There are few human experiences that are truly universal and death is one of these. As individuals and as societies, we form an understanding of what death and dying is. And these views can be different between people, groups and countries. Our perceptions and attitudes are shaped by many things - our exposure to death, the realities of what causes deaths, how death is represented in our cultural artefacts such as films, novels, social media and art work, and by our societal, religious and spiritual beliefs and systems. As a community, Australia is often characterised as death denying. Many of us have a limited exposure to the realities of death and the dying process and confidence in the health and medical systems to keep us well and healthy.
In 2012, the New England Journal of Medicine published a 200th anniversary article looking at the changing burden of diseases and consequentially the changing tasks of medicine. It is an interesting snapshot of the “issues” of death for doctors over the years covering scarlet fever, cannon ball contact, and apoplexy. The article also highlights how knowledge and understanding of the causes of disease grew over time and how the structures for the care of the sick evolved. This review points out that not only did the actual causes of death change over time, but that our capacity to respond to illness and prevent disease changed. Our scientific knowledge has enabled cures to be developed and our social and political structures have supported public health infrastructures such as sanitation and vaccination that reduce illness and disease.
Changing funerary practices also reflect changing views within and between societies. They demonstrate how fashion and practical considerations can affect our care of the dead. Kathryn Emery, a mortuary archaeologist has a blog Bones Don’t Lie. In one piece she reflected on how agricultural needs and changing environmental patterns may have affected the funerary practices of earlier societies. She also drew a comparison between death selfies and the post-mortem photography from the Victorian period.
Art galleries, museums and libraries stand as custodians of our dying. Our public walls are littered with representations of death, grief and loss; some heroic, some religious, some familial. We can walk among the dead from other civilisations and we can unpack the secrets of Egyptian tombs with new technologies that expose what lies beneath the death wrappings and behind the tomb walls. And we take inspiration from our past and create new art forms with personal funeral garments, customised coffins and living avatars for our grandchildren.
So what is the role of death and dying in the 21st century Australia? As a population that is ageing and with different experiences of disease, what are our views of how we will die? Where does our understanding of death and dying come from? We are not facing cannon balls or fighting in the trenches. We increasingly use technology in our life both in our work and our leisure. How is this influencing what information we find and share and how death is represented to us? How do we talk about death and dying to each other, or do we avoid the topic all together. Do we need to recognise that death is part of life to live and die well?
Last year, the Dying2Learn MOOC was a chance to explore some of the myriad of perspectives around death and dying. Over 1,000 people got involved in the process of discovering, reflecting and communicating. Next Monday, 27 March, enrolments for Dying2Learn 2017 open with the course starting on 3 April. Across five weeks we will be looking at how we use language and how we engage with death, media and art representations of death, medicalisation hopes and realities, and digital dying. It is a voyage through social constructs of death and how it shapes our perspectives and attitudes. Welcome to the journey!
Dr Jennifer Tieman, CareSearch Director, Associate Professor, Discipline Palliative and Supportive Services