By: George Dickinson
George Dickinson is a Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the College of Charleston. Dr. Dickinson’s research focuses on death and dying, medical sociology, and aging.
The fabric of our society is in a constant state of social change. Regarding the life cycle, for example, we have seen a trend in recent years toward deinstitutionalization: natural childbirth (often at home with a midwife), working out of one’s home (thanks to computers), dying at home (home hospice), home funerals (do-it-yourself), and roadside memorials (without the restrictions of cemetery rulings). Formal religion may no longer satisfy needs in a secular society. So, let’s take a brief look at dying and death in the United States.
Some historians view death as having gone through three stages: (1) Living with death (1600-1830), a time when cemeteries were in the city by the church, many children were born but all did not survive childhood, and a belief in fatalism that God was in control and whatever happened was meant to be; (2) dying of death (1830-1945), when cemeteries were moved out of the city (out of sight out of mind), funeral homes came into existence in New York City with the idea of beautifying the body and making it “look alive,” and morphine was developed to lessen the pain of death; and (3) resurrection of death (1945-present), with the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan and more recently reinforced with the attacks on the US on September 11, 2001, when many individuals can die in a very short period of time.
There has been an increased interest in thanatology (the study of death) because of biomedical breakthroughs (numerous organ and tissue transplants to prolong one’s life in addition to other medical innovations), longer life today thus often adding needed assistance during the latter months/years of one’s life (heart disease and cancer are the #1 and #2 causes of death today, both chronic, lingering illnesses, whereas in 1900 pneumonia , an acute, not lingering illness, was a leading cause of death), and away from a rural farm environment where one experienced the life cycle on a daily basis (e.g., with shorter life spans than humans, cows and other livestock die after only a few years, unlike humans). Though there is a recent trend in dying at home through hospice, 80 percent of Americans today die in a hospital or nursing facility, thus presenting a mystique of what happens within such a setting. As one little boy said, “I don’t want to go to the hospital because that is where you go to die,” as he had seen his grandfather taken away from his home to a hospital, and the next time the little boy saw Grandfather, he was stiff, lying in a box, with his eyes closed–dead!
Overall, the US tends toward being a death-denying society. We don’t die in America, we just “go to sleep” (the word cemetery comes from the Greek and means “place of sleep;” if a dead body is casketed, it is placed on a mattress with the head resting on a pillow; RIP is often used to refer to death; some grave markers give a birth year then say “went to sleep” rather than say “died;” and until recent years the room in the funeral home where the body was displayed for a wake had a sign over the door which read “slumber room.” Numerous euphemisms suggest that we do not like to use the word “death” (e.g., passed away, breathed his life, didn’t survive the surgery, kicked the bucket, and called home by God substitute for the word “dead”). We avoid death conversations because we feel uncomfortable and often joke about death and sex to cover up our anxiety about the topics. Perhaps the most bizarre example of death denial is cryonics (body freezing) when the dead body is frozen in liquid nitrogen and kept for years (decades?) with the hope that someday a “cure” will be developed and the body will be thawed, injected, and will wake up with the absolute worst “hangover” and culture shock one ever had! Recently, the late baseball player Ted Williams had his head frozen, not the entire body, with the hope that it will be someday be “resurrected” and cloned onto a new body when he is revived because of a “cure.”
On the other hand, recent events such as “death dinners” and “death cafes” have cropped up in cities in Western Europe and the US. Such events would suggest that the topic of death is “alive” and well. The idea of these eating gatherings is to come to a café on a specified night to have dinner and to talk about death—not a therapy session but to simply “talk” about death. The death dinners occur in one’s home, and the guests are invited to come for dinner to discuss death. Thus, everything that is currently happening does not suggest death denial.
Death anxiety/fear is rather prevalent in our society, particularly perhaps because there is a fear of the unknown. One does not know for sure what happens after death, though there are plenty of speculations. As one child said, “I wonder what happens after one dies. I don’t want to do it, I just want to know.” Perhaps each of us has had such a thought, yet no answers exist as the dead tend to not return.
Options for final disposition of dead human remains are primarily earth burial and cremation. Green burials are becoming more popular, with the body not being embalmed or put in a casket, rather it is washed, wrapped in a shroud and buried. Also, bodies which are embalmed in more typical burials can be embalmed in fluid with only three carcinogens, whereas embalming fluid normally has over 30 carcinogens. In the 1970s we were burying about 90 percent of dead human remains with about 10 percent of bodies being cremated. Today, this trend is rapidly changing so that some 40 percent of bodies in the US are cremated, with that percentage rapidly rising. With a more secular society, the Christian idea of the “whole body” being resurrected, not possible with cremation, is not as significant a factor. Additionally, the cost of direct cremation is around $1500 to $2000, whereas a burial in a cemetery will cost more in the range of $10,000. Cremation is a final form disposition of dead human remains, thus nothing has to be done with them, yet options are unlimited (placed in a locket to wear around one’s neck, put into orbit, inserted into an Eternal Reef in the ocean for “fish housing,” poured into an urn to place on one’s mantel, or blasted from a canon into the air).
So, as Bob Dylan wailed back in the 1960s, “the times they are a’changin,’” and changing indeed with dying and death in the United States in the 21st Century.