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

<< Page 1 << Page 2 << Page 3 << Page 4 >>

Media, whether television, film, or video games, are mythical productions. This is not a judgment regarding the truth or falsehood, the accuracy or fidelity of the representation in its approximation of “real” life. Rather, myths are the irrational imaginings – the ways of representing the awareness of the psyche (souls, not mentality). Such representations are expressions of how we make sense of death as a culture. They are mass purveyors of our beliefs about death, dying and the afterlife. It is interesting to see the parallels in the popular mood of the American public with the forms of representations of death most often depicted.

In the beginning of wide-spread television use, the American attitude was one largely of fear – fear of death, of dying and the means by which it would occur. This attitude pervaded this era of war, conflict, economic depression and high mortality rates. The images of death most popularly illustrative of the pervasive view of death at the time were in the genre of science fiction, exhibited chiefly in the show The Twilight Zone. Here the American fear of death and the hereafter was generally expressed; the topic the subject of the majority of the show’s 156 episodes that regularly featured the most feared character – Mr. Death. Yet the show also explored another arena – technological innovation – essentially, the means by which we would conquer death – which would introduce us to a new era of television programming about death and dying.

The late sixties and seventies were times of technological progress. After the horrors of war and internal political turmoil, Americans decided that optimism was more appealing. New medical advances began to delay death. Military technology helped lower the risk of death in armed conflicts. There was a drastic increase in public discourse on issues of life and death from abortion to euthanasia to stem-cell research. Again, television expressed the same sentiments throughout this era. Shows like Trapper John, M.D., Doctor’s Hospital, and Marcus Welby, M.D. were the rave and expressed the popular feeling that hospitals were places people went to get better, not to die – signified by Welby’s name (Wel-be). Doctors made house calls. They came to your hospital bedside with a healthy dose of good cheer as they prepared to send you on your way free of all that ailed you. During this time which lasted through the nineties, death was virtually erased from view. When we saw death on television it was usually momentary and insignificant. There were few scenes of funeral preparation or cemeteries, family members spending months grieving or family conflicts over the deceased’s wishes regarding his burial or allocation of material assets. In short, on television, people just died.

Primarily because of the extreme dissociation and detachment resulting from years of denial and the popular myth that emphasizes life over death, we, towards the end of the last century and into the new, have renewed our search for meaning – meaning to be found in personal relationships, collective identities, and connections with the dead. The magic is slowly creeping again out of the box. We see this exemplified in a host of new television programs from Six Feet Under to Crossing Over With John Edwards and others. For the first time, television executives are finding an audience willing to confront, to some degree, the harsh realities and details that follow death. The ER’s, Guideon’s Hope, and MD’s have replaced the optimism of earlier medical dramas with the trauma of death, pain and loss.

But, it is not only our collective mood expressed in such media. They also sell us a particular view or belief about death and, in particular, the afterlife. John Edwards purports to commune with the dead and give comfort to the living that their loved ones are safe and doing just fine. Six Feet Under depicts the deceased in various states of appearance, but nevertheless, they are all aware, free from all the trappings and drudgeries of everyday life and able to continue to be involved in the social affairs of the living. Such a view of death is only one among many. But, it is what we who still struggle with our fear and denial want and, more importantly, need. Is it any wonder that almost all reports from those who have momentarily died clinically or have had near-death experiences are relatively positive? In media, as in life, we cannot bring ourselves to refuse the belief in our own immortality – the existence of an afterlife that is relatively pain-free and not to be feared. The possibility of our soul’s transmigration and reappearance in another life or life-form seems implausible to our rational minds and, the possibility of a hereafter of eternal pain and torment is down-right frightening. And, the thought of simple annihilation – the destruction of embodied personality – is unthinkable, if not equally as horrifying.

Space does not permit me to discuss the countless other ways in which the experience of death is a prominent aspect of understanding culture and communication. We could talk about social interaction in ritual, the significance of the body, the communicative nature of the corpse, emotion, interactions between doctors and their dying patients or families, relations between the young and the old, cloning technology, computer-mediated funerals and memorials, the way our fear and denial of death are expressed in euphemistic language, and the list goes on.

My defense of this particular area of research has not been an exercise in locating communication as supreme in the competing field of regional ontologies. Indeed, the experience of death defies reduction to a single, limited perspective of explanation and is necessarily interdisciplinary. Yet, what should be understood is that as culture and communication are central to the ways in which we live, so too is death to these areas of culture and communication.


Gebser, Jean. Ever-Present Origin Ohio UP, 1985.

Kramer, Eric Mark. Modern/Postmodern: Off the Beaten Path of Anti-modernism Praeger, 1999.

Lamont, Corliss. The Illusion of Immortality. Continuum, 1935.

Mumford, Lewis. The City in History. Harvest, 1961.

Ströker, Elizabeth Investigations in Philosophy of Space. Ohio UP, 1987.

<< Page 1 << Page 2 << Page 3 << Page 4 >>


About :: Archive :: Staff :: Submit :: Contact