October 27, 2011

Removed from Death

imageBy Sally Raskoff

I tried to go to our local mall the other day but couldn’t get into the parking lot. All the nearby streets and the mall access had been closed on the corner of the mall where I was headed. I finally found a parking space overlooking that corner. I saw police barriers, road closures, and some officers waving people away while others held clipboards and stood in small groups talking to other officers.

clip_image002Once I parked, I headed to the side where other shoppers were standing, watching the events as they unfolded. I walked up, asked what was happening, and one person pointed out a sheet that covered a body in the mall’s driveway near the intersection.

“Ew,” I thought, wanting to walk away. But I was still wondering what happened. I asked the people around me, and no one really knew. As I turned to go into the mall, a security guard strode up, whistling and yelling at us to “get away from there.” As I passed him, I stated that we just wanted to know what had happened and he said, “Oh, no, we can’t tell you anything. Nothing. Go away.”

Later I found out there had been a fatal car accident at that intersection.

This event got me thinking about how our culture treats death. We certainly remove ourselves --and other people--from it as quickly as possible.

Do we have any cultural patterns in how to deal with death? The first thing that comes to mind is Kubler-Ross’ stages of grieving about death and dying: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

As language is part of culture, our vocabulary about death shows our distance from it. We often prefer to say that people have passed, passed on, or passed away rather than that they died. Saying that someone died might seem crass.

What other words do we have for death? In war, it is often called ”collateral damage” or “casualties.” In everyday life, we might also say “expire,” “depart this life,” “lost the battle,” or “meet your maker.” Can you think of any others (that are not jokes)?

What do we tell children about death? We often use softer words or imaginative, telling a child that a favorite pet “went to doggie heaven” or that their dead grandmother is “is on a long trip”. Do you have any childhood memories from funerals or other such situations?

I remember wanting to watch cartoons at my grandparents’ house after my grandfather’s death. My grandmother told me, “We don’t watch TV when someone passes on.” That answer didn’t make much sense to me at the time since I wanted to do something besides sit around. It wasn’t clear to me why people were being so weird! I understand now that she wanted some calm visiting time with her family, but I didn’t understand why we needed to be so quiet at the time.

The bodies of those who lost their lives in military service are brought home quietly, even secretly. The public has no idea how many perish nor who they might be. Newspapers may run the names and brief stories of those who die in war each week yet the ongoing toll is not in our consciousness, since we have fewer images of those flag covered caskets than we had in previous wars.

If death happens in a hospital, the body is taken away rather quickly. If it happens in some other location, once the authorities are called, the body is also File:Funeral ceremony.jpgremoved. In both situations, typically, a morgue will take care of processing the body according to the person or their survivor’s wishes.

The only public aspect might be a procession of cars from one location (like a memorial) to another (a burial site) but these are typically for practical reasons, not demonstrative purposes. An exception to this is the very public funeral for those who die in public service, such police or fire fighters. Those funerals are public to remind people of the service provided to them and to reinforce the social and professional bonds in the law enforcement and emergency services communities.

In our society and in many others, confronting our own mortality or that of others is not an easy thing to do. We distance ourselves from it both emotionally and intellectually, possibly in the hopes that we are also creating physical distance from that inevitable reality. When death happens publicly, we cover it up and shoo people away. This protects the privacy of the people involved yet also misses the opportunity for people to learn from the situation and process the information about the event that had this result. When it happens to those we know, we do have rituals to help us grieve yet, in our culture, most of those rituals distance us from our loved ones, so much so that the person’s death may not even be remembered or understood. Can you think of any other sociological perspectives that can help us explain how we collectively make sense of death?


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I liked how you talked about how death has become a topic that people tend to move around quickly. Death has become a touchy subject, people don't talk about it bluntly. If anything, we try to remove ourselves from the topic of death by referring to it in any way other than death. As a society we experience death everyday, and hearing about death constantly through the media has in a way numbed us to the topic until its personal. Its hard for people to come to terms with the inevitable end that we all face.

Every family or "tribe" handles the rituals of death differently and we probably are all most comfortable with whatever the customs we grew up with. In my family we definitely distance ourselves from the body of the deceased - no big service, wake, viewing, open casket, etc. We want our last memories to be of the person well and living. My husband's family does the opposite (open casket, viewing, big service). I find "their way" morbid and they find "my way" disrespectful. We all have to respect that everyone will handle this in the way that feels right to them.

Religious beliefs can be a source for making sense of death. In interviews I conducted, people who have lost a loved one also mentioned communication in the family, organizing the funeral ritual or maintaining an ongoing connection with the dead pearson (talking to him/her, dreaming, feeling the presence) as actions and thoughts that helped them make sense of loss.
I would definitely add the medicalization of death. Death in hospitals is a recent phenomenon, which had a huge impact on funeral rites and on our thoughts about death.

When did people start denying death and talking about it. People, especially Native Americans, rejoiced when someone died because it meant that they had moved on to the next life, a better one. Maybe it is something religious. It seems to me that people tend to think more about the death of their loved ones if they don't talk about it, and let their feelings out.

It is amazing how people have such different "norms" when it comes to dealing with a death of a family member or friend. I remember when I experienced the first death in the family, of someone that I was close to, my great grandmother. I was always under the interpetation that is was "not ok" to have an open casket funeral. It was just creepy and socially unacceptable, in the values that my family had instilled in my brain. When my great grandmother passes she was very heavy duty catholic. She had requested a viewing. Everyone went in the room and took a special peak. I was then peer pressured into it. The image left an emotional scar in my brain. My reaction was about the same as if someone someone cursed at school, jaw dropped to the floor gasping for breath. Now that I have been learning a lot about social norms in other societies and religions, it amazes me such a small subject, is viewed so differently. you would think everyone would have the same agenda when someone dies.

When you're in the corner and have got no money to get out from that, you would have to receive the loans. Just because it would aid you unquestionably. I take consolidation loans every time I need and feel fine just because of this.

"or that there dead grandmother"

stopped reading right THERE :)

Death is a touching subject to a lot of people. When my mother died I was only 9 but my father still hides the story today. In my own perpective, death is natural but we as humans still do not know the logical way to grieve. We look as death as " going to a better place" and tell kids that its only natural. As they get older they understand death and how much family means to them.

Hey Editors,

My name is Martin and I am the CEO & Co-Founder of Cleverism.com --- a leading educational website that helps people actually get their dream job (we write super actionable and helpful career guides :-).

I stumbled upon your post on "Removed from Death" and I thought it was very insightful.

Over the last 2 weeks I wrote probably the most actionable and helpful guide on everything people ever wanted to know about Kubler-Ross change curve, Relevance and applications of Kubler-Ross Change Curve in Business etc.
Change is an inevitable part and truth of life, and there is no running away from it. If change is well planned and formulated, it can produce positive results but even in spite of planning, change is hard to incorporate, accept and appreciate. This article shall throw light on the Kubler-Ross Change Curve that is the most reliable tool to understand change. The Kubler-Ross Change Curve can be effectively used by business leaders to help their workforce adapt to change and move towards success.

In this article, we explore 1) what is Kubler-Ross Model, 2) the applications of the Kubler-Ross Change Curve, and 3) variations of change curve concepts. Any chance you'd include our actionable guide on “Kubler-Ross Change Curve” (https://www.cleverism.com/understanding-kubler-ross-change-curve/) in your awesome article (https://www.everydaysociologyblog.com/2011/10/removed-from-death.html)?

Have a lovely day and keep up the good work,

CEO Cleverism

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