When a person is born, we rejoice, and when they’re married, we jubilate, but when they die, we try to pretend that nothing happened. –Margaret Mead Odd as it sounds, there can be little question that some deaths are better than others. People cross-culturally have always made invidious distinctions between good deaths and bad. Compare, for instance, crooner Bing Crosby’s sudden death following eighteen rounds of his beloved golf with the slow motion, painful expiration of an eighty-year-old diabetic. Bedridden following the amputation of his leg, the old man eventually began slipping in and out of consciousness.
This continues over a period of years, exhausting the emotional, physical. and financial resources of his family. The essence of a “good death” thus involves the needs of the dying (such as coming at the end of full and completed lives, and when death is preferred to continued existence) as well as those of their survivors and the broader society. Whereas the prevalence of unanticipated and premature deaths led to pre-industrial cultures to focus death fears on individuals’ postmortem fates, the death fears of modern cultures are more likely to focus on the processes of dying.
Thus contemporary fears of dying involve the anxieties of dying within institutional settings, where often life is structured for the convenience of staff and where residents suffer both physical and psychological pain in their depersonalization. They also involve fears of being victims of advanced Alzheimer’s Disease: being socially dead and yet biologically alive. In sum, the dreaded liminality between the worlds of the living and the dead have historically shifted from the period after death to the period preceding it.
Cultural coping mechanisms have not kept pace with the dramatic changes in when and how we die. With a generation or two (rates varying by social class, religion, etc. ) having died within institutionalized isolation, Americans are forgetting about how to learn to focus on dying as a human process, how to include the dying in their dialogues, and how to learn the lessons of their existence. Instead, the dying process now too often features silence or diversion.
However, not surprisingly in our service-oriented economy, there are challenges to this medicalized, depersonalizing cultural route toward life’s conclusion SOCIALIZATIONS FOR DEATH Like those at the dawn of human species, young children understand neither the inevitability of their own mortality nor its finality. Death fears must be learned. Paralleling the attempts of anthropologists and historians to map the death ethos of Western culture over time, there is a sizable research tradition in psychology and psychiatry on exactly how children’s concepts of death unfold developmentally.
As social scientists have studied the long-term social and cultural consequences of mass epidemics or total war, psychiatrists attempt to gauge how early firsthand death encounters later affect the motivations, psychoses, and fears of adulthood. And what lessons are learned in childhood about death? Consider the Saturday morning catechism. The lessons begin with the selection of breakfast cereals. Consider the products to the right, featuring flawed but immortal creatures (Frankenstein, a creature created from body parts, and Dracula, who subsists on the blood of the living).
While eating their immortality flakes, children may watch their favorite cartoon: “The Roadrunner. ” The story line never varies: a coyote employs a number of strategies to kill (we assume to eat) the bird, only to have each attempt lethally backfire before he is once again resurrected to resume the hunt. This cartoon is followed by others bearing similar messages of violence, death, and indestructibility. The following is the breakdown of their responses to the question “When you were a child, how was death talked about in your family? Openly 39% With some sense of discomfort 19% Only when necessary and then with an attempt to exclude the children 14% As though it were a taboo subject 2% Never recall any discussion 26% TOTAL 439 For nearly one-half of these students the first personal involvement with death was the loss of a grandparent; for one out of five, it was the death of a pet. Consider how different these lessons received by children of America’s upper-middle class vary from those from the lower rungs of society’s stratification order.
For the former, death typically comes to the old–to those who have lived full and completed lives. For the latter, death too often comes prematurely due to violence or accident. Consider, for instance, the following table derived from the 1988-90 NORC General Social Surveys (n=4194), summarizing Americans’ responses to the question “Within the past 12 months, how many people have you known personally who were victims of homicide? ” PERCENT OF AMERICANS KNOWING ONE OR MORE HOMICIDE VICTIMS AGE WHITE AMERICANS AFRICAN AMERICANS 18-25 11. 6% 41. % 26-35 9. 5% 30. 6% 36-45 8. 4% 22. 9% 46-55 7. 4% 11. 9% 56-65 8. 0% 23. 7% 66+ 3. 8% 6. 6% TOTAL 8. 0% 24. 0% In addition to individuals’ social class, death socialization also vary across the lifespan.
Late adolescence and early adulthood are periods when individuals are drunk with future time. Senses of immortality are lost during the middle years, when those of one’s parents’ generation routinely die (and one realizes that one is next up to bat with the Grim Reaper) and when the first of one’s friendship circle dies of “natural causes. In old age, individuals’ futurity dissolves as their time runs out. Is there a life-cycle pattern of death fears? To find out, consider the responses to the statement “Thinking about dying doesn’t bother me much,” which was asked to 1,201 randomly-selected Americans in the 1994 AARP “Images of Aging in America” survey. In total, 31 percent of Americans disagreed somewhat or strongly, females (33%) more than males (27%). Those 18-34 were most likely to disagree (38%) while those 65- 74 disagreed the least (23%).