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Beyond the Good Death

Beyond the Good Death: The Anthropology of Modern Dying

James W. Green
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    Beyond the Good Death
    Book Description:

    In November 1998, millions of television viewers watched as Thomas Youk died. Suffering from the late stages of Lou Gehrig's disease, Youk had called upon infamous Michigan pathologist Dr. Jack Kevorkian to help end his life on his own terms. After delivering the videotape to 60 Minutes, Kevorkian was arrested and convicted of manslaughter, despite the fact that Youk's family firmly believed that the ending of his life qualified as a good death. Death is political, as the controversies surrounding Jack Kevorkian and, more recently, Terri Schiavo have shown. While death is a natural event, modern end-of-life experiences are shaped by new medical, demographic, and cultural trends. People who are dying are kept alive, sometimes against their will or the will of their family, with powerful medications, machines, and "heroic measures." Current research on end-of-life issues is substantial, involving many fields. Beyond the Good Death takes an anthropological approach, examining the changes in our concept of death over the last several decades. As author James W. Green determines, the attitudes of today's baby boomers differ greatly from those of their parents and grandparents, who spoke politely and in hushed voices of those who had "passed away." Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, in the 1960s, gave the public a new language for speaking openly about death with her "five steps of dying." If we talked more about death, she emphasized, it would become less fearful for everyone. The term "good death" reentered the public consciousness as narratives of AIDS, cancer, and other chronic diseases were featured on talk shows and in popular books such as the best-selling Tuesdays with Morrie. Green looks at a number of contemporary secular American death practices that are still informed by an ancient religious ethos. Most important, Beyond the Good Death provides an interpretation of the ways in which Americans react when death is at hand for themselves or for those they care about.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0207-6
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[iv])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [v]-[vi])
    (pp. 1-30)

    On a november evening in 1998, a national television audience watched Thomas Youk die at his home in Waterford, Michigan. He did not expect millions to witness his death, but his attending physician thought it was a good idea. Youk actually died several months before the broadcast, but what the audience saw that night on the CBS show 60 Minutes was not a studio recreation but raw footage of his last breath. At fifty-two, he suffered from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also called Lou Gehrig’s disease, in which nerve cells slowly die and muscles atrophy until the heart no longer...

    (pp. 31-61)

    A compassionate physician once remarked that in his neonatal intensive care unit “no one dies in pain and no one dies alone.” That was his policy: humane, honest, straightforward. But it is not that simple, as he knew. Like birth and marriage, death is ritually dense in all cultures, creating occasions when belief and ritual are as present and as important as the physician’s ministrations. That is because death creates a unique problem: what should one do with a body? In no society do people simply leave the dead as they are and unceremoniously walk away. Central to any death...

    (pp. 62-85)

    Autopsies and dissection were part of medical training in Bologna as early as 1280. The medieval physicians and their students who studied there were not the only ones with an interest in anatomy, however. Caroline Walker Bynum, who has written extensively on religious beliefs associated with the body in the history of Christianity, notes that “The same period saw increased enthusiasm for boiling and dividing holy bodies in order to produce relics for quick distribution” (1995: 322). Thomas Aquinas’s body may have been boiled in 1303, and “An (unboiled) hand given to his sister was, significantly, later found to be...

    (pp. 86-128)

    The english dissenters who beached at Cape Cod in 1620 arrived well prepared. Packed into a ship previously used in the wine trade were their clothes, tools, pots, seeds, and a store of “victuals” sufficient for a return. On board, too, was a distinctive vision of divinity and an explicit notion of humankind’s place in this life and that to come. Since then, Americans have carried on a conversation framed by these seafaring Separatists about the nature of the afterlife and, maybe more important, who will be rewarded there and who will not. Two views about the afterlife have been...

    (pp. 129-151)

    The idea that children know so little about death that they need a book to understand it is a modern conceit.¹ It seems improbable that a hundred years ago, when America was predominantly agricultural, anyone would have offered a book on death to farm children whose chores included beheading and plucking chickens. Nor is it likely that books would be needed for children in nineteenth-century immigrant ghettos where, packed in tenements, they regularly saw lives shortened by crime, tuberculosis, and sweatshops. Using books to teach children about death requires an audience with the interest and time for reading and a...

    (pp. 152-186)

    What does it mean to memorialize those who have died? Lincoln’s famous eulogy for the dead at Gettysburg was spare, somber, and modest: “We cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract” (Wills 1992: 61). But his sense of the carnage, with its appeal to God and history, is not the current fashion. Most no longer think of death as an occasion for memorializing in Lincoln’s sweeping, transcendent sense. The preference now is to “celebrate a life,”...

    (pp. 187-202)

    The american way of death, as Mitford described it in 1963, is not what it was then. Her broadside against the funeral industry raised an important consumer issue but hardly told the whole story. Nor does Kübler-Ross’s depiction of dying a “good death” fit well with current realities. There is a larger pattern in contemporary dying, although it is not always visible to those who must deal with it. In the discussion of souls and soulscapes, I argued that images of a postmortem existence are not fantasies to which people irrationally cling when life is literally falling apart. In the...

  10. NOTES
    (pp. 203-234)
    (pp. 235-254)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 255-258)
    (pp. 259-259)