Death + the Law

Collected Posts on the Westboro Baptist Church and Fred Phelps

Westboro Baptist Church Founder Fred Phelps Dies Aged 84
Reverend started Kansas church that gained intense notoriety for its anti-gay protests and pickets at funerals of US soldiers
Jon Swaine, The Guardian (March 20, 2014)

Fred Phelps died earlier today. He led (until recently it seems, but the details are murky) the Westboro Baptist Church. The WBC gained international attention (and condemnation) for its protests at funerals for dead soldiers. It was also known for its ‘God Hates Fags’ signs.

We here at the Death Reference Desk began covering Phelps and the WBC in 2009. You can read all of those posts here.

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.

Grief + Mourning

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

My good friend Juanita Garciagodoy died on Thursday, October 27, 2011. She was 59.

In July 2009, Juanita told me via e-mail that she had breast cancer and that it had metastasized. This was at the same time that the Death Reference Desk launched. I had sent Juanita a rather silly message about why she should check out the Death Reference Desk since she was a Meso-American studies scholar who had written about the Day of Dead (Día de los Muertos). She responded with her usual strong support and the fact that she was dying.

Suffice it to say that I felt like an idiot. A big one.

I promised Juanita that after she died, I would write about her for the Death Reference Desk. She reminded me of this promise over the years, most recently in our very last e-mail communication at the end of September 2011:

Thank you for your sweet note.
Remember? You owe me an obituary, my friend. No pressure, of course.

Juanita-in-Holly-Wilmeth-Photo-2Que Si, Juanita Garciagodoy. I do remember. And with tears streaming from my eyes while I type these words, I am honored to remember our friendship in writing.

I first met Juanita in October 2001 at an academic conference in Puebla, Mexico. It was the first time that I presented my Ph.D. research on the dead body and Juanita was unbelievably enthusiastic about my studies. Without any question, Juanita was the first academic from outside my own institution who expressed deep interest and support for my work. That we met in Mexico was a little ironic since she was a Professor at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota and I was at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Juanita and I stayed in touch over the years, mostly by e-mail. From time to time she would send me news articles about a dead body topic. And by send, I mean she would physically cut them out and put the articles in the mail. I was particularly fond of the article on beetles that strip away cadaveric flesh. In 2005 she attended my Ph.D. defense (which is true sign of selfless friendship, let me just say) and in 2006 she brought an entire crowd of people to watch my one-man show On The Untimely Death of John Erik Troyer, Ph.D. at the Bryant-Lake Bowl Theatre. In a nutshell, Juanita showed herself to be a wonderful friend during important moments in my adult life.

In June 2010, I gave a keynote lecture on Memorial Tattoos for the Death, Commemoration, and Memory conference in Edinburgh, Scotland. Over the last few years, I’ve begun researching the history of tattooing and its relationship to human mortality. A central figure in that talk was Juanita. Indeed, Juanita has become (and will remain) a key figure in any talk that I give on tattooing.

After Juanita lost her hair due to radiation treatments, she decided to cover her head with tattoos. It is important to note, I think, that prior to this moment Juanita had never gotten a tattoo of any kind before. So not only did she choose to get a tattoo, she chose to tattoo her head – the most visible (and next to the face) hardest part of the tattooed human body to hide. Over a course of months, Juanita went from zero tattoos to a head full of colorful ink. She had her tattoos done at Leviticus Tattoos in Minneapolis, which I know she would want people to know.

It is Juanita’s tattoos that I want to discuss and remember the most. To the end of her days she defied conventional wisdom about how a person should live her life while dying from breast cancer. Her tattoos were, for me, a brilliant and moving outward expression of that defiance.

Juanita also had some seriously bad ass ink and the stories that her tattoos tell/told bear retelling here.

When Juanita first lost her hair she experimented with painting her head, but the paint rubbed off so she decided that tattoos were the logical solution. She and I spoke at length about the deeper reasons for the tattoos; the reasons that turned her tattoos into a profound choice about confronting death.

Henna-Ink-DesignsShe saw the tattoos as part of her identity and she felt that the visual collage on her head helped her assert the inevitability of her own death. On more than one occasion, Juanita told me that her tattoos were both a confrontation with life and a liberatory act in the face of death.

A great irony attached itself to her tattoos: Juanita wanted the tattoos so that people would talk about something, anything, other than her cancer. I always admired this particular reason – instead of waiting for the other person to think of a conversation topic, just give that person a bunch of tattoos staring them in the face as a tour de force kind of ice breaker. Sadly, and on many occasions, people would go to great lengths to avoid discussing the tattoos. She and I laughed about this situation, since her tattooed head was an obvious discussion topic. Alas, many people were either afraid to ask or couldn’t be bothered and it was their loss.


Here, then, are the stories that Juanita’s tattoos tell (as told to me by Juanita) and in no particular order:

The Singing Jaguar: a Meso-American poet symbol. Juanita wanted a representation of an ancient poet symbol to reflect her own writing.

MonkeyOzomahtli the Monkey: Mexican seal used to imprint objects. Juanita always felt that it was a beautiful design. Ozomahtli is also associated with spring, with song, with poetry, and with fertility in other contexts.

Grasshopper on Mountain: Pre-Spanish design from an Aztec art book. This was also the symbol for Juanita’s favorite park in Mexico City.

Rabbit in the Moon: In Meso-American story telling, Rabbit is said to have previously been a god, a humble god, who agreed to illuminate the night. As a result, Meso-American storytellers described seeing a rabbit in the moon. The rabbit was designed by friend from a prehistoric pot image. The moon image is taken from NASA, complete with craters. Juanita told me that she felt close to the moon. For her the moon was poetic and mysterious.

Owl-Jaguar-Rabbit-Moon-ColoredOwl hovering over a Book: The owl represented wisdom and it showed Juanita’s commitment to knowledge by reading the book. The peacock on the book’s cover is taken from the cover of a novel by her husband George. Juanita also explained to me that there is an old Mexican saying: When the owl sings the Indian dies. She believed that this saying described a confrontation with mortality that she, herself, was going through.

Cheshire-CatCheshire Cat: Juanita wanted a cat tattoo and she loved Alice in Wonderland. This was also a tattoo to remember all the dead pets.

Heart with jjjj: This was a code for “Juanita’s Handsome Husband Jorge.” I can’t replicate the accent that Juanita used to say those words, but it was very funny. The heart was also for love since Juanita and George loved each other very deeply.

Tree: The tree of knowledge which surrounded her head.

Snake-and-Humming-BirdSnake: A symbol of knowledge and transgression, as when Eve eats the apple in the Garden of Eden.

Humming Bird sipping out of a Star: Juanita loved the beauty of this image. The Hummingbird is also featured in ancient Meso-American stories. Three groups of people turned into hummingbirds or butterflies when they died: warriors who died in battle, people who were sacrificed, and women who died in childbirth. Juanita told me that at times she felt like her own body was sacrificing itself and betraying her. She often felt that she was battling cancer as a warrior.

El Don Quixote: Last but not least. Don Quixote was her first tattoo. Initially, Juanita was only going to get Don Quixote because she was told that the process might hurt. As is totally obvious, Juanita had the exact opposite reaction to the pain from that first tattoo. The image is by the artist Posada. Juanita told me that Posada was the kind of artist who pulled death into life with a great sense of humor. El Don Quixote also reminded her of the Day of the Dead, which was an area of her own research. Her 2000 book, Digging the Days of the Dead: A Reading of Mexico’s Dias de Muertos, had three Don Quixote’s on its cover.


One other important detail: all of the creatures have green-blue eyes, like Juanita’s eyes.

Even after it was possible for Juanita to grow her hair back, she decided to keep her head shaved. It was important to her that the tattoos be visible. Juanita explained to me that her tattoos were producing stories about her and her life.

Those tattooed stories, which live on today and will thrive for some time to come, are the narrative traces of Juanita Garciagodoy’s life.

These stories are also Juanita’s permanently inked memorial.

Death + Technology Death + the Law Death Ethics Suicide

The Kevorkian Generation

Life After Kevorkian
He fought for the right to assisted suicide. Now what should we do with it?
William Saletan, Slate (June 3, 2011)

I am a member of the Kevorkian generation. Those of us in our mid-to-late thirties and onwards into our forties are usually called Generation X (for those who still remember the 1990s…) but I really think that we are Kevorkian’s kids.

Jack Kevorkian, who died last week, began assisting suicides in 1990. As soon as he started this work, debates began about the legality and ethics of assisted dying. I have distinct memories of these debates, which started during my high school years and carried on into college.

I and my peers came of age and entered adulthood surrounded by End-of-Life debates. Most people have mixed feelings about what Kevorkian did but at least he made people talk about death and dying. And those conversations have had an impact over the years.


So say what you will about Jack Kevorkian but he really contributed to a debate that informed an entire generation’s future. And as we all begin looking towards the End-of-Life for our own parents, I know that Jack Kevorkian’s influence will be felt.

The Slate article by William Saletan at the top is the best essay/article that I found after Kevorkian died.

Here is how Saletan concluded his piece and I wholeheartedly agreed with him point by point:

Kevorkian didn’t have the answers. But he raised the right questions. We can’t criticize his flaws, temper his ideas, and praise the hospice movement without acknowledging what he did. He forced an open conversation about the right to take your own life. Under what conditions, and within what limits, should that right be exercised? Even if it’s legal, is it moral? What do you do when a loved one wants to die? Kevorkian didn’t take those questions with him. He has left them to us.

The obituaries in both the Washington Post and the New York Times were also good.

What struck me most about Kevorkian’s death was how he died in the middle of a debate that he, alone, significantly pushed along.

This is also a debate that will most assuredly continue without him.

In mid-May, for example, large majorities of voters in Switzerland re-affirmed the right of individuals to choose an assisted death. The Swiss voters also (and more significantly) voted against proposals to ban citizens from other nations from using the Dignitas clinic, for example, to die.

Just this past week, the Personal Health columnist for the New York Times, Jane Brody, wrote a compelling column about New York Doctors who are not comfortable discussing End-of-Life decisions with their patients. Doctors in the state of New York are now required by law to discuss End-of-Life planning and some MD’s do not want to do it. The copy title for Brody’s column sums up the situation: Law on End-of-Life Care Rankles Doctors

And then last weekend, WNYC’s radio program On the Media ran a story on how the ‘Death Panels’ allegation used by opponents to President Obama’s health care law received press coverage which seemed to validate the absurdity of that claim.

I could go on and on with the examples. Indeed, a version of each of these stories has been previously covered by Meg, Kim, and myself since the Death Reference Desk began in 2009.

Here, then, is my point: Jack Kevorkian got an entire generation of young people, now in their mid-to-late thirties and soon to be in their late forties, thinking about dying, and in such a way that I can only hope it helps End-of-Life conversations with aging parents and elderly grandparents.

Jack Kevorkian didn’t inspire my generation, per se, but he played a much bigger role in our development than most people realize.

I will wrap everything up with a video obituary by the NewsHour on Public Television.

PBS NewsHour: Jack Kevorkian, Doctor who Brought Assisted Suicide to National Spotlight, Dies

Watch the full episode. See more PBS NewsHour.

Death + the Web Death Ethics

Legacy for Hire

A recent post by Idle Words blog caught my eye. It’s about the unscrupulous practices of, the back end machinery behind obituary notices in newspapers across the country, including, but not limited to, the venerable NY Times.

Idle Words did a little research (which Boing Boing then posted) to uncover exactly what’s going on with Legacy—because their mode of operation is less than transparent. At issue is how their online guest books work and the deceptive and manipulative way money changes hands in the process. The process is this: you sign the guest book after which you are greeted with a warning that states that the guest book will expire in a little over a month. You can make sure this doesn’t happen by paying $29 to keep it up for a year, or go for the eternity package and pay $79 to keep the guest book alive “in perpetuity.”

While that might seem a bit crass, that’s not really the issue. Through some investigation, Idle Words discovered that creating an online death notice is a less than forthright when it comes to the money. At no time in the process do they tell you what the charges are (from $79). For that, you need to drill down into the small print back at (in this case) the NY Times rate sheet page—outside of the confines of the obituary creation stage. I dare you to even find where the rate sheet info is because I can tell you it’s under deep cover—and I’m a librarian!

Says Idle Words:

[The] site takes money from bereaved people without disclosing what it’s billing them, gambling on the fact that they’re probably too preoccupied to care. Whether or not this kind of thing is legal, it is completely unethical. Even an undertaker who has upsold you on everything from coffin to funeral buffet has to show you a number before you sign on the dotted line.

I applaud Idle Words for looking into Legacy’s practices. Maybe this exposure will shame them into changing their “business model”.