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Morning Shift

Monday: Death Used To Be On The Living Room Floor, Now We Keep It In The Closet

Death and talking about death wasn’t always something we pushed aside and ignored. Before the Civil War, families laid the corpses of their loved ones on the floor in the homes as part of the grieving process. This allowed mourners to visit with the family as they paid their respects to the dead. And, the reason for visiting was right there, out in the open.

That all changed with a business opportunity, though, says Craig Klugman, a bioethicist and medical anthropologist at DePaul University.

Klugman joins Morning Shift to talk about how business practices influenced how society responds to death and why that helped make it a taboo topic.

Here are some interview highlights. 

From the home to the funeral home

Craig Klugman: For most of human history, dying and death have been a very intimate part of our lives. If we look back just a little over a hundred years ago, when somebody would die, they died at home. And their body would be laid out in the parlor and you would have visitations and people would come over and they would see the body laid out in your home. And we very much took care of people who were dying as members of our family. 

It starts in a few different phases. In the Civil War, we sudden had developed the ability to preserve bodies to make them look like they were still alive. And people wanted to bring home their loved ones from the battlefields, and there were funeral directors who would go around the battlefields and they would contact the families and preserve the bodies and then be able to ship them home and make a nice profit doing that. 

And so we got used to this idea that bodies didn’t decay and there was no smell and we could be with people even after they’ve died. And eventually we get to this point where we start professionalizing death, where we have the funeral directors that started in the Civil War that can now say, “Oh right, well not only can we now prepare the body, but now we’ll give you a space to do it so don’t have to have the hassle of having this in your home.

So it gets removed more and more, and now as people are getting sick to the point that they’re dying, we take them out of the home a lot, except if they’re in a hospice program, and people die in hospitals and people die in skilled nursing facilities, and so we don’t necessarily see this on an everyday basis anymore. 

Why it’s important to talk about death 

Klugman: The point is your family and your friends. There are a number of studies out that say that if you can talk about your death and dying, you are more likely to have your wishes fulfilled at the end of life, you are more likely to get the treatments you want and to not get the treatment that you do not want. 

It also shows — and to me, this is sort of the main reason, because you’re dead, you’re gone, but the people who are remaining, the survivors, it turns out that if you have talked to them about what you want, they feel less guilt over making a decision if you get to a point where you are unconscious and you can’t speak anymore and say what you want, and this goes to medical power of attorney or your family. Then they know, they have an idea of what you wanted, and that can really help them feel like they’re making the decision that you would have wanted. 

Secondly, studies show that they have an easier time grieving, that it is easier for people to move one, to reconceive of their relationship to you once you are dead. They have an easier mourning, and to me, that is a huge reason to do it. You’re leaving this gift to your loved ones saying, “It’s OK.” 

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the "play" button to listen to the entire interview. 

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