Nursing Clio Blogs

During the week of May 10, Nursing Clio launches “The Deathbed.” This new series aims to bring the history of medicine and death studies together, and explores this history in a global context. These essays reconsider how death has been regulated, staged, and experienced across time and cultures and will complicate traditional histories of death, the experience of dying, and the handling of human remains. Check back for new entries every week through the summer of 2020.

This past fall, when we began work on a Nursing Clio series about death, we never imagined the world would look the way it does today. Early reports of illness in China were limited and, as they often are, written in the confident language of exceptionalism: epidemics happen over there, to other people, in other places. Not here, not to us.

But things changed quickly…

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I can hear some of you say, “Can’t we talk about something more pleasant?” That’s the same question American cartoonist Roz Chast’s parents asked her when she wanted to talk to them about their deaths. Her title represents the general attitude towards death in American society today. Even in the midst of a global pandemic, we are still not talking about it…

Hundreds of people we know, dozens of people we call friends and family, will get infected. It’s only a matter of time until someone we love will die from it… We’ve passed the point of calling this “unpleasant.” It is heartbreaking, upsetting, and very necessary to talk about death right at this moment…

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On October 12, 1622, a 26-year-old English woman named Elizabeth Jocelin gave birth to her first child, a baby girl. Nine days later, she died of puerperal fever, an infection of the genital tract — most likely from bacteria accidentally introduced by a birthing attendant during labor — that can cause fatal sepsis in postpartum women… Jocelin is noteworthy, not because her situation was unusual, but because of what we know about how she prepared for it. When she learned she was pregnant, she secretly bought herself a sheet that she could be buried in and began writing a document full of maternal advice for her unborn child, in case she did not survive to raise him or her…

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The rituals we use to honor someone in death often reflect the way that they lived, from their religion to their favorite color. People have strong preferences for what will happen to their body after they die and what kind of funeral they want. Twenty-four percent of UK adults have already chosen which songs they want to be played at their funeral and nearly 16% of Americans ages 18–39 think people should plan the individual touches for their funerals before the age of 40.

. . . . In modern-day Britain, people may be buried in any clothes they wish, but the Wool Acts of 1667 and 1677 decreed that all who died during the 17th and 18th centuries were legally required to be buried in wool…

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