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Finding the Dead
Why Modern Funerary Practices Might Be Doing More Harm Than Good
A Simple Task Today
Imagine I put you in a room with someone and asked you, “Is this person dead?” You would probably be able to tell me whether or not the person was dead with a pretty high degree of accuracy. If I gave you access to certain medical instruments, the question could be answered an even greater degree of accuracy.
At the most advanced level, we can check for brain activity to determine if someone is alive or dead. In general, a lack of brain activity in an organism with a brain suggests that the organism is dead. At a somewhat less technological level, we might check for a pulse. Perhaps with a stethoscope for better accuracy, but two fingers to the neck does the trick pretty well. No pulse, no blood flow. No blood flow, no life (or at least soon to be no life).
An Historically Difficult Task
Knowing whether something is alive or dead is not a problem in today’s world. However, it hasn’t always been this way; identifying death has long been a tricky problem in nature. Animals don’t have high-tech medical instruments. They don’t know how to take another animal’s pulse; they don’t even know that they should do this. And, for much of our history, humans faced this same problem.
Before the invention of the stethoscope in the 1800s, humans would check breathing by holding a feather under the nose or by placing a mirror near the mouth to check for condensation from breath. However, even breath can be difficult to check in weak individuals with shallow breathing. Much earlier in our evolution, our ancestors wouldn’t have even known to check for breath as a sign of life. Debates raged in the medical community as late as the 1700s about whether or not putrefaction might be the only sure sign of death.
In other words, animals — and for most of human history, humans — faced a major problem: How can we know if something is dead?
Death is a Sticky Switch
The cognitive switch between living and dead is a sticky one. Anthropologist Clark Barrett and psychologist Tanya Behne have argued that the switch is “sticky” because it usually is more costly to erroneously assume something is dead when it’s actually alive. If we assume our child is dead every time she goes to sleep, we’d stop caring for her. If we assume a wolf is dead when it’s actually asleep, we put ourselves at risk of attack.
It’s safer to be suspicious, so the switch to categorizing something as dead should require strong cues and be difficult to flip. Immobility, for example, is a weak cue of death. Dead things are always immobile, but living things are sometimes immobile as well.
One strong cue that can flip the switch to categorize something from living to dead is a violation of the body envelope. A grievous injury.
Injuries Inform Us
Psychologist Claire White and her colleagues tested the idea that grievous injuries are a clear cue of death in a study using recently deceased pets. For humans, a pet dog or cat often holds a special place as a family member or companion. We often treat a pet like we would treat a fellow human (sometimes even better!). Because of this strong emotional attachment, losing a dog or cat can sometimes feel like losing a family member. We grieve for pets, we bury them, and we memorialize them. To our minds, the death of a longtime family pet can be similar to the death of a family member.
White and her colleagues recruited participants at veterinarian offices in the US and UK who had recently lost a dog or cat. The researchers asked participants about their attachment to their pet, how long ago the pet passed away, and the nature of their pet’s death. Did they see the pet’s body after it died? Was the body intact (e.g., if it died by euthanasia), or was it physically injured (e.g., if it died by a car accident). Finally, the participants explained in their own words how they knew that their pet was dead. For example, did the animal look different after passing away?
The researchers were testing the idea that false recognition (mistaking sights and sounds as coming from a recently deceased loved one) might be lower if the loved one’s corpse had severe bodily injuries.
False recognition is a fairly common occurrence. If you lived with a spouse for several years before their passing, you could be forgiven for initially mistaking a sound in the kitchen as coming from them preparing a meal. The closer your attachment to the deceased, the more likely you are to make misperception mistakes immediately following their death.
The researchers found that attachment to the pet and recency of its death were both related to frequency of false recognitions. This makes sense — the more important the pet was to you and the more recent their death, the more likely you are to briefly mistake a sight or a sound as being caused by them.
However, seeing a non-intact corpse was the strongest predictor of low false recognition frequency. Those who saw the physically injured body of their pet were much less likely to misperceive sights and sounds as coming from their recently deceased pet.
The comparison here might be between a pet struck by a vehicle versus a pet who was put to sleep in old age. When an animal is put to sleep, it literally looks like it is sleeping. The visual cues of death are weak. However, when a pet is accidentally hit by a car, the visual cues of death are clearer. According to White and her colleagues, bodily injuries on the corpse help our minds to flip that sticky switch between life and death.
Feigning Life at Funerals
Though it is more traumatic and sorrowful in the moment, seeing a grievous injury might actually help us move through the grief process more efficiently. This research has interesting implications for the funeral industry.
In the United States, death, or any indication of it, is pushed as far away as possible. We don’t want to see the body of a deceased loved one until their makeup is done — until they look almost alive again. Funeral professionals spend countless hours ensuring that everything about a deceased person looks… not deceased. The deceased’s hair and makeup are perfected to ensure a lively appearance. They are dressed in their finest clothes and jewelry, as if they were about to go out for dinner. And any visible sign of injury is covered up with wax to emulate unscathed skin.
We do everything we can to make the dead not look dead. And, if all these measures fail due to a grievous injury that prevents a life-like reconstruction of the corpse, we simply keep the casket at the funeral closed to shield our fragile hearts. These measures might help make us feel better in the moment, but they might also be slowing our progression through the grieving process.
Funerary processes vary quite a bit across time and place. Different cultures often have wildly different ideas about how to deal with the dead. Funerary rites vary widely, and their purpose is often unclear. The deceased might be buried in one culture, embalmed and kept in the home in another, and burnt in a pyre in another. Funerals are sometimes celebrations of life with dancing, food, and music. Other times they are places of mourning with tears and solemn remembrances. Funerals can be brief, or the funeral games may last for days. The rites within a culture can also vary by class, gender, or occupation. The diversity of human cultural experience is manifest through funerary rites.
Despite all of these differences, there are some universal attributes of funeral rituals. For example, the dead are typically treated with respect through a ritualized norm, whether that comes from solemn remembrance or fires and dancing. The body of the deceased usually undergoes some sort of preparation for the funeral. This may include dressing the corpse, applying makeup, preserving the body, “feeding” the corpse, and a number of other actions that require close contact with the dead.
In the modern United States, these preparatory funerary rites are outsourced to a professional class; in much of the rest of the world and throughout history, these rites are performed by the family and those close to the deceased. To carry out these duties meant close contact with the dead body, which meant exposure to strong cues that the deceased was actually gone.
Flipping the Switch with Funerals
While the non-functional aspects of funerary rites bloom as an outgrowth of the local culture, the intimate contact with the body of the deceased by loved ones is mostly universal outside of the US. In a survey of the ethnographic literature, Claire White and her colleagues found that in approximately 90% of cultures with available information about funerary rites, the deceased’s kin had at least moderately intimate contact with the corpse as part of the funerary rites. This contact included rituals such as washing, dressing, and prepping the body. The researchers argue that this universal aspect of a culturally varied practice is evidence of it serving a function. Intimate contact with a deceased loved one can help shepherd the family through the grieving process by providing veridical cues of death.
In humans, funerary rites serve many functions. One understudied function might be to facilitate the flipping of the living/dead switch. By promoting intimate contact with the corpse and providing material reminders that the loved one has passed (e.g., a funeral service, headstone, family members expressing their sorrow), funerary rites help reinforce the reality that a loved one is no longer in our social life.
Modern Western approaches to funerals remove some of the stronger cues of death. When family members are not involved in body preparation and the dead are made to look as alive as possible, our minds might be missing important cues that the deceased is actually gone. These measures might save us a little grief in the moment, but they might also be slowing the grieving process on the whole.
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