Death, culture, and popular culture

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I’ve always had a keen interest in the subjects of human mortality, death, and grief, but up until recently, I’ve avoided the topic in any sort of social context because I wasn’t sure my particular point of view was one that could be easily understood by others. Death, like religion and sex, are things that people have always seemed very hesitant to discuss in the first place, much less try and imagine a new perspective of. But I’m all about perspectives, which is why I’d like to blow the whole Kubler-Ross model, those common five stages of grief that have become more or less pop-psychology, right out of the water. There are just some commonly accepted ideas that have no respect for the scope and variety of the human experience. Personally, I’ve never bought into the “grief” thing, by which I mean, I’ve never understood the very specific set of social expectations that go hand in hand with the death of a loved one or just anybody for that matter.

George Carlin has some interesting material on the nature of public grief, in fact, if there’s anything you wouldn’t think about bringing up at Christmas dinner, the odds are pretty good that Carlin has a routine for it somewhere. This particular bit came from his show It’s Bad For Ya from 2008, in which he makes reference to things we are prone to say when someone dies;

“This conversation is bound to turn up. Two guys in a street meet each other, and one of them says, “Hey, did you hear? Phil Davis died.” “Phil Davis? I just saw him yesterday.” “Yeah? … Didn’t help. He died anyway. Apparently, the simple act of you seeing him did not slow his cancer down. In fact, it may have made it more aggressive.”

What Carlin doesn’t get into (because this is where it stops being funny) is that this reaction is not so irrational as it sounds. “I just saw him yesterday” doesn’t in fact mean, gee, I could have saved him, so much as it is the person’s reaction to the proximity of death. They are musing on, and in part disbelieving, the inevitability of death, becoming aware again that it exists, and that they by proximity somehow brushed with it. Because the dirty secret here is that grief is not about the person who died. When we talk about death, we are talking about those still living. And if you ask me, that’s completely correct. There’s a Grey’s Anatomy episode in which the main character spends an entire episode dwelling on the fact that one of the near-death patients came in wearing the same pair of shoes. In the episode, the shoes act as a tether between her and the patient, making it difficult for her to distance herself. This woman’s impending death becomes more significant to her because of their coincidental similarities, allowing her to have an encounter with her own fragile mortality.

I had a death in the family a month ago that essentially made one of my parents an orphan. Not shockingly, this made me sad for my parent, but the most awkward and troubling emotion I had to deal with was that is made me think about what it might be like to have no parents left in the world. That thought became the all-consuming drive of the remainder of my month, during which time I discovered and became obsessed with the television show Pushing Daisies. I would turn it on in the morning and watch it constantly until I went to bed at night. Pushing Daisies is a show in which the main character has the inborn ability to literally wake the dead, but only for one minute, at which point the universe balances out the cosmological scales and takes another life, at random. In concept, it sounds like a spooky scifi show, but what stands out about this program is that it is in fact a very successful comedy. Death, to the deceased, becomes a mere event, equal to any other, and at worst is just slightly inconvenient. On this show, death never makes the deceased better people, causes them extended grief, frightens or overwhelms them, though often the briefness of their reaction is necessitated by the fact that they have a mere 60 seconds of dialogue before they are dead again. All things considered, Pushing Daisies has an unprecedented sunny outlook in death.

I suppose if you don’t think about grief critically at all, all that really occurs to you is that you are sad, and I think for some people, being sad and not knowing exactly why really is enough. But those of us who have an obsession with emotion, who study the minute details of each new emotional experience, have to go deeper into the hows and whys, and I think sometimes that makes those of us who consider death often seem cold or insensitive. I’ve found this is a very large risk when it comes to fictional characters in any medium. If grief doesn’t present in an easily interpretable way, often an audience can turn on a character. The depth of emotion that character had for the deceased, or their depth of emotion in general, comes into question. It’s easy to let a character get villainised by a tear not shed in the right moment. I’m always especially impressed when a writer risks an a-typical reaction and it pays off. Prime examples that come to mind are Vada’s reaction to the death of Thomas J. in My Girl, and pretty much all the reactions in the critically acclaimed Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “The Body,” in which Emma Caulfield delivers the performance of a lifetime as Anya, a newly human character, coming to grips, child-like, with the concept of human death.

“But I don’t understand! I don’t understand how this all happens. How we go through this. I knew her, and then she’s—there’s just a body, and I don’t understand why she just can’t get back in it and not be dead… anymore! It’s stupid! It’s mortal and stupid! And…and Xander’s crying and not talking, and…and I was having fruit punch, and I thought, well, Joyce will never have any more fruit punch, ever, and she’ll never have eggs, or yawn, or brush her hair, not ever, and no one will explain to me why!”

What’s most honest about this particular portrayal to me is how unacceptable Anya’s lack of knowledge about “how we do this” is to the other characters. Because she is operating outside the acceptable social norms when it comes to her grief, she is made an outsider while the other characters cluster together and perform the more social aspects of grieving.

But Anya’s reaction is a very natural one, because the limited capacity we have for seeing outside ourselves makes it all the more challenging to imagine an end to our existence, especially when that end is placed in the context of our isolated culture. The individualism that permeates American culture is addressed as a problem or at least a hurdle in much of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, in which life and death are not only intertwined, they become synonyms. Whitman makes pushing our boundaries between each other a part of pushing our boundaries when it comes to death.

“The smallest sprouts show there is really no death,

And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait

at the end to arrest it,

And ceased the moment life appeared.

All goes onward and outward. . . .and nothing collapses,

And to die is different from what any one supposed, and

luckier.”

What Whitman seems to be suggesting is that if we are all a part of each other, and all a part of the earth, if we’re all the same matter, then we cannot truly die, at least not in the traditional definition. I think it would have been even more profitable to take this to another extreme and refute the connotations of the word itself. Whitman suggests to us that our own culture of isolation is what keeps us from coming to grips with topics like sexuality and death.

We cannot definitively say that the dead are any worse off for being dead, in fact there are a number of schools of thought that consider that if the dead no longer have a human existence that they are beyond caring about whether or not they continue to exist or hold sway on the living. The entirety of the series Angel is about an immortal character seeking to fulfill an ancient prophecy that says his reward will be to “Shanshu,” interpreted as death, and then mortality, because the language in which the prophecy was written made no distinctions between life and death. To Shanshu in the Angel universe means to live until you die, interpreted as a more than adequate reward for the main character’s good deeds done. The Cylons of Battlestar Galactica are another set of death-seeking individuals, going as far as to theorize that to be human is to die, or be mortal.

It seems very likely that the ideas of grieving for the sake of the deceased, or that the deceased might be particularly concerned with how we grieve, are all designed around our own self-importance or to offer a strange sense of comfort, but isn’t it infinitely more comforting to give ourselves permission to admit that this is something we the bereaved are going through, that it is after all, about us? We experience our loss of the person, our grip with mortality, our need for the comfort or support that person provided not being met, and to be very honest about there not being a single thing wrong with feeling that way. A number of arts forms are taking up the topic of death, even art that would be considered mainstream like television, music, and movies are opening up the topic and challenging the given perspectives on how the see the end of life and the beginning of the unknown. I hope that we continue to expand our perceptions and refuse to close the conversation on what makes this event something we don’t talk about.

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One thought on “Death, culture, and popular culture

  1. Death is, in many ways, a social construct. All that we are really sure about is that a person’s body ceases to function; other than that, the concept is open to interpretation. An open-minded approach free of dogma and superstition reveals a philosophical gold mine.

    Do we have a “soul”? Or is the mind only a manifestation of a person’s physical systems(i.e. nervous system, brain, etc.)?

    I think that this question is ultimately more important than the concept of death.

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