Death + Biology Death + Technology Death Ethics

Day 30: Bringing the Dead Back to (Some Kind of) Life

9 Things to Know About Reviving the Recently Dead
Greg Miller, Wired Magazine (July 30, 2014)

Great article in today’s Wired about research by Dr. David Casarett on methods used to revive, resuscitate, and bring back the dead. Casarett’s work is in his new book called Shocked: Adventures in Bringing Back the Recently Dead.

Interestingly, Greg Miller at Wired notes that:

Casarett is enthusiastic about the emerging technologies that are allowing doctors to save patients who would have been a lost cause in the very recent past. But these technologies come at a cost, he writes. They may restore life, but whether it’s a life worth living is another matter.

And while Casarett originally became a Doctor so that he could develop new technologies to bring back the dead, he’s now working in hospice and palliative care.

Sometimes staying dead is better than the ‘life’ a resuscitated person experiences.

The Death Reference Desk has featured a series of stories on the ins and outs of Do Not Resuscitate orders. And DNR tattoos. You can find those posts here.

Death + Art / Architecture Death + Technology

Day 9: Tick-Tock Goes This Mortal Coil’s Clock

Nothing Focuses The Mind Like The Ultimate Deadline: Death
A Swedish inventor came up with a wristwatch that counts down the seconds left in your life. He calls it “the happiness watch” because he thinks living with the reality of one’s mortality can enhance how we value our lives.
Lulu Miller, National Public Radio (December 31, 2013)

At the very end of last year, National Public Radio ran a story by Lulu Miller about a watch that can ‘predict’ when you’re going to die.

It’s a clever invention that is obviously geared towards cultivating conversations about death and dying as opposed to locking-in a termination date.

I’m not sure that you need a watch to get those discussions rolling, but I’m open to all possibilities.

The wonder of producing the 31 Days of Death is that it’s possible to pull stories from the files that never made it to the Death Reference Desk for numerous reasons.

Give the story a listen. It’s time well spent.

Death + Biology Death + Technology Death + the Web

Radiolab: Am I Going To Die This Year? A Mathematical Puzzle

Am I Going To Die This Year? A Mathematical Puzzle
Robert Krulwich, Radiolab (January 08, 2014)

Radiolab co-host, Robert Krulwich, posted a fascinating piece on a mathematical approach to determining when a person might die. Krulwich explains how he first picked up this topic:

A few years ago, physicist Brian Skinner asked himself: What are the odds I will die in the next year? He was 25. What got him wondering about this, I have no idea, but, hey, it’s something everybody asks. When I can’t wedge my dental floss between my two front teeth, I ask it, too. So Brian looked up the answer — there are tables for this kind of thing — and what he discovered is interesting. Very interesting. Even mysterious.

It turns out that a fascinating 8-year rule emerges for most human lifespans. I will let you read all about it.

Tick-Tock goes the clock.

And welcome to 2014.

Skull Clock

Afterlife Death + Biology Death + Technology Death Ethics Suicide

Six-Degrees of Kevin Bacon Flatlining. Poor sad Billy Mahoney

‘Erasing Death’ Explores the Science Of Resuscitation
Fresh Air with Terry Gross (February 20, 2013)

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.

Poor sad Billy Mahoney.

Death + Art / Architecture Grief + Mourning

Sick Beauty in the Stains of Death: Sarah Sudhoff’s “At the Hour of Our Death”

At the Hour of Our Death
Sarah Sudhoff

Our worldly possessions speak to how we live, while their particular aesthetics — the whorl of this cushion, the filigree of that doily — hint at personality. In her series, At the Hour of Our Death, artist Sarah Sudhoff explores how our stuff reveals how we die, and reminds that we do die, and so do the ones we love from whose deaths we are detached. Sudhoff photographs the stains left behind from suicides, murders and other messy deaths.

Filmmakers Mark and Angela Walley produced a short documentary about Sudhoff and her work:

[Video not working because Vimeo is evil? Click here.]

Sudhoff’s intention with this work is to draw attention to the often invisible process and remnants of death. Normalized efforts to erase or conceal — or incinerate, as is the case of the fabric swatches she photographs — the evidence that death leaves behind, including the body itself immediately swept from view until the funeral, isolate us from our loss and make grief impersonal and arguably more difficult than it already is.

I say “arguably” because seeing the blood splatters of a loved one’s suicide would probably freak out and traumatize most people more than it would aid their mourning. Nevertheless, this sanitizing of death is a denial of reality and dislocates our understanding and acceptance of death. Sudhoff’s work recognizes and acknowledges the marks death leaves behind, on pillow shams and drapes but also on us.

A bit morbid, sure, but this is the Death Reference Desk. And if I may, while granting Sudhoff legitimacy in her artist statement, and at the risk of being creepy or insensitive, I am personally less interested in the death tie-in than I am in the pure aesthetics of the work.

Ignore for a moment that these images are saturated with the gore of the dead. Why? Because otherwise is too easy — too emotional, too blatantly taboo and therefore transgressive, and while Sudhoff does not seem to aim for shock, the context sends interpretation down a single, obvious, kinda gross but we-should-feel-good-about-ourselves-for-thinking-about-death-and-the-consequences-of-its-social-sublimation path.

And you know what? These photographs are really rather pretty on their own and function as effective works of art without all that weight.

sarahsudhoffIn the serendipitous way propriety and rules and stuff impose boundaries on Art, Sudhoff was unable to photograph actual crime scenes. Instead she is allowed to shoot their remnants pulled from the biohazard boxes of a death scene cleanup company. Fabric swatches are tacked to a wall, flooded with lights and photographed. While perhaps she would have done this anyway, this arrangement forces intense close-ups on the fabrics, as opposed to wider angle, let’s-see-the-whole-room, imagine-the-moment shots that would put us closer to the dead.

Instead, we have only a moment, and that moment is abstract and evocative. The textiles themselves are both art and commodity. Even a foam carpet pad, with its texture and color, has a weird, familiar but rarely recognized beauty.

The stains that seep can be seen as corruption or defacement — defects in these products. And yet there is balance and harmony, a rightness in the randomness. Nonetheless, even if you didn’t know it was blood, the creeping distortions signal that something is dreadfully wrong, complicating that beauty (or, ironically, enlivening and enriching a mundane pattern).

Combined with context — knowledge of what these stains don’t represent but actually are — Sudhoff’s work achieves a subtle power easy to overlook when we’re so quick to look away.

If you’re into this stuff (heh), check out Sudhoff’s other photo series linked on the left side of her website, including medical waste and sacks of unclaimed cremains.

Death + the Economy Death + the Law

Witness for the Execution

One Reporter’s Lonely Beat, Witnessing Executions
Richard Pérez-Peña, New York Times (October 20, 2009)

The NY Times ran an interesting article yesterday about an AP reporter who has witnessed more executions than any other person in America. His name is Michael Graczyk and since the 1980’s, he has seen over 300 executions in Texas, although in actuality he has lost count. Due to the faltering economy, Mr. Graczyk is one of the few journalists left doing this type of reportage.

Although Mr. Graczyk takes a generally dispassionate approach to his work, he recalled one particularly chilling incident.

One inmate “sang ‘Silent Night,’ even though it wasn’t anywhere near Christmas,” Mr. Graczyk said. “I can’t hear that song without thinking about it. That one really stuck with me.”

Afterlife Defying Death

Research of Near Death Experiences May Improve Resuscitation

Questions and Answers about Moment of Death: AWARE Project Uses Technology to Investigate “Out-of-Body Experiences”
Today &#8211 (September 28, 2009)

Visit for Breaking News, World News, and News about the Economy

According to the Today show’s Q&A, the Awareness During Resuscitation study — AWARE for short — is investigating “what happens to the human mind and consciousness during clinical death and the relationship between consciousness and the brain.” The hope is improved research will inform better resuscitation practices — though I suspect it’s also attempting to lasso the afterlife moon. As the video shows, part of the experiment involves putting a sign on a shelf high above hospital beds with the idea that astral travelers will see it and be able to relay messages once resuscitated. Shout backs, anyone?

Though I find this less than rigorous, the research protocol has been peer reviewed, as will be the results, and the study also uses technology to measure the flow of blood to the brain for a more technical analysis of what the heck is going on during and after death.

…And I suppose it would be pretty cool if someone, floating above his or her dead body and the heads of the doctors and nurses as is often reported, reads and relays the message of the sign. But assuming this study will not prove the existence of an afterlife, I’m just as jazzed to know we have such amazing, imaginative, immersive-experience minds.

We at DeathRef will keep our eyes skinned on this one.

Death + Art / Architecture

You’re Going to Die

You’re Going to Die (2000) – Timothy Furstnau

Here is a nice work of video art and death introspection for the long weekend’s end…


“Dead Spiritualist Silent”

Radiolab: Proof
originally aired August 10, 2009.

It appears Radiolab had more great death meditations than they knew what to do with. Following up on their July 27 episode, “After Life,” all this week they will be releasing short podcasts with additional thoughts on death.

Monday’s segment features Mary Roach, author of Stiff and Spook, discussing spiritualist Thomas Lynn Bradford’s quest for proof of an afterlife in 1921. His scheme involved committing suicide then shouting back to a psychic, who would then relay to the world the good news that death does not exist, only Summerland — the Spiritualist post-life realm of lush rolling hills, beauty and peace. But, as the New York Times reported, “Dead Spiritualist silent.” Alas.

(We won’t be posting all of Radiolab’s death segments this week — we just wanted to get the word out. In case you’re wondering, yes, DeathRef has a crush on Radiolab.)


Radiolab: After Life… Now with John Troyer!

Radiolab: After Life
originally aired July 27, 2009.

So somehow John got on Radiolab. Sure, it’s only a few seconds, but MAN this guy gets around. In addition to our own professor of death, Radiolab serves up an author, a biologist, a neurological psychologist, a geologist and a paleontologist to pontificate in short vignettes about what happens when we die. Educational, quirky, evocative — you know the Radiolab drill.

(And if you don’t, do yourself a favor and give it a listen — Radiolab is consistently stellar.)