A death occurs at home, in a hospital, on a street: why? As Jeffrey Jentzen reveals, we often never know. Why is the American system of death investigation so inconsistent and inadequate? What can the events of the assassination of President Kennedy, killing of Bobby Kennedy, and Chappaquiddick reveal about the state of death investigation?If communities in early America had a coroner at all, he was politically appointed and poorly trained. As medicine became more sophisticated and the medical profession more confident, physicians struggled to establish a professionalized, physician-led system of death investigation. The conflict between them and the coroners, as well as politicians and law enforcement agencies, led to the patchwork of local laws and practices that persist to this day.In this unique political and cultural history, Jentzen draws on archives, interviews, and his own career as a medical examiner to look at the way that a long-standing professional and political rivalry controls public medical knowledge and public health.
Contributors include patients, caretakers, physicians, journalists, lawyers, social workers, educators, hospital administrators, academics, psychologists, and a poet, and among them are ethicists, religious believers, and nonbelievers. Some write moving, personal accounts of "good" or 'bad" deaths; others examine the ethical, social, and political implications of slow dying. Essays consider death from natural causes, suicide, and aid-in-dying (assisted suicide).
Writing in a style free of technical jargon, the contributors discuss documents that should be prepared (health proxy, do-not-resuscitate order, living will, power of attorney); decision-making (over medical interventions, life support, hospice and palliative care, aid-in-dying, treatment location, speaking for those who can no longer express their will); and the roles played by religion, custom, family, friends, caretakers, money, the medical establishment, and the government.
For those who yearn for some measure of control over death, the essayists in Final Acts, from very different backgrounds and with different personal and professional experiences around death and dying, offer insight and hope.
The Japanese have ambivalent attitudes toward death, deeply rooted in pre-Buddhist traditions. In this scholarly but accessible work, authors Iwasaka and Toelken show that everyday beliefs and customs--particularly death traditions--offer special insight into the living culture of Japan.
From the early seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth century, the Tokugawa shogunate enacted and enforced myriad laws and ordinances to control nearly every aspect of Japanese life, including observance of a person’s death. In particular, the shoguns Tsunayoshi and Yoshimune issued strict decrees on mourning and abstention that dictated compliance throughout the land and survived the political upheaval of the Meiji Restoration to persist well into the twentieth century.Atsuko Hirai reveals the pivotal relationship between these shogunal edicts and the legitimacy of Tokugawa rule. By highlighting the role of narimono chojirei (injunctions against playing musical instruments) within their broader context, she shows how this class of legislation played an important integrative part in Japanese society not only through its comprehensive implementation, especially for national mourning of major political figures, but also by its codification of the religious beliefs and customs that the Japanese people had cherished for innumerable generations.
Kristine McCusker charts the dramatic transformation that took place when southerners in particular and Americans in general changed their thinking about when one should die, how that death could occur, and what decent burial really means. As she shows, death care evolved from being a community act to a commercial one where purchasing a purple coffin and hearse ride to the cemetery became a political statement and the norm. That evolution also required interactions between perfect strangers, especially during the world wars as families searched for their missing soldiers. In either case, being put away decent, as southerners called burial, came to mean something fundamentally different in 1955 than it had just fifty years earlier.
The essays address a wide array of Derrida’s concerns: human rights, justice, religion, the performative, “the gift of death,” mourning, and sovereignty. They often put Derrida’s texts in conjunction with the works of others—Wordsworth, Agamben, Schelling, and Benjamin, to name a few—that resonate with and on occasion resist Derrida’s own thinking and writing. One essay offers a reading of Wordsworth’s elegy “Distressful gift!” as a dialogue with questions posed by Derrida, using as its frame the kind of nonnormative mourning that Derrida advocated, together with a haunting analysis of the character of survival. Other essays look at Derrida’s theory of performativity as advanced in his late works, continuing his emphasis on the power of language, and in general they emulate his vigilance in attending to force and violence everywhere.
Contributors. Ian Balfour, David L. Clark, Mary Jacobus, David E. Johnson, David Lloyd, J. Hillis Miller, Marc Redfield, Rei Terada, Elisabeth Weber
An ethnographic exploration of technoscientific immortality
Immortality has long been considered the domain of religion. But immortality projects have gained increasing legitimacy and power in the world of science and technology. With recent rapid advances in biology, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence, secular immortalists hope for and work toward a future without death.
On Not Dying is an anthropological, historical, and philosophical exploration of immortality as a secular and scientific category. Based on an ethnography of immortalist communities—those who believe humans can extend their personal existence indefinitely through technological means—and an examination of other institutions involved at the end of life, Abou Farman argues that secular immortalism is an important site to explore the tensions inherent in secularism: how to accept death but extend life; knowing the future is open but your future is finite; that life has meaning but the universe is meaningless. As secularism denies a soul, an afterlife, and a cosmic purpose, conflicts arise around the relationship of mind and body, individual finitude and the infinity of time and the cosmos, and the purpose of life. Immortalism today, Farman argues, is shaped by these historical and culturally situated tensions. Immortalist projects go beyond extending life, confronting dualism and cosmic alienation by imagining (and producing) informatic selves separate from the biological body but connected to a cosmic unfolding.
On Not Dying interrogates the social implications of technoscientific immortalism and raises important political questions. Whose life will be extended? Will these technologies be available to all, or will they reproduce racial and geopolitical hierarchies? As human life on earth is threatened in the Anthropocene, why should life be extended, and what will that prolonged existence look like?
An award-winning exploration of the presence of the dead in the lives of the living
A common remedy after suffering the loss of a loved one is to progress through the “stages of grief,” with “acceptance” as the final stage in the process. But is it necessary to leave death behind, to stop dwelling on the dead, to get over the pain? Vinciane Despret thinks not. In her fascinating, elegantly translated book, this influential thinker argues that, in practice, people in all cultures continue to enjoy a lively, inventive, positive relationship with their dead.
Through her unique storytelling woven from ethnographic sources and her own family history, Despret assembles accounts of those who have found ways to live their daily lives with their dead. She rejects the idea that one must either subscribe to “complete mourning” (in a sense, to get rid of the dead) or else fall into fantasy and superstition. She explores instead how the dead still play an active, tangible role through those who are living, who might assume their place in a family or in society; continue their labor or art; or thrive from a shared inheritance or an organ donation. This is supported by dreams and voices, novels, television and popular culture, the work of clairvoyants, and the everyday stories and activities of the living. For decades now, in the West, the dead have been discreet and invisible. Today, especially as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, Despret suggests that perhaps we will be willing to engage with the dead in ways that bring us happiness despite our loss.
Despret’s unique method of inquiry makes her book both entertaining and instructive. Our Grateful Dead offers a new, pragmatic approach to social and cultural research and may indeed provide compassionate therapy for those of us coping with death.
What leads us to respond politically to the deaths of some citizens and not others? This is one of the critical questions Heather Pool asks in Political Mourning. Born out of her personal experiences with the trauma of 9/11, Pool’s astute book looks at how death becomes political, and how it can mobilize everyday citizens to argue for political change.
Pool examines four tragedies in American history—the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, the lynching of Emmett Till, the September 11 attacks, and the Black Lives Matter movement—that offered opportunities to tilt toward justice and democratic inclusion. Some of these opportunities were taken, some were not. However, these watershed moments show, historically, how political identity and political responsibility intersect and how racial identity shapes who is mourned. Political Mourning helps explain why Americans recognize the names of Trayvon Martin and Sandra Bland; activists took those cases public while many similar victims have been ignored by the news media.
Concluding with an afterword on the coronavirus, Pool emphasizes the importance of collective responsibility for justice and why we ought to respond to tragedy in ways that are more politically inclusive.
The Supreme Court has ruled that states may prohibit physician-assisted suicide. Expressing the views of his fellow justices, Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote, "Americans are engaged in an earnest and profound debate about the morality, legality, and practicality of physician-assisted suicide. Our holding permits this debate to continue." Regulating How We Die is certain to be a landmark contribution to that debate.Dr. Linda Emanuel--one of America's most influential medical ethicists--has assembled leading experts to provide not only a clear account of the arguments for and against physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia but also historical, empirical, and legal perspectives on this complicated issue. These contributors include Marcia Angell, George Annas, Susan Wolf, and many others.The important questions are addressed here, including: What does mercy dictate? Does physician-assisted suicide honor or violate autonomy? Is it more dignified than natural death? Is this decision purely a private matter? Will legalizing physician-assisted suicide put us on a slippery slope toward involuntary euthanasia? And, in an analysis of data not available in any other book, what can we learn from Holland, the only country in which physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia are legal?Regulating How We Die will be essential reading for anyone who has been handed a terminal diagnosis, for people close to those facing such a diagnosis, for professionals, including physicians, nurses, pastors, lawyers, legislators--indeed, for anyone who has considered the moral and political debate over doctor-assisted suicide.
A social history of death investigations in the urban Midwest
The scene of myriad grisly deaths, late nineteenth-century St. Louis was a hotbed for homicide, suicide, alcoholism, abortion, and workplace accidents. The role of the city’s Gilded Age coroners has not been fully examined, contextualized, or interrogated until now. Sarah E. Lirley investigates the process in which these outcomes were determined, finding coroners’ rulings were not uniform, but rather varied by who was conducting the inquest. These fascinating case studies explore the lives of the deceased, as well as their families, communities, press coverage of the events, and the coroners themselves.
Sudden Deaths in St. Louis is a study of 120 coroners’ inquests conducted between 1875 and 1885. Each chapter analyzes the typical versus the atypical in verdicts of death. At the time, inaccurate findings and cursory investigations fueled criticisms of coroner’s offices for employing poorly trained laymen. The coroners featured in this book had the power to shape public perception of the deceased, and they often relied on preexisting reputations to determine cause of death. For instance, women who worked as prostitutes were likely to be ruled as suicides, whether or not that was actually the case, and women who were respected members of their communities, particularly mothers, frequently received rulings of suicide caused by insanity. Verdicts also depended in part on availability of witnesses, including family members, to determine whether another person could be held liable for the death. Lirley’s book highlights the stories of ordinary men and women whose lives were tragically cut short, and the injustice they received even after death.
From antebellum slavery to the twenty-first century, African American funeral directors have orchestrated funerals or “homegoing” ceremonies with dignity and pageantry. As entrepreneurs in a largely segregated trade, they were among the few black individuals in any community who were economically independent and not beholden to the local white power structure. Most important, their financial freedom gave them the ability to support the struggle for civil rights and, indeed, to serve the living as well as bury the dead.During the Jim Crow era, black funeral directors relied on racial segregation to secure their foothold in America’s capitalist marketplace. With the dawning of the civil rights age, these entrepreneurs were drawn into the movement to integrate American society, but were also uncertain how racial integration would affect their business success. From the beginning, this tension between personal gain and community service shaped the history of African American funeral directing.For African Americans, death was never simply the end of life, and funerals were not just places to mourn. In the “hush harbors” of the slave quarters, African Americans first used funerals to bury their dead and to plan a path to freedom. Similarly, throughout the long—and often violent—struggle for racial equality in the twentieth century, funeral directors aided the cause by honoring the dead while supporting the living. To Serve the Living offers a fascinating history of how African American funeral directors have been integral to the fight for freedom.
Assisted suicide remains one of the most emotionally charged and controversial topics—and the issue isn’t going away any time soon. As the baby boomer generation ages, many of us will watch as our parents—and ourselves—grow older, and wonder at the decisions that lie ahead.
Understanding Assisted Suicide provides both a fresh take on this important topic and the framework for intelligent participation in the discussion. Uniquely, the author frames the issue using his own experience watching both his parents die, which led him to ask fundamental questions about death, dying, religion, and the role of medicine and technology in alleviating human suffering.
In concerns about assisted suicide, each person’s “big picture” has largely been created out of picking and choosing from nine separate snapshot albums.
Understanding this offers a perspective for quickly determining the sources of another’s opinion on assisted suicide, as well as the issues they are not considering. Most importantly, Understanding Assisted Suicide offers a clear, easy-to-traverse landscape over which those who are sincerely looking for their own answers can navigate. The “nine-issue structure” allows both careful exploration of separate issues and a view of the full spectrum of ideas involved.
This insightful study examines the deeply personal and heart-wrenching tensions among financial considerations, emotional attachments, and moral arguments that motivate end-of-life decisions.America’s health care system was built on the principle that life should be prolonged whenever possible, regardless of the costs. This commitment has often meant that patients spend their last days suffering from heroic interventions that extend their life by only weeks or months. Increasingly, this approach to end-of-life care is coming under scrutiny, from a moral as well as a financial perspective. Sociologist Roi Livne documents the rise and effectiveness of hospice and palliative care, and growing acceptance of the idea that a life consumed by suffering may not be worth living.Values at the End of Life combines an in-depth historical analysis with an extensive study conducted in three hospitals, where Livne observed terminally ill patients, their families, and caregivers negotiating treatment. Livne describes the ambivalent, conflicted moments when people articulate and act on their moral intuitions about dying. Interviews with medical staff allowed him to isolate the strategies clinicians use to help families understand their options. As Livne discovered, clinicians are advancing the idea that invasive, expensive hospital procedures often compound a patient’s suffering. Affluent, educated families were more readily persuaded by this moral calculus than those of less means.Once defiant of death—or even in denial—many American families and professionals in the health care system are beginning to embrace the notion that less treatment in the end may be better treatment.
What can a cemetery tell us about the social and cultural dynamics of a place and time? Anthropologist Alison Bell suggests that cemeteries participate in the grassroots cultural work of crafting social connections, even as they test the transcendental durability of the deceased person and provide a measure of a culture’s values. In The Vital Dead, Bell applies this framework to the communities of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley and the cemeteries that have both claimed them and, paradoxically, sustained them.
Bell surveys objects left on graves, images and epitaphs on grave markers, and other artifacts of material culture to suggest a landscape of symbols maintaining relationships across the threshold of death. She explores cemetery practice and its transformation over time and largely presents her interpretations as a struggle against alienation. Rich in evocative examples both contemporary and historical, Bell’s analysis stems from fieldwork interviews, archival sources, and recent anthropological theory. The book’s chapters range across cemetery types, focusing on African American burials, the grave sites of institutionalized individuals, and modern community memorials. Ultimately, The Vital Dead is an account of how lives, both famous and forgotten, become transformed and energized through the communities and things they leave behind to produce profound and unexpected narratives of mortality. Bell’s deft storytelling coupled with skill for scholarly analysis make for a fascinating and emotionally moving read.
Groundbreaking in its approach, The Vital Dead makes important contributions to cemetery and material culture studies, as well as the fields of anthropology, archaeology, history, geography, and folklore.
Soldier, hero, and politician, the Duke of Wellington is one of the best-known figures of nineteenth-century England. From his victory at Waterloo over Napoleon in 1815, he rose to become prime minister of his country. But Peter Sinnema finds equal fascination in Victorian England’s response to the duke’s death.
The Wake of Wellington considers Wellington’s spectacular funeral pageant in the fall of 1852—an unprecedented event that attracted one and a half million spectators to London—as a threshold event against which the life of the soldier-hero and High Tory statesman could be re-viewed and represented.
Canvassing a profuse and dramatically proliferating Wellingtoniana, Sinnema examines the various assumptions behind, and implications of, the Times’s celebrated claim that the Irish-born Wellington “was the very type and model of an Englishman.” The dead duke, as Sinnema demonstrates, was repeatedly caught up in interpretive practices that stressed the quasi-symbolic relations between hero and nation.
The Wake of Wellington provides a unique view of how in death Wellington and his career were promoted as the consummation of a national destiny intimately bound up with Englishness itself, and with what it meant to be English at midcentury.
Winner of the 2020 Victor Turner Prize in Ethnographic WritingNearly 1,600 Americans are still unaccounted for and presumed dead from the Vietnam War. These are the stories of those who mourn and continue to search for them.For many families the Vietnam War remains unsettled. Nearly 1,600 Americans—and more than 300,000 Vietnamese—involved in the conflict are still unaccounted for. In What Remains, Sarah E. Wagner tells the stories of America’s missing service members and the families and communities that continue to search for them. From the scientists who work to identify the dead using bits of bone unearthed in Vietnamese jungles to the relatives who press government officials to find the remains of their loved ones, Wagner introduces us to the men and women who seek to bring the missing back home. Through their experiences she examines the ongoing toll of America’s most fraught war.Every generation has known the uncertainties of war. Collective memorials, such as the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery, testify to the many service members who never return, their fates still unresolved. But advances in forensic science have provided new and powerful tools to identify the remains of the missing, often from the merest trace—a tooth or other fragment. These new techniques have enabled military experts to recover, repatriate, identify, and return the remains of lost service members. So promising are these scientific developments that they have raised the expectations of military families hoping to locate their missing. As Wagner shows, the possibility of such homecomings compels Americans to wrestle anew with their memories, as with the weight of their loved ones’ sacrifices, and to reevaluate what it means to wage war and die on behalf of the nation.
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