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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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Why We Need to Talk About Death Right Now


What to Expect When You’re Expiring: Pregnancy and Death in Seventeenth-Century England

Maggie Vinter

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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Weaving Wool into Death: Burial in 17th-Century England

Kim Barrett

Reconsidering How We Die


I arrived home ready to relax and watch The Crown after an intense work day, which included debriefing the family of a person in hospice who had died that night. Although we’d advised the family about the often brutal nature of dying from throat cancer, it can be difficult to imagine for anyone who hasn’t previously witnessed the choking, suffocating death that often accompanies a ruptured neck or head tumor… I turned on The Crown. Ironically, the next episode in my queue showed the death of the Duke of Windsor… the duke’s esophageal cancer and eventual death sat in stark contrast to my day… 

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…Without denying Dr. Caralps’s merit, this is a carefully curated version of the truth. Almost 20 years earlier, in 1968, Dr. Cristóbal Martínez-Bordiú – dictator Francisco Franco’s (1939–1975) son-in-law – transplanted the heart of Aurelia Isidro Moreno into the chest of Juan Alfonso Rodríguez Grille, who survived for a little over 24 hours. The Spanish Society of Cardiology, the ONT, and Spain’s national media have good reasons to draw a thick veil over this surgery. However, nothing justifies turning our backs on its casualties…

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Heart Transplantation, Democracy, and Collective Forgetting in Contemporary Spain


Dying Like the Savior, Dying Like the Saved


Sister Alberta Marie Hanley felt like Christ on her deathbed. Blood seeping into her eyes from a low platelet count, the twenty-six-year-old told Sister Mary Mercy that her head felt tight, like the crown of thorns must have made Jesus’ head feel. Hanley took her last moments to wonder if she had done enough for the people of war-torn Korea. Mary Mercy, the head of the Maryknoll Clinic in Pusan, South Korea, assured Hanley that she’d done all she was called to do…

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pregnancy loss is a site of tension, situated between waiting for the baby, the unanticipated loss, and the often complicated grieving that follows. Although still often a taboo subject, pregnancy loss has been gradually attracting more recognition as a life event that does not benefit from being silenced. Support for people going through a pregnancy loss tends to center on the emotional experiences of the parents; the lost pregnancy, on the other hand, changes from a tangible baby in utero into a memory of the baby that never got to breathe…

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Death before Birth: Pregnancy Loss and Funerals in England


A Different Kind of Expert


In the spring of 1813, Abigail Adams wrote to her friend Julia Rush inquiring after the death of Julia’s husband physician Benjamin Rush. . . . Although separated by a considerable distance—Quincy, MA to Philadelphia, PA—the Adams and Rush families were close, and they expressed their mutual grief through letters after Benjamin’s demise from typhoid, typhus, or some other “low fever” on April 13, 1813. The raw emotion in Abigail’s first letter to Julia is full of sentiment and empathy for a friend…

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When I was ten, I was present at a close family friend’s deathbed, an experience that sparked my lifelong curiosity about what happens when a person moves from this life into whatever might or might not exist beyond it. Hence my interest in the Puritans. Few folks have expended more time and effort trying to nail down what exactly was occurring spiritually at the moment of death than they did. . . .However, no moment held more existential weight than the deathbed moment, which served as the capstone to an individual’s life.

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Straightened Up and Dying Right? Queering Puritan Deathbeds

Sarah Pawlicki

Plastered Skulls: What Can a 10,000 Year Old Tradition Teach Us About Coping with Death?

Pinar Durgun

“Design your own burial” is an activity on my course syllabus. No matter how many times students see it on their handout and on the lecture screen, it takes them a minute to comprehend these words. Watching my twenty-something-year-old students think about their own mortality, their own death— sometimes for the first time—is eye-opening for me as a mortuary archaeologist. Teaching about death provides me with first-hand cultural observations.

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My neighbor died as I was finishing this essay. We were two weeks into the stay-at-home order during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. . . . His wife stood on the street as they loaded him into the ambulance. . . .Today she sent me the link to the online memorial. Though she is next door, we are grieving at a distance.  It feels like a new reality, living in a socially-distanced world, but there are people who can show us how to do it. I come from a family of migrants, and migrants have long lived at a distance from their loved ones, through all their rituals of transition from birth to marriage to death. Adapting to new circumstances may be the most crucial lesson we can learn from the experiences of migrants, even if we never leave home.

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Death, Distance, and the Digital World

Ambar Abbas

Heroic Effort Beyond the Call of Duty’: Death Care Workers and the 1947 Texas City Disaster

Vicki Daniel

On April 16, 2020, the New York Times published an op-ed about the challenges facing overwhelmed funeral directors around the country during the COVID-19 epidemic. . . . Yet, despite their frustrations, death care workers continue to do critical, and often underappreciated, frontline work. . . Whether during epidemics or disasters, funeral homes and their staff help grieving communities reclaim a sense of dignity for the dead and assert what elements of the good death they can.

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What is the soundscape of the deathbed? Most often, for Chinese Buddhists, it has involved the sound of human voices chanting the name of Amitābha Buddha. According to the core Pure Land scriptures, Amitābha vowed to save all those who called on him, ensuring that after death they would be reborn in his Pure Land, a place of comfort and ease.

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The Deathbed and the Sound of Rebirth

Natasha Heller

News from the Dead

Eileen Sperry

On December 14, 1650, 22-year old Anne Greene was led up the gallows in Oxford. She had been charged with infanticide. . . . After praying and willing her remaining possessions to her mother, Greene dropped from the platform, suspended from the noose–but remained alive. Some of those gathered nearby tried to quicken her death to ease her suffering; “lifting her up and then pulling her down again with a sudden jerk. . . . One report describes a nearby soldier, monitoring the execution, inflicting “4 or 5 blows on [her] breast, with the butt end of his musket” . . . Greene hung there for half an hour, after which her body was cut down, put into a coffin, and transported to a local surgeon for dissection.

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My 28-year-old nephew, Willie Lee “Chill” Oglesby, Jr., was murdered on November 8, 2017. One of the first things that his mother and my sister, Aleta (affectionately called “Snooky”), did was to commission Novel T’s to create 44 official RIP (Rest in Peace) T-shirts. . . .The T-shirts unified us in our grief while signaling to the public that we were in mourning. The T-shirts also provided solidarity, creating room for healing by memorializing his life – his place within our family and the larger community. Further still, RIP T-shirts allow room for healing by metaphorically filling the void of the loved one’s absence, serving as second skin to keep him close, and even allowing mourners to fill out the imprint he left, with our own image. . . RIP T-shirts have multiple purposes to mourners, but nevertheless, it is a ritual rooted in celebrating life.

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Fresh to Death: African Americans and RIP T-Shirts

Kami Fletcher

Burying the Dead, and Then Digging Them Up

Cassia Roth

About a week after my partner Clayton was murdered in 2015, I went back to his gravesite with one of his brothers to visit. . . .Clayton’s headstone hadn’t yet arrived, but even if it had, we wouldn’t have been able to see it that day.  When we arrived at the cemetery, another police officer who had died while on duty was being buried – on top of Clayton. The cemetery workers were lowering his coffin into the ground as we walked up. We left, not wanting to disturb the family members and friends who surrounded the grave.

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We’ve all seen her. Hunched over the grave of an important poet. Standing meekly atop deceased philosophers, businessmen, and writers alike – head in hands and despairing. The Mourning Woman is a motif found throughout nineteenth-century Western cemeteries. She emerged during a revival of classical symbolism in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century gravestone iconography. She draws inspiration from “the mourning women” of ancient Greece and Rome, who prepared the body for burial and mourned the dead loudly and publicly.1 Despite her ties to these ancient cultures, she serves first and foremost as an archetype of the Christian Madonna – a matriarch dedicated to “upholding the virtue” of the household and carrying the albatross of grief at its loss.

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Hygeia: Women in the Cemetery Landscape

Corinne Elicone

Dead Babies in Boxes: Dealing with the Consequences of Interrupted Reproduction

Julie Hardwick

One morning in June 2019, two city workers in Lyon, France, pulled a plastic bag out of the river that runs through the city center and found it contained the body of a “late term fetus or a newborn baby thought to be less than a day old.” Such occurrences have a long history in France. About 240 years earlier, in 1781, a fisherman working on the river bank in the city center pulled out “the absolutely naked body” of a female infant with afterbirth still attached. Then and now, disposers and discoverers came face to face with the emotional, logistical, and legal challenge of handling the remains of interrupted reproduction, often in ambiguous and opaque circumstances in which differentiation between termination, miscarriage, stillbirth, and neonatal death was unclear.

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In 1930, Delhi’s residents were sorely in need of a new hospital. The city’s population had ballooned by more than 30% over the previous decade, but its infrastructure had failed to keep pace. . . . Delhi stood on the precipice of a public health crisis. By mid 1930, the city’s own officials described Civil Hospital as a “disgrace to the capital.”

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Bodies in the Way: Delhi’s Death and the Pressures of Space

Kelsey Utne
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