Filmmaker Sam Green was just about to fly out of Columbus, Ohio when his friend offered to make a quick detour. “She asked if I wanted to see a little pet cemetery that’s across the street from the airport,” Green told The Atlantic. Armed with his camera, Green captured the tombstones of a menagerie of dearly departed animals, some dating back to the early twentieth century. His short film, Julius Caesar was Buried in a Pet Cemetery, featuring an original score from Yo La Tengo, showcases the pets’ final resting place—and the human love they once inspired.
Green said that he finds graveyards for pets especially moving because the headstones tend to be much more emotive than those found in human cemeteries. “You can say, ‘Buster was the best parakeet who ever lived,’” said Green. “With human graves, everything is so much more constrained. People love their animals in such an intense way and are able to express that love in a much freer way than they can about people they’ve lost.”
“You have gone and left such emptiness that time can never fill,” reads a grave for a dog named Jiggs Boy, who died in 1933.
Americans tend to avoid opportunities to engage with their own mortality
By Vittoria Elliott and Kevin McDonald
Halloween in America is awfully cute these days — both in the sense that children’s costumes have reached unimaginable heights of adorability and that the holiday has lost its darkness — and that’s rather awful.
Sexy avocado costumes obscure the holiday’s historical roots and the role it once played in allowing people to engage with mortality. What was once a spiritual practice, like so much else, has become largely commercial. While there is nothing better than a baby dressed as a Gryffindor, Halloween is supposed to be about death, a subject Americans aren’t particularly good at addressing. And nowhere is that more evident than in the way we celebrate (or don’t celebrate) Halloween.
Halloween has its origins in the first millennium A.D. in the Celtic Irish holiday Samhain. According to Lisa Morton, author of “Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween,” Samhain was a New Year’s celebration held in the fall, a sort of seasonal acknowledgment of the annual change from a season of life to one of death. The Celts used Samhain celebrations to settle debts, thin their herds of livestock and appease the spirits: the kinds of preparations one might make if they are genuinely unsure whether they will survive the winter.
But in America today, that kind of acknowledgment of imminent mortality rarely occurs, according to Anita Hannig, an anthropologist and professor at Brandeis University. “When we recognize our mortality, we make preparations for it,” she says, mentioning a Romanian acquaintance who had bought their grandmother a coffin for her birthday. “But in the U.S., that kind of engagement is seen as almost frivolous.”
But what could be less frivolous than talking about a wholly universal experience?
“Every other culture has a time set aside during the year where the dead visit,” said Sarah Chavez, executive director of the Order of the Good Death, a group of funeral industry professionals, academics and artists devoted to preparing a “death phobic culture for their inevitable mortality.” Part of the power of these rituals is to make death into a known quantity, something to be accepted, even embraced, rather than feared.
When Roman Christian missionaries began to convert the Celtic peoples, local holidays were not banished, but rather co-opted. All Saints’ Day, formerly celebrated in mid-May, was moved to Nov. 1 as a way to tame the wild Celtic tradition of Samhain. All Saints’ Day is a celebration of all the dead who have attained heaven in the Catholic tradition, a death-centric celebration if there ever was one.
But the rowdiness of Samhain proved difficult to dislodge, according to Morton, so the Catholic Church tacked on All Souls’ day on Nov. 2, to offer prayers for those who were stuck in purgatory. This three-day celebration began on the evening of Oct. 31, eventually becoming All Hallows’ Evening in reference to the holy days to follow.
When the Spanish colonized what is now Mexico, they used the same strategy, taking indigenous rituals and co-opting them into the church, creating what we know today as Día de los Muertos. In both instances, the holidays retained their focus on the ritualistic recognition of mortality and honoring the dead, with the church as arbiter of the afterlife.
Halloween arrived in the United States in the 1840s, brought by Irish and Scottish immigrants fleeing famine. Popular activities included fortunetelling, speaking with the dead and other forms of divination. (To get a sense of how uncomfortable many Americans are with the dead, try this at your next Halloween party and see what kinds of looks you get.)
Catholic-infused Halloween and Samhain shared several similarities with Día de los Muertos. They were both feast days, filled with candles and a reverence for the dead. The traditional sugar skulls, or calaveras, are similar to Halloween’s “soul cakes,” sweet treats people would offer in exchange for prayers for dead relatives languishing in purgatory.
The calavera tradition remains in the modern form of Día de los Muertos, but in the United States, soul cakes have all but vanished. We now have trick-or-treating, a tradition borne purely out of concerns for the living. In the early part of the 20th century, destructive young pranksters would take full advantage of Halloween, vandalizing and destroying property.
“It was costing cities a lot of money,” says Morton. Instead of banning the holiday altogether, neighborhoods banded together to host parties and give out snacks. “Trick-or-treating was a way of buying kids off.”
Similar to how Halloween has drifted from death ritual to doorbell ringing, modern American engagements with death have changed from up close to a culture of avoidance.
In a lot of ways, Halloween in the United States “mirrors our experience with death directly,” says Chavez.
“We used to take care of our dead in our homes — people used to die at home. We took care of our loved ones, dug their graves. We were there through the entire process. We have no idea what death looks like anymore,” she says. And that ignorance breeds fear, uncertainty and avoidance.
Today, about 80 percent of people die in a hospital or a nursing home. Hannig calls these “institutional deaths,” and they’re just one part of how modern death has been sanitized and sequestered away from the world of the living.
“The responsibilities of death have been outsourced,” she says, adding that hospitals and the mortuary industry allow ordinary people to avoid engagement with the messiness and gruesomeness of death.
“When someone dies in a hospital, oftentimes the body will be whisked away almost immediately and family and friends won’t see it again until after it’s been embalmed.”
And it’s not just dying that modern America is losing touch with; it’s death rituals as well. As the United States becomes increasingly secular, religion’s role in making meaning out of death has shrunk. According to Hannig’s research, memorial services are becoming less and less common, and a collective honoring of the dead — something like All Souls’ Day — is practically nonexistent.
Hannig pointed out that in many other cultures, death is a community affair and something people prepare for together. In certain Buddhist communities in Nepal, for instance, when someone dies they will be surrounded by their loved ones and valued possessions to make sure they don’t have any longed-for attachment tying them to life. It’s a way for both parties — the dying and the living — to accept and let go.
Instead, modern Halloween focuses on the creepy and the capitalistic. “We consume death in a commercialized, entertainment way,” says Chavez. By making death fantastical, we make it feel almost impossible, and therefore less threatening. “We know that a zombie movie isn’t realistic. It’s all a way that we can reassure ourselves that we are safe and it won’t happen to us.”
But haunted attractions, horror films and safety from zombies haven’t made us less afraid of death. If anything, by continuing to keep death at a distance, we transform it into an unknown: possibly the scariest thing of all.
New algorithm can tell patients how long they have to live
By Elizabeth Payne
Ottawa researchers are taking a page from Netflix and Google to help patients, their families and their doctors have informed conversations about death.
Researchers at Ottawa’s newly minted National Centre for Individualized Health have developed an algorithm that predicts how many months, or years, patients near the ends of their lives have to live.
It is information some people might not be comfortable with, acknowledged Dr. Peter Tanuseputro, an investigator at the Bruyère Research Institute and family doctor who offers house calls to his palliative patients. But he believes many elderly patients will want to know exactly how long they have to live, information not currently available for most. He also said everyone deserves access to the information, based on an individual’s health information and data collected across Ontario.
Among other things the end-of-life calculator can lead to is more appropriate care and more people benefitting from palliative care. Only 15 per cent of Canadians receive palliative care, according to recent data released from the Canadian Institute for Health Information. Even those who do often get it too late, said Tanuseputro.
“In Canada, we don’t like to talk about death and dying,” he said. “We think patients have the right to their own information to tell them about what is going to happen to them. We still live in a paternalistic society where we don’t think the patient can handle that information or don’t think they should have this information.”
The predictive algorithm, which goes by the acronym RESPECT (for Risk Evaluation for Support: Predictions for Elder-life in the Community Tool for the End of Life), calculates how long a person has to live based on 25 questions about what diseases they have and how difficult it is to care for themselves. The algorithm was developed using data collected through the province’s health system.
It is one of the digital health projects being developed by Bruyère aimed at addressing the health needs of people as they age (more info at bruyeredigitalhealth.ca/en/projects).
It is currently being pilot-tested in Windsor-Essex to help people who are frail understand whether they would benefit from palliative care. It is one of a series of algorithms using big data that is aimed at helping older people better understand their health risk factors in an effort to help them get better treatment.
When they are complete, the tools will be available to individuals and family members on the projectbiglife.ca website. In addition to calculating how close a person is to death, researchers are developing tools that will help calculate how long before an individual is likely to end up in a nursing home, and their risk of hospitalization.
Those tools can lead to preventative measures to help people stay in their homes longer, in some cases, or to get more appropriate care. Their development is part of the National Centre for Individualized Health, affiliated with Bruyère Research Institute, which was created with the help of donations totalling $1.25 million.
Tanuseputro said the use of big data to create predictive tools has the potential to change individual treatment and health care more generally. The health system is just catching up to what has been done elsewhere.
“If you watch Netflix, it will tell you what Netflix thinks you like based on your previous choices. In health care, we are just figuring this out,” he said.
“These tools are to help patients make informed decisions. Too often, you visit your doctor and your doctor has only limited amount of time and limited information.” While they might have a patient’s electronic medical data, that would not include what happened, for example, if the patient was in a hospital 100 kilometres away.
Among information patients are asked for in the 25 questions that feed into the predictive algorithm, are questions about activities of daily living, such as eating, bathing, personal hygiene and toiletting. Those, he said, are often a better indication that a patient does not have long to live, than a diagnosis of chronic illness.
He said physicians are sometimes hesitant to tell patients they are close to death — in part, because it is difficult to be accurate. This tool should change that, he said.
“We think patients have the right to know and seek out care that is appropriate to their needs. If a patient knows that they have a year to live, they should be receiving palliative care, supportive care, in order to stay at home. Clinicians don’t do it enough, partly because we live in a death-denying society and partly because it is hard, especially if you don’t have a terminal cancer diagnosis.”
Those who work with dying people are familiar with patients seeing long deceased loved ones, angelic beings, even hearing music and comforting voices as the patient nears death. Deathbed phenomena have been documented in the days, weeks, and months before death since the 1500s. Often confused with hallucinations, deathbed phenomena can bring comfort to patients and caregivers if those involved know what they are experiencing. This talk will explain deathbed phenomena and present on-going research about the topic. Accounts from the dying and bedside witnesses will be shared.
About two months ago, seated on a small airplane that was descending through a lightning storm on its way to land in Florence, Italy, I was 90 percent certain I was going to die.
My terror only lasted about 10 minutes—from the moment I saw the first flash in the dark outside the tiny window, through a half-dozen weightless-feeling, heart-stopping lurches, until the wheels touched down on the runway.
Which is to say, it was nothing compared to what the residents of Hawaii felt earlier this year when one click of the wrong button at a local government office sent warning of an imminent ballistic missile in an all-caps text message to everyone within state limits.
The mistake went uncorrected for 38 minutes—minutes in which, as a close friend who happened to be there for a wedding later told me, people did what anyone would do: panic and try to take shelter, yes, but also attempt to make peace with the inconceivable notion that there, on a previously unremarkable Saturday in January, they were about to die. Unable to assess the legitimacy of the threat, my friend called her parents and told them she loved them, then she and a few other wedding attendees headed for the beach. At the very least, they decided, they would die somewhere beautiful.
I can’t be alone in hitting a wall of cognitive dissonance when I try to think about death: it’s universal, an equalizer, one of the few absolute inevitabilities about the experience of being human (along with taxes, har har). And yet it’s also so personal, and unknowable: especially for those of us who don’t practice a religion with a sure-footed concept of the afterlife, what actually happens when we leave this mortal coil is the ultimate in unavoidable question marks. All of which makes it fantastically appealing to try to avoid the topic entirely—particularly if you live somewhere, like, say, America, that worships youth and the young.
But if the uptick in death-themed workshops and events geared toward young people is any indication, avoiding the topic of death is no longer working for a vast number of people.
“It’s a really a whole movement we’re seeing, in which people are asking different questions, having new conversations, saying they’re not satisfied with how death has been treated in our culture—which is, of course, to push it aside until you can’t anymore,” says Chelsea Coleman, a singer-songwriter and co-host of You’re Going to Die, an ongoing performance series in which participants are invited to share stories and songs about grief and loss. Coleman hosts the series’ first Oakland event this Wednesday, Sept. 26, at the Starline Social Club.
Founded in San Francisco in March 2009 by the writer Ned Buskirk, “YG2D” began as a monthly community open mic at the intimate, now-defunct venue Viracocha; it didn’t take long for the event to start regularly selling out. Buskirk soon restructured the night to highlight featured musicians at each event, eventually asking Coleman to join him as co-host.
Coleman attended her first event in 2012, shortly after the death of her grandfather, with whom she was very close. “I was with him when he died, and I wrote songs about it, so I was looking for an outlet to perform some heavy stuff,” says Coleman. “Often when you play at a bar, it’s like—sure, you can play songs about heartbreak, but ‘Here’s a song about my grandpa dying’ is really not the vibe most places.”
She was hooked after one show. “It was such a powerful space,” says Coleman. “Hearing other people speak and perform is always moving, but I also felt like what I was offering had more power there. In the past I had sometimes felt like what I was doing was a burden.”
“But people show up [at YG2D] because they want to have an emotional experience,” she says. “That changes everything.”
You’re Going To Die became a registered nonprofit in 2017. The organization has expanded swiftly in the last two years, forging new partnerships with prisons—including workshops and shows at San Quentin—and with hospice programs, in which volunteers visit with people who are dying to hear stories, and to write or play music with them. The events are spreading geographically as well, with workshops or shows planned for San Diego, Ohio and New York in the coming months.
In doing so, the nonprofit joins organizations like The Dinner Party, a grief support network for 20- and 30-somethings that began as a series of informal potlucks in LA; the network now includes meetups in the Bay Area, Washington, D.C. and New York. Death Salon, meanwhile, hosts pop-up events of academic discussion and performance organized by a group of medical historians, artists and funeral industry professionals who’ve positioned themselves at the forefront of the Death Positive Movement.
It’s tough, as an American, not to wonder if there’s some correlation between the growing call for such conversations and the events of the past two years—when macabre jokes about our president’s access to nuclear buttons have become part of daily life: one part gallows humor, two parts very real fear.
But for a vast number of Americans, of course, the reality of death is perhaps no closer than it ever felt before: black men and women contend with the reality that they might be killed every time they step out the door, for actions as simple as walking, driving or taking BART. When a former coworker of mine, an activist and health care worker who was also a trans woman, died earlier this year, I felt (along with sadness for her family and close friends) a small sting of resignation: the numbers don’t lie.
Coleman has a sense, however, that those not previously accustomed to considering death may have been moved in that direction by the “heightened” state of U.S. politics since 2016.
“I think a lot of people who have had the privilege of being in denial for a long time are starting to ask questions,” she says, as I flash on my brief lightning storm-induced terror. “A lot of communities haven’t had that privilege.”
Regardless of the timing, “I think things feel heavy right now for pretty much everyone, and it’s very clear to me that people are hungry for these kinds of conversations,” says Coleman, recalling the first YG2D event she hosted solo, without Buskirk. “I was nervous people weren’t going to want to talk, but from the moment we started, everyone wanted to tell stories.”
Oh, and keep that in mind if you’re heading to your first YG2D, as well. Coleman says some of the most powerful performances come from people who weren’t planning on performing. While the event has morphed over the years, the open-mic portion still makes up its bones. Audience members who’ve never sung or told stories publicly before quite frequently take the stage.
In other words, there’s perhaps something universal happening there as well. What would I do if I had 38 minutes to live? For a topic so commonplace, so obvious and so inevitable, people surprise themselves all the damn time.
Katrina Spade wants to transform the U.S. funeral industry, making way for many more options for those facing death and for their families. She founded Recompose in 2017 to champion a dramatically new approach that reconnects death to natural cycles of life and engages people through meaningful participation. Ashoka’s Michael Zakaras caught up with Spade to learn more.
Michael Zakaras: What inspired your interest in the rituals and practices around death?
Katrina Spade: I had a moment around age 30 when I realized I was mortal, and I became curious about what would happen to my physical body when I died. Because my family is not religious and most of my friends aren’t either, I thought, what will they do? And I discovered that there are really just two options in the U.S.: cremation and conventional burial. Both practices poison the planet — this struck me as the wrong punctuation for lives lived in harmony with nature.
Zakaras: Why do we have just these two options?
Spade: Much of it is convention, it’s just the way things have been done. Take modern embalming. Many people think of it as a centuries-old tradition — but it became popular in the U.S. only during the Civil War. A couple of enterprising young people invented and marketed it to soldiers on the battlefield as a way to get their bodies home to their families — for advance payment. They used arsenic instead of formaldehyde back then. Today’s funeral practices, and many of our laws, are based on the dual practices of selling caskets and embalming bodies from 150 years ago.
Zakaras: How big is the funeral industry today?
Spade: About $20 billion dollars, and it’s an interesting industry, with many funeral homes passed down generation to generation and a few large corporations that own a lot of funeral homes. One of the things that’s so interesting is the idea that every person can “own” a piece of land for eternity, in the form of a cemetery plot. This is not a sustainable model, especially for cities with space constraints.
Zakaras: That’s a good point. How much land would you need to bury everyone in, say, New York City?
Spade: We’d need over 200 million square feet of land, or 7.5 square miles! And besides the land use, cemeteries are filled with metal, wood, concrete, and embalming fluid, a known carcinogen.
Many people consider cremation to be a more sustainable choice, and its popularity is rising: by 2035 an estimated 80% of Americans will be cremated. But actually, cremation is an energy-intensive process that releases greenhouse gases and particulates, emitting more than 600 million lbs of CO2 annually.
Zakaras: So what’s the alternative?
Spade: With Recompose, we asked ourselves how we could use nature — which has totally perfected the life/death cycle — as a model for human death care. We developed a way to transform bodies into soil, so that with our last gesture we can give back to the earth and reconnect with the natural cycles. We’re also aiming to provide ritual, to help people have a more direct and conscious experience around this really important event. As hard as it can be, the end of one’s life is a profound moment — for ourselves and for the friends and families we leave behind.
Zakaras: If you are successful, what will look different in 10 years?
Spade: I’m hopeful that we will have many options for the end of life — from hospice care all the way through disposition. It won’t be the odd family who says, “Maybe we should have a home funeral” — it’ll be every family that says, “Okay, how are we approaching this? What feels right to us?” And it will be normal to ask: “What do I want my end of life to look like? What will happen to my body? Where do I want to be when I die?” These are things that should be up to us, but we’ve never really felt that we had the agency or the cultural support to decide them.
The funeral industry would like us to think that it’s difficult or impossible for us to care for our own after a death, but humans have been doing that for millennia. There are a lot of reasons to take back some of that work, the work of caring for the dead, because there’s so much beauty inherent in it and it’s such a personal thing.
Zakaras: Why is this a particularly important moment for this work?
Spade: There’s a growing realization of climate change, coupled with this incredible cohort of baby boomers — 10,000 Americans turn 65 every day — who are approaching the end of their life or seeing someone go through death and thinking, “Is this really the best we can do?” This is a generation that’s really good at saying “Wait a minute, we can do better than this.”
Zakaras: Do you ever get tired of talking about death?
Spade: I never do! We have such a long way to go, but a new relationship with death is totally possible. One of my favorite sayings is “Death is not an emergency.” This is a wonderful reminder that the very first thing we should do when someone dies is pause and take a deep breath and just be in the moment.
A “vampire burial” unearthed at a Roman site in Italy is evidence of ancient funeral practices to stop corpses rising from the dead, according to archaeologists.
The body of a 10-year-old child was buried ritualistically with a stone in its mouth, possibly out of fear it would return to spread disease to its community.
Known locally as the “Vampire of Lugnano”, evidence collected from the bones suggest the child was infected with malaria at the time it died.
“I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s extremely eerie and weird,” said Professor David Soren, an archaeologist at the University of Arizona who has run excavations in the region for over three decades.
The remains are the latest unusual discovery to emerge from the Cemetery of Children, a site containing dozens of children’s bodies and evidence of witchcraft including toad bones, raven talons and bronze cauldrons.
Dated to a time in the fifth century when a deadly malaria outbreak swept across central Italy, archaeologists thought the cemetery had been set aside specifically for the babies and young children who would have been most vulnerable to the disease.
The “vampire” skeleton, which is of unknown sex, is the oldest child to be identified so far at the site.
It was one of five new burials discovered there over the summer, and was found placed underneath a makeshift tomb constructed from roof tiles.
“Knowing that two large roof tiles were used for this burial, I was expecting something unique to be found inside, perhaps a ‘double-inhumation’ – not uncommon for this cemetery – where a single burial contains two individuals,” said David Pickel, a PhD student a Stanford who directed the excavation.
“After removing the roof tiles, however, it became immediately clear to us that we were dealing with an older individual.”
The child’s open jaws and tooth marks on the surface of the stone were evidence that it had been placed in the mouth intentionally.
Similar burials have been documented from Venice to Northamptonshire, and along with dismembering bodies and forcing stakes through the heart are thought to be methods of preventing these “vampires” from returning to haunt the living.
“This is a very unusual mortuary treatment that you see in various forms in different cultures, especially in the Roman world, that could indicate there was a fear that this person might come back from the dead and try to spread disease to the living,” explained bioarchaeologist Jordan Wilson, another PhD student who examined the body.
Professoer Soren added: “We know that the Romans were very much concerned with this and would even go to the extent of employing witchcraft to keep the evil – whatever is contaminating the body – from coming out.”
An abscessed tooth, which can be a side effect of malaria, provided evidence that the child had been killed in the epidemic that struck so many of the cemetery’s inhabitants.
Elsewhere at the site, a three-year-old girl had been buried with stones weighing down her arms and feet – a practice also thought to prevent corpses from returning to life.
The researchers said these practices provide a fascinating insight into the thought processes of ancient Romans and their fears about life after death.
“It’s a very human thing to have complicated feelings about the dead and wonder if that’s really the end,” said Ms Wilson.
“Anytime you can look at burials, they’re significant because they provide a window into ancient minds.”
With much of the cemetery still unexplored, the archaeologists intend to return to the site next summer to complete their excavations.