There is no place for death in most modern-day American homes. The “parlor”, where wakes used to be held, is now known as the “living room”, as author Nancy Scheper-Hughes notes in her essay “Death and Dying in Anxious America”, from Hugh Gusterson and Catherine Besteman’s edited volume The Insecure American. Scheper-Hughes finds that the more we relegate death to hospitals, nursing homes, and out of our concept of the human experience, the more anxious we become about this inevitable event, and the more difficult it is to accept.
In the essay, Scheper-Hughes writes about the concept of a “good death”—a concept she saw in action over and over again during her fieldwork in rural Ireland, when she was researching for her book Saints, Scholars, and Schizophrenics. In the town, a “‘good death’ was one experienced awake and aware, and in familiar surroundings, be it home or bog, or mountain, or farm,” she writes. It was a chance to make amends and say goodbye. A good death meant retaining some control over the experience—knowing it was coming, preparing for it, accepting it. Scheper-Hughes finds that the anxiety Americans tend to have about dying stems from a lack of control over one’s own death—not knowing where it will occur, the fear that important medical decisions might be made by a stranger, or that one might not be treated with respect.
In this interview on KPFA’s Against the Grain, Scheper-Hughes discusses Americans’ fear of death, and explores how we might assuage some of this fear by reclaiming death as a familiar part of the human experience.