This post is just a write up on some of my notes about an interesting concept. I have told a few people here and there about something I call Social Sanitation. And they have asked for more. About what it is, about what it means and so on. So here is a ... longish post about the concept of Social Sanitation.
It is a really interesting, and relevant concept. It can be seen in everything from daily shopping to funerals. And it does have big connotations about society and who we are. So this post should be well worth reading, if you can and want to get through it :) You should find it rewarding and provoking!
A while ago I came across the term 'deathsanitation' over at Order of the Good Death. There were three posts about this concept and how death is socially distanced. But one in particular stuck out to me. It was about how an accident at Disneyland where a ride had malfunctioned and killed someone. Disneyland chose not to close the park or to tell the public at the time. They stated how people wer there to have fun, with their kids to enjoy the day and hearing about a death in the park would just upset people.
Then I was mindlessly watching a show on youtube. Something about sending modern families to live in old fashioned conditions. When it came time for the families to kill a chicken they all hesitated, many said it was a case of "ethics". They were happy to eat chicken, but not kill it. To eat it was perfectly fine but to kill it was ethically ambiguous.
Many might assume this is a simple case of hypocrisy. That we want things but dont want to do things or get dirty. The people wanted to eat chicken but not kill it. Like in another youtube show where one person went hunting pheasant for dinner. Yet then he did not want a cooked pig head on display at the table. He could kill animals so long as the food he ate did not look like an animal. However there is no contradiction, no disconnect. The two exist in total harmony, due to Social Sanitation.
We have removed all forms of dirt and pollution from our society. Or at least we actively, vigorously and regularly attempt to. This includes anything to do with death and funerals. Historically speaking death was very much in the domestic home. Undertakers and the funeral industry did not exist. Instead the family of the deceased would prepare the body (in their home), order the coffin from a carpenter, organise the grave to be dug, organise the celebrant (religious or otherwise) and so on. Even death was more common in the home. People tended to die at home rather than in hospitals or nursing homes.
Over time this all changed. But more recently as one might think. It changed slowly between the 18th century and finished developing into what we know in the 19th century. In other words less than 100 years ago the funeral would have been very different to today. What changed was two main things (from what my preliminary research indicates).
Death itself left home. It moved from the domestic household to the institution. We successfully institutionalised death through hospitals, hospices and nursing homes. Now one is much more likely to die in a hospital or nursing home rather than at home.
The other thing was the idea of the 'beautiful death', which is now a contradiction. But more on that another time. The beautiful death is the idea of peace and release through death. Literature in the Victorian era heavily promoted the idea of heaven. Of ever lasting peace and being reunited with loved ones through death. Death was now a release from the hardships of life. This in turn lead to the beautiful funeral. The presentation of the funeral as a beautiful thing, the body is described and displayed as "in a gentle sleep".
In other words death has been reduced, perhaps completely removed from society. Have you ever seen a dead body? Even the dead body of an animal? Very few people will see a dead body, even fewer will see a dead body outside of work. Now the main way we regularly interact with the dead is through occupation. As an undertaker, as a coroner, as a paramedic, as an embalmer and so on. The only real place left for the dead is outside work, outside a job. Even then it is usually a job specifically about the dead (such as undertaker). Only on rare or exceptional circumstance will one see a dead body.
You might say we see a dead body on a funeral. That many people see the dead on funerals through viewings. This is wrong, quite simply and unequivocally. The body on display is not "a dead body" but "the dead body". Two quite different things. Without getting bogged down in detail "a dead body" is a dead body, a deceased person, just that and little more. On the other hand "the dead body" (here after referred to as TDB) is so much more than a dead body. It is a thing of obsession and fixation. Something prepared, cleaned and organised to represent a certain image. It is something imbued with certain qualities and ideas, an image of the deceased, who they were, the end of their life. And so on, it is a complex thing I aim to define and explore properly one day. But for now I focus on the cleanliness and presentation of TDB.
Only in the rarest exception is TDB not cleaned and made presentable. Like the cut of meat one buys at the shops, the product is not a true image of what it was before being 'processed'. The undertakers remove most of the traits of a dead body. Things such as boby fluids (from blood to bile) are cleaned up. The eyes, sunken in their natural state have special caps placed under the eyelids to make them look round and 'lively'. The mouth is sewing shut, sometimes a plastic strip is inserted over the teeth to make it look more 'natural'. The hair is brushed. The face is shaven. And so on, a lot is done so that by the end body is little like it was to start with. Even not on a viewing much of this is done, the body is prepared and cleaned.
The family (and other mourners) have had little to no part in this. Only rarely do they participate, and this depends on religion and culture. Generally unless ones religion or culture dictates people will not see this process. Most never even think of how the body made it from the hospital to the funeral. Again, like the cut of meat in the shops. Few know how their meat made it from the cow to the packet. Yet many buy it. Many people attend funerals daily, many who read this will have attended one or more funerals.
We have removed any direct participation in the process. The end product is dealt with, but not the in between. As a result we are distant from the reality of our products, even of our deaths. One might plan an ornate funeral, a personal funeral, a lovely funeral. But at the same time one rarely plans the process of the funeral. How they are treated, how they are processed and prepared by the funeral home. The process itself is also removed from our minds.
Because we remove the process and interact with the end product we fetishise over the end product. We exaggerate it and fixate upon it beyond what it is. The product becomes transformed, distorted compared to what it was originally. For example when at the shops we see packets of meat, cuts of steak. We do not see cows, lambs, things that were once animals but things that are just food. No different to a can of tomatoes.
This is the same with death and why a dead body is different from TDB. The Dead Body is a distortion of a dead body. A thing we have created though our obsession with the end product and our ignorance of the process. How that product (in this case the body before us on the funeral) came toe be is ignored, deliberately or accidentally. All focus goes to the body on the funeral. This is a fixation without base, without foundation and understanding. So our fixation is, 'not accurate'. It is not based in reality or in truth. Because it is not formed from the reality of what happened. As such the product (the body) becomes distorted and not based on reality.
Our gaze fixated upon something which quite simply doesn't exist. We look, search for this thing, thinking of it, desiring it and upset when we can't find it. So the undertaker makes it. The butcher makes it. Those who work behind the scenes make it behind the scenes and trot it out for us to see. The undertaker collects the body and prepares it without the family. All they see is the sick person in hospital then TDB on the funeral. They do not see how TDB came to be, or what it actually is.
This in turn creates a need to move the product behind the scenes, away from the public. Not out of secrecy, but out of necessity. The public become uncomfortable when presented with the process. They see the end result, presented as idea and nothing else. To show the process is to destroy the end result. To see a cow being slaughtered and made into meat forever changes how one looks at meat. So much so that anti-curelty and anti-meat groups (such as PETA) use this imagery. They simply show the process to disgust and disturb the public. In the funeral industry this is no different. To watch the embalmer cleaning the orifices of a dead body, or of the mouth being sewn closed all but destroys the romantic image of the end result. After seeing or participating in the process one does not look at a dead body the same. They know how it came to be, the reality behind the presentation.
This is Deathsanitation. The removal of death from the public gaze, from the public mind. But more broadly Social Sanitation is the removal of the process of how things come to be. How a body arrives at a funeral. How a cow becomes meat. We then romanticise and fetishise the end product. Distorting it into something not based in the reality of how it was made. As a result we become dependent on not seeing the process, it must be removed and kept out of sight or the end product is destroyed. So much so that there is no contradiction or disconnect between eating a chicken being OK and killing a chicken being questionable. We see the dead body on the funeral, but few ever think or know of how it came to be.
Naturally this is not very thought out or supported. This is just my thoughts and opinion on a subject I intend to explore in more detail later.