a survival story involved but it’s just the spectacle that underscores the dead child narrative. I also get the sense that some of the perceived neo-Theological/New Age Christian critiques come from the scene where Bullock speaks to the dead Clooney about the dead daughter. Again, I didn’t see that as particularly religious rather it was a grieving parent asking a friend to check in on a beloved child.

The real genius of Gravity’s meditation on life and death is this: I firmly believe Bullock’s character Ryan Stone dies in the moments before speaking with the dead Matt Kowalski and that the film concludes with her entering a secular afterlife.

Of a kind.

Death + Popular Culture Death + Technology Funeral Industry Grief + Mourning

Death Salon LA 2013: Better than Death Race 2000

Death Salon LA 2013 Los Angeles, CA (October 18 and 19, 2013)

Our good friends at the Order of the Good Death are putting on an enormous Death Fest next week in Los Angeles. Check it out if you can! And here’s some Death Race 2000 just for fun.

Death + Crime Death + Technology Death + the Law Grief + Mourning Suicide

Reflections on Mass Shootings in America

Packing Protection or Packing Suicide Risk?
Shankar Vedantam, Washington Post (July 07, 2008)


Anatomy of a Murder-Suicide
Andrew Solomon, New York Times (December 22, 2012)

Where to begin? I’ve been asking myself this question all week as I watched the Newtown, CT, news coverage. The Death Reference Desk hasn’t really covered other mass shootings, and, in fact, our posts directly related to guns number two. The first story involved a funeral director trying to stop gun violence with a billboard. The second post, something I wrote, discussed a new company offering to fill gun ammunition with a person’s created remains. I was surprised, actually, that Meg, Kim, and I hadn’t written about guns and death more often, but so it goes.

The entire Newtown shooting reminded me, yet again, of a 2008 Washington Post article by Shankar Vedantam regarding the correlation between liberalized gun laws and increases in successful suicides by gunshot. Vendatam’s article (posted above) does an excellent job explaining this phenomena and how it has been tracked for several years.

But I couldn’t quite bring everything together: increasingly loose gun laws, mass shootings, and individual suicides. Then today, Sunday, Andrew Solomon penned a salient and cogent op/ed for the New York Times. His entire article is worth reading but it was this section towards the end that caught my eye:

The United States is the only country in the world where the primary means of suicide is guns. In 2010, 19,392 Americans killed themselves with guns. That’s twice the number of people murdered by guns that year. Historically, the states with the weakest gun-control laws have had substantially higher suicide rates than those with the strongest laws. Someone who has to look for a gun often has time to think better of using it, while someone who can grab one in a moment of passion does not.


We need to offer children better mental health screenings and to understand that mental health service works best not on a vaccine model, in which a single dramatic intervention eliminates a problem forever, but on a dental model, in which constant care is required to prevent decay. Only by understanding why Adam Lanza wished to die can we understand why he killed. We would be well advised to look past the evil against others that most horrifies us and focus on the pathos that engendered it.

It is worth noting that Andrew Solomon recently wrote a book called Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity that examines children (and young adults) who commit violent acts. You can listen to him discuss the book here.

Yet, these thoughts on the Newtown murders and Adam Lanza’s own suicide (after killing 20 children and 6 adults) still feel incomplete since human language seems inadequate given the event’s severity. For me, the most compelling stories emerged in unlikely places. With the Honan Funeral Home in Newtown, for example, the only funeral home in the town and where most of the funerals took place. And in a series of articles in Slate that took different angles on the school shooting and gun violence in America:

Since 1980, 302 People Have Been Killed in School Shootings: An interactive chart of every school shooting and its death toll


In the Wake of the Newtown Shooting, Should We Fear a Wave of Copycat Crimes?: “We Still Look at Ourselves as Survivors”: More Than Eighty Years Later, Remembering the Deadliest School Massacre in American History


We Have the Technology To Make Safer Guns: Too bad gunmakers don’t care

I have no idea what kinds of gun law changes the Newtown shootings might produce. It’s hard to say, and if previous mass shootings are any guide, not much will happen.

That said, I’m hopeful that the relationship between suicide and guns is given significantly more attention and care. I’m also hopeful that the Death Reference Desk doesn’t end up running a whole series of gun death posts– but the odds don’t look good at this very moment.


Gun Show photo by M Glasgow on Flickr

Grief + Mourning Monuments + Memorials

Repost: Juanita Garciagodoy (March 10, 1952 – October 27, 2011)

In honor of the one year anniversary of Juanita’s death, I’m again sharing the memorial post I wrote for her. If you missed it last time, please take a look.

Death + the Law Death Ethics Grief + Mourning

When People Choose to Die

When Prolonging Death Seems Worse Than Death
Fresh Air with Terry Gross, NPR (October 09, 2012)
Many of us think of death as the worst possible outcome for a terminally ill patient, but Judith Schwarz disagrees.

Fresh Air’s Terry Gross ran a really fantastic interview this week with Judith Schwarz from Compassion & Choices. I can go on and on about why people should organize their End-of-Life directives and wishes, but Judith Schwarz spells it out from A-Z during the interview.

I strongly suggest listening to the full interview.

Death + Popular Culture Death + Technology Death + the Law Death + the Web Grief + Mourning

Social Media Web Users Keep Dying…Second Verse Same as the First

On the Media: Updating Your Social Media After You Die
WNYC Public Radio (March 23, 2012)
With social media, so much of our interactions with the world now live online, even after we may not be living at all. Brooke talks to James Norris, the founder of the website Deadsocial about prolonging social media relationships after death.

Back in February, I wrote about WNYC’s radio program On the Media and its show on Facebook. That Death Ref post, subtly titled 19,000 Facebook Users Die Each Day. Here is How FB’s Memorialization Mode Works, discussed the current, nonstop discussions about what to do when web users (especially FB users, it seems) die.

The Death Reference Desk has been tracking most of the various suggested ways to maintain postmortem control over social media accounts, Facebook in particular, and you can read those posts here. You should also check out the Death + the Web and the Death + Technology sections.

For this week’s On the Media show, co-host Brooke Gladstone interviewed James Norris about his solution to the social media death problem, a platform called Deadsocial.

A couple of points.

Gladstone asked the most pressing question, which is this: How long lived is any new media solution to human death issues given how quickly computing technology changes?

Norris offers a couple of logical responses, mostly about how Deadsocial would adapt to any future social media platform and that doing so was only ethical.

I’m still skeptical that any of the various dead user related websites/programs will remain relevant into the future but I could be totally wrong. I say I’m skeptical because I know how much technology has changed when it comes to death, dying, and the dead body. Meg’s brilliant post on 19th Century Anti-Premature Burial Device Patents elegantly demonstrates how social concerns about different kinds of postmortem technological fixes radically shift over time.

In fact, I will suggest that most of the current, various dead user inventions, programs, and products are more or less 21st Century versions of 19th Century anti-premature burial devices. The thinking now isn’t so much that people need tools to prevent them from being buried alive (modern embalming and cremation solved that dilemma), rather now we need tools to make sure that we Humans can still exert some control over how our digital selves are buried.

In 50 years time, I fully expect that all of these social media concerns will have been forgotten. Or replaced with other, more pressing technology issues.

A second point about the interview. The Deadsocial system was described as a signaling program which checks on users and notifies other, predetermined people when a person isn’t responding to automated messages. A handful of other programs already do this, namely, Deathswitch. All of these programs are different in their own ways, so I’m not suggesting that any company is ripping anyone else off. What is more interesting, I think, is that these various companies keep inventing ways to notify next-of-kin or friends or all of the Facebook that someone has died.

This was also one of the telegraph’s key uses, from the start. A long forgotten but extremely important social communication technology.

My point is this — we should continue to have these conversations about what happens to computer information when people die but we should also realize that these conversations are finite.

I actually found another section of the same On the Media episode far more compelling as it regards the dead user conundrum. The interview focused on something called the Archive Team:

Most of us think nothing of putting our lives in the cloud; photos in Flickr, videos on YouTube, most everything on Facebook. But what about when those services abruptly go away, taking all of our collective contributions with them? Well Jason Scott operates on the assumption that everything online will one day disappear. He explains to Bob why he and the Archive Team are dedicated to saving user-generated content for posterity.

At least the Achive Team understands the rapidly increasing ephemerality of web based information. Indeed, the Archive Team’s motto says it all: History is Our Future.

More than likely, we will need future Archive Teams of all kinds that simply try to understand why some early 21st Century humans became so obsessed with preserving their technological, social media selves. It will all seem to peculiar and strange.

Not unlike 19th Century devices to prevent premature burials.