Death's Summer Coat: What the History of Death and Dying Teaches Us About Life and Living
In the tradition of Being Mortal, Brandy Schillace looks at what we can learn from the incredibly diverse ways in which humans have dealt with mortality in different times and places
Death is something we all confront―it touches our families, our homes, our hearts. And yet we have grown used to denying its existence, treating it as an enemy to be beaten back with medical advances.
We are living at a unique point in human history. People are living longer than ever, yet the longer we live, the more taboo and alien our mortality becomes. Yet we, and our loved ones, still remain mortal. People today still struggle with this fact, as we have done throughout our entire history. What led us to this point? What drove us to sanitize death and make it foreign and unfamiliar?
Schillace shows how talking about death, and the rituals associated with it, can help provide answers. It also brings us closer together―conversation and community are just as important for living as for dying. Some of the stories are strikingly unfamiliar; others are far more familiar than you might suppose. But all reveal much about the present―and about ourselves.
B&W illustrations throughout
notice cards. The word ‘obituary’ is itself a euphemism that means ‘departure’ in Latin. In the notice on page 7 the image is of a gate, leading to a shining city – the gates are open to receive the ‘departing’ spirit. Beneath, it reads ‘Gone but not forgotten’, and ‘gone’ also suggests taking leave, rather than the obliteration of death. The poem that follows uses more of these departure words: vacant, gone, a place unfilled. The soul has been ‘recalled’ by God – it is on a spiritual road trip.
Michael Mosley talks about the ‘errors’ of Galen – not really errors so much as misunderstandings based upon available knowledge – and notes that the presiding professors failed to comment on certain discrepancies even when they saw them – for instance, Galen claimed the human liver had three lobes, when it has only two. In the 1530s, however, change appeared on the horizon, thanks to the work of Andreas Vesalius, the ‘father’ of anatomy. Vesalius ushered in a new approach to the practice and
without. Regardless of which side of the debate you support, whether you understand gross anatomy as the best means of teaching medicine or as a relic reduced to symbolism, one thing remains clear: most of us are not doctors. Younger westerners who have not attended a dissection class are unlikely to have seen a corpse – a dead body uncovered, unadorned and unmediated – in any other context. The screen of distance from the dead, be it through the hospital room, the funeral parlour or the digital
revolves around stroke and brain health, wrote an article called ‘The History of Brain Death as Death’ in 2013. In it, he dates this shift in living/dead diagnostics to 1947 and locates it specifically in Cleveland, Ohio, where cardiac surgeon Claude Beck famously ‘defibrillated’ the human heart, reversing certain death from cardiac arrest. We are so used to this idea today – the resounding ‘CLEAR!’ and the shock of paddles, or CPR, which Beck developed – that it scarcely raises an eyebrow. But
search for answers, the need not only to memorialise but to have a place to put our memories and emotions, this is what makes us human. In her article for The Star, Katelyn Verstraten quotes a man who lost his daughter in a tragic car accident: ‘Just about everything I do in my world, in my life today, is a reflection of that,’ he said, ‘I’m not going to spend my life doing anything that isn’t rewarding and meaningful to me.’ Death dinners and death cafes may appear, at first glance, to be fads,