I can hear some of you say, “Can’t we talk about something more pleasant?” That’s the same question American cartoonist Roz Chast’s parents asked her when she wanted to talk to them about their deaths. Her title represents the general attitude towards death in American society today. Even in the midst of a global pandemic, we are still not talking about it.
I am writing this in my one-bedroom apartment in New York City, where the number of deaths surpassed 4,000 in early April 2020 (by May 9, the death toll reached 14, 505). The NIH estimates that 100,000 to 200,000 people in the US alone will die of COVID-19. This means hundreds of people we know, dozens of people we call friends and family, will get infected. It’s only a matter of time until someone we love will die from it. Yesterday, I had to offer condolences to a friend whose father died from COVID-19. Today, I read a story about a family who had to say goodbye to their dying mom via walkie-talkie. We’ve passed the point of calling this “unpleasant.” It is heartbreaking, upsetting, and very necessary to talk about death right at this moment.
I am a mortuary archaeologist; I study how humans have reacted to death throughout time. When I teach about different religious, cultural, and psychological mechanisms of coping with death and grief, many of my American students are often confused and quiet at the beginning of the course. I find this interesting partly because of my training and partly as a result of growing up in a culture where death and mortality are accepted as destiny. The Turkish language is filled with proverbs about accepting death (“Dünya ölümlü, gün akşamlı”: The world is mortal, as a day is with night). Students who grew up in Mexican or Chinese cultures, in which talking about death is less of a taboo and interacting with the dead is more of an annual celebration (during Dia de los Muertos or Qingming Festival), seem less confused and less quiet when I start easing students into the course material at the beginning of the semester.
While biological death is universal, how we react to it is diverse. Not talking about death is very western and very much rooted in the 20th century. Ernest Becker discusses this in his 1973 book “The Denial of Death,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction in 1974 (ironically, two months after Becker’s death). In this book, Becker goes against the very foundations of the western “death denial” ideas suggested by psychoanalysts like Freud (his “Verneinung” concept) and Otto Rank in the first half of the 20th century. These writings argued that many aspects of human life and culture are the result of a fear of death, and that our societies have created mechanisms to keep people away from thoughts about mortality. On the other hand, Becker, along with Elizabeth Kübler-Ross (famous for her “five stages of grief” model), suggest that in fact awe, fear, and anxiety are natural accompaniments to our contemplation of the fact of death.
Acceptance is the ideal outcome of Kübler-Ross’ grief model. However, this does not necessarily mean that one has to accept that the dead are gone from our lives completely or that they need to be forgotten. New models of grief encourage us to keep connections with the deceased. A healthy resolution of grief enables us to maintain a continuing bond with our loved ones and doing so lets us transition into a new relationship with them. In the nineteenth century, spiritualism became popular in the United States. The losses caused by war and epidemics such as typhus and cholera drove families to keep in touch with their loved ones, sometimes through Ouija boards. We don’t need to ignore or deny death in order to mourn, to grieve, or to move on.
Will new models of grief emerge now that many have to die alone because of fears of contagion? Will funerals change completely now that Zoom meetings bring families and loved ones together in mourning? Funeral homes have long been claiming that “open casket helps provide closure.” However, Jessica Mitford, in her ground-breaking journalistic work “The American Way of Death” (1963), argues that some of these views are the result of the commercialization of the funeral industry in the United States. She says: “If embalming is taken out of the funeral, then viewing the body will also be lost. If viewing is lost, then the body itself will not be central to the funeral. If the body is taken out of the funeral, then what does the funeral director have to sell?” Perhaps now we will have to reconsider which funeral protocols are absolutely necessary. Perhaps we will even have to reconsider whether closure through seeing the body is necessary. Maybe we will learn what we actually need to grieve.
Death at massive scales always changes societies. Pandemics, just like famines, natural disasters, and wars change the ways we believe, we think, we learn, and we create. The Black Death (Bubonic Plague) changed Medieval Europe’s art and morals drastically. Memento Mori (“remember that you will die”) became an art genre in the Medieval Period; artists often placed skulls to remind people of their mortality and to remind them to detach themselves from their worldly goods and luxuries. Danse Macabre (Dance of Death) images in Medieval manuscripts emphasized that no matter one’s rank or status in life, our mortality is what unites us all. Death changes history. Some have even argued that the Black Death in Medieval Europe led to the Enlightenment.
On the other hand, some things never change. During the Antonine pandemic in the first century, the physician Galen wrote about how the wealthy citizens of Pergamon preferred to reside in their rural villas rather than the city-center during the outbreaks. The ones who had no place to go turned to the gods. An inscription from Pergamon mentions the sending of an envoy to the oracle of the god Apollo to ask what to do to prevent the plague in the city. Similarly, once self-quarantine started in New York City, some escaped the city and went to their summer houses and winter cottages in Vermont and Rhode Island. Those of us who can barely afford a one-bedroom apartment in the city are currently waiting for warmer and longer days to sunbathe for an hour by our windows, which face other buildings. Some of us have turned to yoga and meditation, while others have turned to God and prayers.
What this pandemic has started to change the most is our priorities. As the 7PM applause, songs, and shouts from the windows of NYC show, we appreciate healthcare professionals, cleaning staff, and delivery workers much more. We’ve started to acknowledge that universal health care can’t be optional. We are accepting that education, homelessness, and workers’ rights are things that we have ignored for too long. We are realizing that we have failed the most vulnerable members of our societies.
Most of us will not write a masterpiece like Shakespeare did while under self-quarantine, but we certainly can make time to think about death and talk about it with people we love. A healthy conversation about death can bring families closer. It can be bonding, emotional, and educational. If you don’t know where to start, I recommend reading mortician Caitlin Doughty’s books or watching her “The Order of the Good Death” videos. Your conversation starter could be Chast’s graphic memoir or a Memento Mori painting in your favorite museum’s online database.
I used some of these resources in my “Interactions with the Dead: Past and Present” course. The majority of my class consisted of students who grew up in American culture. I never ask students to talk about their personal experiences with death, and participation is always voluntary. However, I was pleasantly surprised that about three weeks into the course many, regardless of their background, started to talk about their own experiences with death and grief, their families, and their emotional reactions to the class material. Not all of them agreed with Kübler-Ross’ grief model. Not all of them were convinced that we should always remind ourselves that we are going to die (memento mori). But at the end of the course, they wrote in their course evaluations that they appreciated that we handled topics that would be considered taboo. They expressed that they appreciated talking about things that they were not able to bring up in any other context. One evaluation described the class as “cathartic.” Another student said that, through the course, they curated their own relationship with death, which helped them critically think about life and how they choose to live it.
We still have time to prepare ourselves and those around us for loss and for coping with loss. As much as it is cathartic, talking about death is unpleasant, but saying “I love you” to your loved ones over a walkie-talkie will be so much worse.