Pathologist Carla Valentine Will Teach You How to Die Fearlessly


“The people who think about mortality tend to have the highest happiness rate.”

By Sarah Sloat

Ambitious technocrats may predict a deathless future, but as the world stands now, we’re all going to die. This leaves us humans with the same two options we’ve had since we emerged from the evolutionary mire: Fear the final shuffling of our mortal coils, or embrace the inevitability that we’ll all be one with the dirt.

Fortunately, there are people out there who can help ease your mind about the whole “one day you’ll be dead” thing. One of those people is Carla Valentine, whose job as an anatomical pathologist, technical curator at Barts Pathology Museum, and author of The Chick and the Dead, has more than prepared her to come face to face with the inevitable end. In her book, which will be released in the United States in June, she weaves together corpse science and her intimate involvement with the “death industry” with the vital lesson about dying she’s learned over the years: Everyone wants to learn more about death whether they admit it to themselves or not, and accepting that education is the best preparation for their final days.

Valentine, whose book will be released in the United States in June, recently spoke to Inverse about the CSI effect, the future of “soul midwives,” and urban legends that just won’t go to the grave.

Carla Valentine.

>Why was now the right time to write this book?
There are two reasons, really. There is definitely more of a desire at the moment for people to speak about death and learn more about it. That’s been on an upward trajectory. That just happened to coincide with when I left my career as a full-time pathology technician and I began to work at the museum, which gave me more free time to actually start to write.

What do you think has driven that increased interest in talking about death and learning about it?
When I first studied forensic science, which was 15 years ago, there were barely any courses. Those courses began to increase with what we call the “CSI effect”. That’s an actual academic term now for the interest in death and autopsies that has emerged from the increase in books and TV shows on the topic.

I think another issue is just the cost of funerals, like many things, is rising. People want to be a bit more informed and demystify the process around death so that they can plan properly and just dispel a lot of the myths before the time comes. There have always been a lot of myths around autopsies and how we conduct them. I think people just want to know the truth and it’s a good time for it.

What do you think people gain when from learning about what happens to their body after they die?
Personally, I think that when people face this idea of their mortality, the reality of it, and the reality of what may happen to their family members, for example, they tend to live a better life. They tend to understand how quickly it can be taken away. They can appreciate their own mortality and their own health. That was always what I felt and that’s been backed up by psychological studies, as well, which I reference in the book. The people who think about mortality tend to have the highest happiness rate. I think it’s because it demystifies it. People say that you’re afraid of the unknown. Sometimes it’s better to face the reality of it. Then it’s not so scary anymore.

Fracture of a mandible at the Pathology Museum.

Do you get consistently the same sort of questions from people when they learn about your job?
I get consistently the same sort of questions and I get consistently told the same myths. Those absolutely drive me insane. I took as much opportunity as I could to answer all of the questions that I always get asked in the book. A lot of these myths have been doing the rounds since I was a child. For example, I was at the hairdresser’s yesterday, and the girl in the chair next to me overheard that we were talking about my job, and she said, “It’s true, isn’t it, that the fingernails grow and the hair grows after death?” I was like, “No it’s not like that.” I’ve heard the same things for 20 years.

What else do people get wrong about death?
People also think the deceased sit upright because of their gases, which is not true at all. Some deceased people are possibly in a state of rigor mortis, where they’ve passed away in a chair and so that means for a while they’ll still be in a bent-over position. They’ll look slightly like they’re sitting up when they’re on the slab. But they don’t sit up because of the gases. There are the odd groans or burps or farts. That is true.

The most annoying urban legend is the one where someone tells me, “A friend of mine knows someone who got a rash and when she went to the doctors she found out that it can only be caught from a corpse.” Basically insinuating that the guy that she’d had sex with or whatever has had sex with a corpse. That always drives me insane because there’s nothing on a deceased individual that isn’t on a live individual. We have the flora and fauna. There is no such thing as a parasite or a fungus that you can get from the dead.

It just goes to show how fascinated people are by those subjects. I’m doing my MA on the relationship between the sexualized gaze and anatomical displays. When I blog about sex and death and people go, “Really?” I think, look, you’re all interested in sex and death, just look at this one urban legend that’s nearly outlived me. Clearly, people are far more interested in sex and death than they’d like to let on.

A broken cervical spine.

What is it about that intersection that people keep on coming back to?
They’ve had similar periods in time where they’ve been sort of considered taboos. But the simple fact is sex is what begins our lives and death is what ends it. They’re two sides of the same coin. They’ve always been connected to each other psychoanalytically because everything you do, according to Freud, you do with either the death drive, the morbido, or a life drive, which is libido.

Inside Barts Pathology Museum.

Are there any new modern trends you’ve noticed, when it comes to what people want immediately before and after they die?
There are definitely newer trends towards much more environmentally friendly funerals. A lot of people are moving away from the traditional funeral, and opting for a green burial. That means that they wouldn’t be embalmed. Embalming was never as big over in the United Kingdom as it is in the U.S. anyway, but it’s still definitely dwindling. Natural burials where people are placed into wicker, cardboard coffins, or linen and buried into an actual burial ground. There’s definitely an increase in people who want that, while we never really would hear of that request a few years ago.

And then there’s death doulas and end of life doulas. They’re just like midwives, but for death. I met one the other night and he actually called himself a “soul midwife.” Death doulas are usually brought in when the person is in hospice. It can also be as soon as a person discovers that they’re terminally ill. In the same way that a midwife is there for the mother as she’s becoming dilated and then she delivers the baby, the doula helps the person through the process of death. It’s a similar process, I suppose, just the other way around.

Complete Article HERE!


Why Your Fear Of Dying Alone Means You’re Not Really Living


By Kendra Syrdal

Everywhere around me even in modern day 2017, it seems like as a single person I’m confronted with the same message

“Here’s how to find the real love of your life!” Some old guy in a tuxedo exclaims at me from an eHarmony commercial.

“You’re totally like Carrie Bradshaw,” my friends say over drinks when I talk about my job and how I’ve gone out on dates with a few different guys this month. “Now you just need your Big.”

We just don’t want to be alone the countless submissions I read every day proclaim in their honest, heartsick words and in their desperate and painfully lonely headlines.

I’m afraid of a lot of things. I hate driving and am always convinced a semi-truck will run me off of the interstate and send me plummeting to my death. I love paddle boarding but have a weird anxiety about going too far out where the water is a certain level of deep because realistically – who knows what’s down there. The idea of my dog dying when I’m not home makes my eyes start watering just typing it out.

I’m afraid of a lot of things, but dying alone isn’t one of them.

One of my best friends told me a story about how her dad always used to tell her that no matter what, she had to like herself because she was the only person who ever really would ALWAYS be there. And that’s the truth. Some people would say that’s cynical and glass-half-empty, but I say it’s simply honest.

Think about it. Even if you do fall in love, madly in love, the kind of love that people write sonnets about and songs about and paint all over a building as a mural – eventually you’re going to die. And even if that person has been there day in and day out, holding your hand and kissing you despite your morning breath, the only person who you’ll have in those final moments is yourself. All you really have, is you.

So you’d better like you.

I think what we’re really not saying when we say we’re afraid of dying alone is that we’re really not afraid of the alone part, we’re afraid of only having ourselves to hold onto. We’re afraid that somehow, we won’t measure up. We won’t be enough. That somehow, we’re an incomplete puzzle without some else’s edge pieces.

When we say we’re afraid of dying alone we’re really saying we’re afraid that we’ll never be happy with just ourselves, and that we need someone else to dictate that level of completeness to our lives.

But you know what? The little secret that no one wants you to figure out – that the man in the suit hopes you never realize, and anyone writing a “Here Is How You Find The Love Of Your Life And Never Eat Alone Again” book hopes you don’t come to terms with?

A fear of dying alone is really just a fear of not living a life you love. A life you’re excited about. A life that makes you feel enough.

And they never want you to know that crushing that fear is simple. All you have to do is refuse to let it in.

So when you’re worried about eating alone, grab a book that swallows you with its characters and its story and go treat yourself to some Alfredo and wine and give it no second thoughts. If you’re scared of your life being empty, make friends with people who never cease to make you smile and challenge you in the ways you need. Fill your days with a job you love, with travels that blow your mind, and create a life that bears no need for another person other than yourself.

That way, if someone comes alone, they’re just and enhancement, not a requirement.

Your fear of dying alone isn’t sign of being an incomplete or unlovable person — it’s simply a sign that you just need to love yourself enough to stop being so afraid.

Complete Article HERE!


Atheists And Highly Religious People Least Afraid Of Death: Study


The thought of dying can be terrifying but some people are not afraid to die as much as others. Now, a new study shows how faith and religion may have something to do with a person’s likelihood to fear death.

By Allan Adamson

Atheists, People Who Are Very Religious Less Likely To Fear Death

In a new study, which was published in the journal Religion, Brain and Behaviour, researchers found that people on far ends of the faith spectrum – namely atheists, who do not believe in the existence of a god, and the very religious – are least afraid of death.

For the study, researchers conducted a meta-analysis of earlier studies to get a closer look at the relationship that exists between religious belief and death anxiety.

Using about 100 articles published from the years 1961 to 2014 and which contain data involving 26,000 people from different parts of the globe, researchers found that people with higher religiosity levels have lower levels of anxiety toward death.

They also found out that the effect holds regardless of religious belief such as beliefs in afterlife and God, or religious behavior such as praying and attending religious services.

People at the far sides of the faith spectrum are least afraid of dying. Researchers found that atheists and people who are very religious are least scared of death.

The analysis likewise revealed that while people who are intrinsically religious have lower levels of anxiety for death, individuals who are extrinsically religious have higher levels of death anxiety.

Extrinsic religiosity is characterized by religious behavior that is motivated by practical reasons and considerations, which include the emotional or social benefits of being part of a religion. Intrinsic religiosity, on the other hand, is marked by religious behavior that is driven by true belief.

The findings though had mixed results across the studies. About 18 percent of the study showed that religious people tend to be more afraid of death compared with non-religious people and more than half of the studies did not show an association between religiosity and fear of death.

The mixed results hint that the association between death anxiety and religiosity may not be fixed and may differ depending on context. Because the studies were done in different parts of the globe with most of the research done in the United States and a small number conducted in East Asia and the Middle East, it is difficult to identify how the pattern differs from religion to religion or culture to culture.

Religiosity And Death Anxiety

Some researchers think that the relationship between religiosity and death anxiety follows an upside-down U pattern, which suggests that religious believers may have less anxiety toward death than individuals in between the far sides of the religious spectrum. Nearly 10 of the studies involved in the meta-analysis that were sufficiently robust for researchers to test the idea formed this pattern.

“This definitely complicates the old view, that religious people are less afraid of death than non-religious people,” said Jonathan Jong from Coventry University.

Jong said that it is possible that atheism offers comfort for death. It is also possible that those who have no fear of dying do not feel the need to seek religion.

Complete Article HERE!


Exploring death through the isolation of VR


Confronting your own mortality is tough but helpful.

By Mona Lalwani

I‘m sitting on a field of tall, red grass staring straight ahead at a lone tree. Its leaves match the crimson landscape that stretches out before me. In the distance, a rusty orange forest fades into the background. There’s a gentle rustling of leaves, occasionally interrupted by the faint chirping of a bird, that forces me to breathe slower.

“Thank you for being here and being willing to consider moving towards the idea of dying and death,” a calm, male voice prepares me for the virtual meditative journey.

A hazy white light source rises in the distance as the voice walks me through the process of focusing on my breathing. I watch the blades of the grass swish to the left with the wind. The tree slowly starts to lose its leaves. “Feel the air around you,” the voice continues. “Feel yourself letting go as if you’re a tree dropping your leaves. The breeze takes the leaves away. Everything that you know and everything you cherish will be taken by the wind.”

As I let the weight of those words sink in, the blue sky slowly takes on a deep green hue, ushering in darker skies. Within moments, the field beneath me turns into a deep red lake that starts to rise around me. I gasp for air before I quickly remind myself that I have an Oculus Rift headset on my face.

When We Die is a virtual reality experience for perhaps the most difficult kind of contemplation: the end of life. The first half, with the metaphorical tree, presents the ephemerality of nature as a symbol of the finiteness of your own life. But the next chapter addresses the wider perception of death as a tragedy through real-life experiences.

In the second half, serene views of the cosmos shift the narrative from considering your own mortality to thinking about the process of dying as an inescapable reality for all. Celestial objects that dot the night sky reveal audio clips from a hospice worker, who shares her observations of death, and a neurologist, who grounds the experience in a physician’s approach to it.

“We wanted to create a safe space for people to have difficult conversations,” said Paula Ceballos, an NYU student who is a part of a trio that created When We Die for the school’s Interactive Telecommunications Program. “We find that in the Western culture death and dying and aging get put behind closed doors, and we wanted to bring it up and make you think about it.”

The fear of death, your own or a loved one’s, is deeply ingrained in the human psyche. It can drive the choices we make, yet it continues to be shrouded in mystery. Over the years, hundreds of research studies have probed the process of dying, the fear of confronting death and how the awareness of one’s own mortality has impacted religious, cultural and spiritual world views.

When We Die makes room for that spiritual contemplation with its abstract worlds: There are no physical bodies, only metaphors for the process of aging and dying. But the idea is rooted in a more practical understanding of the ways in which neglecting end-of-life processes can hamper the process of dying, especially for the elderly and the terminally ill.

“It leads to systemic challenges,” said Leslie Ruckman, an NYU student whose background in health care informed her work on When We Die. “There’s all this money that gets spent on treating patients in ICUs, and people [often] end up dying in hospitals even though advance directives might say they’d rather die at home. These are bigger issues that arise out of the inability to look at the end of life and not being able to define what a good death might look like.”

The VR experience relies on surreal visuals to make that happen. According to co-creator Dana Abrassart, when the group first started working on the project, they envisioned a James Turrell-style liminal space. But they quickly realized that a virtual take on the light and space movement would trigger motion sickness.

Nausea in a death-related experience would defeat the purpose of their work. So instead, the group found inspiration in Richard Mosse’s infrared imagery. “It’s this idea that there’s a light spectrum around us but the human eye can’t see it,” Ruckman told me. “We liked that as a parallel to this natural process that is always present and yet, we choose not to see it.”

Death is a constant. Yet its prevalence is hidden behind hospital doors. “In the US, there’s a sanitization of death,” Dr. Gayatri Devi, the neurologist whose voice floats through the cosmos in the second half of the VR experience, told me at her clinic in Manhattan. “Our current view of death might be a victim of industrialization and development. There’s less contact with ill people who are dying so they get sequestered and put in a different place. Whereas in India, for example, there is a philosophy of maintaining contact with family and contact with death is not uncommon.”

More than 80 percent of Americans with chronic illnesses would prefer to forego hospitalization, but according to the CDC, 70 percent of that population dies in a hospital or nursing home. Even in cases where patients have advance directives to avoid aggressive measures, a widespread study revealed that only 25 percent of the physicians were aware of their patients’ end-of-life choices. The discrepancies are jarring. Even though the rise of palliative care and hospice work in the past few years is starting to close that gap, the inability to talk about death continues to get in the way of making better choices.

“Death is not a contagious illness,” said Dr. Devi. “But in some ways, we treat it like one. We need to talk about it and get comfortable around it and maybe use VR to experience it. The better the conversation about death, the more likely we’ll be to allow more of us to die at home so we’re not scared of it.”

Conquering those fears has been the focus of recent psychological explorations in VR. While When We Die uses a light meditative touch to approach conversations around death, a Spanish research group recently simulated an out-of-body experience to tackle the full spectrum of thanatophobia (or the fear of dying) in an attempt to reduce anxiety.

“Death is not a contagious illness. But in some ways, we treat it like one. We need to talk about it and get comfortable around it and maybe use VR to experience it.” — Dr. Gayatri Devi

The idea of one’s own nonexistence has always been a tough one to conquer. “But it’s a reality and we can’t opt out of it,” said Dr. Devi. “When you allow yourself into that space of thinking you’re dead, where you lose agency over yourself — that can be a powerful experience. Allowing yourself to sit with that makes you vulnerable and to be able to think about death. You have to allow that to happen.”

While some might consider this exploration of death terrifying or even futile, in many cases the practical rewards offer the required motivation. Preparing beforehand, for instance, allows people to get their affairs in order, which unburdens families from making end-of-life decisions.

“When people are faced with death, if they haven’t done any preparation, there’s too much fear and anxiety to let anything else in,” Stephanie Hope, the hospice nurse who shares her experiences in When We Die told me. “It makes it important to talk to people who aren’t faced with that yet.”

Hope, who has been a hospice worker for about four years, points out that when people think about having limited time, they start to withdraw and often show an inclination to spend time with people they’re close to. She likens that purposeful shrinking of the world to a kind of intimacy and peace that can be felt in the aloneness of VR.

The isolation, which tends to be one of the biggest criticisms of the medium, lends itself to the deeply personal experience of contemplating death. “You’re in your own world and this is your moment,” said Hope. “So to think that that’s what it might be like at the end for you can be powerful thing.”

While the immersive possibilities of VR feel contemporary, tools that address the human predisposition to death have been around for centuries. John Troyer, director of the center for death and society at the University of Bath, traces the lineage of the visual format all the way back to mediumship. “For me, a lot of it, although a different kind of technology, has a relationship to this idea of connecting with the dead in some way,” he said. “To understand any kind of new tool that is supposed to help people think about death, we have to place it in context of the long history of tools that were created by humans to help other humans make sense of their mortality.”

Troyer pointed to theatrical experiences like phantasmagoria of the 19th century, which played with themes of monsters and death long before VR. The use of projection systems like magic lanterns turned those imaginative ideas into visual experiences for audiences, which in a way is comparable to the current applications of the immersive technology.

The visual trickery of present-day VR, however, is far more profound than its predecessors, both in terms of the visual display as well as its potential for real-world impact. Death-related VR experiences can help prepare people for the inevitable but can also be used to train hospice nurses. Hope believes that bringing VR headsets into nursing school simulation labs, where trainees already work with dummies to stage scenarios, could provide crucial insight into hospice work from a patient’s perspective.

While hospice workers are trained to care for the dying, physicians are primed to prevent death. “In medicine we’re taught to keep that heart beating,” said Dr. Devi. “There’s an attitude of ‘let’s do whatever we can to keep this person’s heart beating, even if that doesn’t improve their quality of life.’ But why are we putting our elderly or very ill patients through these aggressive ways when the outcome is not going to be a good-quality life?”

When We Die doesn’t address those questions directly. Instead, it gets at them with an acknowledgement of death as a potentially positive experience. There’s an inherent belief that dying is depressing. It continues to be a terrifying unknown because we lack experience in it. But as the VR experience reveals, the tragedy of death isn’t true for all.

Complete Article HERE!


How to Overcome the Fear of Death, Part 5


Finding Support


Determine if you need to seek help from a mental health therapist. If your fear of death has become so intense that it is interfering with your ability to carry out normal activities and enjoy your life, you should seek the help of a licensed mental health therapist. For example, if you start avoiding certain activities due to your fear of impending death, then it is time to get help.[23] Other signs that you may need to seek help include:

  • feeling disabled, panicky, or depressed because of your fear
  • feeling like your fear is unreasonable
  • dealing with the fear for more than 6 months


Understand what you can expect from a mental health therapist. A therapist can help you to better understand your fear of death and find ways to minimize it and hopefully overcome it. Keep in mind that dealing with a profound fear takes time and effort. It can take a while before your fears become manageable, but some people see a dramatic improvement in just 8-10 therapy sessions. Some of the strategies that your therapist might use include:[24]

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: If you are afraid of dying, you may have certain thought processes that intensify your fear. Cognitive behavioral therapy is a method that therapists use to get you to challenge your thoughts and identify the emotions associated with those thoughts. For example, you may think to yourself, “I can’t fly because I am afraid the plane will crash and I will die.” Your therapist will challenge you to realize that this thought is unrealistic, perhaps by explaining that flying is actually safer than driving. Then, you will be challenge to revise the thought so that it is more realistic, such as, “People fly on planes every day and they are fine. I am sure that I will be fine too.”[25]
  • Exposure Therapy: If you are afraid of dying, you may start avoiding certain situations, activities, and places that intensify your fear. Exposure therapy will force you to confront that fear head on. In this type of therapy, your therapist will either ask you to imagine that you are in the situation you have been avoiding or they will ask you to actually put yourself into the situation. For example, if you have been avoiding flying because you are afraid the plane will crash and you will die, your therapist may ask you to imagine that you are on a plane and describe the way you feel. Later, your therapist may challenge you to actually fly on a plane.[26]
  • Medications: If your fear of dying is so profound that it is causing you to have severe anxiety, your therapist may refer you to a psychiatrist who can prescribe medicine that may help you. Keep in mind that the medicines used to treat anxiety associated with fear will only reduce your anxiety temporarily. They will not take care of the root cause.[27]


Share your thoughts on death and dying with others. It’s always good to talk to someone about your fears or anxiety. Others may be able to share similar concerns. They may also suggest methods that they’ve used for dealing with the associated stress.[28]

  • Find someone you trust and explain to her what you think and feel about death, and how long you’ve felt this way.


Visit a death café. Issues related to death and dying can be particularly difficult for people to talk about in general. It is important to find the right group with whom to share your ideas regarding these issues. [29] There are “death cafes,” which are groups of people who meet in cafes specifically to discuss issues around death. These are essentially support groups for people looking to handle their emotions around death. The groups determine together how to best live life in the face of death.

  • If you cannot find one of these cafes near you, consider starting your own. Odds are there will be lots of people in your area with concerns about death but who haven’t had the opportunity to share their concerns.

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Look for Part 2 HERE!
Look for Part 3 HERE!
Look for Part 4 HERE!


How to Overcome the Fear of Death, Part 4


Living Life


Live life to the fullest. Ultimately, it’s best to avoid spending too much time worrying about death and dying. Instead, fill each day with as much joy as possible. Don’t let little things get you down. Go outside, play with friends, or take up a new sport. Just do anything that will take your mind off dying. Instead, focus your mind on living.

  • Many people with the fear of death think about it daily. It means that you have a lot of things you want to do in life. Let the fear work through and ask yourself, “What is the worst thing that will happen today?” Today you are alive, so go and live.


Spend time with your loved ones. Surround yourself with people that make you happy and vice versa. Your time will be well-spent – and well-remembered – when you share yourself with others.

    • For example, you can rest assured that your memory will live on after you die if you help your grandchildren develop happy memories of you.


Keep a gratitude journal. A gratitude journal is a way for you to write down and acknowledge the things you’re thankful for. This will help keep your focus on the good things in your life.[22] Think of good things about your life and cherish them.

      • Take some time every few days to write down a moment or thing that you’re grateful for. Write in depth, savoring the moment and appreciating the joy you’ve received from it.



Take care of yourself. Avoid getting involved in bad situations or doing things that can raise your chances of dying. Avoid unhealthy activities like smoking, drug or alcohol abuse, and texting while driving. Staying healthy removes some of the risk factors that can lead to death.

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How to Overcome the Fear of Death, Part 3


Reflecting On Life


Consider how life and death are part of the same cycle. Recognize that your own life and death, as well as the lives of other creatures, are all parts of the same cycle or life-process. Life and death, rather than being two completely different events, are actually always occurring at the same time. The cells in our bodies, for example, are continuously dying and regenerating in different ways throughout an individual lifetime. This helps our bodies adapt and grow within the world around us.[16]


Think about how your body is part of a complex ecosystem. Our bodies serve as fertile ecosystems for countless different life forms, especially after our own lives come to an end.[17] While we are alive, our gastrointestinal system is home to millions of micro-organisms. These all help our bodies stay healthy enough to support proper immune functioning, and, in certain ways, even complex cognitive processing.[18]


Know the role your body plays in the grand scheme of things. On a much larger, macro level, our lives fit together in unique ways to form societies and local communities which depend upon our bodies’ energy and actions in order to sustain some degree of organization.[19]

  • Your own life is composed of the same mechanisms and materials as other lives around you. Understanding this point can help you become more comfortable with the thought of a world without your particular self still being around. [20]


Spend time in nature. Go on meditative walks in nature. Or, you can simply spend more time outside around many different life forms. These activities can be great ways to become more comfortable with the realization that you’re a part of a larger world. [21]


Consider the afterlife. Try thinking that after you die you will go somewhere happy. Many religions believe in this. If you ascribe to a particular religion, you may find comfort in considering what your religion believes about the afterlife.

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Look for Part 2 HERE!