Death, Dying, & Bereavement
Most people don’t want to even think about death, let alone talk about it or watch media related to the subject outside of Hollywood. But social practices surrounding death can reveal to us a good deal about the nature of our society, such as the social construction of the end of life, the functional role of funerals, and class conflict in the cemetery. These are some of the better videos, shows, and clips I have used in an upper level course on Death & Dying. Grab a box of tissues and enjoy!
“LA’s priciest real estate? Not where you’d think” – CNBC, 2014, 3:40 -- http://www.cnbc.com/video/3000242933
Might as well start such a gloomy subject with a good laugh. In 2014 a cemetery plot 15 feet away from where Marilyn Monroe is interred went on the market for $699,000… that’s about $10,300 per square foot. Not only is this short news clip an excellent example of social class and the cult of celebrity, but the way the plot’s owner (Tom Gregory) “sells” the real estate is hilarious. It’s all about location as many people continue to visit Monroe’s final resting place. As such, the surrounding graves will certainly see an increase of traffic, giving those who occupy that space some associated status and attention after death.
Full article here.
The Undertaking -- Frontline (PBS), 2007, 55:34 -- http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/undertaking/
Continuing with the theme of body disposition, this Frontline feature from 2007 offers a multifaceted view of the funeral home as told by writer/poet and funeral home owner Thomas Lynch, author of the much praised The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade (1997). We see here how funeral homes are actually facilities for the living in addition to the emotion work done on the part of funeral directors. We also get to see a variety of perspectives individuals have as they face death, among which includes an empathetic profile on a dying child. While this documentary may be a bit dated, it focuses more on the purpose of a funeral home rather than social trends.
Facing Death – Frontline (PBS), 2010, 53:40 -- http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/facing-death/
While the 2015 Frontline documentary Being Mortal is well done, I think their 2010 documentary Facing Death does a better job at illuminating the medicalization of death, technological imperatives, and the tremendous amount of suffering patients endure in hopes of gaining more time. The issue of quality of life is on full display here and this film forces one to think about what the “good death” means in modern American society.
This film can be a perspective changer, especially when coupled with research on how physicians want to die compared to the general population.
Frozen Faith: Cryonics and the Quest to Cheat Death – Motherboard, 2016, 23:13 -- https://youtu.be/m5KuNAeOtJ0
If you believe medical procedures of the future may be able to cure you of a currently-fatal condition, then cryonics may be your best chance of “living” until that time. This piece on Alcor gives us a fascinating look into cryonic technologies (freezing) and the preservation of bodies in a state of suspended animation. Notice how the folks at Alcor refer to their clients as “patients”, a term that implies a living person rather than a deceased body.
VICE on HBO:“Right to Die” – VICE (HBO), S04E03, 2016, 27:18 -- https://video.vice.com/en_us/video/right-to-die/582b54739d9cd63d1b5fb07c
An empathetic look into (physician) assisted suicide, sometimes referred to as euthanasia, with an exploration of how the controversial practice is performed in the Netherlands as well as the legal (and illegal) forms in the United States. We get to see a woman go through the process, including her beautiful last moments and the final act itself. This is a discussion starter to say the least and would pair well with a more thorough documentary such as How to Die in Oregon (2011).
Balls Deep: “Dead” – Viceland, S02E06, 2017, 22:38 -- https://www.viceland.com/en_us/video/dead/5834c54e34bf6596127f8a47
This series focuses on an embedded reporter (Thomas Morton) doing what we social scientists call participant observation. The subject here, Dr. Rebecca Hsu, is a forensic pathologist in Arizona who gives us a superb behind-the-scenes look into her typical life and non-typical job. We do get to see a full autopsy performed, so a content warning may be appropriate here. Perhaps the biggest lesson here, though, is that death is unflatteringly ordinary (or normative). The casual nature of the subject as depicted here nicely contrasts with our sensationalized, inflated, and personally distant cultural narratives.
Ask a Mortician: Home Death & Wake for Your Pet – Caitlin Doughty, 2014, 6:08 -- https://youtu.be/kORGk6s1C_s
Depressing as it may be, it’s important that we consider non-human death within our culture. Caitlin Doughty is the founder of The Order of the Good Death and provides us here with a touching account of the death of her cat. I am deeply thankful for this video as I am now committed to providing my cats with the luxury of home euthanasia when the time comes (many, many years from now of course).
Worshiping Immortality at the Church of Perpetual Life – Motherboard, 2016, 21:27 -- https://youtu.be/EvaC67CeBDA
As our society constructs death as undesirable, scary, and wholly negative, it is understandable that individuals will want to ward off death as much as is possible. Whether these people are in denial of death or just simply afraid of death, a discussion on why such tremendous energies are spent trying to avoid death is needed. If we are constantly trying to delay death while we are living, then what is the point of life? While these individuals may be trying to live as long as possible, their lives seem to be dominated by an obsessive reluctance to embrace the inevitable.