"If you are walking in Charleston, you are walking on someone's grave."--Sue Bennett, Charleston tour guide

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Talk Takeaways: Dr. George Dickinson Goes "Beyond the Grave" with FYE Students

"My family didn't all die in a plane crash," quipped esteemed College of Charleston sociology professor Dr. George Dickinson as he opened his talk to my "Beyond the Grave" First Year Experience course students on Nov. 2 in our Robert Scott Small classroom.

No, it wasn't a personal tragedy that launched the Texas native decades ago on his career academic expertise: death, dying and bereavement, which is part of the name of the book he co-authored in 1993 that has since been updated and expanded a pretty amazing 14 times!

It was early in his teaching career when Dickinson said he posed this innocent question to a fourth year medical student at the University of Minnesota: "How's your death and dying course?"
Dickinson said the future doctor's blank look and response shocked him: "We don't have anything like that."

Dickinson said he was taken aback that physicians, many of whom regularly deal with terminally ill patients and their families, would not receive instruction that could help with their bedside manner in such situations.

Dr. George Dickinson's death talk was lively! 
"The American Way of Death" was the topic of Dickinson's talk to my students. In his handout, a Woody Allen movie quote at the top summed up the general American view on death, according to Dickinson: "I'm not afraid of dying. I just don't want to be there when it happens." (The line is actually credited to Irish comedian Spike Milligan).

Dickinson contends that Americans, more so than the people of other nations, are uncomfortable with the reality and inevitability of death. Euphemisms, such as saying someone "passed away," "passed," "went to heaven," or "fell" (for those killed in wars), help people deal somewhat with the finality, and often tragedy, of death. "We don't die, we go to sleep," Dickinson said.

What an honor to have Dr. Dickson visit us! 
Below are some of the other takeaways from Dickinson's very interesting talk on this sensitive subject:

  • The word "cemetery" is Greek for "place of sleep"
  • It used to be common in American homes for there to be a "slumber room" were dead family members were displayed before being buried
  • Dickinson's "historical overview of death and bereavement in the United States" is broken into three timelines:
  1. 1600-1830: Living with Death- "God of wrath and anger," Dickinson said. "People just had to live with it (death).
  2. 1830-1945: Dying of Death- the rural cemetery movement that begin in the mid-1800s took graveyards out of the areas were people lived and into outlying areas. "Out of sight, out of mind," Dickinson said.
  3. 1945-Present: Resurrection of Death- the atom bombs the U.S. dropped on Japan made the world realize that "a lot of people could die in a quick, short length of time," he said. 
Dickinson said for people who lose a loved one, family member or friend there are four difficult stages of dealing with and confronting death: 
  • Hearing of the death
  • Seeing the body
  • Closing the casket
  • Lowering the casket in the ground
He also listed the three places for "final disposition of dead human remains":
  1. Earth burial (which today can be exorbitantly expensive at an average $10,000)
  2. Cremation (which is becoming more and more common and is much cheaper on average at $2,000- he said in the U.S. in 1975, 10 percent of Americans were cremated. Today it's 42 percent and by 2020, 50 percent is expected, he said. England is up to 90 percent with cremations, Dickinson said, which in Spain and Italy the figures are much lower due to the dominant Catholic religions there) 
  3. Give body to science 
Other interesting facts and figures Dickinson shared with us: 
  • Late baseball legend Ted Williams remains in the state of "cryonics" or body freezing. 
  • In 1900, the major causes of death (etiology) in America were pneumonia and tuberculosis and that today it is heart disease (followed fairly closely by cancer, then chronic lower respiratory diseases and accidents due to unintentional injuries) and strokes (source Centers for Disease Control)
  • 80 percent of Americans today die in institutional settings, "away from the familiar area of home," according to Dickinson.
To me, that last factoid is most memorable. I am surprised how high the percentage is. I can never see myself in an institutional setting (aka old folks home) to live out the remaining years of my life. But that's probably the same thoughts this 80 percent who are there had at my age! 

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