Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Death Note

Today, the fourth volume of the Japanese cartoon series Death Note is released on DVD. I've just started watching the show from the beginning—I seem to forever find myself just slightly behind the pop-culture wave—but I am really enjoying it.

The show focuses on Light, a super-intelligent high school student who finds a mysterious notebook with written instructions that state any name entered into the notebook will lead to the death of that person. Light takes the opportunity to make himself a sort of Dostoevsky-eque, Crime and Punishment super-human and starts killing off criminals of all sorts. So, the show immediately kicks off exploring the intense moral ground of do bad people deserve to die, and who has the right to decide such issues?

Eleanor Clift on the radio

On Point, one of my favorite, favorite radio programs, has an interview with Newsweek and McLaughlin Group contributor Eleanor Clift talking about her new book Two Weeks of Life: A Memoir of Love Death and Politics. I've mentioned it before. In it, she sweetly contrasts her husband Tom Brazaitis's hospice death from cancer to Terri Schiavo's high-profile fiasco of a death. (Schiavo died a day after Clift's husband.) Clift and Brazaitis did all that seemed medically reasonable to treat his cancer, including whole brain radiation ... and then when medically reasonable options had been exhausted, they moved on to allowing Tom to die at home with hospice care, surrounded by friends and loved ones. I think that's as close to a good death as this man could have gotten, dying as young as he did, from a vicious cancer. I am personally glad Ms. Clift is speaking and writing so openly about her experiences and helping to push this public dialogue forward.
I recommend the book and might recommend listening to her speak about the book even more highly. Here's an excerpt of Two Weeks of Life if you're interested.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Cyber-afterlife and MyDeathSpace.com

So, more on this topic since it seems to have sparked some interest in my previous post. First, MySpace's policy on death: There essentially is no official policy. However, if a member dies and a family member requests to have their page removed, MySpace will comply. Otherwise, the page remains as either an eerie or loving tribute—depending on how you view the matter.

Second, I've been reading a little about a MySpace-piggyback website called MyDeathSpace.com. (Salon wrote a pretty comprehensive article about them last July.) The site finds on its own and has members submit news stories that relate the deaths of people with MySpace pages. They then post a photo and brief details of that person's death, sorted by a map feature. Each death is marked by a cartoonish little figure of a ghoul, or something like that. (The red figures represent people charged with murder). People can leave comments on MyDeathSpace.com or link directly to the person's MySpace page. You might also check out the forums if you're interested. In it, people will go over specific deaths, trying to piece together all of the details they can find—photos from MySpace and online searches, newspaper articles, etc. They seem genuinely interested in finding out all of the details they can about a person's death, although I'm not sure to what end.

If you thought it was strange going to a deceased stranger's MySpace page randomly, linking through this site will make your stomach bottom out. I have to say, I'm pretty comfortable talking about death, but looking at this site and just absorbing how ambivalent it is about the deaths of all of these people, it really does make me a little physically ill.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Advance Directives

Filling out an Advance Directive is something I've been meaning to do for awhile now. What exactly is an Advance Directive? I'm going to borrow the definition from Compassion & Choices of Washington because it is succinct and lovely: "Advance directives is a general term for oral or written instructions about future medical care if a person becomes incapable of stating his or her wishes. In these documents, both wanted and unwanted treatment may be specified."
Compassion & Choices offers a form for filling out Advance Directives in Washington state. The form includes instructions and things to consider as you go through each step of the process. If you don't live in Washington, you may still find the instructions and tips useful ... but here is a link to laws by state.
This came into my mind again recently because I have been reading Eleanor Clift's book, Two Weeks of Life. She writes about her husband's death, at home, in hospice care, and contrasts it to the death of Terri Schiavo. (Schiavo died around the same time as Clift's husband.) Now, my mom worked in health care, so I assume my family would not keep me alive on tubes for 15 years, but what if my mother were to pass away before me and others just couldn't make the decision? I guess that people know my wishes, but isn't it my responsibility to put them down in writing? Shouldn't I take charge of communicating those wishes instead of leaving it up to surviving family members to figure it out under already stressful circumstances?
I'm going to be out of town for a wedding later in the week, so I won't be getting to this immediately, but I will definitely write about my experience as I fill out this form. I'm hoping to approach it in the near future.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Dogs and death part 2

I saw this photo online, and it reminded me a bit of the incident with Banner at the vet. Martha Stewart's dog Paw Paw passed away last week. She buried him in her yard, first wrapping him in fabric, tied with a gray-blue ribbon—very Martha Stewart, I know. But the thing that is great about this, is that her other dogs had a chance to experience the body and smell it. They know for a fact that Paw Paw is dead and gone. Behaviorists seem to debate whether dogs grieve, but I think most would agree that dogs will handle the death of another dog best if they can see and sniff that deceased dog. And yes, the ribbon is a little bit over the top, but I think this photo is wonderful. It's honest. It shows she accepted the death of a close loved one (even though it was a dog). She dealt with the body in her home. And she gave her dogs the gift of being able to experience that death. I don't know if I could have done the same thing if I was in her position.

Dogs and death part 1

This is my border terrier Banner. He's a sweetie, and I love him ... but he's a little ball of anxiety. Banner is what behaviorists call shy/aggressive, especially around other dogs. We were at the vet's office last week, and our vet was running a little late. I heard some nose-blowing coming from the behind the exam-room door, and the receptionist told me in a whisper that the appointment before ours had turned into a euthanasia.
When the door to the exam room opened, a middle-aged couple walked out, sobbing, and holding a lifeless golden retriever, wrapped in a blanket. Its legs were drooping loosely to the side. They walked past us, and as they did, the dog's legs nearly fell into Banner's face. He sniffed with curiosity but did nothing. I'm telling you, had this dog been alive, Banner would have lunged and growled at the big dog getting in his face. I think Banner knew the golden was dead. And this dog that gets anxious at the littlest thing, showed no signs of anxiety about death—no licking of his nose, no yawning, none of the normal things dogs do when they are nervous. I felt the need to reassure him, saying, "Don't worry; they don't do that to everyone here." But Banner was completely fine.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Truck Tribute

Saw this truck over the weekend. The text in the rear mirror is a dedication to a deceased friend. It says "In Loving Memory," the friend's name and then "1987–2008" framed by two crosses. I've seen several messages like this, posted on cars, in the last year or so, and I don't think I've ever seen anything like this before this last year. I wonder what the intent of the driver/car-owner is? Are they dedicating their car to the deceased? Are they dedicating their driving to the deceased? This particular driver was fairly reckless, so I'd hate to think they were driving "In Loving Memory" of whoever this person was. So what is going on in their heads when they post something like this on their cars? I'm pretty puzzled by the trend. All I can figure so far is that, maybe it's mostly young people doing it. (In this case at least, the person who died was around 21.) A car might be the only thing of value that they own. Possibly, they're in a sense "branding" the highest-value item in their life with their friend's name and memory. It still doesn't sit easy with me, and that doesn't entirely explain the motivation, but maybe that's a start. Other thoughts?

Death by Chocolate

A very funny and very dark clip from Saturday Night Live. A literal take on the phrase "Death by Chocolate." I love Ashton Kutcher's facial expressions and the way he fumbles with the elderly woman's medical plugs.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008


What happens to our social networking sites when we die? Well, in many cases, they just stay up, floating around the web, giving us a sort of cyber-afterlife. Take Sean for example, a friend of mine from college. He passed away a couple of years ago, far too young, from cancer. And his MySpace page is still online.


Occasionally, friends will visit it to leave comments, reminiscing about how much they miss him. One person stopped by to tell him she had met a mutual friend she hadn't had the opportunity to know before he passed. Another friend left a comment saying he would have liked the movie "Little Miss Sunshine." It must make friends feel like they still have some sort of relationship with Sean.

I assume we'll only see more of this as social networking sites are with us longer. I can see where some people might find it an eerie trend, but I find it comforting in an odd way.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Fame through Murder

I don't think a lot of people saw Brad Pitt's recent movie The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. That's unfortunate because it offers some gorgeous shots of the American midwest and is superbly acted ... although it is pretty confusing at times. My boyfriend and I both felt like we should have made a cheat sheet to keep all of the characters straight — the kind of thing you write out while you're reading a Russian novel.

Anyway, before watching this film, I hadn't known much about what happened in the aftermath of Jesse James' death. Apparently, a few years after he killed James, Robert Ford opened a stage play in which he reenacted his killing of James. He also posed for photos in dime stores as the man who killed Jesse James. This particular film paints Ford as a man who was obsessed with making a name for himself, and he tried to use his killing of Jesse James to do that. It's reminded me of a particular modern example of sensationalistic crime where the "murderer" tried to capitalize on the crime to make money and notoriety.

O.J. Simpson's attempt to publish his book If I Did It, where he detailed just how he would have killed his wife and Ron Goldman, if he had in face committed the crime was at first curtailed because of intense public criticism. The projected was announced in mid-November 2006. Potential readers were shocked at his audacity, writing what seemed to essential amount to a confession. Many people stated that their opposition lay in the fact that Simpson was trying to profit from the deaths, deaths which he had been found responsible for in civil court. A website was started, called OJbookboycot.com, and within four days of the book's announcement, 58, 395 people had signed a petition to stop the book's publication at this site. Meanwhile, over at Amazon.com, pre-orders for the book placed it as the site's #20 bestseller. Clearly, as much as some people were appalled by the ethics of the project, others were intensely interested in reading it. However, due to the great controversy, on November 20, the book, and an accompanying TV special, were cancelled.

Somewhat quietly, over the summer of 2007, the Goldman Family acquired rights to the book through bankruptcy court. It is now being marketed as If I Did It: Confessions of a Killer with added commentary from the Goldman Family, the ghostwriter, and Dominick Dunne. You can find copies of the book on Amazon.com. It is far from a bestseller now though. It comes in at #8,122. Profits from the book go toward paying the settlement that Simpson still owes the Goldman family. Although, some speculate that the Goldmans' motivation is not financial but is to have a confession from the man they believe to be the killer of their son published and released.

We like to blame modern media for our drive for sensationalism, but clearly, our lust for celebrity and our desire to hear all of the gorey details predates our current age. We can see by the way people treated Robert Ford after Jesse James' death that there was interest in meeting the man who killed the great train robber. Clearly, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a modern movie, but the historical facts stand: Ford did act in a play that retold the story of his murder and he did post for photos with people who wanted a picture with him. He became a celebrity; people wanted to meet him, people wanted to know his story. The fascination with high-profile figures, their deaths, and the deaths they help to bring about is not unique to our age of mass media.