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Death and Dying

By Patrick Collins

What defines a life? When does it begin, and when does it end?

Before you reach for an automatic answer, consider that while birth and death may be among the few true human constants, cultures across the world frame these universals in surprisingly different ways.

In Western culture, for example, we locate personhood in the brain, but in other cultures equal emphasis is placed on the heart or the liver as the seat of consciousness. In many of these cultures brain death is not the clear clinical marker that a person has passed away, and declaring the moment of death is a religious matter rather than a medical one. In yet other cultures the deceased are not seen to have departed the physical realm at all, and their spirits are credited with being the prime shapers of everyday reality.

As strange as some of these notions may seem, the truth must be recognized that to other cultures, Western beliefs and practices surrounding death must seem equally bizarre and nonsensical. One fruitful approach to this astonishing variety of worldviews might be to observe this diversity with an open mind, asking ourselves what the generalizations among the differences are, and how we can apply the lessons learned in practical, life-enhancing ways.

For Dr. Jill Fleuriet, associate professor in the Department of Anthropology, questions such as these are not merely interesting but essential to a fully lived life, and the knowledge they lead to is more than merely theoretical; it can positively inform one’s daily relationships and actions. Her anthropological study of death and dying in cultures across the planet represents both a professional pathway as well as a personal opportunity to deepen her understanding of the ways in which humanity deals with one of life’s most fundamental mysteries.

In Fleuriet’s view, the field of cultural anthropology – which at its essence explores the ways in which people make and share meaning about the world – is particularly well suited for the study of cultural attitudes towards death and dying. The field stands out from related social science disciplines, she points out, because of its unique unit of analysis and the fact that it recognizes daily life as a primary site for making and sharing meaning. While sociology primarily looks at social institutions and the ways in which societies organize themselves, and psychology focuses on the mind and how mental processes produce patterns of thought and behavior, cultural anthropology differentiates itself by emphasizing ethnographic work as its prime methodology. Ethnography, explains Fleuriet, involves up-close participant observation that is best achieved by profound cultural immersion. “We also do structured observations and interviews along with a whole host of other methods, but what grounds us is this long-term immersion in a community as a member of that community – a sort of deep hanging out.”

As a tool for the study of human beliefs and attitudes, the ethnographic process produces a body of research that, far from being a disinterested collection of abstract observations, provides a view into a foreign culture informed by empathy, context, and meaning. Studying death anthropologically implies successively slipping into different human lives (each complete with its own perspective shaped by individual experiences and cultural influences) to examine the topic from a richly varied set of viewpoints.

Among the most notable insights this approach to studying death has given Fleuriet is an understanding of the alienating effects caused by recent changes in death practices in the U.S. Death, she explains, used to be a family and community event, with the person dying at home surrounded by loved ones, and the body kept in the home for mourning rituals. But with the medicalization of death and the emergence of the funeral industry in the twentieth century, the overwhelming majority of Americans now die in hospitals and assisted care facilities, and very often are not lucky enough to be surrounded by family and friends. The natural consequence is that the dying process is experienced as a lonely and frightening event, and those who are left behind are not exposed to death in a way that fortifies them for future experiences.

“This all means that, for most Americans, there’s a lot of distance between regular experience and death and dying, and that makes it really hard for people to deal with death when it does confront them,” says Fleuriet. “I think about people I know who have not been around death and experience it for the first time, and not only are they in a space of terrible grief but they don’t even have the vocabulary to come to terms with it – and, often, neither does anybody they know. And that to me is just so sad.”

"The ways in which we talk about certain kinds of people dying and the ways in which they die is very much a political project."

Fleuriet’s own experiences with death offer a telling reflection of these realities. Her first encounter with death occurred when she was seven years old. Her maternal grandmother died of emphysema alone in a hospital. The doctors didn’t allow her husband to be with her, much less her daughter or Fleuriet herself. “I have a distinct memory of standing outside the hospital and looking through her first-story window to wave at her, and her waving back,” she says of the experience. “I never got to say goodbye.” Two years later, she had a completely different experience with death. Her paternal grandmother had contracted lung cancer, and her parents wanted her to be in the comfort of their home when her time came. Her grandmother stayed in a hospital bed in Fleuriet’s room, and Fleuriet moved into her parents’ room. Thanks to the way her parents framed the experience, the event was neither scary nor traumatizing. Instead, it was a time of great bonding, and her grandmother passed away gently

Later in life, when in college, Fleuriet was exposed in a span of months to the deaths of three young adults whom she loved deeply. Despite her earlier experiences with death, Fleuriet found herself completely unprepared to make sense of the events. She understood that older people died. It was sad, but she had a script for her grief that helped her. The death of young people, however, was an entirely different matter. She decided to get away from it all, traveling to Glasgow to study abroad. But she kept taking courses in anthropology, a discipline she had recently stumbled into and found to be an exceptional tool for self-understanding, and she slowly made her way through the grief and confusion.

A Course on Death

Years later, informed by her own The ways in which we talk about certain kinds of people dying and the ways in which they die is very much a political project. encounters with death and with the transformative power of anthropology as a lens through which to view life, Fleuriet developed a course on death and dying in the hope that students might find their own unique, lifeaffirming answers to end-of-life issues that are seldom discussed in American culture. “I wanted to teach a course that through study of the unfamiliar, we become more aware and thoughtful about the familiar,” she says. “I found that most people either have an inherent and visceral interest in or avoidance of the topic, but once they’re given a platform on which to talk about death and dying productively they stop operating on those poles. They often get intensely and personally involved with it.”

Throughout the course, students discuss a wide range of ethnographic texts and films about diverse approaches to death and dying to aid in understanding their own culture’s practices. Students are asked to write their own obituaries, non-binding advanced directives, and eulogies, which involves thinking through details such as their age at death, where they imagine themselves dying, what the role of medical technology will be in their deaths, who will survive them, and what their lasting impressions on loved ones will be. Far from having a morbid effect, many students actually find themselves having meaningful conversations with close friends and significant others about what they want to do with their life and how they want to die. “The assignments allow them to think through career and family paths,” says Fleuriet. “It makes them start to think about the ways in which they value their lives.”

Part of the course involves employing anthropological analysis to think through challenging debates around abortion, euthanasia, and the death penalty, as well as using death rituals as an entry point to examining larger cultural issues, such as patterns of inequality in the world. Incidents of mass deaths and genocide are examined, along with trends behind memorialization and the reporting of certain deaths over others. “The ways in which societies talk about certain kinds of people dying and the ways in which they die is very much a political project,” says Fleuriet. In all of this, students begin to develop a concrete and practical vocabulary for death that in many cases replaces a nebulous sense of fear or unfamiliarity.

While Fleuriet is still in the process of discovering how her academic interest in death and dying will inform future directions in her research – thus far her publications have focused on maternal health, that is, on the beginnings of life – she’s clear on the impact she wants her work to have. “Cultural anthropology gives us such a wide possibility to imagine a future where we celebrate people even as we’re grieving the loss of them in a certain form,” she says. “Ultimately, I would love to contribute to a dialogue that has that as its goal.”