Death as a Social and Biological Process

For over half a century in Western Europe and America, the subject of ‘death’ retains its position in biologically and socially blurred territories; defined and handled by hospitals, medicine, the law and undertakers, as opposed to the individual (Walter, 1991; p293). The dichotomy between ‘the individual’ and the ethics and principals belonging to said individual, facilitate a dark and often dissociative response, away from ritual and our ability to catalyse it (Walter, 1991; p295). Death is medically defined as a brain stem death, but new research is pushing scientists to re-examine consciousness. Individuals often report of contact with past selves and near-death experiences (Van Lommel, 2006; p134) (Straight, 2006; p106). Anthropologists and sociologists have sought to decalcify death, amongst the backdrop of societies and cultures. They reflect the spectrum of death practices: effigy in Eastern Indonesia, to individuals in India engaging with their former life families (Swazey, 2013) (Straight, 2006; p101). In contrast to the numerous ways that ‘primitive’ cultures often find to engage with death, many in modern Western society have trouble facing the reality of their own mortality; overwhelmed and seeking to escape in private (Walter, 1991; p296). There are a plethora of sources available to aid the understanding death, whether it be ritual, art or therapy, online and offline (Falconer et al., 2011).
 The ‘death taboo’, as Gorer (1955; p450) haunts, the 20th century taboo seldom allowed depictions of the death-bed, “I cannot recollect a novel or play of the last twenty years or so that has a death-bed in it”. Tercier (2013; p231), states that “Most adults between the ages of eighteen and forty have never stood at a deathbed”. The reverberation in media is tangible, from American fictional drama series “Six Feet Under” (HBO, 2006) about a family of undertakers, to the national news, are testimony to this. However, Doughty (2015) created an online channel in 2011 to dispel negativity, as well as provide answers in, ‘Ask a Mortician’, which gained over 200.000 views, it’s clear that the realities of death should be more informative and accessible. (Death Cafe, 2010).

Despite death being sensationalised, a reduced participation in the death of another still remains in the UK and America today. Doughty (2015; p232) an alternative undertaker says “A culture that denies death is a barrier to achieving a good death”. ‘Taboo or not Taboo?’ (Walter, 1991) Is not the question, but answers can be found in the disparate, cultural perspectives of the past, which allow us to relate to both the biological and social processes presented to us in contemporary society, therefore, we must mitigate our fears surrounding the topic, explore the multiple discourses and utilise our experiences with death constructively to create a ‘good death’ for ourselves and for those we love. (Doughty, 2015). Becoming biologically acquainted with death’s inevitability and revising the laws surrounding birth and mortality to reflect our evolving climates is essential. Contemporary systems in place to navigate the taboo imbued subject of death present malignancy. The death-with-dignity movement: proponents of euthanasia for the terminally ill seek to advocate this necessary cause. Doughty believes that “The way we treat the dead body in our culture has a great influence on the way we think about the care of an individual close to the end of life, be it our loved ones or ourselves” (Mead et al., 2015). Hence, there is no doubt that fears surrounding the unknown nature of dead are perpetuated by media; this shows a need to move away from prescribed notions of death, research alternative therapies and implement new philosophies that are relevant to the individual by present standards.

In Britain in the 1990’s, Walter (1991) dissected Gorer’s perspective on the symptoms of taboo. ‘In The Pornography of Death’ he contrasts Victorian sensibilities to 1950’s America. Walter (1991), provided updated modifications for debate. Walter demonstrated that Gorer’s gaze was transfixed on death, juxtaposing his understanding of America, at that time with pre-Victorian society. Walter (1991; p302) argued that it was not indicative of society then or now, nor are they indicative of the individual. He says, they are restricted to particular ‘occupational’ factions in society, such as: public hospitals and the media. “Doctors and public health officials, however, are dedicated to keeping people alive and healthy, so death represents failure for them”. Death is a natural causality of existence despite efforts to evade and prolong it with medicine. It is futile to challenge the taboo whilst people still suffer; the implications of grief can have profound repercussions on the living (Straight, 2006; p102). Modern societies look to the ease of the state, hospital and undertaker to take care of death (Walter, 1991; p300). Therefore, it should be the individuals duty to attempt to internally process and define death socially and biologically. It appears that there are people in the modern realm, like Doughty (2015) willing to bring death, with humility, to the surface (Mead et al., 2015).

Current and previous social conditioning makes this facet of life difficult and uncomfortable to verbalise. (Gorer, 1991; p50). Gorer, spoke of death and distinguished it as the subsequent result of the pre-Victorian mentality. “Copulation and birth pornography” which illuminated conservative ideals and a reduction of conversation. However, Walter (1991) negates this with his interpretation of research he conducted for a book on funerals. “… many of my middle aged, middle class friends, family and neighbours volunteering a direct and personal interest”. Irrespective of time, both men dualistically illustrate the complexities inherent in trying to understand death. John Tercier (2013; p221) pertains that Gorer (1955) neglected to mention that ‘pornography’ exists in the multi-discplines of art, which could be perceived as a self expressive and therapeutic practice today. Rich tapestries hang in famous institutions, housing examples of the most erotic of art and vivid portrayals of grief. Our ethics and discussion regarding death in the modern age demands a social and biological shift that will help fossilise our understanding through rituals such as observing and making art. To support this idea, de Botton (2001) remarks, artists and philosophers “are object versions of our own pains and struggles, evoked and defined in sound, language or image … (they) show us what we have felt, they present our experiences more poignantly and intelligently than we have been able … They explain our condition to us, and thereby help us to be less lonely with, and confused by it … In their different ways, art and philosophy help us, in Schopenhauer’s words, to turn pain into knowledge.”
 Through “memory work”, to absorb or extinguish the dead (Straight, 2006 p;101), we can attempt to find understanding, despite “the entangled agencies of the living and the dead”. This may be true of cultures such as that in Kenya, where Straight visited her friend who experienced a devastating stillbirth in 2003. Without physician assistance, farmers delivered her son, but he died soon after. The friend still spoke about her grief a year later. The death would be “remembered privately” and “collectively forgotten”. However, the baby’s burial was subsumed into the woman’s cooking hearth, symbolic of fertility. (Ronnberg et al., 2010 p678–791). This symbolic ritual is mostly removed from modern societies, burial and memorial still take place, yet there has been an increase in cremation in the U.S., sometimes without memorial. The industrialisation of the funeral and undertaking services have forged an unaffordable dynamic to the average American, hence the popularity of cremation (Mead et al., 2015; p11).
 Denial is apparent and is a preventative in acknowledging when it is acceptable to die. We rely on euphemistic ways of dealing with the elderly, geriatric care is often an underpaid profession and evidence of the maltreatment of elderly patients is often reported (Doughty, 2015). Dementia and other terminal illnesses dictate the lives of the aging. Doughty (2015; p221) uses the term “aggressively elderly” to describe over eighty-five year olds; the most rapidly emergent part of the Western population. The influx of patients undergoing procedures and surviving is so frequent that the occurrence of near-death experiences continues to rise. Jon Hopkins University School of Medicine facilitated a study of cancer patients and psilocybin (Skurie et al., 2016). Patients felt renewed in their acceptance of their death; it is no wonder that there is still widespread use of ancient sacred plants across indigenous tribes (Schultes at al., 1996; p28). The following studies indicate the similarities between the interchangeable aspects of consciousness: “The interconnectedness with this enhanced conciousness can be experienced during critical medical situations (a NDE)… meditation or deep relaxation (enlightened experience)… regression therapy, hypnosis, isolation or the use of drugs like LSD or during the terminal phase of life (death-bed vision)” (Van Lommel, 2006; p148–149). Amendments of laws, medical frameworks, media interpretations and individual perceptions are a potential requirement before death because it is unknown if it will ever truly be demystified. The attainment of ontological perceptions on the deathbed or the consumption of sacred substances yields brave realisations in the face of death.
 To conclude, the typical taboo of death can be changed in order to be applied constructively. From ritual via the internet to memorialisation, art and open discussion we can perhaps transcend this globalist paradigm, calming the proverbial death nerve dualistically in order to achieve a modern “…Order of The Good Death”. Through this bid to understand death socially and biologically we may find our sense of self (Doughty, 2015).


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