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Yeah, back in the day the Raven was fantastic. Seriously, hop on your fixie and go back to adams morgan where you belong!
How death got cool
L ast spring, at Green-Wood cemetery in Brooklyn, where the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat is buried, another conceptual artist, Sophie Calle, launched an installation called Here Lie the Secrets of the Visitors of Green-Wood Cemetery. For the next 25 years, anyone passing by will be able to write down their most intimate secrets and bury them in a grave designed by the artist. The cemetery also hosts moonlit tours, cocktail parties, dance performances, and even yoga classes.
Death is hot right now, and upbeat gatherings in cemeteries are just a small part of the trend. One of the chief desires of our time is to turn everything we touch into a reflection of who we are, how we live and how we want others to view us – and death is no exception. Once merely the inevitable, death has become a new bourgeois rite of passage that, much like weddings or births, must now be minutely planned and personalised. Not since the Victorian era’s fetishisation of death, with its all-black attire, elaborate mourning jewellery and seances, has death been so appealingly packaged. Every death must be in some way special and on-trend. Finally, the hipster can die as he lived.
If you fancy an environmentally friendly burial, you can choose to be wrapped in a biodegradable artisanal shroud, decorated to your specifications by the bespoke company Vale for $545. (It’s just $68 for pets.) Or you can be buried, as the celebrated California chef Alice Waters says she wants to be, in a burial pyjama suit seeded with mushrooms that help your body decompose more quickly. A few years ago, artist Jae Rhim Lee delivered a Ted talk while wearing one such suit – a black hooded one-piece threaded with white veins infused with mushroom spores. On stage, Lee cheerfully explained that she is training mushrooms to eat her when she dies by feeding them her hair, nails and dead skin so they recognise her body.
Artist Jae Rhim Lee giving a Ted talk in a special burial suit seeded with pollution-gobbling mushrooms. Photograph: TED
For people less concerned about the environment and more worried about the terrifying prospect of dying alone, there are now solutions (or at least partial ones). You can hire a death doula, a trained professional who will assist at the end of life in the same catch-all manner that birth doulas are there during labour. You can request a home funeral, in which your friends and family pay their respects to your corpse in the comfort of your living room, with every detail as carefully planned as a wedding. And before that day arrives, you can discuss the facts of death with like-minded souls at a Death Cafe, a meeting of the global movement started by Jon Underwood in 2011 (who died last summer of acute promyelocytic leukaemia) as a way for people to gather and reflect on mortality.
One of the people pioneering this new way of approaching death is Caitlin Doughty, a young, Los Angeles-based mortician who looks like a lost member of the Addams Family. She has written a bestselling memoir, hosts a YouTube series called Ask a Mortician and has founded a “death acceptance collective” called The Order of the Good Death, whose youthful members promote positive approaches to mortality.
“It’s OK to be openly interested in death practices,” Doughty told me while driving through LA one afternoon last autumn. “It makes you an engaged human who cares about all aspects of life. Ghettoising it as an interest particular to goths, weirdos or people obsessed with murder creates a dearth of honest conversation about death in the western world.”
This growing interest in alternative “death practices” began as a way to skirt the commercialism and uniformity of the funeral industry. And it appeals to a diverse set of people. “This desire for a pine box in the ground brings together hippies and libertarians, stay-off-my-land gun owners, certain religious people, Trump voters who don’t want big business ignoring what they want,” Doughty said. “They might not all have the same back-to-the-earth vision, but it’s the same fight for their fundamental rights. They don’t want a bland corporate infrastructure to dictate what happens to their mortal remains and what represents their life.”
Given that the idea of rethinking death connects with millions of people who are tired of the rampant commercialism and homogeneity of modern life, it was only a matter of time before commercial interests caught on. Just as the Danish concept of hygge was sold – in the form of scented candles and hand-knitted woollen socks – to consumers looking for comfort in troubled times, there is gold, too, in our obsession with a good death.
P ublishers, in particular, have latched on to the trend. Books about death are nothing new, of course, but the pace at which they’re arriving seems to have accelerated. Last year saw the arrival of a stack of literary memoirs about death by authors such as Edwidge Danticat and Robert McCrum. In his memoir, My Father’s Wake, the writer Kevin Toolis explains why the Irish get death right, while Caitlin Doughty’s new book, From Here to Eternity: Travelling the World to Find the Good Death, explores the way cultures across the world, from Indonesia to Bolivia to Japan, approach death.
But perhaps it is not the Irish or the Bolivians who have perfected the art of dying well, but the Swedish. In recent months, thanks to a publisher-led media campaign, you may have come across the concept of döstädning, the Swedish practice of “death cleaning”. Death cleaning applies a simple formula to the process of dealing with our possessions before we die. In Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying, a bestselling guide to tidying up your home, and thus your life, the essential question is whether a given object “sparks joy”. In death cleaning, it is “Will anyone I know be happier if I save this?”
Death cleaning addresses many of the aspects of contemporary life that make us most anxious. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo
It is easy to see the appeal. Death cleaning addresses many of the aspects of contemporary life that make us most anxious. For those who feel that they have accumulated too much stuff and that all this stuff is getting in the way of their spiritual development, it offers a practical guide to de-cluttering. For those who worry about their privacy or the prospect of relatives discovering their secrets, it offers sensible precautions. For those who fear a long, bewildered, incapacitated old age, it is a way of coping through clear-eyed preparation and understanding.
While Silicon Valley billionaires search for cures for death, the rest of us are just seeking ways of accepting death, ordering a long and messy old age and making peace with our relatives, who are already horrified at the idea of looking after us in our incontinent, incoherent dotage. The fact of living longer doesn’t just give us time to think about death, but also plunges us into chaos, sickness and confusion, and death cleaning seems a valiant attempt to counter this.
Death cleaning is a concept that has had passing mentions in Sweden, but it is not a well-known part of the national culture. In truth, it seems to be more talked about by foreigners who like to imagine Scandinavia as a place where people have life sorted out than it is by Swedes themselves. But even if Swedes rarely talk about döstädning, there is something authentic about the underlying philosophy. The Swedish ambassador to the US, Karin Olofsdotter, recently told the Washington Post that death cleaning is “almost like a biological thing to do”, the natural product of a society that prizes living independently, responsibly and thoughtfully, and whose homes reflect that ideal.
A friend of mine who works as a radio producer in Stockholm said: “My mother is döstädning incarnated. She has been in the mode of frenetic cleaning for couple of years now – she is 65 – [and thinks] throwing stuff out will make it easier for us children when she is no longer with us. She doesn’t want us to be left with difficult decisions about what to do with it and she doesn’t want personal stuff to get in the wrong hands. And ever since I was a teen she has forced me to get rid of stuff – my earliest paintings, old clothes, books I read as a child, memorabilia. Keeps telling me that it’s the best for everyone. I don’t know if it’s typically Swedish, but it is very, very rational and unsentimental.”
The well-funded Swedish welfare state enables elderly Swedes to live independently. “Perhaps this also adds to the sense that they feel they must get their things in order before they die, so that no one else should be responsible for it,” says Michael Booth, author of The Almost Nearly Perfect People, a cultural tour of Scandinavian countries. “Swedes are deeply, deeply responsible people. It is very important for a Swede to do things properly, not to be a burden on others, to take responsibility in this way. Swedes are very ‘proper’.”
According to Booth, the decluttering element of death cleaning “chimes with the general parsimony and minimalism of Lutheranism, which you find traces of throughout many aspects of Scandinavian culture. In Sweden especially, they value the ‘modern’ and ‘new’, and so, if you visit a council dump or recycling centre, you see some fairly eye-popping items discarded – stuff Brits would never throw away.”
Others are more sceptical about the notion that death cleaning is the product of a distinctly Swedish sensibility. “It sounds like a mind-body-spirit thing that could have come from anywhere,” says Robert Ferguson, author of Scandinavians: In Search of the Soul of the North, another book that tries to figure out the roots of our fascination with Scandinavia. “Actually I’m still waiting for the world to discover the joys of kalsarikänni, a Finnish word that means ‘drinking beer on your own at home in your underpants with no intention of going out’.”
T he book responsible for spreading the death-cleaning gospel is by Margareta Magnusson, a Swedish artist who describes herself as between “80 and 100”. The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter came out in English a few months ago. It is part practical guide to getting your affairs in order, part discourse on accepting the reality of death. Over the course of 38 very short chapters with titles such as If It Was Your Secret, Then Keep It That Way (or How to Death Clean Hidden, Dangerous and Secret Things), Magnusson sets out her pragmatic and upbeat approach to mortality. “Life will become more pleasant and comfortable if we get rid of some of the abundance,” she writes.
“The message was: we just have to accept that one day we will die,” said her literary agent, Susanna Lea. “Either our loved ones will begrudge us, or they will hold on to this wonderful memory and love us for sorting everything out. Which one do you want?”
As soon as Lea sent the book proposal out, publishers eagerly snapped it up. A German editor made an offer after just four hours. A couple of days later, it was sold to a publisher in Sweden, and then Lea took it to the 2016 Frankfurt book fair, the marketplace for international sales, and sold it to the UK, US and Australia. It is now being translated into 23 languages.
“Interestingly enough, the eastern Europeans have been the slowest to buy it,” said Lea. “They said: ‘We just don’t talk about death.’ I thought the Latin countries might not talk about death, but they completely got it.”
Margareta Magnusson, the author of The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning. Photograph: Stina Stjernkvist/TT News/PA
The title has been a challenge. Some countries balk at having death in the title of a book that is slim and small, and packaged like a gift book sold at check-out counters. Others struggle with translating the phrase itself. The Swedish just call their edition Döstädning (the subtitle translates as “not a sad story”). However, nettoyage de la mort does not work in French – they are going to call it instead La Vie en Ordre. The Germans get around it by giving it a title that translates as “Frau Magnusson’s Art of Putting Her Life in Order”.
As the book proposal appeared in the year that hygge and the decluttering guru Marie Kondo conquered the world, it’s not surprising that a book that could be pitched as “Marie Kondo does hygge” was a big hit with publishers. But Jamie Byng, head of Magnusson’s UK publisher, Canongate, strenuously rejects the comparison. “We were not looking for another Marie Kondo, fuck no,” he told me. “I was taken by the idea that this elderly Swedish lady had written a book about leaving this world gracefully and with as little mess as possible. There’s something of Swedish zen about it.”
Magnusson lives in an apartment in a large development in the Södermalm neighbourhood of Stockholm, not far from the upmarket raincoat brand Stutterheim (whose motto is “Swedish melancholy at its driest”), and shops that sell elegant, spare Scandinavian furniture. She’s tall and slender, wearing a striped French sailor-style shirt, faded jeans and trainers, with a grey bob and a long, oval-shaped face. Her most striking feature is her large, round, wet blue eyes. She looks healthy and spry and fashionable without trying hard, which fits the image of her as a mellow, slightly kooky but wise Scandinavian grandma who writes things such as: “Maybe Grandfather had ladies’ underwear in his drawer and maybe Grandma had a dildo in hers. But what does that matter now? They are no longer among us if we liked them it really should be nothing for us to worry about.”
The first thing to note about Magnusson’s home is that it is not in any way minimalist. In her living room there are shelves of hundreds of books, and gentle abstract paintings by Magnusson herself on the walls. There are a surprising number of stuffed toys and masks from Asia (her late husband was Swedish but born in Japan, and the family lived in Singapore and Hong Kong as he moved frequently for work), presumably all of which have passed the making-people-happy test. The flat is packed with objects of sentimental value that have accrued around an elderly person who once lived in a larger home. It’s all cheerful and very, very neat.
Magnusson noted that Sweden used to be a country of big, quality companies that made things you might want to pass on to your children, or at least that lasted a very long time. “Swedish safety matches and Volvo – the safest car. Now, Sweden is just H&M and Ikea, stuff that doesn’t last more than five years if you’re lucky. It must have changed the culture in the country in a way, I think.”
She has a large collage of family photos hanging in her bedroom: a sister and brother, who are both dead, and her husband, who died in his mid-70s. Her book suggests that sorting through photographs is not the place to begin your death-cleaning process – too many memories to get swept up in, and too much sentiment. Better to start with the kitchen. But when it’s time to declutter your photos, she advises, be ruthless. One of her points is that if you don’t know the names of the people in a photo, feed them to a shredder.
Magnusson has a way, when talking about her life, to assume the mode of a literary narrator. Everything she says sounds like a first line to a self-consciously ruminative memoir. “I grew up in Gothenburg on Sweden’s west coast, and was born on New Year’s Eve,” she told me. “I think I was born in a happy way. It was happy, I don’t know. It started happy.”
An ecological coffin under construction. Photograph: Luis Robayo/AFP/Getty
Her pragmatic nature is such that she seemed almost frustrated explaining simple ideas about death and decluttering to a non-Swede such as me. She plans to be cremated when she dies, which is common in Sweden, and for there to be a memorial plaque her family can visit. “I don’t believe in life after death. When I’m dead, I will be dead,” she said.
“To think that you cannot handle yourself, that you think you don’t know what’s going to happen – that must be terrible. I don’t have that fear. I almost died some years ago.” She had woken up in the middle of the night with some kind of heart trouble. “On the way to the hospital, I was just gone,” she said. “Then I really realised that I didn’t see any light in tunnels. I was so happy when I woke up, but I realised that nothing will happen.”
There’s a tipping point in your life, she said, when you start attending more funerals than weddings. “Maybe in the 50s or 60s it starts to happen: my parents, my mother-in-law, my husband and friends,” she said. By that point, Magnusson’s daughter Jane, who lives just across the road, had come over.
“We had a funeral on Friday. It was actually very pleasant,” said Jane.
“Yes, it was very nice. You meet a lot of friends that you had together,” said Magnusson.
“You get to have a good cry,” Jane said.
“Yeah, you have a good cry,” said Magnusson. “But you have also a good laugh.”
S wedish death cleaning has found a kind of American counterpart in the rise of a pair of young men from Ohio who call themselves the Minimalists. When one of the duo, Joshua Fields Millburn, lost his mother in 2009, he was left wondering what to do with everything she had amassed in her small apartment. In the end, he decided to donate it all to charity. It was something of an epiphany for Millburn, who began throwing out one thing he owned every day for a month. What would go on to become the foundational principle of his brand of minimalism dawned on him: “Our memories are not inside of things they’re inside of us.” From that moment almost a decade ago, Millburn and his friend Ryan Nicodemus have built a Minimalist empire – books, podcasts, documentaries, speaking tours – based on the idea that accumulating stuff is simply what we do to distract ourselves from our real problems: lack of satisfaction with work, love, life and, ultimately a way to deny the inevitability of death.
Isn’t all decluttering about death? I asked Doughty, the mortician. “It is a little death to give away a keepsake or an item,” she agreed. “For most people to admit that they should be keeping track of stuff and getting rid of things is extremely threatening to their sense of self and idea as mortal.”
For many of us, the main way we try to look at death is by not looking at it. My own parents constantly talk about how they want their dead bodies to be dealt with – my mother has gone from wanting her cremains to be flushed down the toilet to wanting her corpse fed to dogs – and yet the elaborate plans for death are a way around dealing with it. My father won’t even write a will, instead preferring to phone me at odd hours from California to get me to make solemn promises that, after he is gone, I will do or will not do certain things (such as keeping his house in the family, or making sure to invite specific people to his funeral).
This highly developed awareness of their own mortality and careful consideration of how to dispose of their remains, combined with a total lack of planning for what happens in the weeks, months and years after the funeral, sometimes feels like my parents’ way of ensuring that their large personalities will gently haunt me from the afterlife. Or, to put it more politely, it seems like a way to guarantee their presence in my life as long as possible.
‘Even surrounded by loved ones, you check out alone’ … mortician Caitlin Doughty. Photograph: Sammy Z
But I also sympathise with them. Both of my parents are 66, and will hopefully be around for some time. Dealing with one’s own legacy is a stark business. It involves accepting that you are the one who cares most – or perhaps the only person who cares at all – about your own legacy. At the same time, it means confronting hard questions about the people you will leave behind. Will your last gift to your loved ones be to leave them a few valuable possessions, or a photo album full of memories, or simply the great favour of not burdening them with having to sort through all the stuff you accumulated over your lifetime?
Doughty says that any parent who is “unwilling to have a basic conversation about death with your desperate kids – that’s a profound unkindness”. At 33, she has a will and a plan for what will happen to her business and the small cabin she owns when she dies. That has brought her comfort, she says. At 40, I don’t have any plans in place for my own death, unless you count drunkenly asking various friends to promise they would take my dog in the event that she becomes an orphan. Perhaps I am more like my parents than I would like to think.
Planning for death is hard, because it means that one must accept that you are the one who cares most, or at all, about your own legacy. To plan for death is to accept both ideas simultaneously. “There might be no one at your bedside. You might not be found for two days and eaten by cats. That’s all in the realm of possibility,” Doughty said. “But even surrounded by loved ones, you check out alone. This is your personal journey to go on.”
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“You have this critical mass of interest. Death is fascinating,” said 29-year-old Caitlin Doughty, who has been called a hipster mortician, but prefers “macabre nerd.” A Death Salon organizer and host of the YouTube series, “Ask a Mortician,” Doughty is enthused that the broader public is finally beginning to appreciate death as she does. “What if all of a sudden being involved with your own mortality is cool?”
Forty years ago, the cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker claimed that fear of our own mortality was the fundamental motivator behind all human behavior. But could popularizing death through social settings help it become less scary for the rest of us? Some scholars think so, since prolonged exposure to death in comfortable environments, where dying is viewed as an essential part of living, has shown decreases in death anxiety.
“What’s interesting about people flocking to these parties is that a lot of people want to have those conversations in a private arena,” said Laura Harrawood, a professor of counseling at McKendree University, who has studied death anxiety. “Often people are afraid to bring death up at all,” she said, but “celebrating and talking about it in an open dialogue can be healthy.“
On stage at the Death Salon’s Friday night cabaret, a medical historian wearing a corset and fitted pencil skirt spoke of seeing her first cadaver. Lindsey Fitzharris recalled how a pathologist handed her the heart and kidney, and she fell into the detachment of the dissection. “Everything was on display,” she said. “All the muscles, and all of the tendons. Then my eyes fell on her hands. On her fingertips was a red fiery nail polish. I will remember that until the day I die.”
“This is even cooler than I thought it would be,” said Savannah Dooley, a 28-year-old television writer who professed to have no particular obsession with death. She stumbled upon the Death Salon on Facebook and decided to bring a date. “For someone not comfortable with death, this makes it accessible.”
Fueled by social networking and the Internet, the growing “death movement” is a reaction against the sanitization of death that has persisted in American culture since the 1800s, with the rise of embalming bodies to make them look lifelike, or having loved ones die in hospice or in hospitals instead of at home, said Megan Rosenbloom, head of metadata and content for the Norris Medical Library of the University of Southern California, and Death Salon organizer.
“Too often people experience the untimely death of a loved one and are thrown into their own existential tailspin,” Rosenbloom said. “You realize you’re going to die someday, and wonder how could someone your age die? What happens is people have a selfish response to other people’s deaths. The more you deny it and try to be separate from it, the more people are psychically destroyed when it happens in their lives.”
In recent decades, psychological researchers have developed ways to measure the emotional reactions that emerge when considering death, using surveys like the Multidimensional Fear of Death Scale (MFODS), which assesses areas like fear of being destroyed, fear of a conscious death, and fear of the body after death.
These researchers have found that jobs in which workers jump from one tragedy to another, like critical care nurses, can lead to increased death fears, as can jobs in which people put their lives at constant risk, like police and firefighters, who score higher on death anxiety scales than college faculty and business students.
Medical historian Lindsey Fitzharris discusses anatomical specimens she has encountered in her work.(Elli Papayanopoulos)
That makes sense to Doughty, whose work in the death business over the last six years, has allowed her to handle the corpses of everyone from babies to drug addicts to elderly people who committed suicide. “If you’re getting little snippets of death in a horror movie or on the news—like those women who died in a limo fire—yeah it’s going to train you to be in this cycle of fear, absolutely,” she said. “They are little fear bombs that go off in your mind and reinforce a pattern of terror.”
Relying on the media to understand death isn’t realistic, she said. A University of Minnesota study suggested the same when it found that students who watched 10 episodes of “Six Feet Under” over a period of five weeks had a mild increase in fear of death, although they showed less fear about what happens to the body after death, and less fear of being destroyed.
In contrast, those who work in professions like Doughty’s, with the most intimate, at times prolonged exposure to individuals’ deaths, such as hospice care workers, medical students, physicians, and suicide prevention workers, show lower levels of death anxiety.
Harrawood of McKendree University conducted a study in 2009 that measured the death anxiety of 243 U.S. funeral directors, and found that those who had been in the business longer showed less fear of death than their younger counterparts, suggesting that “daily conscious acceptance of death,” decreases fear.
In other studies, those close to dying, such as the elderly or terminally ill also showed lower levels of death anxiety, indicating that coming to terms with the end can make it more acceptable, wisdom that younger and healthier people could learn from.
“A person needs to be exposed over a longer period of time in a rational way,” Doughty said. “Reading, talking about it, watching documentaries, going to cemeteries and sitting and thinking about your mortality. Not seeing a quick glimpse of a body without makeup, but actually sitting with the body for period of days and letting it be normalized.” She plans to open a funeral home that allows families to wash, dress, and sit with their dead loved ones, instead of sending them off for someone else to embalm.
Doughty believes your relationship with death is one of the most important you will have in life. “It’s constant work,” said Doughty. “It’s not like I reached a certain point and was like, ‘death, I’m so comfortable. I can die whenever. YOLO!”
But speaking earnestly and intelligently about death and loss can help us integrate it into our lives more fully, and develop more comfort with it, said Robert A. Neimeyer, editor of Death Studies, the leading professional journal in the field, and an author of books on death anxiety and grief therapy.
“Whether frank and courageous conversation about death and loss takes place in a classroom, therapist's office, church or temple, or the local Starbucks,” Neimeyer said, “my guess is that it can help us explore and articulate frameworks of meaning for negotiating the often unwelcome transitions that confront us all.”
In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker said awareness of our own death made each of us want to engage in activities that rendered us unique, reaching a level of “immortality” by leaving our mark on the world, and impelling us to look for permanence in our kids and careers, art and architecture, religions and cultures. This desire, he said, steers our decisions, including ideologies, fellowships, and fashion choices.
“When I came to the Death Salon, I was really curious about who would be here,” said Allison de Fren, a filmmaker in the audience who spoke during the question and answer session of a Friday afternoon Death Salon panel. Held at The Center for Inquiry in Hollywood, the panel featured a professional dominatrix who had worked in “death play,” a medical-humanist scholar trained in 18 th century literature, an alternative mortician, and the founder of Morbid Anatomy, a Brooklyn-based museum and library.
“I would say there is a particular aesthetic going on,” de Fren said, glancing around the room and noting the number of women wearing cat-eye glasses, and that most appeared to be in their 30s. One wore a Raggedy Ann-style vintage dress and had bright pink hair. Another, a kimono top and a side mullet. Plenty sported straight across fringe bangs.
Like Becker, psychologists who work in Terror Management Theory (TMT), believe that each human’s constructed identity is a shield, an “elaborate drapery that provides us with the fortitude to carry on despite the uniquely human awareness of our mortal fate.”
It could be argued that death get-togethers are simply expressions of deep-rooted death denial. No matter how much we might claim to be unafraid of death, or believe that we can be, fear of it always catches up to us, festering in our psyche. We can try to tackle our obvious death fears together, but it will still remain in the collective and individual subconscious.
“What is the fundamental root of human behavior?” Doughty said. “I think it’s death. I agree with Becker. I think about what I’m doing every day working to bring awareness of death into the culture. That is my own hero project. Absolutely. But I try to be aware of that.”
At the Death Salon cabaret, Paul Koudounaris, the scholar who researches bejeweled skeletons, gave a slideshow of anonymous skulls from the late 16th century. They were believed to be the remains of early Christian martyrs. He told the story of how he had been photographing in Germany one day when a local asked if he would be interested in seeing a skeleton covered in jewels holding a cup of its own blood.
“That’s like asking a child if he wants candy. Would you be interested in chocolate rivers?”
Koudounaris said the man told him to go through a path in the forest, to an old, dilapidated church. “If you pull off the boards on a side alter you’re going to find something splendid,” he remembered the man telling him. “And indeed I did.”
They turned out to be the finest works of art ever created in human bone.
Building rituals, scholarship, art, and community around death may have arisen out of subconscious fear as forms of “symbolic immortality,” which allow people to feel like a part of something larger. But some might argue that these cultural creations are needed to protect us from our own realization that we are “animals groping to survive in a meaningless universe,” as TMT theorists put it, who turn into, “complex and fancy worm food,” as Becker wrote.
The Los Angeles Death Salon was the first of its kind, but there will be one in England in 2014, and in Cleveland in 2015, opportunities for the public to glimpse what can be revealed, sometimes splendidly, when what is peeled back is not the necessarily absolute fear, but the layers of death itself.
Rent.com has compiled a ‘Best Cities for Hipsters’ list. Here’s why we’re grateful Boston missed the top 10
Seattle's bikeability was a factor in it being named the best city for hipsters. Lindsey Wasson/Getty Images/file
Often times it’s nice to see Boston land in the top spot, or at least in the top 10, of surveys such as best places to live, or best places to vacation, or best places to shop for cat clothes. We’re rooting for you Boston. You deserve all the recognition you can get from the endless number of specialized, weird, and sometimes silly surveys.
But there’s one survey we’re happy to report that Boston missed the top spot — and the top 10 — completely. Rent.com just released its “Best Cities for Hipsters” survey, and you can thank your Lucky Charms that Boston doesn’t appear until number 15. We’re not hipsterphobic, but isn’t this a look and a way of life that’s overstayed its welcome? The whole hipster tag showed up in the early-to-mid 2000s, and by the 2010s it was already becoming a bit of a derogatory term. Skinny jeans, facial hair, coffee and beer snobbery, arrow tattoos, and an ironic resuscitation of old technologies? Been there, judged that. As Ariana Grande would say “Thank You, Next.”
But for those of you who embrace the label and likely drink exclusively from Mason jars, the Rent.com survey could be a useful tool for finding a place to live. It determined the hipster friendliness of cities based on earnings potential, affordability, bikeability (natch), and the percentage of the population that falls between the ages of 20 to 34 and likely drop the terms “artisanal” and “kitchen-driven cocktails” into conversations multiple times a week. Just kidding! Sort of.
For others, the Rent.com list could act as a map of places to potentially avoid if they’re averse to the whole hipster trope.
As a public service to both hipsters and the people who loathe them, we present this list of the 10 Best Cities for Hipsters. Outside of the top 10 Boston came in at 15, Providence landed at 41 (lucky), and Hartford and New Haven made the top 50 by a whisker.
In case you’re curious, these are the least hipster-friendly cities in the country.
The Final Question About David Foster Wallace's Suicide
The new biopic The End of the Tour forces us to ask: Do we worship Wallace because he killed himself?
The greatest surprise of The End of the Tour is that it is what it says it is&mdasha straight adaptation of David Lipsky's Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, which is itself a straight account of the end of David Foster Wallace's 1996 tour for Infinite Jest. The movie (out July 31) is, by orders of magnitude, the most accurate film ever made about the writer's life so accurate I wonder if anyone who isn't a writer will care to watch it. The irony of that realism is obvious: The practitioner of grand postmodern comic excesses ends up in a quiet, almost academic, meditation on the nature of writing and life.
The publicity around the film has been much more Wallacean than the film itself, fortunately. In May, I received an e-mail that could have come right out of a David Foster Wallace short story about the aftermath of a successful writer's suicide (I leave in the mistakes of punctuation and grammar because I find them revealing):
Good afternoon, Stephen,
On behalf of A24 Studios I'm reaching out to you to gauge your interest in contributing to a Medium publication based on David Foster Wallace's ideas and insights. You've got an unique voice and interesting perspectives on literature influence, pop culture and the media. We'd love to have you as a contributor.
I asked if I could see an advance screener of the movie before I made up my mind whether to contribute or not. The publicist wrote back:
So what we're thinking is we'd like to have contributors like yourself sign up for 1-4 pieces over the course of the summer (June & July). Currently, we're aiming for upwards of 50 articles in the Medium pub, each featuring illustrations.
Here is a handful of article topic ideas we're leaning towards. As you'll see, the topics are less about the film and more about abstract themes covered in the film.
&bullArticle on the addictive nature of junk food, why we love it, and what we love about it. Select DWF quotes interspersed.
&bullArticle about the nature of the internet and the effect that it has on your social life. The saturation of images and information. DFW quotes interspersed.
&bullResponse pieces to quotes like, "I think a lot of people feel&ndash&ndashnot overwhelmed by the amount of stuff they have to do. But overwhelmed by the number of choices they have, and by the number of discrete, different things that come at them."
&bullArticle on books and fiction as an antidote to loneliness. DFW felt that books existed to prevent loneliness.
Such is the nature of American literary fame, I suppose. One morning you write, "I am seated in an office, surrounded by heads and bodies," and then you commit suicide, and then publicists are asking other writers to write fast food-themed articles, interspersed with a selection of your quotations, for a self-publishing Internet platform, in order to sell a movie about your memory. No wonder so many American writers stop writing once they become famous.
The End of the Tour, featuring Jason Segel as Wallace and Jesse Eisenberg as Lipsky, is more than a biopic of a successful writer. It is also a historical recreation&mdashmore of spirit than of setting&mdashof 1996, that strange, seemingly ahistorical moment before the tech bubble formed and then burst, before September 11, before the reformulation of the economic order and the decline of the middle class, a time in which the biggest problem facing white America was that it was getting too rich, too decadent. "I had survived (in a way)," Wallace wrote, "being pampered to death (in a way)."
In the most direct way, the film captures the exact moment when literary culture was overwhelmed by pop culture. Wallace's fame was itself symptomatic of the transition he's frequently compared to Kurt Cobain. Infinite Jest itself was famously displayed more often than read. Lipsky and David Foster Wallace are both novelists, but they barely discuss novels in The End of the Tour. They talk about how good Die Hard is, the first Die Hard. They talk about Alanis Morissette, and Broken Arrow, and the Mall of America, which they are still literate enough to understand as an enclosed world of its own symbology. At one point, Wallace bridles against Lipsky's suggestion, and it was a ludicrous suggestion, that he was addicted to heroin Wallace's addiction, as he well knew, was to television.
These are the conditions under which what we now call the hipster was born. And Wallace is the most likely author to find tattooed on the arms of a bearded young man in a gentrifying neighborhood. What Wallace faced in his brief exposure to fame was the difficulty of trying to pose as not being a poser. Wallace could never reconcile the competing demands of irony and sincerity in himself or in his work. "This is nice. This is not real," Wallace tells Lipsky about his sudden burst of celebrity in The End of the Tour. At one point, Lipsky asks him why he wears the bandana. He tries to explain that it's not a look, it's more a psychological comfort blanket, and that he would take it off but he can't, because if he were to take it off, it would be conceding to critics. "Wallace dreaded interviews," D.T. Max wrote in his 2013 biography, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story. "Life for him had the quality of a performance, and being called on to perform within that performance was too much." He hated interviews yet permitted himself to be interviewed for three days straight.
It's easy to mock this as some narcissistic obsession, which it no doubt was, but the questions Wallace confronted so assiduously are the same questions that anyone who is on Facebook today must confront. "Is that too pomo and cute?" Wallace asks himself. "Who the fuck do you think you're kidding?" Lipsky asks Wallace. By now, the term hipster is utterly exhausted, an imprecation with overtones of a class slur, but the term survives no matter how little anyone wants to use it, because the hipster struggles with and against authenticity, with the emerging class markers of post-Reagan American life, with the conflict between irony and sincerity, are symptoms of a generalized claustrophobia generated by economic forces that are growing only more intense. How to be different in a world that markets away all difference into mere distinctions of taste? How to be fully human in the emptiness of consumer capitalism? David Foster Wallace, in 1996, was at the birth of that constellation of questions without answer. Lipsky stood witness.
Wallace's suicide was at the heart of the nexus of social and intellectual problems he unveiled. All mentions of David Foster Wallace, out of habit, begin with his final act, and it's not hard to see why. Wallace's death had double prestige, first as a literary suicide, in the tradition of Hemingway and Woolf, and then as a rock 'n' roll suicide, in the tradition of Kurt Cobain. Artists who kill themselves are comforting in their familiarity.
Wallace himself resisted this identification. There are artists who turn their suicides into works of art&mdashconnecting their choice of death and their art&mdashbut he was not one of them. The great British experimental novelist B.S. Johnson left a bottle of brandy for whomever would find his body and a note that read:
Kurt Cobain ended his suicide note with a quote from Neil Young's Rust Never Sleeps. Even in college, Wallace resisted the ancient cult of writerly melancholia. D.T. Max credits his proximity to real depression with dissuading him from the celebration of fantasy depression, indulged by some of his friends:
Wallace again thought about hurting himself. McLagan was on his mind. During their hours in the "womb," Wallace had debated suicide with McLagan. Music playing, they kicked around the fate of Ian Curtis of Joy Division, who hanged himself at the age of twenty-three. In high school McLagan himself had once stood on the edge of an overpass with a bottle of champagne in his hand, contemplating throwing himself onto the Illinois Tollway. For McLagan, killing yourself could be the fitting&mdashmaybe even necessary&mdashexit for the sensitive artist from the brutal world. Wallace, though he'd known a despair deeper than his friends could imagine, wasn't so sure. Suicide looked to him like an escape rather than a solution. He knew depression too well to see it as glamorous.
Whether Wallace's creativity was the result of his psychological instability is, I suppose, one of the grand questions, but as far as I can tell from the study of his biography, the periods where the Nardil was working were the periods of real productivity. Quite simply, his death was the result of a psychopharmacological catastrophe: He didn't like the side effects of the medication he was on he went off it and couldn't get back on.
Despite his resistance to the glamour of suicide, he was nonetheless intimately drawn to it as a subject for his work. There is his highly personal description of his mother, "Suicide as a Sort of Present," from Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Just before his death, D.T. Max reports, he was reading Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus, which begins, "There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide." And in the piece that really made Wallace famous, his essay "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again," he identified suicide as the core of the cruise ship experience:
This one incident made the Chicago news. Some weeks before I underwent my own Luxury Cruise, a sixteen-year old male did a Brody off the upper deck of a Megaship&mdashI think a Carnival or Crystal ship&mdasha suicide. The news version was that it had been an unhappy adolescent love thing, a shipboard romance gone bad, etc. I think part of it was something else, something there's no way a real news story could cover.
There is something about a mass-market Luxury Cruise that's unbearably sad. Like most unbearably sad things, it seems incredibly elusive and complex in its causes and simple in its effect: on board the Nadir&mdashespecially at night, when all the ship's structured fun and reassurances and gaiety-noise ceased&mdashI felt despair. The word's overused and banalified now, despair, but it's a serious word, and I'm using it seriously. For me it denotes a simple admixture&mdasha weird yearning for death combined with a crushing sense of my own smallness and futility that presents as a fear of death. It's maybe close to what people call dread or angst. But it's not these things, quite. It's more like wanting to die in order to escape the unbearable feeling of becoming aware that I'm small and weak and selfish and going without any doubt at all to die. It's wanting to jump overboard.
Casio's F-91W watch: the design favourite of hipsters . and al-Qaida
There is one accessory de rigueur with both skinny jeans on the streets of Shoreditch and an orange jumpsuit and black hood in the searing heat of Guantánamo Bay. The latest WikiLeaks dump has revealed that a disproportionate number of terrorism suspects in America's most notorious prison were apprehended wearing a Casio F-91W, a plastic digital watch you can buy for £8.99 from Argos. Beloved of hipsters and jihadis alike, the model has a rare and divergent customer loyalty that suggests we are in the realm of great design. But are these latest revelations the kiss of death for Casio or marketing gold?
The Casio F-91W was launched in 1991 and remains unchanged 20 years later. Since the 1974 launch of its first wristwatch, the Casiotron, this Japanese calculator maker has come to dominate the digital watch market, rebranding the conventional timepiece as an "information device for the wrist". Casios famously include not only stopwatches and alarm clocks but calculators and calendars. Their calculator versions, with fiendishly small buttons, epitomised the Japanese passion for miniaturisation. But the F-91W was a simpler model, stripped back both in its form and its multifunctionality.
That simple form no doubt accounts for its enduring popularity. In an age when the technological convergence of the "information device" has migrated to the smartphone, the watch is something of an anachronism, worn as much as a fashion statement or status symbol as for its time-telling properties.
The F-91W features the classic seven-segment numerical display on a grey LCD screen. It's a trusty timepiece: water-resistant, extremely durable and accurate to within 30 seconds a month. And while it is possible to buy luxury watches at 10,000 times the price that tick with atomic accuracy, doing so for precision reasons is functionalist logic taken to its absurd extreme.
By contrast, the F-91W's popularity with the young, cool set follows a converse logic that is no less a form of snobbery. On the one hand, the model is consistent with a diehard 80s revivalism, the wrist-based equivalent of a pair of Ray–Bans and a taste for Kraftwerk – and, yes, there is even the requisite touch of irony in sporting a 20-year-old digital watch alongside an iPhone 4. But it's more than that: unlike supplicants in the temple of the luxury Swiss watch, hipsters treat their ability to pull off cheapness as a mark of sartorial confidence.
What, then, do terrorists see in this watch? With 28 inmates of Guantánamo found to have had one in their possession, the F-91W and its metallic twin, the A168WA, were described earlier this week as "the sign of al-Qaida". According to testimony given by one prisoner, the model was useful because it was water-resistant: Muslims wash their arms up to their elbows before prayers. Another, more hapless inmate cited the built-in compass that enabled him to pray towards Mecca. His interrogators will have smelled a rat: there is no compass in an F-91W.
In fact, the model is al-Qaida's equipment of choice as the timing device for improvised exploding devices (IEDs). They're handed out in terrorist training camps, where junior jihadis learn how to wire them up to a circuit board, a couple of 9V batteries and a wodge of plastic explosive. This nasty package is concealed in a standard electrical outlet box, with the F-91W a macabre calling card – programmable up to 23 hours, 59 minutes and 59 seconds, it allows the bombers to put ample distance between themselves and their targets. In truth any cheap, reliable digital watch would do, and it may be an accident of fate that led to the F-91W gaining notoriety: some flunky gets packed off to an electronics shop in Peshawar to bulk-buy cheap digital watches, likes the blue rim around the face of that Casio number and lumps a donkey-load of them over the Afghan border.
When I approached Casio's PR team for some information about their bestselling model, I got a curt email response saying: "Casio is not making any further comment on the F-91W watch at this point in time." Is this a case of too much negative publicity? Is the fact that Osama Bin Laden himself wears an F-91W bad for the brand's street cred? Yes and no. Arguably, it is a ringing endorsement of the product's lethal reliability. Many brands would embrace that cult status.
All of this is a colourful distraction from what is truly remarkable about the F-91W – the fact that it is a digital product that has remained unchanged for 20 years. How many other devices can we say that of, apart from the even more anachronistic calculator? Casio's mainstay comes from a parallel world where designed obsolescence – the sales strategy that has cursed everything from our lightbulbs to our computers – doesn't exist. We desire no improvements or embellishments: it just works. In that first flush of affordable consumer electronics, I'm sure no one dreamed that in two decades the F-91W would still be popular and still relevant – just as in the 1990s, when futurists thought videophones were just around the corner, no one imagined a technology as archaic as texting would take off. We are intoxicated by technological potential, but it's the primitive devices we reward with longevity.
Should we – in solidarity with those Guantánamo inmates who are innocent, and in the spirit of resistance to an illegal detention centre – flock to Argos to buy Casios and flood the obtuse immigration counters of American airports with our F-91W-appointed wrists in an "I am digi-Spartacus" moment? No thanks – life looks a lot better through a pair of retro Ray-Bans than it does through a black hood.
The 18 Most Hipster Books Of All Time
#HipsterBooks was trending on Twitter last week thanks to a flurry of riffs on classic book titles: Remembrance of Things Pabst, A Farewell to Non-Inked Arms, He's Just Not That Into Your Vinyl Collection.
All puns aside, we got to thinking about which books are commonly enjoyed by the younger, trendier counterculture. It's easy to make jokes about hipsters, which is exactly why we will. But it's also interesting to examine the commonalities these stories share, and why these books resonate so strongly with contemporary readers.
"Hipster" has a nebulous definition, maybe intentionally so. A quick skim through the index of the n+1 book, What Was the Hipster?, which highlights words and phrases such as Bike: fixed gear, Midwestern sensibilities, ironic, gentrification, twee, and cafe, can help to piece together a semi-lucid image.
The book also mentions Richard Florida's The Rise of the Creative Class, a 10-year-old sociological study that predicted a flocking of talented, creative types to more urban areas, leading to a culture that greatly values diversity and sustainability. Sound familiar?
So if a hipster is a talented, socially conscientious creative type who sometimes struggles with sincerity, what's a hipster book? Some common elements include:
- Pastiche.It's been argued that hipsterdom is the end of original culture, and that our current subculture borrows from various elements of preexisting ones. Whether or not this has any truth to it is debatable, but it's not uncommon for hip books to borrow titles and themes from celebrated classics.
- Inaccessibility. Lengthy novels with equally lengthy footnotes.
- Experimentation. A counterculture is tasked with challenging the norm, so it makes sense that books popular among hipsters would be about bizarre or fantastical topics.
- Existential crisis. The titles that tend toward the realistic rather than the postmodern are generally about a disgruntled protagonist in his or her late 20s, wandering aimlessly and thinking about said aimless wanderings.
Without further ado, we present to you our very definitive list of the 18 most hipster books of all time. These books are so hipster, you probably haven't even heard of them yet!! But actually, you probably have, and you've probably loved them, and they've probably even made you weep, and you've probably carried them with you on the train so as to seem on-trend.
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers:
Eggers's memoir about the death of his parents is a tragic story with peppered-in elements of fantasy. It's a remarkably smart book, but is sometimes dismissed as maudlin. Eggers is also the founder of McSweeney's, a fantastic publisher and site that's designed to look antiquated. Kind of like those suspenders you bought from American Apparel.
No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July:
Like Eggers's above mentioned book, July's short story collection is an incredible exploration of the fantasies we use to cope with pain and tragedy. But, in July's case, said pain and tragedy is moreso the result of a youthful existential crisis spurred by things like breakups or less-than-ideal jobs. It's as inventive as her films and her performance art, but something about seeing her philosophies written out imbues them with tenderness. The most powerful story in the collection, "Something That Needs Nothing," begins, humorously: "In an ideal world, we would have been orphans. We felt like orphans and we felt deserving of the pity that orphans get, but embarrassingly enough, we had parents." The characters proceed to wander around, and Lena Dunham-like circumstances ensue.
Eeeee Eee Eeee: A Novel by Tao Lin:
When it comes to selecting one of Tao Lin's novels as "definitively the most hipsterish," we're spoiled for choice. If we could, we'd pick his series of hamster drawings, but unfortunately they've yet to be compiled into a book. His most recent novel, Taipei, follows protagonist Paul around Brooklyn and through a number of botched almost-relationships, so it was a clear contender. However, the fact that it was published by industry juggernaut Penguin Random House and not Lin's previous, independent publisher makes it slightly less "definitively the most hipsterish" than, say, Eeeee Eee Eeee: A Novel, which is mostly about dolphins, Elijah Wood, and Domino's Pizza.
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace:
The most notoriously unapproachable of Wallace's books (it's heavy, literally and figuratively), Jest has an entire movement dedicated to reading it: Infinite Summer. It's been called a book for "endurance bibliophiles," so it's not exactly accessible, especially considering that much of it is comprised of long, convoluted footnotes. In case you're aware of the book but haven't gotten around to finishing it, it mostly involves a corporate-fuddled super state and Wallace's token wordplay.
How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti:
Rather than a memoir sprinkled with fictional elements, Heti penned a "novel from life": a fictionalized account of her meandering thoughts, most of them related to the question posed in the title. Most of her thoughts are hinged upon whether a person should partake in what's been defined as socially normal (go to parties), or live with more emotional honesty (create art). Upper-middle-class dilemmas as "I bought the same dress as my friend, and now she's mad at me because we'll both be wearing it in Facebook pictures" are chronicled with self-awareness and wit. Her book is also somewhat of a contemporary feminist manifesto, as she promotes not smiling if you don't feel like smiling, and never attempting to be a feminine ideal for the sake of your significant other. Yay, Sheila!
Open City by Teju Cole:
A young grad student, Julius, roams around New York City's streets, cinemas and museums, contemplating his recent breakup and life in general. Julius's life seems a little plotless, so the story does as well, but that's not a bad thing. Like in Heti's book, the philosophical wonderings of the main character take the place of a clear narrative arc. Cole is also an active Twitter fiction writer, and recently composed an entire story from retweets.
Death by hipster - Recipes
Metal Hipsterism is analogous in behavior to mainstream Hipsterism, only in this case applied to the numerous metal sub-genres instead of indie music. While Metal Hipsters cast disdain on the traditional Hipsters, their love of classifying metal genres has essentially turned them into what they hate.
Classic symptoms you are a Metal Hipster:
1) You hate any band that has achieved any kind of mainstream success. Your favorite term for these bands is "Mallcore".
2) You use at least three adjectives to classify every metal sub-genre. i.e., Finnish Melodic Death Metal, Vegetarian Progressive Grindcore, or Crust Punk Viking Symphonic Extremoganza. You argue the finer points of Extreme Black Deathcore vs. Black Death Extremecore.
3) You are instantly enraged if a random passerby has a fucking clue what you are talking about, and are then motivated to invent a few more subgenres.
"I despise Lamb of God. Marketing crappy metal to crappy kids with M-16 patriotism. Oh God, I have turned into a lame Metal Hipster!"
"Killswitch Engage isn&apost even Metal. Their first 2 albums were okay but then they got Howard Jones and I think they moved to Motown Records. Oh God, I have turned into a lame Metal Hipster!"
‘Cry No Tears for These Death Profiteers’: Pharma Stocks Plunge as Biden Backs Vaccine Patent Waiver
Yves here. I wish I could be enthusiastic about Biden saying he would support a waiver of Big Pharma Covid vaccine patents. After all, we’ve been pumping for this measure for some time, albeit mainly through the posts of Jomo Kwame Sundaram, who has written that the much of the Global South would not get vaccines until 2023 on the current schedule, and even then, in many cases, at higher prices than the Global North.
However, if you look at various press stories on this plan, you’ll see two things. One is the abject falsehood that these supposedly backwards countries would have trouble making the vaccines, especially the novel (in terms of large scale use in humans) mRNA vaccines. Microbiology prof KLG debunked that via e-mail:
It is complete and utter bullshit that, off the top of my head, India, Indonesia, possibly Singapore, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, South Africa, Canada, Australia, Japan, Korea, China, New Zealand, Mexico, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Cuba cannot manufacture these vaccines. There are undoubtedly other countries that can do it, too. This is routine molecular biology and pharmaceutical manufacture, albeit on a large scale, not the biological equivalent of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. All any of these people need are the instructions and help with components. Would it take a serious effort on their part? No more than here and Europe.
The second issue is that getting the waivers looks like it will take an ungodly amount of time and may not happen. I wonder if there was a more expeditious US-only route, like requiring vaccine makers to produce a certain number at cost under the War Production Act….or at least as an interim measure while the WTO process drags on? From the Wall Street Journal:
Overriding objections from the pharmaceutical industry, U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai said the U.S. would support a proposal working its way through the World Trade Organization. Such a policy would waive the IP rights of vaccine makers to potentially enable companies in developing countries and others to manufacture their own versions of Covid-19 vaccines….
Pharmaceutical companies, however, oppose it, saying the waiver won’t provide the short-term results proponents think it will, partly because of the challenge of setting up complex new production facilities to manufacture the vaccines…..
Ms. Tai also warned that the talks at the WTO to approve a waiver policy will take time, given the consensus-based nature of the group, but that the U.S. will actively participate in negotiations…
The current WTO agreement—the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, or TRIPS—was introduced in 1995 upon the birth of the WTO itself, providing patent protection to technological innovations, including drugs and vaccines.
Support by the U.S. for the temporary waiver doesn’t mean it will be approved at the WTO, an organization that makes decisions by consensus among members. The European Union, the U.K., Switzerland, Japan and Brazil are among the countries that opposed the original proposal offered by South Africa and India in October.
In fact, cynically I wonder if the US hasn’t already counted noses at the WTO, knows the votes aren’t there, and will quietly reassure big drugmakers privately that this was all a gesture that the Administration knew was destined to fail.
By Jake Johnson, staff writer at Common Dreams. Originally published at Common Dreams
Stocks of major pharmaceutical corporations plummeted Wednesday after the Biden administration announced its support for a coronavirus vaccine patent waiver, a measure that would free vaccine recipes from Big Pharma’s stranglehold and help enable generic manufacturers to ramp up global production.
As CNBC reported, shares in Pfizer, BioNTech, Novavax, and Moderna fell to “session lows” after the Biden White House endorsed the waiver—a potentially seismic move that came after weeks of tireless campaigning by progressive lawmakers and advocacy groups.
Canada, European Union member nations, the United Kingdom, and other wealthy countries remain opposed to the waiver, leaving the chances of consensus approval at the World Trade Organization highly uncertain.
Nevertheless, the Biden administration’s support for the waiver spooked investors and infuriated the pharmaceutical industry, which has been lobbying hard against the proposal in an effort to preserve its immensely profitable monopoly control over vaccine production.
“Cry no tears for these death profiteers,” environmentalist and author Naomi Klein tweeted in response to a CNBCgraphic showing the major sell-off of pharma shares on Wednesday.
Pfizer, Biontech, Novavax, Moderna shares plunge to session lows after U.S. backs waiving patent protections on Covid vaccines https://t.co/Wq9i3OsP1j pic.twitter.com/gEPwFw4yOg
&mdash CNBC Now (@CNBCnow) May 5, 2021
“It’s almost as if the financial interests of the pharmaceutical industry are diametrically opposed to the health and well-being of the planet,” added consumer watchdog Public Citizen, part of a broad coalition of global civil society groups that has been pushing U.S. President Joe Biden and other world leaders to back the patent waiver for months.
The Financial Times reported Thursday morning that the Biden administration’s decision to back the temporary intellectual property waiver—which South Africa and India first introduced at the WTO in October—”prompted instant outrage in the pharmaceutical sector.”
“Shares in the big makers of Covid-19 vaccines were hit by the announcement,” FT noted. “Frankfurt-listed shares in BioNTech lost 14 percent on Thursday. Moderna and Novavax closed down by between 3 percent and 6 percent in New York the day before.”
Warren Gunnels, staff director for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), said Wednesday that “after taxpayers paid Pfizer, BioNTech, Novavax, and Moderna $13.5 billion for Covid-19 vaccines, seven executives at these firms became billionaires and are now worth $17.2 billion.”
“No one should have gotten wealthy off of these vaccines,” Gunnels added. “They belong to the people, not billionaires.”
Allowing a handful of pharmaceutical companies to dictate global supply of life-saving coronavirus vaccines has been disastrous for much of the developing world, which has struggled to obtain and administer doses after profit-seeking drugmakers sold most of their early production to wealthy countries.
Now, as cities in rich nations accelerate their reopenings amid stagnant or falling case counts, skyrocketing infections in developing countries such as India, Brazil, and Thailand are pushing global case counts to a new peak, intensifying calls for sweeping action to boost vaccine production and distribution.
While insufficient to solve global production shortages on its own, India and South Africa’s patent waiver would lift a key legal barrier that’s preventing manufacturers around the world from copying existing vaccine recipes and mass-producing generic versions.
“In the many months since this waiver was first proposed, we could have produced many hundreds of millions more vaccines,” Nick Dearden, director of the London-based advocacy group Global Justice Now, said in a statement Wednesday. “Let’s get moving.”
“Cry no tears for these death profiteers”. My, how the lady knows how to turn a phrase. I’m borrowing that one.
I wonder why CEO’s of industries heavily dependent on international travel have not gotten on board with the IP/patent waivers. It’s not in their interest to have entire swaths of the globe off limits due to a “stew of variants” and shut down borders. Right now Canada, Chile, India and Brazil are practically verbotten for any kind of non-life saving travel. This cannot be good for their bottom lines, talking to you Delta, American airlines.
Of course, the airline industry has its’ own death profiteers in Boeing. it’s almost as if they are showing professional courtesy in not speaking up.
“it’s almost as if they are showing professional courtesy in not speaking up.”
It’s almost like they’re all in the same union and won’t cross picket lines
“They have a club and you ain’t in it.”
— George Carlin
this will solve nothing the problem is in actually making the vaccines they don’t have the capacity or the raw materials. I know this makes you feel good to trash capitalism, but it is only because of capitalism that we have the vaccines.
Sounds like a couple of unfounded assertions.
If they don’t have capacity or raw materials … I would say that is due to capitalism and it is due to research outside of the pharmacutical industry – acedemic research – government research that enabled the vaccines to which the pharma are capitalizing
Did you not read the post? The Global South has the capacity.
The question is the inputs. I am asking KLG.
The industry has been greatly exaggerating the tech know-how required. Would not surprise me at all to learn that they’ve also greatly exaggerated the difficulty of getting key inputs.
we live in a market based society that is heavy on socialism for the rich. Calling us a capitalist country is an overly broad generalization
it is only because of capitalism that we have the vaccines
That’s funny: the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine was 97% publicly-funded.
Hardly the success story of the free market, is it?
I’m thinking that the movers and shakers in the travel industry don’t understand the problem. It is out of their wheelhouse so to speak.
BTW, Cory Docterow has an analysis, and it shows that mRNA technology allows you to put a vaccine factory in a closet: (Warning swearing at link)
* New facilities will be 99–99.9% smaller than conventional vaccine facilities
* They will be 95–99.7% cheaper than conventional vaccine facilities
* You could use a single room in a conventional vaccine factory to make more vaccine doses of mRNA vaccines than the entire output of the rest of the factory
* New vaccines can be made 1,000% faster than previous vaccines
“In fact, cynically I wonder if the US hasn’t already counted noses at the WTO, knows the votes aren’t there, and will quietly reassure big drugmakers privately that this was all a gesture that the Administration knew was destined to fail.”
Your cynicism may be well justified.
“Based on what we’ve seen, we believe that a durable demand for our COVID-19 vaccine – similar to that of
the flu vaccines – is a likely outcome.” — Pfizer CEO’s remarks on a quarterly earnings presentation.
The vaccine padded Pfizer’s revenues by 3.5 billion dollars, and it expects 26 billions in 2021. I doubt they would let this money go that easily.
IP waiver on humanitarian principles is a massive red flag for Capitalist profiteers. The same logic can be extended to waive IP for GM food and renewables technology, which are also needed for solving big problems like hunger and climate change. This sets a precedent that will upend the very basis of the Big Industry moneymaking. They cannot fight this openly for PR reasons, but expect them to obfuscate the issue by making “donations” to developed countries and whatnot.
And about the stock selloff, I wonder which WH insider(s) in the know picked up money/cheap stock from that fall. We will never know, but I can say with almost certainty that it happened. (My cynicism meter is registering an all time high today)
The rest of the world should catch on to these globally focused cons and protect themselves accordingly…
I haven’t posted this as it’s an opinion piece, but it seems appropriate here…
Has Mexico thought of counter-suing Bayer under the RICO act or equivalents?
Have franken-free corn growers within Mexico thought of somehow reaching the Hipster-Foodie market within the US and Canada to see if more Hipster Foodies can be recruited to the concept of buying franken-free corn and/or corn products from Mexico grown with genuine legacy artisan corn varieties? That might begin to recruit a “natural lobbying force” into existence for use against Bayer in this matter.
“In fact, cynically I wonder if the US hasn’t already counted noses at the WTO, knows the votes aren’t there, and will quietly reassure big drugmakers privately that this was all a gesture that the Administration knew was destined to fail.”
Shades of “the Parliamentarian says we can’t” possibly? Like you, I’m very cynical about this, especially as it was such an abrupt change of policy. I think you may be on to something here.
Dr Carpenter, I don’t think either you or Yves is being cynical by considering the proposal to waive Vaccine patents to be virtue signaling.
And a fundraising exercise.
It’s a realistic appreciation of how things work and how much influence $26,000,000,000.00 brings with it.
I would it were different.
One politician’s fundraising exercise is another pharma CEO’s shakedown: ‘Nice IP monopoly youse got here, it would be a shame if anything were to happen to it’
From someone I know with professional experience manufacturing pharmaceuticals in India, the patents are not what prevents local manufacturing of the covid vaccine. Part of ensuring efficacy is knowing what the molecule is, the vat of nucleotides from which it came, and the enzymatic process that creates the mRNA strands. The fermentation apparatus designs are available open-source and the WHO is ready to assist developing nations with license-free tech.
What prevents local manufacture of the vaccine is the lack of facilities that can create a safe and consistent formula in the numbers necessary. India’s cost of creating these facilities from scratch exceeds the cost of purchasing the vaccines from the pharma companies. Indian-nationals working for Indian companies who have the practical knowledge to create a clinically safe vaccine are either already working at Indian-owned facilities in the West cranking out generic pharmaceuticals, and their active ingredients, in the largest markets where clinical trials are the most difficult. Or they are in Mumbai working for a subsidiary of Pfizer. It is not like India doesn’t have its own multi-national pharmaceutical companies with their own interests inside the Modi admin, downplaying the crisis, not the least of which is to be the exclusive manufacturer of a proprietary vaccine.
Please clarify your statement “the fermentation apparatus designs are available open-source.” Do the mRNA vaccines, and or the DNA+virus shell vaccines use a fermentation apparatus?
In labs we are often growing up e. coli. I made plasmid DNA in my most recent job 2 weeks after I started working. It’s incredibly easy.
I’ve made Taq polymerase from e.coli in the past. It’s a lot of fun!
Also, in that link I shared, they talk about using an enzyme to cut a plasmid. Plasmids are extracted by killing all the e.coli and binding the DNA to a column. Then you cut it with a restriction enzyme.
Here’s an example of an extremely common one: BamHI
These enzymes are amazing, and NEB is one of the most common suppliers. So this particular one *only* cuts between 2 G’s separated by TWO A/T pairs. If there are 3 AT pairs, it won’t cut.
If you look at their complete product listing, there are hundreds of individual enzymes that recognize specific sites, and they are highly specific.
Thank you! Your links were very helpful to me. Although I remain a little leery of the mRNA vaccines, in light of the peculiar way they were Warp Speed made available — the technology they represent appears very exciting.
I’m not so leery of the vaccines as they were all in the research-tier pipeline, I’m leery of the virus. It’s mutating far faster than we can implement any “spike protein” domains… That article regarding the Seychelles here on NC earlier points this out. I think the re-infection rate would be about the same with the mRNA vaccines, had they used those. I suspect the virus will always be 2 steps ahead, and the vaccines that are generally available will be for strains that are no longer predominant.
It’s unfortunate that we don’t teach Genetic Engineering at the high school level in the US. It’s incredibly easy, and almost all of it is in kits. Currently it is 98% easier to extract plasmid with a kit, than it is to make a great meal from scratch.
Here’s a high-end plasmid kit, and there are certainly cheaper options:
The nice thing about clicking on these links, is that you should get very interesting ads taking over your browser space. Haha.
Thank you again! I am glad to hear that Genetic Engineering is incredibly easy, and available in kits like the one you pointed to. I will try to learn more. In addition to its uses in medicine I strongly suspect Humankind will require such knowledge to adjust agriculture and local plant life as the Climate Chaos builds. I just downloaded several of the pdf files from the resources page at Qiagen and bookmarked the site.
Regarding your concerns about the mutation rates of the Corona spike assembly — which I share — I start to wonder whether the spike assembly is the best antigen target.
There is however a large brand new facility in Bangladesh currently available.
Particularly odious has been what I call the “Gates defense” of Moderna profiteer Bancel, saying the waivers would change nothing in the production numbers of the vaccine… in the short-term. That’s the good thing about it: Since it is tautological to say nothing changes in the short-term, you can use it to justify any defense of the status quo.
If this is true “Pharmaceutical companies, however, oppose it, saying the waiver won’t provide the short-term results proponents think it will, partly because of the challenge of setting up complex new production facilities to manufacture the vaccines” why are the pharmaceutical companies opposed?
From a public relations standpoint, the pharmaceutical companies could simply allow a time limited waiver to be publicly instituted and quietly sit back and watch the time limited waiver period fail to produce valid vaccines.
That pharma stocks fell, indicates that the financial industry DOES believe that a temporary waiver will produce results.
That pharma stocks fell, indicates that the financial industry DOES believe that a temporary waiver will produce results.
What makes you think people in finance are smart enough to have an accurate understanding of, firstly, mRNA synthesis and, secondly, of the micro-technology that makes the microfluidics technology — the tools that make the tools — that in turn produces the lipid nanoparticles that carry the synthesized RNA?
Here in South Africa, Aspen Pharmacare, which already has an agreement with J&J to package its vaccine, just confirmed in an official statement that they have the sterile capacity to manufacture 300 million vaccines once the necessary formulae are transferred. Cue the “yeah but supplies are the real constraints not manufacturing capacity” rebuttals.
I believe Biden will deliver a waiver of Big Pharma Corona vaccine patents shortly after he delivers to the US Populace his infrastructure and education bills $15 minimum wage $2000 stimulus checks American Jobs Plan and “millions of good paying jobs – jobs Americans can raise their families on” lower deductibles and prescription drug costs in the Affordable Care Act “corporate subsidies and tax incentives he proposes as a solution to the climate crisis will do nothing to halt oil and gas fracking, shut down coal-fired plants or halt the construction of new pipelines for gas-fired power plants.” [list stolen from the first paragraph of Chris Hedges latest essay].
I think the above email statement from Microbiology prof KLG combined with information in the link the other day to: “Rapid development and deployment of high-volume vaccines for pandemic response” — raises disturbing questions. I begin wondering why US Big Pharma has had trouble ramping up their production of vaccines after receiving generous financial support from the US Government. I wonder why Big Pharma needed such a fat carrot to encourage development of Corona vaccines. Instead of a waiver why can’t Big Pharma just ramp up their US production and provide vaccines at ‘true’ cost — considering their the development and equipment capitalization were largely paid for by the US government, either directly or indirectly through guaranteed sales at a preset price if they delivered a successful product. When I suppose the efficacy of Ivermectin, masks, and old school Public Health practices, and the arrivals of old school vaccines … I wonder whether the mRNA or DNA+virus shell vaccines are so very much better for use in many countries, particularly in view of their storage and handling requirements. I suspect there may be other reasons besides the Corona pandemic for interest in the technology. The patents, processes, and process secrets for making mRNA or DNA+virus vaccines are thought to be extremely valuable for their potential applications developing treatments for a wide range of diseases.[“The story of mRNA: How a once-dismissed idea became a leading technology in the Covid vaccine race”, https://www.statnews.com/2020/11/10/the-story-of-mrna-how-a-once-dismissed-idea-became-a-leading-technology-in-the-covid-vaccine-race/ ]
“In fact, cynically I wonder if the US hasn’t already counted noses at the WTO, knows the votes aren’t there, and will quietly reassure big drugmakers privately that this was all a gesture that the Administration knew was destined to fail.”
It is not your cynicism but your subconscious mind telling the truth or rather the reality.
I think a big question here is how well do the vaccines work? I’m having my usual terrible Kentucky spring allergy season problems and decided to get my steroid treatment from my local clinic and was met with exactly the same protocols as during the height of covid-19.Except this time I had to do telehealth first. I was informed when I began this process that 4 people had received vaccinations and then became ill with covid-19.So the clinic was understandably paranoid. This is in a small rural clinic so 4 is a lot statistically. With so many authorities acting in bad faith(save the economy but not the working class and elderly)where are you to turn for the truth.
Just looked, and don’t seem to have plunged.
PFE is at 39 vs 34 in March.
I don’t understand why countries can’t just use the Russian and Chinese vaccines.
It’s just like 2008 with the banks. Not one banker was on TV begging for money. None of them needed it, if you were to believe them.
The banks got their congress people to go on TV and beg for the money. “go do what we pay you for”
The representative from Credit Suisse-
Not one Pharma exec is on TV arguing against patents. The congress people they pay are the ones on TV.
Didn’t Moderna say last year they would not enforce their patent on thier Covid vaccine? Nor their patents on the buildup to make the vaccine? That was back in October, 2020? Has anyone taken them up on that?
Derek Lowe, who seems to be quoted a LOT says NOT so fast. ( he does sort of admit he might have some bias in this matter)
Lowe can fuck off. The vaccine makers ALREADY got a massive subsidy for these damned experimental vaccines in the form of liability waivers.
They do not have a right to profit. They should be regulated as utilities.
Pharma is so profitable that it spends more on marketing than on R&D (and that is with attributing every overhead they can to R&D). They can afford all-the-time TV ads (I must hear 6 an hour in the background). They can afford in-person selling to individual doctors (and that’s before getting to all the ways they manipulate doctors to prescribe more, like their about-as-honest-as-economics-op-eds “research”). The subsidies are so large they should not be public companier.
First, drugmakers get additional subsidies that are massive across their entire businesses. They don’t do basic research. The NIH and other government agencies do. That alone is estimated to account for over 1/3 of the imputed cost of drug development.
Second, they get to license government-developed IP for free. That is the applied research, as in in addition to the basic research.
Don’t get me started on special tax breaks or them hiding from the tax man by putting the IP in Ireland and paying super low taxes.
Yes on Pharma being granted waivers, short cutting trials, and subsidies. Upton’s 21st Century Cures Act pushed all three along quite a bit. Liability is lessened also. Both Upton and Congresswoman DeGette have been taking bows on this legislation and citing the lessening of time to bring a drug to market. Which is good but, they already had ways to do such.
Cuba appears to be close to having their own Covid drug(s). Not sure why Biden has not restored what Obama initiated with Cuba and trump took away. It appears the island country has come a long way since 1970 when I was stationed there. Guardian, “Cuba punches above its weight” https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/may/04/cuba-covid-vaccines to develop its own Covid vaccines. Brazil is producing the Sputnik V vaccine (not sure of its efficacy or the others for that matter).
Costs and resulting profits are always something of a question. What many of the medical companies are going to is value – methodology in putting a price on a drug. Rituxan is an old drug which is priced at $93 a molecule. Infusions are $28,000 list (Medicare knocks it down to
7,000). If they discover new usage for it, they increase the pricing. The ICER reviews pricing increases and rules on whether it is justified or not. It did rule against the 17% increase in wholesale price for Rituxan and Humira’s increase also.
The Global South / NAM have to extract a price for not sharing vaccine IP. Either in debt repudiation or asset seizure. The Golden Rule of international relations remains reciprocity.
Tit for tat
Butter for fat
Kill my dog
And I’ll slay your cat
Our Bodies, Ourselves
Caitlin Doughty, who was about to open her first funeral parlor, in Los Angeles, gazed at a skull that she had put on display above the desk in her office. Although it was plaster, the skull was a provocative presence in a room where Doughty planned to receive grieving families. It was mid-June, and that afternoon John Gettys, a field representative of the California Cemetery and Funeral Bureau, was coming to give the business a final inspection. Doughty, who is thirty, said, “I want the office to look like me, but I don’t want it to look too Arty Death Hipster.” This was possibly a futile hope. She grabbed the skull and sat contemplating it in her vintage wooden swivel chair, she looked like a noble in a memento-mori portrait. “I don’t want the state inspector to think I’m testing him,” she said. “Maybe I’ll put it on a lower shelf. That way, I will stay true to myself.” She checked her phone: Gettys was running late. “Maybe he died,” she said. “How funny would that be?”
Doughty’s office, which is in a medical building on the gritty end of Santa Monica Boulevard, has a view of the 101 from one window and a glimpse of the Scientology campus from the other. On one wall hangs a painting, by a high-school friend, of a coffin that has been bent in half and placed atop a chaise longue, in the manner of Magritte’s “Perspective: Madame Récamier by David.” The bookshelf bears volumes of poetry, including Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” as well as a compendium of nineteenth-century funeral practices titled “The Victorian Book of the Dead.”
When Gettys finally arrived, Doughty rose to shake his hand. She is six feet one in ballet flats, and has pale skin, long mahogany hair with bangs, and a penchant for vintage dresses with nipped-in waists. (Today’s outfit was emerald green, which matched her eyes.) Gettys read through her price list, which offered a biodegradable willow casket for thirteen hundred and seventy dollars and, for a hundred and twenty dollars, a newborn’s casket made from recycled paper embedded with pressed flowers. Doughty considered her business an “alternative funeral service” that would bring mourners into closer contact with the dead by helping people to tend to corpses at home. She did not plan to offer embalming services, although she was qualified to do so, having graduated in 2010 from the mortuary-science program at Cypress College. Regulations of funeral homes vary from state to state, and in California one can go into business without having taken a class in embalming, or even having learned how to securely close the eyes of a corpse. (A piece of cotton from the end of a Q-tip slipped under the eyelid usually does the trick.)
Doughty has a low, mellifluous voice and an ironical manner. “Are you going to give us a cool license number? Like, all the same digits?” she asked. Gettys, a middle-aged man whose pants and shirt were both of an olive hue, was not perceptibly amused, and replied that the number would be up to the bureau, in Sacramento. “We plan to be massively compliant,” Doughty told him. Her funeral parlor does not have its own crematory, so she and Gettys drove to examine the nearby facility that she planned to use. Gettys told her that, thirty years ago, he’d entered the business as an apprentice embalmer. “The funeral industry doesn’t change a lot—it’s been around for a long time,” he said. “Everybody tries to reinvent the wheel. Well, let me tell you something. The wheel has already been invented. O.K.—there are little permutations that can be done to the business model, but by and large the idea is to dispose of dead bodies.”
It was clear that Gettys was not aware of Doughty’s public profile—that he had not, for example, come across her popular series of online videos, “Ask a Mortician,” in which she fields such viewer questions as “Are these really my mother’s ashes?” and “What is the best way to write into my will that my children will receive no inheritance unless they have my dead body taxidermied and propped up in the corner of the living room?” In 2014, she published a best-selling memoir, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory.” (“A girl always remembers the first corpse she shaves,” it begins.) And she is the founder of the Order of the Good Death, a mostly online meeting place for morticians and academics who are interested in exploring new ways to guide mourners through the experience of death.
A week after Gettys’s visit, Doughty posted on Twitter an image of an official letter that she had received from Sacramento. It began with a cheery “Congratulations!” Doughty tweeted, “I am a funeral home owner. There can be miracles, if you believe.”
Doughty grew up in Hawaii, on the island of Oahu. When she was a teen-ager, she fantasized about opening a funeral home that would combine retro charm with up-to-date service. As she writes in her memoir, she even came up with a name for her imaginary establishment: La Belle Mort. She saw herself creating tailored events that celebrated the life of the deceased in a highly personalized manner: sending cremated ashes into space, or shooting them out of a gun, or compressing them into a gemstone.
After graduating from the University of Chicago, she worked for about two years at Pacific Interment, a mortuary and crematory in an industrial district of Oakland. Without ceremony, she processed corpses through preparation and incineration. This work changed her vision of the ideal funeral practice. “When I first thought I wanted to get into the industry, I thought people needed a more friendly death—for death to be more accessible,” Doughty told me. “That changed very quickly. Now I think people need to get closer to it. It should be up in your face, not ‘Let’s turn Mom into a diamond.’ ”
Her new funeral parlor has a blunt name: Undertaking L.A. Along with Amber Carvaly, her business partner, Doughty intends to help people take care of their own dead, rather than outsource the task to professionals. “When I found myself in all these big industrial warehouses, alone with all these bodies, I thought, If I’m doing all this, there are all these other people who aren’t doing this,” Doughty said. “That’s too much death for one person and not enough for all those other people.” Among the services offered by the fledgling company are help with home funerals, in which the body is bathed and dressed, then kept on ice for a few days, while the family grieves natural burials, without casket or marker, at a green burial ground in Joshua Tree and witness cremations, which permit family members to help load the body into the cremation machine and push the button that starts the fire.
Sherwin B. Nuland, in his 1994 best-seller, “How We Die,” wrote, “Modern dying takes place in the modern hospital, where it can be hidden, cleansed of its organic blight, and finally packaged for modern burial.” Doughty’s goal is to end our deliberate estrangement from the dead body. “There really are so many places in our culture where we demand something unnatural,” she told me. “As of right now, what most people find acceptable is either no body at all or something that has been highly mediated. Someone comes in, they take the body away, and, the next time you see it, it has been disinfected and treated and made safe and beautiful.” A dead body is not immediately dangerous, except in cases such as Ebola, and in those instances infectious-disease protocols apply. “And maybe a dead body doesn’t need to be pretty,” Doughty went on. “Maybe we need to look and say, ‘Wow, let’s look at this beautiful, natural corpse.’ ” The conventional funeral industry has given people the impression that death is an emergency. “But death is not an emergency,” Doughty said. “Death is the opposite of an emergency. Look at the person who died—all that stress and pain is gone from them. And now that stress and pain can be gone from you.”
The professionalization of death care in America didn’t get under way until the second half of the nineteenth century. Modern embalming—in which the bodily fluids inside a corpse are drained, through an incision in a vein, and replaced with a preservative solution, through an incision in an artery—was popularized during the Civil War, as a means of allowing the bodies of fallen soldiers to last long enough for them to be shipped home for burial. Embalming became the signature skill of the professional mortician, setting his services apart from those of people—usually women—who had previously been responsible for preparing a dead body for the grave, by bathing it, anointing it, and dressing it, often in a shroud. In 1863, Louisa May Alcott, who served as a nurse during the Civil War, wrote of an encounter with the body of a soldier whom she had tended until death. “The lovely expression which so often beautifies dead faces, soon replaced the marks of pain,” Alcott wrote. “I longed for those who loved him best to see him when half an hour’s acquaintance with Death had made them friends.”
As Gary Laderman, a professor of religion at Emory University, explains in his 2005 book, “Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth-Century America,” the first embalmers made house calls. Early techniques were sometimes primitive: in 1898, an article in the Journal of Medicine and Science complained that the arsenic used to preserve corpses had leached into the soil and the groundwater near cemeteries. The article cited a critic of the practice—“Gallons of poisonous solutions are squirted into bodies indiscriminately”—and called for the establishing of standards in the handling of corpses. Around this time, the first mortuary schools were established, and the National Funeral Directors Association, which is still the leading industry association, was founded.
The turn of the twentieth century saw the emergence of the first funeral homes—literally the homes of professional morticians, who lived over their shops. It became the norm to remove a body from a home or a hospital as quickly as possible. The death industry boomed: a survey published in 1928 revealed that between 1900 and 1920 the number of funeral directors grew by more than fifty per cent. (The annual number of deaths increased by only 2.3 per cent in the same period.) For most of the twentieth century, the majority of funeral homes were family businesses that were passed from father to son—and rarely to a daughter. In the seventies, ninety-five per cent of funeral directors were men, and even by 1995 there were still almost twice as many male mortuary-science students as female ones.
Today, sixty-five per cent of mortuary-school graduates are women. The gender shift reflects a significant change in funeral practices. Rates of burial—and, hence, of embalming—have undergone a drastic decline. In 1960, fewer than four per cent of corpses were cremated. Today, the cremation rate is forty-five per cent. (Industry projections estimate that it will reach seventy per cent by 2030.) The image of the funeral director has undergone a parallel evolution. Although undertakers are still often portrayed as black-suited men in possession of dour scientific expertise, the funeral director has emerged as a member of the caring professions.
Until recently, it was common to believe that women were not physically capable of doing removals. Though such sexist fictions have been upended—lifting a dead body is mostly a matter of technique—explanations for the recent rise in women’s “death work” are often no less dependent on restrictive stereotypes. Women in the industry often declare that they have an innate empathy for others, and that they excel at providing emotional support to the grieving. It’s also argued that women are especially skilled at dressing the dead—and at restoring the appearance of vitality through the tasteful application of cosmetics and styling of hair. “People are more comfortable about crying, about showing emotion, in front of a woman,” Erin Whitaker, a funeral director from South Carolina, told me. “And it’s easier, as a woman, to put your hand on their hand as a sign of comfort.”
With an increasing demand among baby boomers for customized funerals that reflect the individuality of the deceased, funeral directors are expanding into the business of event production. Today’s funeral director might stage a memorial service featuring the release of butterflies at the grave site, or with the deceased’s Harley parked ceremonially at the entrance to the chapel. In such instances, the skills of a funeral director can seem to fall somewhere between those of a nurse and a wedding planner. Mortuary Management, a trade magazine, offers articles about such innovations as the tribute blanket—an instant heirloom that incorporates photographs of the deceased into a custom-made tapestry—and urges funeral directors to be open-minded when faced with families who want pop songs played at a service. It’s a profitable strategy to, as a feeble witticism of the industry has it, “put the fun back into funerals.”
Since the nineteen-eighties, the National Funeral Directors Association has held an annual professional women’s conference. This year, it took place in Chicago, and it attracted more than two hundred women from across the country. They attended an embalming workshop and listened to speakers who delivered “Lean In”-style exhortations.
Many women at the conference were helping to run, or had taken over, their family’s funeral home, but there were also women who had been drawn to the work for other reasons. Patty Decker, of Woodstock, Georgia, who has been a funeral director for nearly thirty years, told me that she’d wanted to become one since she was eleven years old. “I just saw the respect that the funeral director in my home town had—how much he was admired,” Decker said. “You have to love this job. You are faced with your own mortality every day. We are like the directors of this show that no one wants to attend.” Maria Thomas, an apprentice embalmer in Virginia, had worked in the performing arts before starting her training. “The first time that a family threw their arms around me, thanking me for making their mom look so beautiful—that really touches something,” she said. Strangers were curious about her job, she said, and she welcomed it. “We worship youth and beauty—those are the things that are celebrated in our culture,” she said. “But we do have to accept that over here is the death corner, and you are not going to escape it. You might as well talk about it.”
Doughty didn’t attend the conference: she isn’t a member of the National Funeral Directors Association, and notes grandly in her book that the group “won’t comment on me.” But some of the funeral directors present were aware of her advocacy of alternative funeral practices. One afternoon, there was a roundtable discussion of ways that funeral homes might use social media.
“Who is going to follow a funeral home’s Twitter account, really?” one participant asked.
“Competitors,” added another.
Doughty’s online prowess came up, and one participant remarked that she thought it was healthy for the public to get a glimpse of a funeral director’s reality. But another participant expressed concern about Doughty’s perspective. “I feel like she’s the one who’s big on ‘You don’t need a funeral director,’ ” she said.
Affixed to the refrigerator in Doughty’s apartment is a photograph of the class of 1973 at the California College of Mortuary Science, which later became part of Cypress College. Forty-four men, nearly all of them white, are dressed in black tie there are two women in the class. Hanging next to that image is a 2010 photo of Doughty’s class. Its thirty-one graduates form a racially diverse group, and twenty-two of them are women. At her new business, her colleagues are mostly female, too. “I don’t think it’s because we have some kind of helping gene—I don’t think it’s some deep need to nurture,” she told me. “For me, working with dead bodies is almost like a feminist act. I don’t want people to come in and say, ‘Oh, no, little lady, you don’t know what to do with this body,’ because they already say that about our reproductive systems. I know I am qualified to take care of this body.”
Many funeral directors like to say that they had a calling for the profession. Such statements are no doubt sincere, but it might also be convenient to characterize the career as having been thrust upon one: few people admit to being motivated by a deep interest in corpses and death. Doughty has no qualms in admitting to such a fascination. She says that she became “obsessed with death” in the nineties, while growing up as an only child in Kaneohe, on the east side of Oahu, where her father was a high-school teacher and her mother a real-estate agent. When Doughty was in grade school, she says, she witnessed a small girl tumbling from a height in a shopping mall. (Doughty presumes that the girl fell to her death, though she never found out for sure.) The incident made her conscious of her own mortality and that of everyone else. “Everybody has their moment when they realize that death is very real,” she says.
Doughty studied medieval history at the University of Chicago, and she eventually focussed on the cultural status of the corpse and the representation of dead bodies in art and religious iconography. “I was interested in how much they had a relationship with the dead,” she said. “If you went to a church in the Middle Ages, there would be bodies buried under the floor and in the wall and in pits outside the church, and absolutely everywhere. The church was the center of life, so you would go there and have sermons and plays and outdoor markets. Everything you did—you were surrounded by corpses. Of course, they feared Hell—it’s not like they were totally comfortable with death—but they were a lot more comfortable with the dead body than we are now.”
Upon graduation, in 2006, Doughty sought to convert her academic interest into real-world experience. At Pacific Interment, the Oakland crematory, she worked on bodies in the prep room and loaded them into the cremation machine. No special credentials were needed for the job, besides a tolerance for the brute facts of mortality. She gained intimate knowledge of the process of decomposition when it is unhindered by embalming: first comes a loosening of the skin, followed by bloating, putrefaction, and blackening. She chronicles her experiences in “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” which is filled with unflinching observations. (“The left side of her chest was caved in, giving the impression that someone had removed her heart in some elaborate ritual.”) Doughty learned that it is difficult to arrange the deceased’s facial features into a semblance of heavenly rest after rigor mortis sets in, a few hours postmortem. And she learned in what order corpses should be cremated when several must be processed in a single day. (Start with the heaviest decedent, when the cremation chamber is cold if one waits until the chamber is hot, the body will burn too quickly, producing excessive smoke.)
For the most part, Doughty performed what is known as direct cremation, in which the body is removed from a hospital or a home, then incinerated without ceremony, the desiccated remains mechanically processed into unidentifiable fragments that are collected and given to a relative. This is the least expensive way of dealing with death: in the U.S., the cost of a direct cremation averages between seven hundred and twelve hundred dollars, whereas an in-ground burial typically costs about seven thousand dollars. Cremation gained in popularity in America largely in response to consumer groups that, starting in the nineteen-sixties, publicly questioned the expensive services of the funeral industry.
In 1963, Jessica Mitford published “The American Way of Death,” a scathing investigation into the practices of funeral directors. They were, she suggested, “merchants of a rather grubby order, preying on the grief, remorse, and guilt of survivors.” Funeral directors lined their pockets, in part, by promoting questionable psychological arguments, such as the claim that the viewing of an embalmed corpse was a necessary step in the grieving process. They recommended “eternal sealer” caskets to protect the corpse from even greater ravages than death. Mitford championed cremation as a sensible alternative to burial, and her book, which became a best-seller, helped set in motion an investigation of the industry by the Federal Trade Commission. When Mitford died, in 1996, she was cremated, at Pacific Interment, for a cost of four hundred and seventy-five dollars. A decade later, Doughty took considerable satisfaction from the fact that she was operating the same machine in which Mitford had been reduced to ash.
Like Mitford, Doughty reviled the excesses of the funeral industry. But the longer she worked at Pacific Interment the more she found her own attitude toward the dead body at odds with Mitford’s approach, which struck her as unsentimental to the point of callousness. Doughty began to think that Mitford’s effort to combat the commercial excesses of the traditional funeral industry had ended up reducing the dead body to something to be dispensed with as cheaply and efficiently as possible. This approach swept aside an important aspect of human experience: that of tending to loved ones in death, just as in life.
All Caring Cremations, the company that handles the burning of bodies for Undertaking L.A., is in a bleak industrial area in the San Fernando Valley. When Doughty took me there, she pointed out a building down the block that had served as the exterior of the Dunder Mifflin paper company, on the NBC show “The Office.” “In an ideal world, this is not the neighborhood I would choose if we had the option to go with a wooded-stream crematory,” Doughty said. “But that’s not an option we have.”
The lobby of All Caring was decorated with anonymous good taste: wingback chairs, a low table. There was an unplaceable unpleasant aroma. A small chapel was painted in institutional beige, with chairs and a lectern and, up front, space for a casket. “They have said we could do some décor stuff in here—not, like, a feminine touch, but we might put up different art, a different color on the walls, better lighting,” Doughty said. We heard a noise that I first took to be the loud rumble of the air-conditioning system it was the sound of the cremation machine at work.
Doughty and Carvaly, her business partner, expect that many clients of Undertaking L.A. will seek out their services because of their advocacy of home funerals. For a fee of three hundred and forty dollars, Doughty and Carvaly will come to the home of a dying person and consult with the family about the best way to take care of the body in situ. (Opening windows can be useful, and so is planning to place the body on a bed or a couch that can be reached without climbing stairs.)
A person who helps families with a home funeral is often called a death midwife. (In most states, the services of a professional funeral director are not required by law.) Clients who like the idea of not handing off a loved one’s body might not have the space or the stomach for caring for a corpse at home, and so a visit to All Caring’s prep room—hidden behind a door marked “Employees Only”—is available. There they can help with bathing and dressing the body, then proceed to the chapel and sit with the deceased in valediction.