Althouse | category: death



a blog by Ann Althouse

"Human composting — or, as it’s sometimes referred to, natural organic reduction — fulfills many people’s desire to nurture the earth after dying."

"It owes much of its present form to Katrina Spade, a Washington-based designer and entrepreneur who told me that her goal is to see 'composting overtake cremation as the default American deathcare in the next couple of decades.' In 2015, as an architecture student, Ms. Spade launched a nonprofit called the Urban Death Project, envisioning strolling past the brownstones of Brooklyn and coming upon a municipal human composting facility. Here, passersby would reflect on mortality and the cycle of life, feeling a sense of connection to the earth, past and future — the way urban cemeteries like Green-Wood were designed to make repose in death a harmonious part of city life..."

From "If You Want to Give Something Back to Nature, Give Your Body" by Caitlin Doughty (NYT).

But we're told the New York State Catholic Conference has said this process “is more appropriate for vegetable trimmings and eggshells than for human bodies.”  

What's the process? It's described in detail and with graphics (and it strikes me as unnecessarily above-ground and complicated). There's "a cylindrical vessel" (which the author likens to a Japanese capsule hotel!). The body, wrapped in a shroud, is put in there with wood chips, sawdust, and alfalfa, and "other meaningful organic materials" as people see fit. Flowers, presumably, but what else? Favorite foods? Dead pets? It's sealed up for 6 to 8 weeks and everything but the bones breaks down. The bones are ground up in a cremulator and mixed back into "the soil," which is left to dry out. Finally, you have something like one cubic yard of soil. I looked it up, and I think that might be one ton of soil. 

Now you somehow give this back to nature. Where?! How??!

Just do a green burial. It's the same idea of letting the body decompose, but you bury the shrouded body at the beginning and you never dig it up and never grind the bones. You never have the "Japanese capsule hotel" phase.

Yes, you are sacrificing the in-town building that induces passersby to "reflect on mortality and the cycle of life," but, come on, the city is already perfectly suited to making you think about dying often enough. It's sufficiently evocative of death already — the cars always seem ready to run you down, you descend into the subway and necessarily think of the lunatics who push people onto subway tracks, and so forth. I know, it doesn't quite stir up a romanticized feeling of "a sense of connection to the earth." But does the Japanese Capsule Hotel of Death?

"The idea that human rights encompass a right to self-destruction, the conceit that people in a state of terrible suffering and vulnerability are really 'free'..."

"... to make a choice that ends all choices, the idea that a healing profession should include death in its battery of treatments — these are inherently destructive ideas. Left unchecked, they will forge a cruel brave new world, a dehumanizing final chapter for the liberal story."

Writes Ross Douthat in "What Euthanasia Has Done to Canada" (NYT). 

I'll put the next sentence after the jump because it's a surprising change in topic (but I bet you can predict it if you know how these things go these days):

For anyone on the right opposed to Donald Trump and the foulness around him (most recently at his Mar-a-Lago dinner table), the last six years have forced hard questions about when it makes sense to identify with conservatism, to care about its direction and survival.

Donald Trump! What does he have to do with Euthanasia in Canada? 

Euthanasia in Canada... it made me think of "Trout Fishing in America," and I felt wistful about the old days when everyone loved books by Richard Brautigan. 

I searched his name in the New York Times and came up with his obituary, from 1984, which has a funny/sad mis-scanned headline: "RICHARD BRAUTIGAN, NOVELIST, A LITERARY IDOL OF THE 1060'S." 

Richard Brautigan, a literary idol of the 1960's who eventually fell out of fashion, was found dead Thursday at his secluded house in Bolinas, Calif. The Marin County coroner's office reported that the author of ''Trout Fishing in America'' and ''So the Wind Won't Blow It All Away'' apparently died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound four or five weeks ago. He was 49 years old.

''He told everybody he was going away on a hunting trip''....

[T]he sincerity and the disconnected, elliptical style that so charmed critics and readers... eventually began to pall. For example, reviewing ''The Tokyo-Montana Express,'' a Brautigan novel published in 1980, Barry Yourgrau, a poet, wrote in The Times Book Review, ''He is now a longhair in his mid-40's, and across his habitually wistful good humor there now creep shadows of ennui and dullness, and too easily aroused sadness.''

Fishing, hunting, killing yourself.

Here's the memoir written by his daughter, Ianthe Brautigan: "You Can't Catch Death."

Must I get back to Douthat and his linkage of Canadian euthanasia and American Trumpism? It's become a joke the way everything gets connected to Trump, but euthanasia?! Have we reached peak Trump Derangement Syndrome yet? Or... I guess peak Trump Derangement Syndrome would have you relocating to Canada... relocating to Canada and embracing the Canadian freedom of offing yourself medically. Medically, not with a gun, guns being so... so... right wing.

I think Douthat's point is that Americans need conservatism — real conservatism, his kind of conservatism — to fend off Canadian-style freedom to abscond from life itself.

"[Kirk] Hammett, who is Buddhist, will talk at length about consciousness, God, enlightenment, resonance, Nirvana."

"He believes that the work he does with Metallica is an extension of some sublime and omnipotent creative force. 'I put myself in this space where I take in all the creativity around me and I channel it to create more,' he said. His hope is that Metallica facilitates a healing sort of fellowship. 'We are so nondenominational,' he said, laughing. 'Come to the Church of Metallica. You’ll become a member and rejoice! You don’t have to direct anything at us. You can direct it at the experience that you’re having.'"

Writes Amanda Petrusich, in "The Enduring Metal Genius of Metallica/On the road with the band in its forty-first year" (The New Yorker).

Metallica’s music is rooted in feelings of marginalization, and the band, despite its achievements, has found a way to maintain that point of view for more than forty years. It makes sense that people are drawn to Metallica’s music, because they’re ill at ease in a culture that relentlessly valorizes things (money, love, straight teeth) that are very easy to be born without....

[James Hetfield's] parents were devout Christian Scientists, and had met in church, where Virgil helped lead a weekly service. But Hetfield never connected with the religion.... Hetfield recalled being embarrassed when he wasn’t allowed to attend health class, or receive a physical to play football. “I still carry shame about that,” he said. “How different we were to people.”

When Hetfield was thirteen, his father left. “I went off to church camp, and I came back and he was gone,” he recalled. Two years later, his mother developed cancer, but refused medical treatment on religious grounds. “We watched her wither to nothing,” he said. “She had religion around her, inside her. She had practitioners coming over. But the cancer was stronger.”...

“I thought she cared more about religion than she did her kids,” he said. “It wasn’t talked about, either—if you’re talking about it, you’re giving it power, and you want to take power away from it. So admitting that you’re sick, that’s a no-no. We just saw it happening.”...

Much, much more at the link. I just cherry-picked some things about religion.


The London Times reports: 

The death of a Russian billionaire in a helicopter crash in Monaco has prompted speculation over possible sabotage after the sudden deaths of two other cryptocurrency industry leaders in the past month. Vyacheslav Taran, 53, was killed when the helicopter he had chartered... hit a French hillside.... A week earlier Tiantian Kullander, 30, the founder of the Hong Kong-based Amber Group cryptocurrency company, died suddenly “in his sleep”....

Last month Nikolai Mushegian, 29, the crypto-entrepreneur behind the MakerDAO project, drowned in Puerto Rico. He had tweeted that he feared that the CIA, Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service and “paedophiles” were plotting to murder him. “They are going to frame me with a laptop planted by my ex [girlfriend] who was a spy. They will torture me to death,” he tweeted...

We're told of 2 other "cryptocurrency tycoons" who "died unexpectedly," both without passing on the "keys" needed for anyone to access their fortune in cryptocurrency. One was only 30, the other 54. No helicopters involved, just Crohn's disease and drug addiction.

"When I was in a confused state with that two-minute memory, Mindy says I was the happiest I’ve ever been."

"My brain was getting on with rebooting. They’d ask what I wanted for lunch, it’d arrive and I’d be staggered and say ‘How did you know?’ and I’d read the same copy of the newspaper several times a day — Mindy took it away in the end as it was too painful for her — but it was all new to me.... A dear friend’s mother is becoming very confused and I always say, ‘Is she happy?’ You can be confused and happy."

Says Richard Hammond, about his experience right after waking up from a coma, in "Deep in a coma I dreamt I was dying. Then my wife woke me up/Unconscious after his crash, in his mind the TV star was walking in the Lake District. Now he no longer fears death" (London Times). 

As far as what it was like inside the coma — and approaching death — maybe you have already seen the fantastic (and viral) video he made: 

"We’re all aware of our mortality — it’s a curse and it’s terrifying," he says. "But I hope it’s helping people deal with losing loved ones, letting them think, ‘Well at that moment, they are drifting off to their happy place.’ For me, the key bit of it is that last thought resonating forever. From the moment it [death] happens, you’re no longer constrained by the passage of time, and so your last thought is eternal."

"Actually, if you google the word senicide you’ll see that many parts of the world have a push/pull relationship with their older members..."

"... the push of veneration, the pull of elimination. The United States with its chrome-plated dreams of spit-shine modernity was never much for the admiration of its senior citizens. Way before taunts of 'Okay, boomer' and the calling of people with experience the pejorative term 'olds' this country has had a tendency to isolate the grizzled dotard, if not on an ice floe then in retirement camps where they could gum pudding and play bingo away from the delicate eyes of youth. It would be easy to blame the sixties, with silly slogans like 'Don’t trust anyone over thirty' or even sillier movies like Wild in the Streets, where anyone over thirty-five is herded in camps and given mandatory doses of LSD."

So writes Bob Dylan, in "The Philosophy of Modern Song."

So, of course, I google "senicide," and I'm reading this Wikipedia article "Senicide," while picturing 81-year-old Bob Dylan reading it too. Highlights:

The Heruli were a Germanic tribe during the Migration Period (about 400 to 800 CE) [who]  placed the sick and elderly on a tall stack of wood and stabbed them to death before setting the pyre alight....

Herodotus says of the Padeans of India: "... It is said to be their custom that when anyone of their fellows, whether man or woman, is sick, a man's closest friends kill him, saying that if wasted by disease he will be lost to them as meat; though he denies that he is sick, they will not believe him, but kill and eat him...."

In Nordic folklore, the ättestupa is a cliff where elderly people were said to leap, or be thrown, to death. While the practice has no historical evidence, the trope has survived as an urban legend, and a metaphor for deficient welfare for the elderly....

Herodotus tells us about the Massagetae that: "Though they fix no certain term to life, yet when a man is very old all his family meet together and kill him, with beasts of the flock besides, then boil the flesh and feast on it. This is held to be the happiest death; when a man dies of an illness, they do not eat him, but bury him in the earth, and lament that he did not live to be killed.

Contemporary Culture — In modern day western-culture, senicide often takes the form of placing senior citizens in overcrowded conditions where preventable diseases can easily spread. More often than not, these spaces are separate from other generations of people so problems such as quality of life, hygiene and isolation are less detectable to the wider population.

There are 3 citations for that last proposition, and all 3 are about Canada. 

I'm giving this post my tag "gerontocracy," thought the topic is only implied. We currently have a gerontocracy in the United States, but when these old people were young, there was "Wild in the Streets":

"We’re not just disappointed. This is the end of democracy…. Democracy died tonight…. This was it. If we didn’t win tonight, the end of the U.S.A. as we know it just happened."

It's election day today, at long last.

The post title is something a disappointed voter said, in tears, in 2012, after the failure of the effort to recall the duly elected Governor of Wisconsin.

You can see video of the desolate man here, embedded in a post of mine from 2017. I used it in one of my 6 reflections on the Washington Post's new motto "Democracy Dies in Darkness."

I'm steeling myself for the emotionalism of the day. There will be winners and losers, but how desperately mournful will the losers be?

If you actually believed in democracy, you wouldn't assert that if you don't win, democracy has died... especially if you'd spent the last 2 years denouncing those who won't acknowledge the legitimacy of their own defeat.

"So I woke up with something that’s literally Black Hairy Tongue. People, including my doctor, seem to think it’s no big deal, and will go away soon, but it certainly is gross."

That was Julie Powell's last tweet, quoted in "Julie Powell's Last Tweet Before Her Death at 49 Causes Confusion Among Fans/The popular author of Julie and Julia tweeted she had 'black hairy tongue' the day before she died" (Gizmodo).

The Mayo Clinic’s website describes black hairy tongue as a “buildup of dead skin cells” that accumulate on the tongue, explaining that while it can look alarming, “typically it doesn’t cause any health problems, and it’s usually painless.”

Photograph of the horrid condition at that Mayo Clinic link.

Going back further into Powell's tweets, you see that she had Covid in September:

“Decided to take a nap and woke up sick like a dog. This is how the covid hits, I guess. All of a sudden like,” Powell tweeted on September 10. A few days later she shared another tweet about how painful it was living with covid-19. “Weirdly, my Covid is getting worse. Terrible headache, cough, probable fever, fatigue,” Powell tweeted on September 13.

Lest readers speculate, Gizmodo tells us the speculation is "right-wing" and goes on to minimize the significance of some deceased person's last social media posting. After all, Chris Cornell's last tweet — "#Detroit finally back to Rock City!!!!" — gave no clue that he was about to commit suicide.

"You can be embalmed with formaldehyde and placed in a coffin underground; cremated in a furnace; left out in the open air..."

"... liquefied in an alkaline solution; composted under a pile of mulch; frozen in a cryogenic container; mummified; planted at the roots of a sapling. Ed Bixby, who owns 13 cemeteries around the country, said a new technique of treating dead bodies comes into fashion every year or so. Would you rather not have your ashes compressed into a diamond? Then how about freeze-drying your body and vibrating it into dust? But, Mr. Bixby added, nothing has managed to outlive cremation and embalming and burial: 'Everyone just goes with the norm because that’s what’s normal.'"

 From "The Fading Art of Preserving the Dead/A dwindling group of professionals is tasked with navigating the often fraught passage from life to death" (NYT).

"With his usual level of class, Donald Trump put out a message of sympathy to the family of Jerry Lee Lewis, 'the Killer' of rock ’n’ roll, who died Friday at age 87, but said nothing all day about the Pelosi family."

Maureen Dowd takes a ridiculously cheap shot at Donald Trump, in "The Pelosis and a Haunted America" (NYT).

There is no general principle that if you talk about anything, you must talk about everything in proportion. It's a fake principle relied on only to criticize people you want to criticize anyway. 

But even if it were a general principle, Trump was at least arguably following it. Jerry Lee Lewis was a great cultural icon, and nothing is bigger than Death. 

By contrast, Paul Pelosi is a significant political spouse, and the attack on him was weird and scary, but it's also a confusing story that is hard to react to. We hope he's recovering. We hope all injured people are recovering. We're horrified at the violence. We deplore all violence.

Does it seem that there needs to be some statement about the political climate in America? Something like: Could everyone please tone it down? Well, once you get that far, speculating about what to say about Paul Pelosi, you can see why Trump's best choice was to say nothing. He's not going to tone down his rhetoric.

Of course, he is criticized for saying nothing.

"The idea that human rights encompass a right to self-destruction, the conceit that people in a state of terrible suffering and vulnerability are really 'free'...""When I was in a confused state with that two-minute memory, Mindy says I was the happiest I’ve ever been.""Actually, if you google the word senicide you’ll see that many parts of the world have a push/pull relationship with their older members..."

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