This winter I’ve been studying thanatology (study of death and dying and how we deal with it socially, psychologically and through arts and humanities) with a text I bought myself for Christmas. One of the first issues brought up in the text is how society, namely media and the arts makes us think about and see death.
Once upon a time, we encountered death and dying in our own homes, but with change in medical technology, customs, traditions, embalming and the creation of the funeral industry, death left the home and became something few of us encounter in person today. In the past 60-years or so, most of the average American’s exposure to death and dying has happened through media instead, but what does seeing these deaths reported second-hand teach us about death and its place in our worlds?
Do you remember the first time you saw news coverage about death and dying? For me, it was the Challenger disaster in 1986. I was a 15-year old sophomore and remember passing through the common area on the way to class and seeing classmates, teachers and administrators gathered around a television screen there. I was shocked and saddened; we all were. At this point in my life, no one close to me had died. My grandparents were still alive, I had no friends or friends of friends who had died or had close family or friends who had died. So, this was the first time I remember encountering death(s), and it was certainly the first time I saw death, even if second-hand.
I remember that we were all traumatized, but still we knew these brave men and women were strapped in a mechanical device with so many intricate working parts dependent on so many technical specifications and so human knowledge and wisdom that all needed to function in perfect harmony. So many things could go wrong, and each member of that shuttle crew, their families and coworkers always knew there were inherent risks. Not that any of that made the explosion less tragic, or the deaths less horrific, it’s just that to us watching from safe physical and emotional distance could not really see ourselves in those deaths. So while the Challenger disaster may have illustrated to us the universality (all things), irreversibility (no coming back), and causality (brought about by external causes) of death, it did little to help us come to understand the existentialism of death – that we would die.
If you are older than I, you might remember seeing Kennedy being assassinated, or Oswald being shot as your first media exposure of death. Perhaps it was the coverage of the Vietnam War or the violence and assassinations of the Civil Rights era. Younger than I, and it might have been the Columbine school shooting in 1999 or any of the too-often and too-tragic mass shootings since in schools and other public places.
Of course no one in the entire world could miss the coverage of terrorist attacks on September 11 and all the horrific, shocking, unbelievable sights and sounds of death and disaster that became increasingly tragic throughout that day and the months following.
More recently, we’ve seen scenes of overwhelmed frontline healthcare workers, refrigerated trucks serving as make-shift morgues and even mass burials due to COVID-19. We’ve seen amateur video of Black people being killed by police, and mobs attacking police and a woman being shot and killed at our nation’s Capitol. We’ve seen news coverage of people being run over or tear-gassed and shot with non-lethal ballistics at protests. And then throw in obituaries and profiles of celebrities and the shooting of Lady Gaga’s dog-walker and dognapping just this week (thankfully, non-fatally and resolved), and we see a lot of second-hand death and trauma these days.
People who study media and mass communications know that media plays, perhaps, the most important part not only in showing us what is happening around us, but in telling us what we should find important and what we should be paying attention to in the first place. What kind of agenda-setting is happening by focusing on mass death and carnage, on high-profile death, and doing it packaged with and between scenes of violence and trauma? What is the mass media trying to make us think and ultimately believe about death in the world, our country and our neighborhood by choosing to show or cover what it does?
Death indeed comes for us all. How and when is anybody’s guess. Mass media has a role in educating us about the inevitability, irreversibility and universality of death, but it does little to help us understand the true causality of death and it only exacerbates our existential dread about death and does a poor job of helping us understand what is existential about our own death. By making, “If it bleeds, it leads,” the focus of our media coverage of death, by sandwiching it between high speed chases, violence and trauma, it makes us believe not only that death is traumatic and violent, but that our chances of dying from a traumatic death, by violence or accident, is much greater than those chances really are. When media choose to focus on death that occurs because of random violence, such as what is happening to Asian-Americans right now in this country, or because of police action, which happens overwhelmingly more often to Black Americans than those of other races, those of us living in a place of privilege, believe that death occurs somewhere out there, and to someone else. Ironically, at the same time, it makes us believe that the world is much meaner, much more dangerous than it truly is. We end up thinking everyone and everything else is out to get us; serial killers; planes, trains and automobiles; wild animals; and even that guy down the street that has different color skin, dresses differently or doesn’t speak English.
We come to believe we live in a violent, dangerous world inhabited by dangerous people and things and that those things will lead to our demise. We lock our doors against and look over our shoulders for these things, but don’t bother to wash our hands or wear a mask. We immerse ourselves bingeing on true-crime and horror entertainment for hours on end, but don’t have time to move enough. We don’t see the obituaries of the hundreds of real people who die around us every day from heart disease, diabetes and organ failure. This is the death that most likely will come to us, but its buried in back pages in tiny paragraphs of tiny font, because those are the deaths that show us the truth about causality – mostly biological breakdown- and the truth about the existentialism – I am going to die – about death we don’t want or choose to see. It’s not big and scary happening out there to someone else. It’s intimate and small, and it’ll be happening to you someday.
Tell me about your earliest memory of death in the media. Do you remember how it made you feel? Looking back at it and the depictions of death in mass media you’ve seen since, how do you think it shaped your feelings and beliefs about death?