19 Mar

Death and Dying in America by Andrea Fontana and Jennifer Reid Keene

Posted By Politybooks

As we write this blog we are coping with the aftermath of the tragedy in Haiti. The latest count is an estimated 230,000 deaths and rising.  Haiti happened too late to be included in our book but it reflects its scope–trying to understand and explain who dies, how we die, what 9780745639154happens after we die, and how do we cope with death.  We clearly saw the social implications of death in Haiti, as the poor died by the tens of thousands, where the medical care was makeshift and minimal, where the survivors had nowhere to find shelter and no food to eat, and the dead were buried in mass graves.

We use three central themes in this book.  First, we look at death and dying at the macro level, how many people have died and the social structure in which the deaths occurred, and the micro level, the individual instances of death. Second, we relate the patters of social inequality that are institutionalized at the societal level to the corresponding patterns inequality at the individual level of dying.  Third, we outline the topics of consumerism and commercialism that link life and death in late capitalist American society.

We divide the book in four parts.  In Part I we examine the demographic aspects of death, who dies according to gender and race in United States and how it compares to other nations.  We also examine the cultural changes in perceptions of death in the western world from the Middle Ages to the present and how death is intertwined with the nature of health care in today’s America. In Part II we discuss where death takes place, increasingly away from home and into medical establishments.   We then turn to the dying itself and examine the controversial topics of euthanasia and assisted suicide.  We end the section in surveying the various types of funeral practices, such as the movement away from traditional burial toward cremation and more recent green modes of burial—chemical free and in biodegradable containers.  In Part III we look at the individual death of children and then review death and destruction on a large scale, from war to natural disasters such as Katrina. In the final section, Part IV, we turn to the professionals who have to tell the ‘bad news’ to the dying or the families of the dead. This topic is followed by the different ways in which we grieve when someone dies and then we move on to discuss the various beliefs (or lack thereof) from religious to philosophical in immortality. We conclude that death is a mirror of the way Americans live, increasingly highly expensive and consumeristic, continuing to privilege the rich over the poor and still trying to deny its coming by wrapping it in ribbons and glitter.