kottke.org posts about death

Lessons from the deadJun 06 2012

A wonderful comment over at Ask Metafilter by rumposinc about how valuable her nursing school cadaver was.

You have to take really exceptional care of your cadaver, so that it stays workable, free of pathogens, and easy to learn from. Towards the end, this care became very ritualistic for my lab team, and nearly reverent. She had been a very small lady, and so we had to be so careful. In the end, there is a very simple ceremony students can attend honoring the life, contribution, and cremation of our subjects. It was overwhelmingly emotional and I remember my lab partner reached over and held my hand, and though I almost hesitate to say so, there is a way that we felt like her family. She had shared so much of herself. It wasn't something we talked about, but it was a palpable feeling.

(via ★choire)

The rollercoaster of compassionate deathFeb 24 2012

The Euthanasia Coaster is designed to thrill the hell out of its passengers just before it kills them.

Death Coaster

Each inversion would have a smaller diameter than the one before in order to inflict 10 g to passengers while the train loses speed. After a sharp right-hand turn the train would enter a straight, where unloading of bodies and loading of passengers could take place.

The Euthanasia Coaster would kill its passengers through prolonged cerebral hypoxia, or insufficient supply of oxygen to the brain. The ride's seven inversions would inflict 10 g on its passengers for 60 seconds -- causing g-force related symptoms starting with gray out through tunnel vision to black out and eventually g-LOC, g-force induced loss of consciousness. Depending on the tolerance of an individual passenger to g-forces, the first or second inversion would cause cerebral anoxia, rendering the passengers brain dead. Subsequent inversions would serve as insurance against unintentional survival of passengers.

More information on the project is here.

All she wants is a goddamn ride on my motorcycleJan 24 2012

Before he died last year at the age of 44, Mike DeStefano shared the story of his wife's final days many years earlier. She's in hospice care, DeStefano shows up with his new Harley and takes her for a ride, morphine drip and all.

She's holding the pole [of the IV drip]! Marc, it was a pole with four wheels on the bottom, and we're riding around this hospice, and you could hear the goddamn wheels jangling and banging; it was insane.

And then I pass the front door, and all these nurses are standing out front, and they're all crying. They're watching us, and they're crying. And I didn't know why they were crying. I was like, Why are they crying? I didn't get what they were seeing. I didn't know. Because I was just in it; I was living it. I knew my wife who had suffered, she was a prostitute, she was a freakin' heroin addict, she was beaten by pimps -- this was her past -- and then she ends up with AIDS, and she's dying, and all she wants is a goddamn ride on my motorcycle.

So the next thing you know we're on I-95, because women, it's never enough for them. We're on I-95, and she unhooks the pole, and she's holding the morphine bag over her head with her gown that's flying up in the air so you could see her entire naked, bony body with the morphine bag whipping in the wind, and we're passing by these guys in their Lamborghinis, and I'm looking at them like, What the hell kind of life are you living? Look at me, I'm on top of the world here.

I love this story. The podcast from which it was taken is available here.

How doctors dieJan 03 2012

According to Dr. Ken Murray, doctors don't die like the rest of us.

It's not a frequent topic of discussion, but doctors die, too. And they don't die like the rest of us. What's unusual about them is not how much treatment they get compared to most Americans, but how little. For all the time they spend fending off the deaths of others, they tend to be fairly serene when faced with death themselves. They know exactly what is going to happen, they know the choices, and they generally have access to any sort of medical care they could want. But they go gently.

Of course, doctors don't want to die; they want to live. But they know enough about modern medicine to know its limits. And they know enough about death to know what all people fear most: dying in pain, and dying alone. They've talked about this with their families. They want to be sure, when the time comes, that no heroic measures will happen-that they will never experience, during their last moments on earth, someone breaking their ribs in an attempt to resuscitate them with CPR (that's what happens if CPR is done right).

People don't know how to die anymore...advances in technology and medicine have lulled us into believing we can fix anything that's wrong with our bodies, pain and expense be damned. And sometimes we can and do, and it's that "what if" that makes it so difficult when thinking about what to do.

Mushroom death suitJul 27 2011

Mushroom Death Suit

Jae Rhim Lee is growing mushrooms that will eat her body after she dies. She has also designed a special suit that will house the mushrooms as they do their work.

I am interested in cultural death denial, and why we are so distanced from our bodies, and especially how death denial leads to funeral practices that harm the environment -- using formaldehyde and pink make-up and all that to make your loved one look vibrant and alive, so that you can imagine they're just sleeping rather than actually dead. The US government recently upgraded formaldehyde from a probable carcinogen to a known carcinogen, so by trying to preserve the body we poison the living.

So I was thinking, what is the antidote to that? For me the answer was this mushroom - the Infinity Mushroom. It is a symbol of a new way of thinking about death.

Lou Gehrig and how to dieJul 11 2011

Dudley Clendinen has ALS, aka Lou Gehrig's disease, and has a short time to live. Which is fine by him; he's got a plan.

There is no meaningful treatment. No cure. There is one medication, Rilutek, which might make a few months' difference. It retails for about $14,000 a year. That doesn't seem worthwhile to me. If I let this run the whole course, with all the human, medical, technological and loving support I will start to need just months from now, it will leave me, in 5 or 8 or 12 or more years, a conscious but motionless, mute, withered, incontinent mummy of my former self. Maintained by feeding and waste tubes, breathing and suctioning machines.

No, thank you. I hate being a drag. I don't think I'll stick around for the back half of Lou.

I think it's important to say that. We obsess in this country about how to eat and dress and drink, about finding a job and a mate. About having sex and children. About how to live. But we don't talk about how to die. We act as if facing death weren't one of life's greatest, most absorbing thrills and challenges. Believe me, it is. This is not dull. But we have to be able to see doctors and machines, medical and insurance systems, family and friends and religions as informative - not governing - in order to be free.

And that's the point. This is not about one particular disease or even about Death. It's about Life, when you know there's not much left. That is the weird blessing of Lou. There is no escape, and nothing much to do. It's liberating.

The theater of illnessAug 13 2010

Roger Ebert on Christopher Hitchens, illness, medicine, religion, and death:

He was in the hands of medicine. He was hopeful but realistic. He will come to feel increasingly like a member of the audience in the theater of his own illness. I've been there. There were times when I seemed to have nothing to do with it. One night, unable to speak, I caught the eye of a nurse through my open door and pointed to the blood leaking from my hospital gown. She pushed a panic button and my bed was surrounded by an emergency team, the duty physician pushing his fingers with great force against my carotid artery to halt the bleeding. I was hoisted on my sheet over to a gurney, and raced to the OR. "Move it, people," he shouted. "We're going to lose this man."

Anderson Cooper asked Hitchens whether he'd been moved by the prayer groups supporting him to pray himself:

"No, that's all meaningless to me. I don't think souls or bodies can be changed by incantation." There was a catch in his voice, and the slightest hint of tears. That was the moment -- not the cancer or the dying -- that got to me. Prayer groups also prayed for me, and I was grateful and moved. It isn't the sad people in movies who make me cry, it's the good ones.

Hitchens added that if there should be reports of his deathbed conversion, they would be reports of a man "irrational and babbling with pain." As long as he retains his thinking ability, he said, there will be no conversion to belief in God. This is what I expected him to say. Deathbed conversions have always seemed to me like a Hail Mary Pass, proving nothing about religion and much about desperation.

I wrote this at Snarkmarket at the beginning of the week:

Recent efforts by Tony Judt, Christopher Hitchens, Atul Gawande, following on slightly older ones by Joan Didion and Phillip Roth, make me wonder whether we've achieved a new breakthrough in our ability to write about death -- perhaps especially protracted death, death within the context of medical treatment, in a secular context, which as Gawande reminds us, is comparatively new and certainly much more common.

Here's the section of Gawande's recent New Yorker essay I was thinking of:

For all but our most recent history, dying was typically a brief process. Whether the cause was childhood infection, difficult childbirth, heart attack, or pneumonia, the interval between recognizing that you had a life-threatening ailment and death was often just a matter of days or weeks... [A]s the end-of-life researcher Joanne Lynn has observed, people usually experienced life-threatening illness the way they experienced bad weather--as something that struck with little warning--and you either got through it or you didn't.

An unexpected cost of the secularization/medicalization of death is that we lose the language we need to talk our way through it:

Dying used to be accompanied by a prescribed set of customs. Guides to ars moriendi, the art of dying, were extraordinarily popular; a 1415 medieval Latin text was reprinted in more than a hundred editions across Europe. Reaffirming one's faith, repenting one's sins, and letting go of one's worldly possessions and desires were crucial, and the guides provided families with prayers and questions for the dying in order to put them in the right frame of mind during their final hours. Last words came to hold a particular place of reverence.

These days, swift catastrophic illness is the exception; for most people, death comes only after long medical struggle with an incurable condition--advanced cancer, progressive organ failure (usually the heart, kidney, or liver), or the multiple debilities of very old age. In all such cases, death is certain, but the timing isn't. So everyone struggles with this uncertainty--with how, and when, to accept that the battle is lost.

That's one of the stunning things about Gawande's essay -- how much of what it describes is a failure of language. No one can speak, at least directly; we can only watch.

Americans don't know how to dieJul 29 2010

Atul Gawande's articles on healthcare for the New Yorker are all top-shelf, but his most recent piece on modern medicine's difficulty in dealing with patients who are likely to die is a doozy and a must-read.

Almost all these patients had known, for some time, that they had a terminal condition. Yet they-along with their families and doctors-were unprepared for the final stage. "We are having more conversation now about what patients want for the end of their life, by far, than they have had in all their lives to this point," my friend said. "The problem is that's way too late." In 2008, the national Coping with Cancer project published a study showing that terminally ill cancer patients who were put on a mechanical ventilator, given electrical defibrillation or chest compressions, or admitted, near death, to intensive care had a substantially worse quality of life in their last week than those who received no such interventions. And, six months after their death, their caregivers were three times as likely to suffer major depression. Spending one's final days in an I.C.U. because of terminal illness is for most people a kind of failure. You lie on a ventilator, your every organ shutting down, your mind teetering on delirium and permanently beyond realizing that you will never leave this borrowed, fluorescent place. The end comes with no chance for you to have said goodbye or "It's O.K." or "I'm sorry" or "I love you."

Warning: it's good, but you'll probably be crying by the end of this article.

After enough erosion you get touristsJan 15 2010

Paul Ford is asked if there is an afterlife and he replies with a thoughtful non-answer answer.

Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking couldn't throw away her dead husband's shoes, for fear that he'd need them when he returned. After my grandfather died I used to fantasize that I could call him and he would answer. "Hey buddy," he'd say. "I was just thinking of you." But they changed the area code for that part of Pennsylvania, from 215 to 610, sold the house, and got rid of his clothes.

How to avoid an untimely deathNov 10 2009

Number one on the list is "drive the biggest vehicle you can afford to drive". And #10:

If anyone tries to force you into your car or car trunk at gun point, don't cooperate. Fight and scream all you can even if you risk getting shot in the parking lot. If you get in the car, you will most likely die (or worse).

The author calls this "Black Swan avoidance". (via lone gunman)

An abundance of deathAug 18 2009

Joanne McNeil on The Daily Death:

In the future, a famous person will die every fifteen minutes. Already it's happening. The ascent of the microcelebrities, the 24 hour news cycle, citizen journalism, and our darkest fantasies all collide on Twitter now. The website's rhetorical question "What are you doing?" sometimes feels more like "Who died today?"

I wrote about something similar a few years ago in a post called Death in the celebrity age:

Chances are in 15-20 years, someone famous whose work you enjoyed or whom you admired or who had a huge influence on who you are as a person will die each day...and probably even more than one a day. And that's just you...many other famous people will have died that day who mean something to other people. Will we all just be in a constant state of mourning? Will the NY Times national obituary section swell to 30 pages a day? As members of the human species, we're used to dealing with the death of people we "know" in amounts in the low hundreds over the course of a lifetime. With higher life expectancies and the increased number of people known to each of us (particularly in the hypernetworked part of the world), how are we going to handle it when several thousand people we know die over the course of our lifetime?

The population pyramid for who the average American knows (or knows of enough to care) probably looks something like this:

Celebrity Population Pyramid

That's a lot of future death.

Update: On Twitter, Kurt Anderson quoted David Kipen:

Baby Boomers have created so many celebrities that, in the future, somebody famous will die every fifteen minutes.

Update: The NY Times has a slightly different take on the recent rash of celebrity death:

This summer could come to be known as the summer when baby boomers began to turn to the obituary pages first, to face not merely their own mortality or ponder their legacies, but to witness the passing of legends who defined them as a tribe, bequeathing through music, culture, news and politics a kind of generational badge that has begun to fray.

Observation of deathJul 24 2009

Over the course of my life, I've probably seen 10,000+ people die, right in front of me. Ok, sure, they all died on TV & movie screens -- never in real life. But after you've seen so much fake dying, you start to wonder: how realistic are these deaths? Hence my interest in this report from a Dr Beaurieux who witnessed the execution by decapitation of a man named Languille in 1905. The article and excerpt below are graphic, so tread lightly if you're bothered by that sort of thing.

It was then that I called in a strong, sharp voice: "Languille!" I saw the eyelids slowly lift up, without any spasmodic contractions -- I insist advisedly on this peculiarity -- but with an even movement, quite distinct and normal, such as happens in everyday life, with people awakened or torn from their thoughts. Next Languille's eyes very definitely fixed themselves on mine and the pupils focused themselves. I was not, then, dealing with the sort of vague dull look without any expression, that can be observed any day in dying people to whom one speaks: I was dealing with undeniably living eyes which were looking at me.

(via constant siege)

Death by kisses, an unusual tombstoneOct 10 2008

After posting about the Metropolitan Life Tower the other day, I was looking through some recent email and discovered one from a week ago that by chance contained a very unusual story about the building. Filmmaker Pes was researching for a film in Woodlawn Cemetery when he came across the odd tombstone of a 15-year-old boy who had died on his birthday:

LOST LIFE BY STAB IN FALLING ON
INK ERASER, EVADING SIX YOUNG
WOMEN TRYING TO GIVE HIM
BIRTHDAY KISSES IN OFFICE
METROPOLITAN LIFE BUILDING

A NY Times story from February 16, 1909, Stabbed to Death in Office Frolic, reveals how George Millitt died.

Yesterday he came down and remarked that it was the anniversary of the wreck of the Maine. He explained that he knew it because the ship had been blown up on his birthday and that he was 15 yesterday.

At once the girls began to tease him. They told him that on such an occasion he desereved a kiss, and every one of them vowed that as soon as office hours were over she would kiss him once for every year that he had lived. He laughingly declared that not a girl should get near him, and was teased about it all day.

As 4:30 o'clock came, and the boy's work was over, the girls made a rush for him. They tried to hem him in, and he tried to break their line. Suddenly he reeled and fell, crying as he did so.

"I'm stabbed!"

A blade used for scraping ink was in Millitt's breast pocket and caused the mortal wound. (thx, amid)

How to embalm a dead bodyOct 08 2008

An editor from The Morning News goes to a mortuary and learns how to embalm a dead body.

"Once I worked on an old man with a really bad moustache, like the kind a teenager would grow. It was really crooked and misshapen, so I shaved it off. At the funeral his family kept coming up saying, 'Oh, where's his moustache?' Apparently, it was supposed to look that way."

The closer to its living self a body looked, the happier a family would be. And keeping families happy, I'd learn as the night went on, was the main objective of Carla's work, and a task she took very seriously.

Apparently watching every episode of Six Feet Under does not prepare you to be a funeral director.

Gravestone motif analysisSep 02 2008

An analysis of the three major types of gravestone motifs used in eastern Massachusetts during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The earliest of the three is a winged death's head, with blank eyes and a grinning visage. Earlier versions are quite ornate, but as time passes, they become less elaborate. Sometime during the eighteenth century -- the time varies according to location -- the grim death's head designs are replaced, more or less quickly, by winged cherubs. This design also goes through a gradual simplification of form with time. By the late 1700's or early 1800's, again depending on where you are observing, the cherubs are replaced by stones decorated with a willow tree overhanging a pedestaled urn.

Pay special attention to the graph of the popularity of each motif and the slideshow of example gravestones. (thx, peterme)

Update: A reader writes in:

In regards to your post on Gravestone Motif Analysis, I think that the most important text on the subject is still Graven Images: New England Stonecarving and its Symbols, 1650-1815 by Allen Ludwig. It was originally published in 1966, before the article that you linked to. However, Wesleyan University Press published a new edition in 2000 to help meet the rising demands of Material Culture Studies courses. Lots of helpful images and histograms showing the changing patterns of gravestones over that time period.

I *love* that the collective readership of this site knows what the definitive text on New England gravestone carving is. (big thx, fletcher)

A collection of pairs of photos, oneApr 01 2008

A collection of pairs of photos, one taken just before a person's death and one after. I wish they displayed the pairs side-by-side.

Quick hitter from Radiolab as a previewFeb 13 2008

Quick hitter from Radiolab as a preview of the new season: composer David Lang talks about a piece of music he made for a morgue. Appropriate listening for the crappy rainy day here in NYC. Hopefully the weather will be better for Radiolab's live premiere of their fourth season on Feb 21 at the Angelika.

How does it feel to die? NewOct 12 2007

How does it feel to die? New Scientist looks at several different ways to die, such as hanging, drowning, heart attack, and fire.

Oscar the CatSep 11 2007

Oscar the cat lives at the Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Providence, Rhode Island. According to an article in the New England Journal of Medicine, Oscar possesses a peculiar talent...he knows when the residents there are going to die and curls up with them for comfort before they pass.

Making his way back up the hallway, Oscar arrives at Room 313. The door is open, and he proceeds inside. Mrs. K. is resting peacefully in her bed, her breathing steady but shallow. She is surrounded by photographs of her grandchildren and one from her wedding day. Despite these keepsakes, she is alone. Oscar jumps onto her bed and again sniffs the air. He pauses to consider the situation, and then turns around twice before curling up beside Mrs. K.

One hour passes. Oscar waits. A nurse walks into the room to check on her patient. She pauses to note Oscar's presence. Concerned, she hurriedly leaves the room and returns to her desk. She grabs Mrs. K.'s chart off the medical-records rack and begins to make phone calls.

Within a half hour the family starts to arrive. Chairs are brought into the room, where the relatives begin their vigil. The priest is called to deliver last rites. And still, Oscar has not budged, instead purring and gently nuzzling Mrs. K. A young grandson asks his mother, "What is the cat doing here?" The mother, fighting back tears, tells him, "He is here to help Grandma get to heaven." Thirty minutes later, Mrs. K. takes her last earthly breath. With this, Oscar sits up, looks around, then departs the room so quietly that the grieving family barely notices.

rating: 4.0 stars

The BridgeMay 02 2006

Having lived in San Francisco, I've walked across the Golden Gate Bridge and driven across it countless times. The bridge is a nearly perfect metaphor for what some people go there to do. The view on a clear day into the city, the red painted cables glowing in the sun, the sudden way the fog comes in off the ocean to envelop the bridge, the path from the cold city to the warmth of Marin County. Death too is beautiful, dramatic, mysterious, abrupt, and an escape to another place.

In The Bridge, a film about the Golden Gate and suicide, director Eric Steel makes effective use of the bridge's imagery and its relation to death; you can see why so many people choose to end their lives there. The footage he and his crew got is astounding at times...families discuss the death of a loved one while that same person is shown pacing back and forth on the bridge, thinking, waiting. You see a group of police officers, looking almost bored (which was probably hyper-aware nonchalance), talking a man back over the railing.

And yet, I can't tell if that footage actually added anything to the discussion of the issues of mental illness, depression, and coping which were at the heart of many of the jumpers' problems. Does watching death make it any more understandable to family members. To audience members? The footage doesn't say why, it just shows us how, and those aren't quite the same things.

Here's an earlier post on The Bridge, a graph of suicides by location on the Bridge, and the New Yorker article by Tad Friend that inspired the film.

Controversy over The BridgeMay 01 2006

One of the films premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival is The Bridge, a documentary by Eric Steel about suicide and the Golden Gate Bridge. The trailer is available on the festival site but be warned that it contains actual footage of people climbing over the railing of the bridge to commit suicide.

The Bridge was inspired by a 2003 New Yorker story by Tad Friend called Jumpers, a piece about suicide and the bridge. The subject of suicide is often not discussed in the media. Self-inflicted deaths aren't usually reported in the newspapers or on TV. Suicide prevention activists caution against suicide contagion due to media exposure of individual suicides leading to copycat deaths.

But that's just the start of the controversy surrounding the film. In order to secure a permit to shoot the Golden Gate (which he did for the entirety of 2004, amassing almost 10,000 hours of footage), Steel said he was shooting footage to capture "the powerful, spectacular intersection of monument and nature that takes place every day at the Golden Gate Bridge". He says he lied to discourage people to seek out his cameras to immortalize their deaths on film, but it's also true that Golden Gate National Recreation Area officials certainly wouldn't have given him a permit to film suicides.

Steel interviewed family members of the jumpers without disclosing that he'd filmed the death of their loved ones (again to avoid publicity for the filming and the death immortalization problem). Some family members felt manipulated by the omission when they learned of it.

Then there's the matter of the filming itself. The film crew's basic job description was to wait for people to die...they needed people to die for their film. If there's no good footage of people jumping, there's no film. Without too much trouble, you can imagine Steel instructing his crew to shoot the next one at a wider angle, the crew refining their techniques for catching the jumpers on film, and the mixture of excitement, dread, and the satisfaction of a job well done when they catch a jumper on film. But the crew was also trained in suicide prevention and intervened in several attempts. And listening to Steel talk about the film, it obviously wasn't meant to be Faces of Death Part XII.

Here are a few more articles on The Bridge:

- Film documenting Golden Gate Bridge suicides premieres, San Jose Mercury News
- Golden Gate star of dark documentary, San Francisco Chronicle
- Man Survives Suicide Jump From Golden Gate Bridge, ABC News

There's nothing good about the shooting ofDec 08 2005

There's nothing good about the shooting of airline passenger Rigoberto Alpizar by air marshals. Guns on airplanes -- I don't care who's wielding them under what authority -- is a bad idea; some alternative thinking is needed.

Graph of suicides by location off theNov 03 2005

Graph of suicides by location off the Golden Gate Bridge. This is a fascinating graph. More overall deaths on the SF half than the Marin half and way more on the bay side. A lot of people walked pretty far before jumping. And lightpost 69...it looks to be about halfway between the towers...lots of symbolism there for the jumpers.

I'm in luck because it would takeAug 19 2005

I'm in luck because it would take more than 260 cans of Pepsi to ingest enough caffeine to kill me. How much of your favorite beverage can you drink before suffering death by caffeine?

An ethical will is a good wayAug 10 2005

An ethical will is a good way to pass on your values to your descendants. Here's a template and some advice to get you started.

Death in the celebrity ageJun 30 2005

Are you worried about the future glut of obituaries in national newspapers? Because I sure am. Think about it: because of our networked world and mass media, there are so many more nationally known people than there were 30, 40, or 50 years ago. Fifty years ago, to be famous you had to be a politician, a movie star, a sports star, a general/admiral, a writer, a musician, a TV star, or rich. These days, we have many more popular sports, more sports teams, more movies are being made, there are 2-3 orders of magnitude more TV channels and programs, more music, more musical genres, more books are being written, and there's more rich people. Plus, these days people routinely become famous for appearing in advertising, designing things, being good cooks, yammering away on the internet, etc. etc. A year's worth of guests on Hollywood Squares...there's 2300 people right there that probably wouldn't have been famous in 1953, and that's just one show.

Frankly, I don't know how we're all going to handle this. Chances are in 15-20 years, someone famous whose work you enjoyed or whom you admired or who had a huge influence on who you are as a person will die each day...and probably even more than one a day. And that's just you...many other famous people will have died that day who mean something to other people. Will we all just be in a constant state of mourning? Will the NY Times national obituary section swell to 30 pages a day? As members of the human species, we're used to dealing with the death of people we "know" in amounts in the low hundreds over the course of a lifetime. With higher life expectancies and the increased number of people known to each of us (particularly in the hypernetworked part of the world), how are we going to handle it when several thousand people we know die over the course of our lifetime?

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