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Imagery of Death and Grief in the Media. Rev. Aimee Wollman, M.Div , B.C.C. Lead Chaplain Luther Midelfort Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Objectives. Describe historical depictions of end of life. Identify the current trends in the culture of grief and loss.

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imagery of death and grief in the media

Imagery of Death and Grief in the Media

Rev. Aimee Wollman, M.Div, B.C.C.

Lead Chaplain

Luther Midelfort

Eau Claire, Wisconsin

  • Describe historical depictions of end of life.
  • Identify the current trends in the culture of grief and loss.
  • Describe common themes of death and grief in the media.
  • Discuss positives and negatives of how we manage death in 2011.
media s influence
Media’s Influence
  • Media messages can often mirror ideologies, values and beliefs, provide readers with images for interpreting the world.
  • Provides guidance for:
    • Socialization
    • Education
    • Meaning Making
  • Why not death and grief?

-Hilliker, 2008

some history

Some History

Death Depicted through the

Visual Arts


Descent from the Cross

By Rogier van der Weyden,

Mid 15th Century

The Arrival of the Queen’s Body and Its Reception by Cardinal Jean de Luxembourg, Jean Perreal, 1515

19 th century
19th Century

“Funeral of Firstborn”

Nikolay Alexandrovich Yaroshenko, 1893

the tame death
The “Tame” Death

There was a persistence of an attitude toward death that remained unchanged for thousands of years, an attitude that expressed a naïve acceptance of destiny and nature. The individual and community accepted death as an unalterable fate, and embraced domesticated rituals of mourning.

until the 1940 s
Until the 1940’s
  • Death took place in the home
  • Open coffin
  • Wake open to all
  • Photographs were common

The Home Wake

Children were welcome and expected to be part of the funeral rituals. Death was part of life.

1950s 1960s
  • Death no longer welcome in the home
  • Rise of the funeral industry
  • Embalming
  • Make-up
  • Coffins
  • Vaults
  • Trained professionals
late 1960s 1970s
Late 1960s-1970s
  • A time of transition
  • 80% of death occurred in hospital or nursing home
  • Rise of the hospice movement
  • Legal and organizational aspects of death were the focus of public discussion
  • Memorial services
  • Cremation
the pornography of death
“The Pornography of Death”
  • Geoffrey Gorer (1955)
  • Argued that popular culture would fill the void created by 20th century avoidance of death.
  • He believed death would take the place of sex as the new “taboo” topic.
  • Following post-war sorrow when death was “sanitized” and removed from the home setting and moved into hospitals and nursing homes.
  • Death became geographically removed.
how do you want to die
“How do you want to die?”
  • Survey of 1,375 people
  • 1 in 10 has broached the subject of where they would like to die. Even fewer have discussed medial care or pain relief at the end of life.
  • 63% felt they were “too young” to discuss issues related to death and dying.
  • Dying Matters survey:
    • 70% say they want to die at home.
    • 7% say they want to die in a hospital.
    • Reality is: 60% actually die in the hospital.

-Crompton (2009)

current trends in grief the rise of the internet
Current Trends in Grief: The Rise of the Internet
  • Virtual Cemeteries
  • On-line Memorials
  • Grief Chat Rooms
  • Grief Blogs
  • On-Line Condolence Messages
  • Texts, Facebook pages, voice mails, and emails are the new keepsakes equivalent to photos and home videos.
do it yourself rites of mourning
“Do It Yourself” Rites of Mourning



  • Fits our individualistic tendencies.
  • Creates on line communities of support.
  • Virtual friends may be better sources of support than real life friends or colleagues.
  • How do we protect privacy and regulate information, and imagery that should be kept private?
current trends of grief cont
Current Trends of Grief cont…
  • Personnel Policies
  • The Rules of Grief
  • The Sick-Role Theory
    • Study of 50 newspaper articles published in the New York Times
    • 1980-2006
    • “The media portrays grief as a state of mind that is abnormal and must be treated.”

(Hilliker, 2008, p. 264)

rules of bereavement
Rules of Bereavement
  • Grief (the ailment) is not the fault of the bereaved (ill) person.
  • The grieving (ill) person is excused from their normal responsibilities;
  • Grief (the condition) is undesirable and the person should try to get well; and
  • The bereaved (ill) person is expected to seek out technically competent help through counseling (the medical profession).
rules of bereavement1
Rules of Bereavement

The message seems to be:

Your grief is no different than being sick. There are expectations from employers, other family members, and society to make a full recovery, move on, resume normal functioning, and get over the issues of grief and loss as quickly as possible.

Hilliker, 2008.


How to Celebrate a Life…Remember them as they were.A traditional funeral service with black suits and quiet church music and people gathered around a casket or urn, is okay for some, but it is not favorable for many people. Sometimes mourning a life does not feel right. Life should be celebrated. It is a special day when people who loved a person get together and celebrate their life, happily, and remember the person as they were...alive, and vibrant.

the denial of death the gap

The Denial of Death“The Gap”

Mediated Death and

Real Life Contexts


“The fact is that today many people in North America and in Europe never see a dead body or witness a real death until their early to mid-adult years. However, the majority have seen hundreds if not thousands of simulated deaths via the media”


The consumption of death related media does not prepare us for real life experience of death of grief.

how does the media use death
How Does the Media Use Death?
  • Shock
    • Celebrity death is worth $$ and ratings.
  • Inform
    • Not all deaths are equal in the eyes of the media. Deaths related to poverty/AIDS/genocide and greatly under reported.
  • Entertain
    • Soap operas
    • Crime/Detective shows
    • Forensic Medical dramas
    • Action Thriller Movies
not all deaths are equal
Not All Deaths are Equal

In the eyes of the Media


Deaths due to poverty, AIDS, genocide, and natural disasters are highly under reported in the national media.

a new star is born the corpse
A New Star is Born: The Corpse
  • The depiction of dead bodies on prime time television has more than doubled between 2004 and 2005.
  • The homicide rate on television is rising with violent death as the leading cause of death.
  • The Corpse is the new media celebrity.

-Foltyn (2008)

csi or bones
CSI or Bones
  • Do not mimic real life experiences of viewing a dead body.
  • Fragmentation of the body.
  • View the body from a scientist’s perspective thus distancing us from the emotional content.
  • Proximity from a distance
did you know
Did You Know?
  • You can buy body bags on eBay?
  • You can buy autopsy DVD’s on
  • Toy stores sell CSI kits for kids?

“This rational imperative extends to the way in which the corpse and death should be viewed: as an object for science rather than emotion, spirituality, or other cultural beliefs.” (Sue Tait)


We may indeed by under the illusion we know death very well; that it is something 21st century human beings confront, constantly expose, and go towards, rather than seeing death as that which comes towards us, shaking values, knowledge and reason.

  • Gibson, 2007
media s influence on children
Media’s Influence on Children
  • Few distinctions between fantasy and reality
  • Presents a distorted understanding of the rate of violent death.
  • Inadequate portrayal of the pain and suffering death causes family and friends.
  • Death is a temporary state.
  • Characters are often indestructible.
medical utopianism
Medical Utopianism
  • War against aging, the precursor to death
  • CEO of the Human Genome Sciences, William Haseltine states
  • “Death is nothing but a series of preventable diseases” (Callahan, p. 107)
michael ignatieff 1988
Michael Ignatieff (1988)

“Cultures that live by the values of self-realization and self-mastery are not very good at dying, at submitting to those experiences where freedom ends and biological fate begins…their weak side is submitting to the inevitable” (Callahan, p. 112).

confused state of death
Confused State of Death
  • Body Worlds Exhibit
  • Was this a great scientific display or a profane misuse of the human body?
  • Do we use dead bodies for education or do we discard them?
  • Should we expose or disguise, display or hide, revere or defile, see dead bodies as sacred or profane?

-Foltyn (2008)

confused state of grief
Confused State of Grief
  • Do we praise the one who accepts death with quiet resignation?
  • Do we praise the one who fights death to the end?
  • Do we wait until it is too late to discuss things that are most important?
  • Do we allow one another to have anticipatory grief?
what now
What now?
  • Conclusions by Callahan:
    • We are better off if we do not try to explain away death as an accident or failure of medicine.
    • Better off as individuals if we mourn the death of others.
    • Better off when our mourning is public and nourished.
  • Grief will never be cured by science.

-Callahan, p. 112-113

celebrate what is done well
Celebrate what is done well.
  • Palliative Care Movement
  • Hospice Care
  • Use Advance Directives as a “conversation starter” about the really hard topics.
  • Affirm parents who set limits, watch television with their kids, know what games they are playing, and include them in death/funeral rituals.
  • Mentor one another.
other ideas
Other Ideas?
  • Get a pet. As pets come and go, children learn about death in a real way.
  • Encourage viewing the body, open caskets, funeral services close to the time of death, rituals around burial.
  • Buy flowers, take pictures, create memories, make handprints, collect hair samples, wear black, hang crepe from the door, take time to mourn.
  • Have a celebration of life on the anniversary of death when time has been set aside for mourning.
  • Others?

Callahan, D. (2009). Death, mourning, and medical progress. Perspective in Biology and Medicine. 52(1), 103-115.

Encyclopedia of Death and Dying (2011). Children and Media Violence. Retrieved from

Foltyn, J. (2008). Dead famous and dead sexy: Popular culture, forensics, and the rise of the corpse. Mortality 13(2), 153-173.

Gibson, M. (2007). Death and mourning in technologically mediated culture. Health Sociology Review (16)5, 415-424.

references continued
References Continued

Hilliker, L. (2008). The reporting of grief by one newspaper of record for the U.S.: The New York Times. OMEGA 57(3) 261-278.

Quigley, Christine. (1996), The corpse: A history. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc.