:: On the Significance of Death in Culture & Communication Research
By Charlton McIlwain, Ph.D.

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Pregnant mothers play Mozart in earshot of their developing fetuses in the hopes that the child will start this life one step ahead of the rest. Young people and teenagers spend less and less of their summer time at recreational camps or simply "wasting" time playing. Today parents spend countless dollars to send their kids to math camps, computer camps, free-enterprise internship programs and the like - all so their child will gain a competitive edge in fulfilling the "American Dream." This American dream has come to be synonymous with the mantra and guiding principles of a capitalist economy to get all you can, can all you get and then sit on the can. After all, it is true - he who dies with the most toys…Wins!

Given the primacy of life, time, we have no time to die - no time for the dead and no time for the dying. Time devoted to funerals and other services surrounding death have steadily decreased from a week or sometimes more to an average of three, sometimes two, days at present. The practice of holding "wakes" is declining as family members and funeral professionals prefer the increasingly common, one-hour "viewing" that takes place before a funeral. Clergy emphasize the need to get funerals done quickly and funeral directors aid in making the rituals of death "efficient." After all, we will be docked pay if our time card at work is not punched before our one-hour lunch break is up.

As we move from time to space, we see the same rationality applied. "Space" and nature are material products subject to human control. Space serves human endeavors and progress. Such conceptions fly in the face of those who regard nature as integral to human meaning, who see little distinction between the human and natural worlds. Thus we continue to see the decline of "sacred" space - especially those occupied by the dead. Where such places were at one time places of worship and communion, they are, in a highly industrialized world, simply property that has instrumental value at the expense of the sentimental. People rarely visit the graves of loved ones anymore and when they do they certainly don't make a day of it. Cemetery owners routinely dig up graves, remove and transport bodies to other locations or lose them without the knowledge of their family members. The government spends millions of dollars and countless hours in court arguing that they should be able to transform the sites of the dead into highways, parking lots or government office buildings. And, they usually win!

Perhaps more tangible, the rhetoric surrounding memorial services or celebrations of the dead is more compelling in shaping our attitudes and beliefs about death and what takes place around the dead. In eulogies, "authorities" - be they clergy, government officials, family members or friends - seek to persuade us to believe that the deceased was the best person who has ever lived. "Let's remember the good things, the good times" they say. "That's who this person really was." They seek to persuade us about the nature of the afterlife with the clichéd pronouncements that "Uncle Jack is in a better place," "Grandma is no longer in pain," or "Cousin Joe is in heaven and you will see him again one day." Some transubstantiate with the dead as a way of appealing to us to do certain things. "If Johnny were here today he would want you to…" Such appeals have persuasive power over the psyche and our behaviors not because they have ample evidence to support their claims, but because of the emotional nature of the setting, and the ethos of the speaker.

On a different note, purveyors of funeral "etiquette" push "expert" propaganda about the "proper" way to feel and, more importantly, act in the face of death. Such behaviors, codified as "respectful" behavior, persuade us to hide our emotions at all cost and say things that are only "polite" and acceptable in what should be a "dignified" ceremony. In effect, such rationality-hustling, social-control pimps effectively convince us to lie to ourselves and others - to be and act contrary to our own system of beliefs and values in order to create and maintain a favorable impression amongst those gathered at the funeral - including the dead.

But let's quickly move on. When we turn to the area of media we find that death served as the impetus for the first mass medium. From the time that human civilizations transitioned from nomadic life to permanent communal settlements, the meaningfulness of death was marked by the living. Whether a pile of rocks and sticks, vast pyramids or large blocks of granite stone with linguistic inscriptions, people throughout time have erected mediums signifying the death of a member of the human community. Such mediums served a variety of functions - as a place of contemplation for the living looking forward to their certain future - a place in which they could maintain a continuing connection with the ancestral community. It was also the center of religious and spiritual life. It was this function that marked such mediums, and the spaces they occupied, as the precursor to contemporary urban life. Lewis Mumford correctly makes the point that the city of the dead antedates the city of the living.

The primary purpose for permanence was our fore-parent's passion for their dead. People in these early times knew, seemingly instinctually, that it was important not only for their dead to be "properly" buried in the soil, but that their bodies were marked and recognizable - a visible sign of where they were. This is to say, the ancient cities of the dead were spaces for worship - of both deity and ancestry (which in some societies coincided). The germ of the modern city began in these cities of the dead as the central place for ceremony and ritual. It was a place where one could commune with ancestors, be enlightened and reinvigorated. It was a place one could continually be reminded of the teachings of their relatives, contemplate one's own life and eventual death, where they would, in turn, take their place amongst those gone on before them to the mystery of the life following.

It is not difficult to see the continued significance of symbolic behavior, ceremony, ritual and community centered around the experience of death. The obituaries scattered daily throughout local, national and international newspapers announce one's death to the masses. Large monuments for collective groups who have died in war, heroic efforts, or tragic circumstances attest to the lives of those who have died, sustaining memory and connecting people across time and space. We gather in our homes, around the television, now on the Internet, on flower-covered medians in the middle of intersections, at a cemetery plot, at one of the aforementioned monuments or a piece of unmarked ground to contemplate the lives of those who die. We connect with others gathered and shared, if, but for a moment, to experience identification with the dead and the living - with the spaces they occupied in life and those they now take up in death. Death is largely responsible for our shared symbolic world, as well as personal and collective identity as we bond ourselves with our neighbors, families, friends, cultural group, race, nation or any other collective so devised.

Not only does death provide an impetus for mediation of both the human and natural worlds we share; we consequently find that death makes up the central content of popular forms of mass communicative forms of expression. Looking at such popular forms of media, we find that death is a continually tapped source for entertainment of all genres. Television and media violence experts often cite the umpteen millions of violent images and deaths young people have viewed prior to adulthood. Not delving into the debate over the “effects” of such depictions of death, what significance do mediated images of death have for the scholar?

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