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In these hospice-related values the dying person is viewed much as those in full health would be, as individuals set in relationships with others and as worthy of care and attention as they seek to ful l their lives Life-values are maintained into the period of dying This contradicts one widely found outlook which pretends that death does not exist or, certainly, will not befall any speci c individual People may talk about death in general but not about their own death, an issue to which we return in chapter 7 in an observation of Albert Schweitzer from the early twentieth century Here we take one example from British television in 2003 which focused on the contrast between ctional and real corpses The twenty- rst century began with increasing media attention being given to dead bodies as they appear in detective or war lms a developing genre of risk- lms that hint at the hazards surrounding contemporary life Seldom does any British murder-hunt forget to include at least one visit to the morgue where a post-mortem is under way The pathologist and detective look down upon the mangled victim who appears on screen only as a covered corpse or with selected limbs exposed Though cosmetics have done their best, the dead actor seldom appears so Several other kinds of programme have serialized Ecology, Death and Hope 73
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the lives of funeral directors, real or ctive Once again, the corpse is regularly invisible This kind of familiarity symbolizes to a great degree the nature of death in contemporary Britain; everyone knows that it is there but it is largely invisible Death may, by some, be feared it is an obvious life risk but it somehow becomes domesticated through the media If death was medicalized in the mid- to late twentieth century, at the turn of the new millennium it became increasingly media-ized It is safe when viewed in comfort One event, however, disturbed this calm in 2002 3 Dr Peter von Hagens, a German pathologist, had perfected a process of what he called plastinization, enabling the replacement of body uids with a plastic solution that made it possible for excellent dissections to be performed and maintained as exhibits This individual mounted just such an exhibition that was taken on tour and, in London for example, attracted thousands of visitors along with much media attention But this was nothing compared with his mounting a public event in which he performed a dissection of a human corpse Tickets were sold and an audience gathered, as also did television cameras Wearing a distinctive trilby hat von Hagens performed the act The criticism levelled against him was considerable; many emphasized the performance element and the hat, indicating that the dignity of the dead was impugned and voicing the opinion that such a thing should not occur in public The facts that people paid for the privilege of being there and that the media turned up to lm it re ect something of an interest in death and a concern to see what is normally forbidden Whatever voyeuristic thrill may have been involved in this, the case pinpoints the complex duplicity over death in contemporary society Von Hagens exhibition re ected in a signi cant fashion the scienti c concern with the human body and its health and that is, partly, re ected by many Britons who show real interest in their tness Nevertheless, a signi cant portion of the population is overweight and apparently unconcerned about their state of health 74 Ecology, Death and Hope
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American Ways of Death
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In all the preceding cases the human body and its person were highly charged with signi cance and show how the symbolic power of living and dead bodies brings to the history of death the history of changing social values The nal two cases highlight such values in the context of twentieth-century USA, one focused on the cosmetic treatment of the corpse and the other on the death of soldiers Jessica Mitford s highly popular book The American Way of Death described how funeral directors prepared bodies through intense cosmetic work before holding party-like funerals for them in funeral homes (1963) This was a strong critique of commercialization of the death industry Certainly, many parts of the USA do prepare the dead so that they look much as they did in life and this cosmetic realism can be read as a form of the denial of death, as can its corresponding practice of burying the dead in substantial caskets within brick or concrete-lined graves Part of the cosmetic process usually involves embalming which, to the bereaved, may give the sense of very long-term preservation of the corpse even though the real effect is often short lived Embalming carries with it some hint of the ancient Egyptian practice that was long lasting but which was also quite different in that it did not end by simply replacing the blood as modern embalming largely does, but also detached the entire internal organs and brain In this area of human life detail is often ignored and only some preferred sense of bene t is accepted Certainly this cosmetic casket concrete complex seeks to express preservation of the dead even though, in practice, it really leads to the inevitable corruption of the body within its casket rather than in contact with the earth This approach could be read as an expression of the value of the American individual whose identity is preserved and maintained Mitford s account ts into an extensive literature on the acceptance or denial of death in the USA to which we return in Ecology, Death and Hope 75
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chapter 7 when discussing the fear of death Here I draw attention to quite a different view of death in America that adds a distinctive dimension to it and speci cally concerns the death of soldiers in the service of the USA; it is of particular interest in the light of the twin towers terrorist attack of September 2001 and in the subsequent political and military response in the Iraq war Carolyn Marvin and David Ingle s book Blood Sacri ce and the Nation was published in 1999; in it they argue that the USA possesses at its heart a kind of sacri cial culture that helps bind the states together The sacri cial system is headed by the President, is symbolized in the ag and enacted through the death of soldiers in warfare It is their shed blood that is the sacri ce They see the military especially in its prime male soldiers as a special training to kill and be killed These are people who are death-touchers and are bound together by an honour code To have failed in a war, as in Vietnam, is deemed a shame and throws a shadow upon this very system of social life We could, in fact, strengthen their analysis by seeing how the USA often identi es itself as God s chosen people leading the world into truth and the proper way of life which is, essentially, that of American democracy While this is, of course, one interpretation of events, it allows numerous aspects of life to fall into one broad explanation The daily pledge of allegiance to the ag in American schools would, for example, be unimaginable in most European countries Similarly, unlike Britain and the death of its soldiers and civil personnel in the service of its empire period and in the two great wars, America tends not to leave its dead where they fall but to bring them home It is in one of the hundred or more national-military cemeteries in the USA that the dead are, by strong preference, buried and not in some corner of a foreign eld This aspect of military death brings to the dead a high symbolic value; indeed, Marvin and Ingle see in the military funeral with the ag being specially folded and given back to the family almost as a kind of symbolic baby a powerful expression of the nation s commitment to giving life to 76 Ecology, Death and Hope
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maintain a way of life Their interpretation of military death provides a very potent balance to Mitford s over-easy critique of commercialized and cosmetic civilian death
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