Signs of the Times

Americans have been accused of hiding from death. Most people in the US can expect to die in the aseptic surroundings of a hospital, very likely alone, and then shuttled to a morgue. We don't bathe our own dead, as our predecessors did; instead, we have turned this final duty over to an obliging industry that keeps decaying corpses out of our homes and spruces them up to look peacefully alive until the moment they are interred. In most burial ceremonies it is not even possible to throw a last handful of dirt onto the casket of the deceased, given the blankets of Astroturf that cover the excavated soil. Our mourning is hygienically choreographed by a profession that most of us prefer to keep at a distance except when we are in need of their services. But lately, the ground seems to be shifting.

In the 2004 season, the most popular series on cable television was an hour-long weekly drama about the funeral industry. HBO's Six Feet Under follows the lives of those who live and work at Fisher & Sons Funeral Home, a family-owned operation in southern California. In each show a death is depicted in the opening scene, the bereaved buy their funeral package, and the corpse is embalmed with great artistry and impressive hydraulic technology in the cellar of the Fisher's house. While the holes opened up for the bereaved family are poked and probed, the Fishers and their loved ones go about the business of carrying on their own lives. Given the show's ratings, there would appear to be a yearning among millions of cable viewers to look more squarely in the face of death.

A precedent for this can be found in, of all places, Disney Studios. Coinciding with the concealment of the dead in the second half of the last century was a peculiar, out-of-sync obsession of the Disney Studios with death. From Disney's earliest animated features and shorts, "death, or the threat of death," as Gary Laderman has suggested, has been "the motor, the driving force that enlivens each narrative."2 Typically, this meant the death of a character's mother that the character witnessed, caused, or somehow had to recover from. Snow White, Bambi, Cinderella, Mowgli (The Jungle Book), and Nemo were all motherless children (as was Walt Disney), Simba (The Lion King) grew up believing he had caused his father's death. Sleeping Beauty, Pinocchio, and Snow White died or fell into semi-permanent sleep, creating opportunities to depict prolonged deathbed scenes, as the dwarves, princes, Jiminy Cricket and forest creatures modeled to viewers what it meant to grieve. Recollections of these mourning scenes are etched deeply into the childhood memories of several generations of Disney's audience. Evidence for the mythic importance of this can be found with a visit to the children's section of the enormous Woodlawn Memorial Park in Colma, California, where the entrance (remember the importance of Turner's threshold) is marked by a large sculpture not of guardian angels, but of Snow White and the seven dwarves.

And then consider the fascinating diversification of new ways we have to dispose of loved ones' cremated remains. A Florida company, Eternal Reefs, will haul artificial reefs made of a mixture of concrete and human ashes four miles off the Gulf coast and sink them to provide new environments for threatened marine life.3 The Eternal Ascent Society will deposit ashes in a blue helium balloon that is then released into the air. When it reaches an elevation of five miles above the earth, the balloon freezes and bursts, scattering ashes to the four winds. "Your loved one can now be safely transported to the heavens in a giant helium-filled balloon," the company's website promises, hinting that it might be hazardous for the dead to make the same journey in the company of more traditional celestial chaperones.4 A firm called Celestis soars even higher. They will fasten a capsule of ashes the size of a tube of chapstick to a Pegasus rocket, launch it into space, and eject it to orbit around the earth where it can drift for as many as a thousand years before re-entering the atmosphere and burning up.5 And an outfit called LifeGem has patented a process that converts the carbon released during cremation into "high quality" diamonds - "as a memorial to the unique and wonderful life of your loved ones."6

These artifacts indicate a growing willingness to face the sordid details of death and to think creatively about what kind of passage it is, at least in some quarters of popular culture. Digging a bit deeper into these and other phenomena will help to clarify what meaning is being assigned to death and other "last things" in popular culture.

Among the most telling places to look in a religious community for its eschatological beliefs are the apocalyptic epics that it tells about some widespread disruption of life on earth (whether it happens with a whimper or a bang), its dreamy visions of utopia, and its customs surrounding mourning and disposal of the dead. The same holds true for the eschato-logical beliefs that are borne in popular culture: investigate its stories of cataclysmic disruption, its idyllic art, and its death customs.

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