How ‘I’m Dead’ Became a Good Thing

Dying of laughter is an exaggeration, but something about it has rung true over the centuries.

By Caleb Madison

On a literal level, it should be impossible to make sense of someone saying “I’m dead” unless you’re attending a successful séance. Yet here we are in 2022, not only proclaiming our own expiration but reveling in it. Far from speech beyond the grave, “I’m dead” has come to communicate one of the highest pleasures of life: the giddy throes of uncontrollable laughter. When someone says “I’m dead” or even just “dead” in 2022, they’re telling you that they couldn’t be more tickled by what just happened. So how did being dead become a good thing?

Death and laughter have been strange bedfellows since ancient Greece, where, legend has it, the fifth-century-B.C. painter Zeuxis died from laughing at the portrait he was painting of a supposedly ugly old woman—a hilarious anecdote later immortalized in an equally hilarious painting by the Dutch master Arent De Gelder. And Zeuxis’s isn’t the only classically depicted death by laughter. The Stoic philosopher Chrysippus, by several accounts, kicked the bucket because he couldn’t stop laughing after witnessing a donkey eating his figs. Bizarrely, King Martin I of Aragon is said to have died laughing at a joke also concerning an animal eating figs. Legends of giggly demises litter history; as recently as 1989, a Danish audiologist is said to have passed away guffawing during a screening of A Fish Called Wanda. Apparently, the best medicine is also sometimes the sweetest poison. Although I admit it would be a great way to go, I myself will be avoiding all zoo-adjacent fig farms in the near future out of an abundance of caution.

The connection between death and laughter was consummated in English by—who else?—Shakespeare. In his comedy The Taming of the Shrew, after the exit of the vivacious and eccentric couple Petruchio and Katharine, Petruchio’s servant, Grumio, says, “Went they not quickly, I should die with laughing.” From then on, the phrase to die laughing was part of the language as a hyperbolic idiom—we all know it’s an exaggeration, but something within the fiction rings true to our relationship with laughter and death. The fatal violence of hilarity proliferated in English over the following centuries. From the 1930s slang to bust a gut to the idea of being “in stitches” to the ironic Catcher in the Rye Holden Caulfield–ism “That killed me,” there’s something about the experience of uncontrollable laughing that seems to put us into close contact with our inevitable nonexistence.

And it makes sense. Intense laughter expresses itself in violent convulsions and temporary loss of bodily control. Who among us hasn’t been part of a tickle-fest that verged on sadomasochistic brutality? Times when I laugh so hard that I cry can feel like an out-of-body experience—a sublime mania that temporarily relieves me of the burden of consciousness. Perhaps we say “I’m dead” because we’ve intuited that deep and frenzied laughter gives us a taste of the eternal unknown toward which we’re all always hurdling. This sense of comatose comicality yielded our Friday-level clue “That’s so funny I can’t even function.”

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‘Quick and painless death’: easier said than done

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The central goal of right-to-die organisations has not changed much over the past 150 years. In 1872 a British writer, Samuel D. Williams, wrote a book advocating the use of the novel anaesthetic chloroform to give patients “a quick and painless death”. In 1931 the British eugenicist Dr Killick Millard proposed legalisation of euthanasia “to substitute for the slow and painful death a quick and painless one”.

Now that legalisation has arrived, however, doctors have realised that a Q&P death is easier said than done.

Writing in a recent issue of The Spectator (UK) Dr Joel Zivot, a Georgia physician, expresses his doubts about whether lethal medications are the way forward. He studied the autopsy reports of more than 200 prisoners executed with lethal injections and found that many may have died in great pain.

“The death penalty is not the same as assisted dying, of course. Executions are meant to be punishment; euthanasia is about relief from suffering. Yet for both euthanasia and executions, paralytic drugs are used. These drugs, given in high enough doses, mean that a patient cannot move a muscle, cannot express any outward or visible sign of pain. But that doesn’t mean that he or she is free from suffering.”

Dr Zivot believes that pentobarbital, which, it seems, is used in Oregon in 4 out of 5 assisted suicides, caused pulmonary oedema – the lungs fill with liquid secretions and the person can die in agony. “Advocates of assisted dying owe a duty to the public to be truthful about the details of killing and dying. People who want to die deserve to know that they may end up drowning, not just falling asleep,” he writes.

Nor is death necessarily quick.

In Oregon, where statistics are gathered about the mode of death, the median time to death throughout the 23 years of the Act is 30 minutes but the maximum time is 4 days and 8 hours. The median time for people to fall unconscious is 5 minutes, the maximum is 6 hours.

At least in the United States, doctors who participate in assisted suicides are aware of these issues. Dr Lonny Shavelson, a California physician who specialises in this novel field, has helped to organise the American Clinicians Academy on Medical Aid in Dying. This provides a forum for doctors to establish a best-practice for helping people to die.

It turns out that the very diseases from which the patients suffer can make the drugs less effective. Dr Shavelson spoke with Medical Xpress last year about some of the difficulties:

“Shavelson and [his colleague retired anesthesiologist Dr Carol] Parrot have identified which patients are more likely to linger, and can recommend adjustments. People with gastrointestinal cancer, for example, don’t absorb the drugs as well. Former opiate users often have resistance to some of the drugs. Young people and athletes tend to have stronger hearts and can survive longer with low respiration rates.

“We’re learning. Hypothesis, data and confirmation. This is what science is,” he said. “Our job is to stop the heart; that’s what they want us to do.”

Complete Article HERE!

The US Civil War drastically reshaped how Americans deal with death

– Will the pandemic?

An art installation by Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg in remembrance of Americans who have died of COVID-19, near the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C.

By

More than 1 million people living in the United States have died of COVID-19 during the past two years.

The numbers paint a clear picture of devastation, though they can’t capture the individual and familial pain of losing loved ones – which will no doubt transform many more millions of Americans’ lives.

The impact of this mass death on American society as a whole is less clear, especially since the pandemic is not over. While there have been a few moments of public remembrance – 700,000 white flags placed on the National Mall, and President Joe Biden’s brief words noting the “one million empty chairs around the dinner table” – the country is only beginning to grapple with the shared grief of so many deaths.

Instead, there is public discord surrounding those who died. In a country divided over basic facts about the virus, deaths have been exploited for political purposes, or wrapped into conspiracy theories.

As a scholar of religion who has studied the history of death in America, I am quite preoccupied with how the country makes sense of, honors and remembers the COVID-19 dead. The magnitude of death today immediately brings to my mind the event that killed the second-highest number of Americans: the Civil War.

My first book, “The Sacred Remains,” looked at the conflict’s impact on Americans’ attitudes toward death, during another period of extreme division and overwhelming loss of life.

Preserving the dead

Roughly 750,000 people died in the Civil War, or 2.5% of the country’s population at the time – the equivalent of 7 million Americans dying today.

The unprecedented death toll had profound consequences on American cultures of death for generations, particularly through the emergence of the funeral industry.

Throughout the 19th century, most Americans died, and had their bodies tended to, at home. Last moments with the corpse were with loved ones, who were responsible for washing and preparing it for the final rituals before burial, generally in local churchyards.

But the Civil War provided an opportunity for a game-changing development. Embalming was an innovative method of preserving bodies that allowed some Northern families to have their war dead retrieved from the mostly Southern battlefields and brought back to be buried in Northern soil.

The display of President Abraham Lincoln’s embalmed body after his assassination was a pivotal moment in this transformation. His corpse was transported on a train from Washington, D.C., to Springfield, Illinois, with frequent stops in many Northern cities where it was put on display for grieving Americans.

A black and white illustration shows a line of people paying respects at a funeral.
A drawing depicts Americans viewing Abraham Lincoln’s body at City Hall in New York City in 1865.

As embalming became more common, it helped legitimize a new class of professional experts: funeral directors, whose homes became a mix of business, mortality, religion and their own domestic life. By the early 20th century, this new business had established a fairly standard American way of death, centered on the viewing of an embalmed body to bring a community together.

Americans’ relationship to their dead would never be the same. The intimacies the living had with the dead before the Civil War gradually disappeared, as funeral homes managed the care of more and more bodies.

Meaning-making

One of my intellectual heroes, sociologist Robert Hertz, wrote a famous essay about death and society in 1907. He argued that social groups represent themselves as immortal, capable of overcoming the death of any member. The community’s survival depends greatly on transcending death, so it transforms the dead into sacred symbols of group identity and social cohesion.

Hertz’s studies focused on death in small societies in Borneo. Yet his exploration of the relationship between the death of the individual and the life of the social group is pertinent now, in the context of the pandemic – as it was in the aftermath of the Civil War.

The victorious Union turned dead soldiers into symbols of the nation. Their deaths were seen as sacred sacrifices to preserve the country. For religion scholars, this is a clear example of American civil religion. In the U.S., civil religion is a patriotic culture that sees America as a sacred, exceptional country, built on shared ideals, myths and traditions.

But the Northern victors did not “control the narrative,” as we say these days. Indeed, a very striking and still-present counternarrative soon developed among the vanquished Confederates after the war. The losers built an alternative civil religious culture, what historians refer to as “the religion of the Lost Cause.”

Women in white dresses and skirts stand in front of a war monument in a black and white photograph.
Daughters of the Confederacy unveil the ‘Southern Cross’ monument at Arlington, Va., in 1917.

For many white Southerners, the battlefield dead did not signal God had abandoned their cause but rather illuminated his support for values associated with the Confederacy – values the United States is still grappling with today. They saw the loss as a temporary setback, but believed that ultimate victory would come if they maintained some form of Southern cultural purity based on notions of racial, regional and religious superiority.

Looking ahead

The politicization of death is not uncommon in American history, particularly during times of profound social crisis. And since the start of the pandemic, the same has happened with COVID-19 victims.

Death during a pandemic is obviously different from death during a civil war. In both cases, however, it is difficult for a divided country to experience unity in the face of an enormous loss of life and to agree on what those deaths mean for the nation.

Unique aspects of the pandemic make national mourning, and united healing, even more complicated. For example, the virus has not taken an equal toll across the country. The death toll shows significant disparities among different economic and racial groups. And the need to prevent contagion has intensified the physical separation between the living and the dead, making some meaningful rites of mourning difficult or impossible.

Many communities have made efforts to commemorate the pain of the pandemic, such as through Dia de los Muertos, a Mexican holiday honoring those who have died. But there have been minimal efforts to help make sense of the deaths on a national level: to rally around a compelling public narrative about the tremendous loss of life and grief. It remains to be seen if Americans will eventually incorporate the losses into a unifying civil religion, or only use them to reinforce polarization.

One million dead and counting will certainly require more efforts, more reflection and more soul-searching to help American society overcome and indeed draw strength from this unimaginable number.

Complete Article HERE!

Preparing Yourself or a Loved One to Die at Home

by Ray Burow

Death is not a fun topic, but failing to talk about end-of-life plans results in a lack of preparation and exacerbates emotional strain when a loved one passes away at home.

If your loved one opts to live out their final days in their house, or if you care for an elderly spouse or parent who’s in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease, they could die at home. Are you prepared? What are your loved one’s end-of-life wishes? Would they choose to pass away at home? Is hospice care an option, or is a hospital setting a better choice for your circumstances? Medicare often pays for hospice care.

Why some people prefer to die at home

Passing away at home is often preferred by critically ill or older individuals. According to the Stanford School of Medicine, studies indicate that 80% of Americans would choose to pass from this life surrounded by what’s familiar to them, preferably at home. However, many don’t get their wish. Only 20% of Americans die at home, while 60% die in acute care hospitals and 20% die in nursing homes.

People prefer to die at home for various reasons, but perhaps control is a primary contributor. The family can manage who comes and goes, providing an opportunity to gather, reminisce, and properly say goodbye. Caregivers administer palliative care in a comfortable, familiar environment rather than one that is foreign and starkly sterile.

Hospice care will assist with pain management, and no heroic actions are taken to resuscitate the patient, who is allowed to slip away. Depending on the laws in your state, you may be able to keep the body at the house for a period of time, and some families may choose to have the funeral at home, too.

How to prepare for a death at home

Preparing to die at home is a process that must occur before the person’s final days. If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with dementia, it is essential to decide in the early days of the condition, while the decision is still yours to make. Caregivers and loved ones, acting as surrogates, can carry out your wishes, but only when they know what they are.

Advance directive

An advance health directive is crucial to securing end-of-life wishes. It’s a legal document containing the patient’s desires. If the patient is incapacitated, the document expresses their values regarding end-of-life processes. These include whether first responders and healthcare professionals will administer CPR, if the patient will donate organs, and what comfort measures will be in place during the dying process.

When a person dies at home unexpectedly and without an advance directive, first responders typically can’t pronounce them dead, as required by law. Paramedics transport the remains to the nearest hospital emergency room, where a doctor will pronounce them. If hospice is in place, the hospice nurse can pronounce the person’s death at home, and the family arranges for a funeral home to remove the remains.

Without hospice, a living will, or an advance directive, the family must call emergency services when their loved one dies at home. Paramedics, possibly firefighters, and police officers will arrive at your home, but only a doctor or coroner can pronounce death.

Understand that without the proper documents in hand, paramedics have to follow protocol and will often begin administering emergency procedures and transport your loved one to a hospital where a doctor with authority to pronounce can do so. There are exceptions to this rule depending on where you live, and in some cases, paramedics are permitted to pronounce.

Following death

Some states require an autopsy when a person dies at home. If the deceased was advanced in age, an autopsy might not be necessary. In either case, you must make arrangements for transportation to a funeral home or crematorium. Don’t be shy to ask about cost. Funeral homes are required by law to provide that information when requested.

There is much more to preparing for death at home than what we can briefly discuss in this column, including the emotional and spiritual aspects and mourning through the grieving process. Mourning is necessary and healthy, and it’s futile to try and skip it. Grief will rise to meet you in unexpected places and at random times. A grief counselor, pastor, trusted friend, or family member can help you through the mourning process. You don’t need to mourn alone.

Complete Article HERE!

We all deserve a good death

– especially people living with dementia

On International Nurses Day (May 12), I commend the contribution made by all nurses involved in the care of people living with dementia in residential, home and community care, in hospitals and through clinics and health centres.

By Maree McCabe

Dementia is a terminal illness and appropriate palliative care is an essential element of quality care and end of life care for people with dementia, and for their families and carers.

People living with dementia, their families and carers deserve specialist dementia support to plan for and manage their end of life with dementia.

While people living with dementia will unlikely to be able to communicate clearly at their end of life and we may never know how much they can hear, see, feel and comprehend at that time, we need to support them and include them in decisions about their care through the continuum of the disease right through to end of life.

People with dementia share with us they need to have confidence in the system and the people involved in their care because they know they may not have capacity at the end of life to express their wishes. They rely on their families, support networks and healthcare professionals to ensure they receive quality dementia care and experience a good death.

Caring for someone with dementia can be rewarding and emotionally, physically and financially challenging. Families and carers frequently report feeling stressed and confused as to how and where to access end of life care and services, and can feel pressured to make immediate decisions for their loved ones.

Dementia Australia is calling on all sides of politics to commit to a national dementia palliative care program modelled on an evidence-based, nurse-led model of palliative care already successful in South Australia.

The Nightingale Program is the leading specialist dementia palliative care program in Australia and with the support of a federal funding commitment could be expanded across the country.

I acknowledge the support of existing funders, The Rosemary Foundation for Memory Support and Country SA Primary Health Network Ageing Well in Place initiative.

The Nightingale Program clients have access to specialist nurses who provide palliative care strategies and advice to support those living with dementia and their families and care providers. There is a focus on promoting choice and well-being.

The specialist dementia nurses are trained to deliver a person-centred approach to enable people living with dementia to:

  • Stay at home longer and maximise their independence
  • Promote quality of life and positive relationships
  • Have a voice in their future care options and decision making
  • Avoid unnecessary presentations to acute hospital settings
  • Access clinical advice, including co-morbidity management, pain management, delirium and palliation.

The many benefits of the Nightingale Program include:

  • Specialist nursing advice
  • Comprehensive and holistic nursing assessment, which will identify current issues and anticipate changing needs
  • Referral to other service providers as needed
  • Continuity of care, offering a single point of contact for guidance
  • Advice provided in home, residential aged care, community and hospital settings
  • Consultation in the development of advance care directives for future health care needs
  • Education and emotional support to support family and carers
  • Interdisciplinary teamwork throughout the health and care networks.

I call on all sides of politics to commit to expanding this program nationally to ensure all Australians living with dementia are supported by staff trained and qualified to provide dementia-specific palliative care.

Improving palliative care for people with dementia, no matter where they live, must be a policy priority Australia-wide to provide peace of mind for the almost half a million Australians living with dementia and the 1.6 million people involved in their care.

Complete Article HERE!

For Terminal Patients, the Barrier to Aid in Dying Can Be a State Line

Complex restrictions are preventing patients from accessing medical aid in dying, even in states where it is allowed. New legal and legislative efforts are pushing to change that.

Dr. Nicholas Gideonse, a hospice medical director and doctor at Oregon Health & Science University.

By Paula Span

Five years ago, Dr. Nicholas Gideonse spoke with an older man who had received a terminal cancer diagnosis and was hoping to use Oregon’s medical aid-in-dying law.

Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act, in effect since 1997, permits doctors, after a complex process of requests and waiting periods, to prescribe lethal medication for dying patients to self-ingest.

The nonprofit group End of Life Choices Oregon had referred the man to Dr. Gideonse, a primary care doctor at Oregon Health & Science University and a hospice medical director, who had already helped many patients use the law.

But this time he could not. “I’m really sorry,” he told the man on the phone. “I’m not going to be able to help you with this.” Oregon’s law — and all the laws that permit medical aid in dying in 10 states and in Washington, D.C. — has residency requirements. This man would have qualified — except for that fact he lived in nearby Washington State.

The patient’s response, Dr. Gideonse recalled, was “stunned silence, deep disappointment.” A number of Dr. Gideonse’s primary care patients drive 20 to 30 minutes across the Washington border to his office in Portland. There, he can offer them any medical service he is qualified to provide — except that one — without proof of residency. And although Washington has its own aid-in-dying law, its southwestern region has few providers who can help patients use it.

Last month Dr. Gideonse, backed by pro bono lawyers and Compassion & Choices, an advocacy group for expanding end-of-life options, filed a federal lawsuit claiming that the residency requirement for Oregon’s aid-in-dying law is unconstitutional. “I realized how important this could be for patients seeking access,” he said.

The lawsuit is one of several legal and legislative efforts around the country to reduce the requirements that patients must contend with in order to receive aid in dying. In some states, lawmakers have already broadened the types of health care providers that can participate, or have shortened waiting periods or allowed waivers.

“I think of it as MAID 2.0,” said Thaddeus Pope, an end-of-life bioethicist at Mitchell Hamline School of Law who tracks such actions, referring to the acronym for medical aid in dying. “We found out there’s an access problem.” He added, “We set all these safeguards and eligibility requirements and they locked a lot of people out.”

Oregon led the shift in easing access, amending its law in 2019. The state previously required patients to make two verbal requests for life-ending medication, at least 15 days apart, to ensure that they had not changed their minds. Now, if the patient is unlikely to survive that long, their doctor can waive the 15-day waiting period.

“Fifteen days is everything when you are suffering,” said Kim Callinan, the president and chief executive of Compassion & Choices, which supported the change. “People who are eligible for the law are hitting roadblocks and barriers.”

In 2016, for example, Youssef Cohen, a political scientist at New York University, took the extraordinary step of moving across the country to use the Oregon law as he was dying of mesothelioma at 68. “He wanted the option to determine the end of his life,” said his wife, Lindsay Wright, who is an associate dean at the university.

To establish residency, the couple had to hurriedly sign an apartment lease, obtain an ID from the state motor vehicle agency, transfer medical records and arrange an immediate appointment with a Portland doctor to qualify for medical aid in dying. Dr. Cohen then faced the 15-day waiting period.

“He didn’t make it,” Dr. Wright said. “He died six days after we arrived. And he suffered.”

A 2018 study from the Kaiser Permanente health system in Southern California showed that about one-third of qualifying patients died before they could complete the process.

New Mexico, which in June became the most recent state to legalize medical aid in dying, has adopted a markedly less restrictive approach than other states. The largely rural state is the first to allow not only doctors but advanced practice registered nurses and physician assistants to help determine eligibility and write prescriptions for lethal medication. “In some communities, they’re the only providers,” said Representative Deborah Armstrong, a Democrat and the bill’s primary sponsor.

Although a doctor must also affirm that a patient is terminally ill, New Mexico patients can skip that step if they have already enrolled in hospice, as most do. The patient need only make one written request, rather than two or more requests, as other states require. A 48-hour waiting period between when the prescription is written and when it is filled can be waived. “People walk up and tell me how thankful they are to have this option if they need it,” Ms. Armstrong said.

California has simplified its 2016 law as well. In October, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation that, starting in January, reduces the 15-day wait between verbal requests to 48 hours and eliminates the requirement for a third written “attestation.”

Similar bills died during the most recent legislative sessions in Hawaii, Washington and Vermont, but will be reintroduced, Ms. Callinan said. And in many states — including Delaware, Indiana, North Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Arizona — new aid-in-dying bills, if passed, will ease requirements for patients or expand the kinds of providers who may participate.

On the legal front, the Oregon lawsuit filed by Dr. Gideonse argues that residency requirements for aid in dying violate two sections of the U.S. Constitution, one barring state laws that limit the ability of a nonresident to access medical care and one prohibiting state laws that burden interstate commerce. The state must respond by Dec. 27.

“This is the only medical procedure we can think of that is limited by someone’s ZIP code,” said Kevin Diaz, the chief legal advocacy officer at Compassion & Choices.

A separate federal class action suit claims that California’s law, which like the others requires patients to self-administer the drugs that end their lives, discriminates against patients dying of neurodegenerative diseases that make it physically impossible to take medication without assistance.

The plaintiffs, charging violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act and California law, include patients with multiple sclerosis and A.L.S., also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, and their doctors. (In denying a request for a preliminary injunction, a judge ruled in September that the plaintiffs were asking California “to cross the line to euthanasia.”)

Catholic organizations, anti-abortion advocates and some disability groups continue to oppose aid in dying. The California Catholic Conference, the church’s public policy organization, for example, argued in June that liberalizing the state’s law “puts patients at risk of abuse and the early and unwillful termination of life.”

But polls regularly report broad public support. Last year, Gallup found that 74 percent of respondents agreed that doctors should be allowed to end patients’ lives “by some painless means” if they and their families request it.

Liberalizing the laws will likely increase participation, the bioethicist Dr. Pope predicts. “We know from evidence around the world that if you reduce the waiting period, or allow waivers in certain cases, it materially expands access,” he said.

Experts do not expect a major surge, however. Even in states where the practice has been legal for years, aid in dying accounts for very few deaths, a fraction of one percent. Of those who successfully navigate the process, moreover, about one-third do not use the drugs and instead die of their diseases.

Still, should Dr. Gideonse prevail in his lawsuit and a likely appeal, residency requirements in other regions might also start to fall. That could allow New York or Pennsylvania patients to use New Jersey’s aid-in-dying law, for instance, or Maryland and Virginia residents to seek providers in Washington, D.C.

It is an outcome that would please Dr. Gideonse. “This is an action in support of a needed and very important service,” he said. “I’m optimistic.”

Complete Article HERE!