Am I Going To Die This Year? A Mathematical Puzzle
Robert Krulwich, Radiolab (January 08, 2014)
Radiolab co-host, Robert Krulwich, posted a fascinating piece on a mathematical approach to determining when a person might die. Krulwich explains how he first picked up this topic:
A few years ago, physicist Brian Skinner asked himself: What are the odds I will die in the next year? He was 25. What got him wondering about this, I have no idea, but, hey, it’s something everybody asks. When I can’t wedge my dental floss between my two front teeth, I ask it, too. So Brian looked up the answer — there are tables for this kind of thing — and what he discovered is interesting. Very interesting. Even mysterious.
It turns out that a fascinating 8-year rule emerges for most human lifespans. I will let you read all about it.
Tick-Tock goes the clock.
And welcome to 2014.
Merry Christmas to all of our lovely Death Reference Desk Readers.
And remember to keep those Christmas Trees from spontaneously combusting.
Ho ho ho.
IMBD (December 22, 2013)
Do not read this Death Ref post if you have not seen the film Gravity and would rather not read about the plot before seeing it.
You have been warned.
After much talking and planning, I finally saw the movie Gravity by Alfonso Cuarón. It stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney.
Almost all of the reviews I’ve read or heard focused on Gravity’s use of 3D effects (which are very well done) and the somewhat existential-metaphysical-slightly New Agey-religious language used by Bullock’s character Ryan Stone.
What very few people seem to realise, I think, is that Gravity is a film about a dead child and parent grieving over the unexpected death of that child. In this case, it’s Bullock’s character and her daughter who accidentally died while playing tag at school.
It is also a film about living people talking to the dead and this is something that both secular and religious people do (whether they admit it or not) on a fairly regular basis. It’s completely normal and part of what is often referred to as a Continuing Bond after a person dies.
Case in point, near the end of the film George Clooney’s character Matt Kowalski suddenly reappears even though it’s clear that he must be dead. Bullock and Clooney have a conversation about how to get back to earth, which pulls Bullock’s character from choosing to die and instead motivates here to return home. The scene concludes with Clooney’s sudden disappearance and Bullock asking him to say hello to her dead daughter.
Sure sure, the world’s entire fleet of space stations and ships are ripped apart by space debris during the film and there’s a survival story involved but it’s just the spectacle that underscores the dead child narrative. I also get the sense that some of the perceived neo-Theological/New Age Christian critiques come from the scene where Bullock speaks to the dead Clooney about the dead daughter. Again, I didn’t see that as particularly religious rather it was a grieving parent asking a friend to check in on a beloved child.
The real genius of Gravity’s meditation on life and death is this: I firmly believe Bullock’s character Ryan Stone dies in the moments before speaking with the dead Matt Kowalski and that the film concludes with her entering a secular afterlife.
Of a kind.
RT If You’re About Someone Dying
Katy Waldman, Slate (November 1, 2013)
A Passionate Defense of Selfies at Funerals
Caitlin Doughty, Jezebel (October 30, 2013)
When Cameras Took Pictures of Ghosts
Megan Garberoct, The Atlantic (October 30, 2013)
When photography was new, people used it to suggest the endurance of the departed.
Dark tourism: Why Murder Sites and Disaster Zones are Proving Popular
Will Coldwell, The Guardian (October 31, 2013)
Selfies at Serious Places
Jason Feifer, @HeyFeifer
Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror
Series 2, Episode 1 Be Right Back (February 2013)
The kids today. They can’t catch a break.
I watched the Selfies at Funerals Tumblr link roll across the internet this week and after seeing the images I immediately knew what was going to happen. People would complain about how the kids today were so self-absorbed that civilisation was near its collapse and how today’s youth don’t have any respect. I also knew that after this immediate condemnation, another group of voices would rise up to support the forsaken youth.
And this, Death Ref faithful, is exactly what happened.
The kids in the Selfies were damned left and right. It got a little thick at times.
But then, as should always be expected, another group of people took a more nuanced stand per the Selfies.
My good friend Caitlin Doughty at the Order of the Good Death wrote a strong defense of the kids on Jezebel and I mostly agree with her thoughts on the images. Where I disagree with Cailin is in arguing that these images represent a broader social disengagement with the reality of death. If anything, these photos show young people engaging with death, and doing so with a specific language that they’ve developed.
We humans invented all of our human death rituals. As a result, this means that all death rituals are constantly being changed, altered, and turned into hybrids. There is nothing innate about any ritual (given its human construction) so I think that it’s important to say that I would be more surprised if young people weren’t taking Selfies at funerals. This is the world they know but that doesn’t mean that today’s youth somehow lack any education about death.
Ironically enough, the Selfies at Funerals Tumblr page probably caused thousands more people to discuss actual death and funerals this week because of its supposedly disrespectful tone. Maybe, just maybe, the kids beat the adults at their own ‘We NEED to talk about death game.’
Katy Waldman at Slate took a wise step and waited a few days before writing anything. She presents a good critique of responses to the images but also brings everything back to the kids using the photographs as forms of grieving. I agree with this point and I kept waiting for someone to roll out a broader discussion about the relationship between photography and death.
Photography has a long standing relationship with funerals, especially in America. The camera phone is only the most recent example of a technology we humans use to capture images at funerals. Another way of looking at these photos is this– what else would anyone in the First World expect teenagers to do with their camera phones at funerals? Megan Garberoct at The Atlantic wrote an uncannily timed article on 19th century postmortem photography and the ability of Victorian era photographers to capture ‘Sprit’ images with their cameras.
But more than the photos themselves, it seems that the people criticising the kids just don’t like the technology involved, i.e., the camera phone that produced the self-taken image.
Here, then, is the key lesson for everyone loving to hate and hating to love the Selfies at Funerals: We humans remain deeply conflicted when mixing all forms of technology with death.
The great science fiction writer Douglas Adams (who died far too young) made the following observation about humans and technology in The Salmon of Doubt:
I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:
1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.
Given that my own research in the University of Bath’s Centre for Death and Society examines how technology and death intermingle all the time, I want to let everyone know that Selfies at Funerals represent only the beginning of a much longer future. We should already be asking ourselves what happens when a person wearing a computing machine, such as Google Glass, captures images and video at a funeral. Is a line being crossed there and why? How? I ask these questions, because it is going to happen and happen soon.
Just remember, and not so long ago, the idea of using the internet for anything to do with death seemed inappropriate. So did playing pre-recorded music on a CD (especially loud rock and roll music), having mourners draw or paint on a coffin, or even choosing to be to cremated.
What we humans forget is that death’s persistence means that we will persistently invent new kinds of death rituals. No ritual lives forever. Will Coldwell’s Guardian article on Dark Tourism highlights how easily the very idea of established and appropriate ‘death rituals’ can be changed.
Earlier this year, Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror television series ran an episode called Be Right Back that effectively dramatised how the not-to-distant future might offer new kinds of technology for human grieving. Here is the show’s description:
Martha and Ash are a young couple who move to a remote cottage. The day after the move, Ash is killed, returning the hire van. At the funeral, Martha’s friend Sarah tells her about a new service that lets people stay in touch with the deceased. By using all his past online communications and social media profiles, a new ‘Ash’ can be created. Martha is disgusted by the concept but then in a confused and lonely state she decides to talk to ‘him’…
Trust me when I say that if the technology imagined in Black Mirror suddenly appeared, the Selfies at Funerals shock and outrage would quickly wash away into the sea of human memory.
So where does this week take us? It’s hard to say, because I have a feeling most people have already forgotten about the Selfies at Funerals and moved on to other more pressing issues.
But I do think that it is now time to officially launch a new Death Reference Desk rule about death and technology. To wit:
The Death Ref Technology Law: Any use of new technology that involves death, dying, and/or the dead body will be simultaneously rejected as a breakdown in human civility as well as embraced as an innovative turn for human grieving.
Or, as my friend Max summed up the situation on Facebook:
I was disgusted by this until I remembered I took a selfie at the last funeral I went to. Now I’m okay with it.
Death Salon LA 2013
Los Angeles, CA (October 18 and 19, 2013)
Our good friends at the Order of the Good Death are putting on an enormous Death Fest next week in Los Angeles.
You should check it out if you can. All the information is below.
We’ve thrown in some Death Race 2000 just for fun.
Writers, academics & morticians converge on LA to confront taboos surrounding death
Los Angeles October 18-19, 2013 Death Salon is a gathering of intellectuals, artists and independent thinkers engaged in the exploration of our shared mortality, coming together for the first time in
Los Angeles in October. Cultural death practices – from Dia de los Muertos to Tibetan sky burial to the veneration of remains and reliquaries –show a long-standing fascination with (and attempts to understand) the end of life. In our modern age, where death and disease are hidden away or sanitized, discussion of mortality and mourning have become strangely taboo.
Death Salon aims for open dialogue about death and its anthropological, historical, and artistic contributions to culture. In the spirit of informal 18th-century salon gatherings of intellectuals, Death Salon performers and organizers include academic historians, funeral industry professionals, musicians, filmmakers, and widely-published authors coming from a variety of perspectives. Many of the performers are local to the Los Angeles area.
Part conference and part public spectacle, Death Salon LA is Death Salon’s inaugural annual event; future Death Salons are already in the works for the UK (2014) and Cleveland (2015).
Full descriptions of
Death Salon LA’s public events can be found here.
“There are conferences for the funeral industry, conferences for the hospice and palliative care industry, conferences on specific academic topics relating to mortality,” says mortician Caitlin Doughty, Death Salon co-founder and host of the popular Youtube series Ask A Mortician, “But Death Salon is attempting, for the first time, to bring together experts in a wide range of fields to approach the problem of death denial in an interdisciplinary way.”
Death Salon LA’s public events take place at various locations in Los Angeles October 18 & 19.