Archive for October, 2014

Yonge Street Portage | Canadian Conversations and National News: What to Keep in Mind as the Ghomeshi Case Unfolds

Posted in Guest Posts on October 27, 2014 by Diana S-V

I wrote a short piece on today’s news regarding the CBC and Jian Ghomeshi. Head over to The Yonge Street Portage to read it by clicking the picture below.

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Forthcoming publication | Writing the Transitioning Body

Posted in Professional, Publications, The corpse with tags , , on October 21, 2014 by Diana S-V

I woke up to some lovely news this morning. My book chapter proposal “(Dis)figuring the Aporetic Subject: Body Worlds, Derrida’s Archive, and New Materialism” has been accepted as part of an anthology called Writing the Transitioning Body, which will be coming out some time in 2016. You can find the abstract here.

Review | Smoke Gets In Your Eyes & Other Lessons From the Crematory

Posted in Reviews, The corpse with tags , , , , on October 20, 2014 by Diana S-V

Image courtesy of The Order of the Good Death

For those who do not wish to read realistic depictions of death and dead bodies, you have stumbled onto the wrong book. Here is where you check the metaphorical blindfolds at the door. The stories are true and the people are real.

Chief among the many reasons that I admire Caitlin Doughty is the fine balance she achieves through her role as a death theorist. I suppose I’m a death theorist, too, or I am at least working to become one, but I also want to be a death educator, a death visionary, and a death guide. Doughty’s own work (the “Ask a Mortician” web series, her excellent blog, and her founding of The Order of the Good Death in January 2011)  and her involvement with affiliated projects such as Death Salon sees her take up these roles with the intent to change the West’s death-phobic culture through public education. From the biomedical to the technical to the sociocultural, Doughty’s pedagogical approach to deathcare and dying is consistently accessible—entertaining, topical or vignette-style information sessions during which common foundational/technical questions about deathcare practices and traditions are addressed. For the layperson to the rigorously self-educated and everyone in between, Doughty’s approach carefully orients readers and viewers towards the realities of deathcare and says, “Here’s how we do it. And here’s how we can do better.”

In some ways, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes is no different. Longtime followers will recognize Doughty’s trademark style: frank, thoughtful, precise when it comes to details and terminology but lively, too, with a healthy dose of black humour. I suspect that for some, Doughty’s levity will be deemed too much to handle or inappropriate. Yet the relationship between humour and the topic of death and dying need not (and should not) be one of mutual exclusion. If there’s one thing that Doughty’s book reveals in jarring detail it is the absurdity and, indeed, the failure of contemporary deathcare practices in a society too terrified of death to remember what it means to “take care” of the dead into our own hands and, in turn, to take care of ourselves in the face of our own inevitable death. If I could point to one statement in Doughty’s book that encapsulates this, it would be the end of the chapter “Pink Cocktail,” which covers the history of chemically preserving corpses and a detailed description of contemporary embalming from reception to viewing. Doughty begins the chapter with the example of the Wari’ people of western Brazil and their practices of mortuary cannibalism, which not only provided total disappearance of the body but the opportunity to strengthen communal bonds and effectively grieve in the wake of a death.

“Every culture has death rituals with the power to shock the uninitiated and challenge our personal web of significance,” Doughty reminds us, and after detailing the tools and techniques of the embalming trade, anyone unfamiliar with these practices may well be shocked. It’s difficult to come to terms with the image of an embalmer firmly and repeatedly stabbing a trocar into the body cavity to puncture the internal organs, sucking out the body’s fluid and gaseous materials to make room for the pink cocktail of embalming fluid. Elsewhere, we learn that corpses’ jaws must be wired and pinned shut, their lips superglued together around a mouth former, their eyelids propped up with spiked eye caps, all to produce a purportedly “natural” effect. How is this less shocking, less disturbing, less grotesque than mortuary cannibalism or the excarnation-by-exposure of traditional Tibetan funerals? Doughty’s answer, of course, is that it isn’t. Furthermore, she adds,

[T]here is a crucial difference between what the Wari’ did and the Tibetans do with their deceased compared to what [embalmers do] . . . The difference is belief. The Wari’ had belief in the importance of total bodily destruction. Tibetans have the belief that a body can sustain other beings after the soul has left it. North Americans practice embalming, but we do not believe in embalming. It is not a ritual that brings us comfort; it is an additional $900 charge on our funeral bills.

If we don’t believe in it, why do we go through with it? At its core, Doughty’s book seeks to outline the reasons why our practices are divorced from belief, and to demonstrate that the common denominator of all of these reasons is fear: fear of bodies, fear of time, fear of loss, and fear of death. It is a fear exacerbated by the gradual development of euphemisms, empty rituals, the funeral business as business, and (if I may be frank) the entitlement that most North Americans feel to the longest life possible for themselves and for their loved ones. How can we retain the love and care that sits at the heart of loss while facilitating healthy grief? How can we remove the corpse from systems of capital exchange and euphemism? How can we envision a return to practices of caring for dead bodies that acknowledges the truth of their material condition instead of hiding it, running away from it, or manipulating it into a facsimile of the living?

Doughty’s book, and her broader project, seeks to answer these questions by providing us with information about how and why deathcare is the way it is, and encouraging us to seek an alternative. One such alternative is Undertaking L.A., a culmination of the vision developed over the course of Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, and Doughty’s current project. “The principle behind Undertaking LA is placing the dying person and their family back in control of the dying process, the death itself, and the subsequent care of the dead body,” and while I can only imagine how difficult it must be to navigate the state laws that govern what can and cannot be done with bodies, this project could have a tremendous impact on how we approach deathcare. It could set a precedent for similar funeral services in other states (and even here, in Canada) and contribute to making deathcare more affordable and community-oriented. I am eager to see the project as it develops, especially given my burgeoning interest in the kinds of deathcare and funerary practices available in my own city.

However, my greatest motivation for vocally promoting Doughty’s vision of what deathcare could and should be has less to do with deathcare and more to do with end-of-life care. I was wondering if Doughty would address hospice, palliative, and old-age care practices and their relationship to the funeral industry, and I was not disappointed. In the book’s penultimate chapter, Doughty speaks plainly: “[B]ecause of advances in medical science, the majority of Americans will spend the later years of their life actively dying.” For the few lucky enough to have access to and receive adequate care in these years, the end of one’s life may be comfortable. But Doughty’s account of her experiences with corpses bearing decubitus ulcers (bedsores) brought me to tears, and I quote it here at length:

[T]he decubitus ulcer presents a unique psychological horror. The word “decubitus” comes from the Latin decumbere, to lie down. As a rule, bedridden patients have to be moved every few hours, flipped like pancakes to ensure that the weight of their own bodies doesn’t press their bones into the tissue and skin, cutting off blood circulation. Without blood flow, tissue begins decay. The ulcers occur when a patient is left lying in bed for an extended period, as often happens in understaffed nursing homes.

Without some movement, the patient will literally begin to decompose while he or she is still living, eaten alive by their own necrotic tissue. One particular body that came into the preparation room at Westwind [the funeral home and crematory where Doughty began her career] I will remember for the rest of my life. She was a ninety-year-old African American woman, brought in from a poorly equipped nursing home, where the patients who weren’t bedridden were kept in cheerless holding pens, staring blankly at the walls. As I turned her over to wash her back, I received the ghastly surprise of a gaping, raw wound the size of a football festering on her lower back. It was akin to the gaping mouth of hell. You can almost gaze through such a wound into our dystopian future.

We do not (and will not) have the resources to properly care for our increasing elderly population, yet we insist on medical intervention to keep them alive. To allow them to die would signal the failure of our supposedly infallible modern medical system.

A little over a year ago, I wrote a post about the deaths of four of my grandparents, who all died within a short span of one another and who had vastly different end-of-life experiences. I wish that I would have had Doughty’s book in my hand to help me articulate my thoughts when my grandparents were dying, to put my anger into words when my mother told me about my Oma’s bedsores and how she would cry at being touched when they were at their most painful.

If for no other reason than that no one (elderly or otherwise) should have to endure that kind of pain, I highly recommend that you read Smoke Gets In Your Eyes and become acquainted with The Order of the Good Death. For most of us, death is terrifying. But it doesn’t have to be, and this remarkable book by Caitlin Doughty tells us why.