The Largest Mass Grave Site in the U.S.: Hart Island
It’s a place where few living New Yorkers have ever set foot, but nearly a million dead ones reside: Hart Island, the United States’ largest mass grave, which has been closed to the public for 35 years. It is difficult to visit and off-limits to photographers. But that may be about to change, as a debate roils over the city’s treatment of the unclaimed dead. Never heard of Hart? You’re not alone—and that’s part of the problem.
Hart Island is a thin, half-mile long blip of land at the yawning mouth of Long Island Sound, just across the water from City Island in the Bronx. Depending on who you ask, it was named either for its organ-like shape or for the deer (or hart) that thrived here after trekking across the frozen sound in the 18th century. Hart is dense with history; it’s been used as a prison for Confederate soldiers, a workhouse for the poor, a women’s asylum, and a Nike missile base during the Cold War.
Its most important role has been to serve as what’s known as a potter’s field, a common gravesite for the city’s unknown dead. Some 900,000 New Yorkers (or adopted New Yorkers) are buried here; hauntingly, the majority are interred by prisoners from Riker’s Island who earn 50 cents an hour digging gravesites and stacking simple wooden boxes in groups of 150 adults and 1,000 infants. These inmates—most of them very young, serving out short sentences—are responsible for building the only memorials on Hart Island: Handmade crosses made of twigs and small offerings of fruit and candy left behind when a grave is finished.
Full Story: Gizmodo: What We Found at Hart Island, The Largest Mass Grave Site In the U.S.
Eco-Friendly Burials: Human Composting
About 2.5 million people die every year in the U.S. alone. Disposing of human remains creates a serious ecological challenge. Traditional burials involve treating a body with formaldehyde and other chemicals then burying it in a wooden casket where it takes years to decompose. Cremation burns a lot of fossil fuel.
One possible alternative: a process is called promession, invented Swedish biologist Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak.
Mother Nature Network explains:
The breakthrough process takes only about six to 12 months to transform a dead body into high-nutrient compost. Here’s how it works: A corpse is first frozen to -18°C (0°F) and then submerged in liquid nitrogen. Then the frozen, brittle corpse is gently bombarded with sound waves, which break it down into a fine white powder. That powder is then sent through a vacuum chamber that evaporates all the water.
Since water makes up about 70 percent of an adult human body, the mass of the powdery corpse becomes greatly decreased. Also, if the powder is kept dry, it will not decompose. This erases the need for a speedy burial or funeral service, and it preserves the corpse without the need for any unnatural chemicals like embalming fluids.
When it does come time for a burial, the powder can then be placed in a box of biodegradable material like corn starch and buried in a shallow grave. The mixture will create nutritious, fertile soil, perfect for planting a tree, bush or garden, depending on the desires of the next of kin.
Full Story: Mother Nature Network: Green burial: How to turn a human body into compost
The Local has more on the company, and of course you can check out the official site.
Top 5 Most Common Regrets of the Dying
Bonnie Ware spent many years working in palliative care, nursing patients in the final weeks of their lives. She shares what she says were the five most common regrets of the dying.
1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
2. I wish I didn’t work so hard. (“This came from every male patient that I nursed,” Ware wrote).
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
Bonnie Ware: Regrets of the Dying
Mac Tonnies and Other Digital Ghosts in The New York Times
Rob Walker wrote a long piece on “digital ghosts” – the online remnants of people who have died. He talks quite a bit about Mac Tonnies:
I spoke to a half dozen people Mac Tonnies met online and in some cases never encountered in the physical world. Each expressed a genuine sense of loss; a few sounded grief-stricken even more than a year later. Mark Plattner, who lives in St. Louis and met Tonnies a dozen years ago through the comments section of another blog, decided that Posthuman Blues needed to survive. He used software called Sitesucker to put a backup of the entire thing — pictures, videos, links included — on a hard drive. In all, Plattner has about 10 gigabytes of material, offering a sense of Tonnies’s “personality and who he was,” Plattner says. “That’s what we want to remember.” He intends to store this material through his own hosting account, just as soon as he finds time to organize it all.
Plattner was one of several online friends who got involved in memorializing Tonnies and his work. Dia Sobin, an artist who lives in Connecticut, met Tonnies online around 2006; they communicated often by e-mail and phone, but never met in person. She created art for Tonnies’s site and for the cover of what turned out to be his final book. Less than two weeks after he died, she started a blog called Post-Mac Blues. For more than a year, she filled it with posts highlighting passages of his writing, reminiscences, links to interviews he gave to podcasters and bloggers, even his Blip.fm profile (which dutifully records that he listened to a song from “Everything That Happens Will Happen Today,” by David Byrne and Brian Eno, at 4:16 p.m. on the last day he lived). Her site is “a map to Mac Tonnies,” Sobin says. “And a memorial.”
“I only ever knew him over Twitter,” Sarah Cashmore , a graduate student in Toronto, told me. She shared his enthusiasm for design and technology and learned of his death from Twitter contacts. “I was actually devastated,” she says. A few months later, she teamed up with several other members of Tonnies’s Twitter circle to start a second Tonnies-focused blog, Mac-Bots.
This outpouring of digital grief, memorial-making, documentation and self-expression is unusual, maybe unique, for now, because of the kind of person Tonnies was and the kinds of friends he made online. But maybe, his friend Rita King suggests, his story is also a kind of early signal of one way that digital afterlives might play out. And she doesn’t just mean this in an abstract, scholarly way. “I find solace,” she told me, “in going to Mac’s Twitter feed.”
New York Times: Cyberspace When You’re Dead
(Thanks Chris Arkenberg)
Walker also covers various services for dealing with one’s digital life posthumously and transhumanist notions of immortality.
See also: Technoccult interview with Sarah and Mark on MacBots.
Does Atheism Offer As Much Comfort in Death As Religion?
Ever since I became an atheist, I’ve been struck by the fact that, even when people believe that death is no more than a temporary separation, they still grieve deeply and desperately for the people they love, as if they were never going to see those people again. Belief in an afterlife doesn’t keep people from mourning in terrible anguish when their loved ones die. It doesn’t keep people from missing the loved ones they’ve lost, for years, for the rest of their lives. And it doesn’t keep people from fearing their own death, and putting it off as long as they can. (And for the record: No, I don’t think this makes them hypocrites. I think it makes them human.) The comfort of religion doesn’t eradicate grief, any more than the comfort of atheism does. It simply alleviates it to some extent.
But does an atheist philosophy of death offer less comfort than a religious one? Honestly — I think that depends. For one thing, I think it depends on the atheist philosophy. A philosophy of (for instance) “Yes, I’m going to die, but my ideas and the effect I had on the world will live on for a while ” will probably be more comforting than a philosophy of, “Yeah, death totally sucks, but that’s reality, reality bites, whaddya gonna do.”
Plus, obviously, it depends on the religion as well. Many true believers in a blissful afterlife aren’t actually very comforted by this belief. It’s common for believers to be tormented by the thought that, even if they’re going to Heaven, the apostates in their family are going to burn in Hell… and how can Heaven be Heaven if their loved ones are burning in Hell? And many religious beliefs about death fill their believers, not with comfort, but with terror and guilt… and many atheists who once held those beliefs say that letting go of them was a profound relief. They would much rather believe in no afterlife at all than an afterlife determined by the vengeful, nitpicky, capricious, psychopathically sadistic god they were brought up to believe in.
Alternet: Does Atheism Offer As Much Comfort in Death As Religion?
South Koreans experience what it’s like to die — and live again
Across South Korea, entrepreneurs are holding controversial forums aimed at teaching clients how to better appreciate life by simulating death. They use mortality as a personal motivator.
Reporting from Daejeon, South Korea – For Jung Joon, the moment of truth arrives for his clients as they slip into the casket and he pounds the lid in place with a wooden hammer.
Insights arise, he says, as they are confronted with total, claustrophobic darkness, left alone to weigh their regrets and ponder eternity.
Jung, a slight 39-year-old with an undertaker’s blue suit and a preacher’s demeanor, is a resolute counselor on the ever-after who welcomes clients with the invitation, “OK, today let’s get close to death.”
Jung runs a seminar called the Coffin Academy, where, for $25 each, South Koreans can get a glimpse into the abyss. Over four hours, groups of a dozen or more tearfully write their letters of goodbye and tombstone epitaphs. Finally, they attend their own funerals and try the coffin on for size. [...]
Many firms here see the sessions as an inventive way to stimulate productivity. The Kyobo insurance company, for example, has required all 4,000 of its employees to attend fake funerals like those offered by Jung.
LA Times: South Koreans experience what it’s like to die — and live again
(via Dangerous Minds)
Excitement as Biological Neccessity
William S. Burroughs said:
Danger is a biological necessity for humans, just like sleep and dreams. If you face death, for that time you are immortal. For the Western middle classes, danger is a rarity and erupts only with a sudden, random shock. And yet we are in danger at all times, since our death exists. Is there a technique for confronting death without immediate physical danger? (quoted from Hashisheen: The End of Law)
But this is at least partially incorrect. Western middle classes, at least those of us in the United States, typically face physical danger multiple times per day. Driving is amongst the most dangerous activities in modern society – 114 people die in car crashes per day. Cars accidents deaths per year are more than double the number of murders per year. The average American spends 101 minutes driving each day. We confront death every day, and we barely even notice.
The dangerous involved in driving are commonplace, boring. New dangers though – new dangers are exciting. Perhaps Michael Skinner was more correct when he said:
Geezerz need excitement
If their lives don’t provide them this they incite violence
Common sense simple common sense
Brain activity spikes at death
Possible explanation for near death experiences:
Electrical readings from seven patients who died in hospital suggest that the brain undergoes a surge of activity at the moment of death, according to a study just published in the Journal of Palliative Medicine. [...]
This is not the first time these have been noticed, but previous reports were single cases and the electrical surges were explained away as due to electrical interference from other sources. In these new cases, the doctors could be pretty confident that previously suggested sources of interference weren’t present.
Instead, they suggest that the surge was due to ‘anoxic depolarisation’ – a process where the lack of oxygen destabilises the electrical balance of the neurons leading to one last cascade of activity.
Mind Hacks: Spike at the end of the tunnel
My Thoughts on the Demise of Death
“Since being exposed to the idea of extreme life extension, which admittedly was only several months ago, I’ve found myself reacting in a more skeptical and reactionary manner than I often do when confronted with other radical new futuristic ideas and technologies. When I read about possibilities of faster than light travel, I get excited. Predictions of nano-assemblers make me hopeful. I find designs for colonies on the Moon and Mars fascinating. But when I read about trends in regenerative medicine and nanotechnology that some experts believe will conquer death, I am not enthusiastic. Instead I become very skeptical, nervous and even angry. On one level, I am surprised that I could be anything other than overjoyed that ending death could be a possibility, I very much enjoy life and, as a living organism, I have a strong instinct to stay alive. Yet I find it extremely difficult to wrap my head around the idea of life without death.
So why does extreme life extension make me uncomfortable? I’m not, nor have I ever been a religious person, though I have respect for those who are. I was raised by two atheists with PhDs in science and I haven’t ever held out hope for an afterlife. It’s not that I don’t value human life – I value it very much. As a humanist, I believe very strongly that each human life is sacred and unique and believe it is within our power, and is indeed our responsibility, to work towards giving every person as good a life as possible. I also don’t believe I am a Luddite. I am increasingly excited about technology in general, I love my cellphone and the new snazzier one I will someday get. I love my computer and wonders of the Internet. I’m fascinated by the promise of the Semantic Web. I also embrace any technology that could cure diseases or repair injuries. But when it comes to anything that may fundamentally change the way I am or the way people are in general, I am very hesitant.
I thought it would be interesting to explore some of the reactions, thoughts and feelings I have when pondering extreme life extension, as I think they probably overlap with those of the people who have been or will be exposed to these ideas.”
(via Future Blogger. Also:“Revised Thoughts on the Demise of Death”)
Helping Human-Animals to Die
Having spent most of my developing years taking care of sick family members, I feel very strongly about people having a choice in their death. There is nothing more humbling than watching those you love, once vital, productive members of society, deteriorate before your eyes. Those with a terminal illness, who have tried everything and have lost any possibility of maintaining their quality of life, ought to have a right to end their suffering. If we can have compassion for suffering animals and put them out of their misery, why can’t a human being who has lived their life through choice, have that option available to them?
“A French woman, Chantal Sebire with a disfiguring and painful terminal illness recently failed in her appeal for medical assistance to help her to die. Before her death Chantal Sebire was quoted as saying ‘We wouldn’t let an animal go through what I have had to endure’. Euthanasia for animals is commonplace, and is widely accepted as a morally acceptable response to animals whose suffering is unable to be relieved. But, with the exception of a few places such as the Netherlands, Belgium and the US state of Oregon, euthanasia for humans is legally prohibited.
But is it speciesist to make a distinction between animal and human euthanasia? In the case of terminally ill humans who request medical assistance in dying we may have more reasons to permit euthanasia than in the case of animals. If the arguments against euthanasia are so forceful that it should not be permitted even in tragic cases like that of Chantal Sebire should animal euthanasia be prohibited?”
(via Practical Ethics)
(Compassion & Choices)