There are two ways you can look at death as being pornographic. In the one sense, pornography is representative of something taboo. In the Victorian era sex was a taboo subject. Today, as some have argued, death is the new taboo … a taboo that we make a huge amount of effort to deny. Anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer said, “At present, death and mourning are treated with much the same prudery as sexual impulses were a century ago.”
Richard Beck wrote,
“the American success ethos is, at root, a neurotic defense mechanism involved in repressing death anxiety. The American culture is, thus, largely delusional and fictional, characterized by a fundamental dishonesty about our mortal condition. Americans pretend that they are immortal and have “all the time in the world.” Consequently, anything that punctures this illusion–disease, decay, debility or death–is pushed aside and avoided as unseemly and illicit. Hence the label “the pornography of death.”
Death as taboo pornography.
But there is another kind of death porn. Another way death and pornography are related. This other way isn’t through representation but through analogy.
Porno films have an intrinsically depersonalizing effect on those involved and those who watch. This commodity of sex has been shown to effect real life relationships in a variety of ways, most of which tend to be harmful. Just as “sex as commodity” can become harmful so can “death as commodity.”
Have you ever wondered why you can watch a gratuitous amount of violent deaths on TV and not be too particularly bothered by it? I’ve never lost sleep over a death on a TV show (although it was difficult when Lori died on The Walking Dead. And the Starks in Game of Thrones).
We play Black Ops on our game console and kill a couple dozen persons in one sitting without thinking about the fact that we are playing a game (A GAME!) where the objective is to kill as many people as we can. And the best gamer is the one who can kill the most.
We watch violence and gore on TV, in movies and remain relatively unaffected.
And this “unaffectedness” is because death has become a commodity. A thing. Something we can look at. Removed from person, and removed from emotion.
Death as a commodity is, in many ways, like pornography. It’s become something that we can safely substitute for the real thing. It’s all the visuals without the love, the trust, the grief and the person. Just as pornography is the commodity of sex without love, so our present grasp of death (via TV, video games, etc.) is death without person and without grief.
And yet, while violence is all throughout our TV shows and video games, we are really uneasy when we talk about the real thing. It’s all the gore without the grief, which – like sexual pornography – doesn’t always prepare us for the reality of death and the grief that comes with us.
Death porn can make us insensitive to a co-worker who is “grieving longer than he/she should”. “Shouldn’t Pat be over that death by now?” If all we know is death porn, then the answer is “Yes. Pat should be over that death by now.” With death, there are no “one night stands” but death porn makes us think there is.
When death becomes pornified, it becomes something that we should “shield the children from.” So, like we often do when talking about sex around our children, we bath our language with euphemisms.
Grandpa has been:
“Gone to a better place”
“Gone to glory”
And when someone dies in the family we make sure that our children don’t have to see it. We “block that channel.” We are so used to the scary fantasy of death that we don’t realize how much beauty, love and life is in real dying, real death and real grief.
Finally, we learn to do death in private. Sure, we might have a funeral (although funerals are become less and less of a social occasion), but we don’t want others to see us grieve. When a friend asks, “How are you?” we won’t say how much grief hurts, we won’t let our friend see our emotions; instead, we’ll say, “I’m fine.” And so we’ve denied it. We’re ashamed of it. We feel guilty. “I just don’t want to be a burden to them.” As though death and grief is something that should be kept away, hidden and private.
But death isn’t pornography. Death isn’t dirty. Death isn’t something we should deny. Like sex, in the context of love, death is full of beauty, love and life. What good sex is to a good relationship, so the good death is to a community. Death provides that experience where the community – despite our differences — can come together as one.
The pornification of death robs us all. It hurts us, hurts our relationships and hurts our community.
A facebook and real life friend posted this in his status yesterday. It was so good that I wanted to share it with you.
If you know someone who is grieving, this is probably how they want you to treat them:
Please be patient with me; I need to grieve in my own way and in my own time.
Please don’t take away my grief or try to fix my pain. The best thing you can do is listen to me and let me cry on your shoulder. Don’t be afraid to cry with me. Your tears will tell me how much you care.
Please forgive me if I seem insensitive to your problems. I feel depleted and drained, like an empty vessel, with nothing left to give.
Please let me express my feelings and talk about my memories. Feel free to share your own stories of my loved one with me. I need to hear them.
Please understand why I must turn a deaf ear to criticism or tired clichés. I can’t handle another person telling me that time heals all wounds.
Please don’t try to find the “right” words to say to me. There’s nothing you can say to take away the hurt. What I need are hugs, not words.
Please don’t push me to do things I’m not ready to do, or feel hurt if I seem withdrawn. This is a necessary part of my recovery.
Please don’t stop calling me. You might think you’re respecting my privacy, but to me it feels like abandonment. Please don’t expect me to be the same as I was before. I’ve been through a traumatic experience and I’m a different person.
Please accept me for who I am today. Pray with me and for me. Should I falter in my own faith, let me lean on yours. In return for your loving support I promise that, after I’ve worked through my grief, I will be a more loving, caring, sensitive, and compassionate friend-becauseI have learned from the best.
By Margaret Brownley
A couple years ago we had a late night house call. We drove up to the house, and an uncle came outside to meet us, explaining the situation we were about to enter.
“You guys are here for my niece, Sara.
She’s 16 years old.
Been fighting cancer for four years.
She’s in the living room with her mother, Joan.”
We entered the house, walked to the living room and were greeted by about 20 family and friends that were scattered all over the living room, some sitting, and some standing, others laying on the floor.
When a terminal person is dying under home care it’s normal for a hospital bed to be temporarily set up in a large room, enabling larger groups to visit the dying. In this case, the bed was in the living room, but the deceased wasn’t to be found lying on it; which was very unusual. We allowed them time to explain who Sara was, what she meant to them. All families need this time. They need to believe that through their stories Sara would be incarnated in us, so that we could love her the same … so that we could become a part of their family. Once we’re apart of “the family”, we no longer represent a cold funeral director, but a tender caregiver.
After their stories, we asked them if they were ready for us to make our removal. They all had said their last “good-bye”. And then we asked, “Where is Sara?”
“She’s here”, said Joan the mother. And then we saw her. When we first walked into the living room we saw a small girl being held by Joan. The girl looked to be around ten years old, and being that it was late we just assumed that this was one of Sara’s younger sisters who had fallen asleep in Joan’s arms. But, it turned out, Sara had died in her mother’s arms and there she laid.
Like the transfer of a sleeping child from one adult to the next, I got down on my knees, slide my arms under Sara’s head and thighs, lifted her starved body out of her weeping mother’s lap and carried her to our stretcher. The room was full. Full of love. Full of grief. Full of tears. And I was a part of it all.
I tell you this story because I want to make a distinction between empathy and sympathy. Let me explain the difference:
Imagine being at the bottom of a deep, dark hole. Peer up to the top of the hole and you might see some of your friends and family waiting for you, offering words of support and encouragement. This is sympathy; they want to help you out of the pit you have found yourself in. This can assist, but not as much as the person who is standing beside you; the person who is in that hole with you and can see the world from your perspective; this is empathy. — Dr Nicola Davies
There are times (at funerals especially) when all we can give is sympathy. When it’s outside of our ability to fully empathize with a person’s situation. But, there’s other times when you can’t help but be drawn into the narrative, so that you enter the narrative and become a character in the story. Not just a narrator, but an actual character in the drama of life and death.
Too often when child sponsorship programs like World Vision attempt to gain your support, they appeal to your sympathy. “Look at this poor, starved, naked child as he picks food out the dumpster. His distended stomach looks like a balloon and those flies around his face are the only friends he has.” Sympathy appeal, expected to make you go, “O.M.G. If I only spend $40 a month I can give him some rice and … maybe I’ll send him an iPad for Christmas.”
And sympathy works … it creates donors.
But I want to invite you to empathy.
Mother Teresa said, “Do you look … at the poor with compassion? They are hungry not only for the bread and rice, they are hungry to be recognized as human beings.” This “recognition” involves more than food, it involves
and food, agriculture and clean water.
All recognition factors that World Vision does in Guatemala and abroad.
In September I’m going with World Vision to Guatemala to visit a child that I sponsor. And I want you to sponsor a child as well (here’s a link to World Vision’s Charity Rating). In fact, my goal is to have 50 children sponsored by you, my readers.
So, I’m inviting you to empathy. I’m not selling you something or playing on your sympathy. No, I want you to get down on your knees, look into the eyes of someone you don’t know, learn about them and walk with them as they grow.
Enter a story.
Click here to sponsor a child in the village that I will be visiting. And, if you sponsor or not, help me reach my goal of 50 sponsorships by SHARING this post.
The following post was submitted by a funeral director who wishes to remain anonymous. While the names have been changed to protect the privacy of the parties involved, the circumstances and events that you are about to read are entirely true.
Jane Doe had been a prominent and well-known local politician. She had been on hospice for a short time. Upon arriving at Jane’s, typical suburban house, at the end of the culda sac, I counted about 15 cars parked around her house. I couldn’t help but think, “Wow! Jane was very well loved, and there are a lot of cars here for 2am.
Upon ringing the door bell, I was greeted by John, her husband of 30 years. He couldn’t help but apologize for “waking us up at such an ungodly hour”. After speaking with John, and asking if he was ready for us, he replied, “Yes” and invited us inside. Internally I thought this will be straight shot, piece of cake pickup.
What I failed to gather was the mood of the people in the house … the quiet before the storm. Jane had been in the living room. Me and my partner gather our required equipment, and made the 50 foot journey to the living room. I began my speech, “if you would to stay and watch and help, you’re more than welcome too. Please do not feel as if you have to leave the room.” No one wanted to help us move Jane, but they all decided to stay and watch.
Upon getting Jane onto the stretcher, I was entirely unaware of the mass hysteria about to unfold in front of my eyes. After I moved Jane onto the stretcher, I began to tighten the strap when Jane’s body, due to the force of me strapping her in, belched.
Mass hysteria erupted. I was literally tackled away from the stretcher, 911 was called, and the teary eyed people now became violent, as to them I was taking their very much ALIVE loved one who had not died. I was sat upon, as the police and ambulance were on their way. What was probably only 3 minutes seemed like an eternity and I could only think of one thing, “where is this hospice nurse?!”
Upon the authorities’ arrival, I was able to explain my predicament. And that the belching that had occurred was a natural and actually fairly common phenomena for the dead. The police officer, fireman, and ambulance driver cracked a knowing smile and helped me restore the peace as I took Jane into my care.
They even escorted us to the funeral home. John, upon seeing me the next afternoon to make arrangements, immediately burst into laughter, saying, “Sorry about last night, my family loved her very dearly.” My only response was to politely say “I would have done the same thing had I not known better.”
Note: I wrote this article over the weekend and I wasn’t going to publish it until Wednesday, but since I just spent my entire night [11 PM to 5:45 AM] picking up three deceased persons, I thought it’s probably appropriate to post it now. After I hit “publish”, I’ll be off to bed and back to work by noon. Ah, the joys of a small family business.
If you’re in the Parkesburg area and want to donate coffee* to my bloodstream, you’ll find me at 434 Main St.
*I prefer a medium cup of Dunkins Donuts with cream and sugar : )
The following burdens are not necessarily funeral service specific, but many, if not all, come with this profession. Those of us who stay in this profession do so because we find serving others in their darkest hour extremely rewarding, yet there are burdens to be borne. Here’s ten.
One. A Lack of Personal Boundaries.
The phone rings at 3 AM in the morning with a hospice nurse on the other end of the line telling you that so-and-so has died, that so-and-so’s family is requesting your services and that the family of so-and-so is ready for you to come and pick up so-and-so.
The phone rings at 6 PM the next day. Someone needs to see so-and-so … he simply can’t believe so-and-so is dead and must come to the funeral home at once to see so-and-so.
While those of us who stay in this business do so because we love serving people, the lack of personal boundaries can lead to depression.
Depression, because my son’s baseball game was at 6 PM, but somebody in so-and-so’s family needed to see so-and-so this very minute. Depression because the emotional needs of others somehow always trump my personal life needs. And all of a sudden “I’m not a good father” and “I’m not happy with my life.”
Psychologist Carl Rogers described how he “literally lost my “self”, lost the boundaries of myself…and I became convinced (and I think with some reason) that I was going insane”. When we in human service, and death service, become pulled into the whole narrative of death and dying, we can lose ourselves.
An iron stomach I have not. Putrid smells, this business has many. This is a burden that comes home with me … a burden that my wife often notices shortly after I walk through the door.
Five. Life Secrets, Death Secrets and Practice Secrets.
When a person commits suicide or dies from an overdose, there are times when the family simply wants to keep the manner of death a secret from the public.
I don’t mind carrying the burden of a secret, but when you live in a small town where suspicion can run rampant, secrets can become heavy.
Some things we see will remain with us forever. They are so disturbing, so terrible that we do the world a favor by not sharing them.
Six. Isolation by Profession.
Death makes us different … not necessarily unique, just different. This difference creates a chasm between us and those not immersed in death. Sure, police, doctors, psychologist, etc. have chasms created by their professions, but ours – because of the fear, sadness and undefined hours of our practice – creates us into something other.
Seven. Death itself.
Death can be a beautiful experience in the life of a family. But when that death is tragic and unexpected, death is a heavy burden for both the family and for those who serve the family. Specifically, when the death is a young person, our entire staff becomes agitated and moody.
Many funeral homes are small businesses that don’t have enough staff for shift work. In order to serve our families (so that they’ll return), we have learned that the way to overcome the depression and potential psychosis that can come with a lack of personal boundaries is to marry the business. We make the work our life. Such work addiction pleases the families we work for, but can leave our personal families destitute.
And while many of us don’t carry the burden of workaholism, we do carry the burden of fighting off the addiction.
Nine. Death Logistics Stress.
Every business has stress. Some more and some less. And while funeral service can’t claim a quantitative difference in stress, it can claim to have its very own type of stress. To grasp the type of stress surrounding a funeral, imagine planning a wedding in five days, except where there’s joy, sadness exists, and where there’s usually a bride, a dead body lies in state.
Ten. Dress clothes …
… in the summer heat. Dress clothes in the dead of winter. We are one of the few — armed service members are the only others I can think of — professions that wears suits outdoors as a matter of practice. There’s nothing like having sweat drip down your back and into your crack. Well, nothing except maybe freezing your dress shoe covered toes in a foot of snow.
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