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kottke.org posts about death

Oscar the Cat

Oscar the cat lives at the Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Providence, Rhode Island. According to an article in the New England Journal of Medicine, Oscar possesses a peculiar talent…he knows when the residents there are going to die and curls up with them for comfort before they pass.

Making his way back up the hallway, Oscar arrives at Room 313. The door is open, and he proceeds inside. Mrs. K. is resting peacefully in her bed, her breathing steady but shallow. She is surrounded by photographs of her grandchildren and one from her wedding day. Despite these keepsakes, she is alone. Oscar jumps onto her bed and again sniffs the air. He pauses to consider the situation, and then turns around twice before curling up beside Mrs. K.

One hour passes. Oscar waits. A nurse walks into the room to check on her patient. She pauses to note Oscar’s presence. Concerned, she hurriedly leaves the room and returns to her desk. She grabs Mrs. K.’s chart off the medical-records rack and begins to make phone calls.

Within a half hour the family starts to arrive. Chairs are brought into the room, where the relatives begin their vigil. The priest is called to deliver last rites. And still, Oscar has not budged, instead purring and gently nuzzling Mrs. K. A young grandson asks his mother, “What is the cat doing here?” The mother, fighting back tears, tells him, “He is here to help Grandma get to heaven.” Thirty minutes later, Mrs. K. takes her last earthly breath. With this, Oscar sits up, looks around, then departs the room so quietly that the grieving family barely notices.


The Bridge

Having lived in San Francisco, I’ve walked across the Golden Gate Bridge and driven across it countless times. The bridge is a nearly perfect metaphor for what some people go there to do. The view on a clear day into the city, the red painted cables glowing in the sun, the sudden way the fog comes in off the ocean to envelop the bridge, the path from the cold city to the warmth of Marin County. Death too is beautiful, dramatic, mysterious, abrupt, and an escape to another place.

In The Bridge, a film about the Golden Gate and suicide, director Eric Steel makes effective use of the bridge’s imagery and its relation to death; you can see why so many people choose to end their lives there. The footage he and his crew got is astounding at times…families discuss the death of a loved one while that same person is shown pacing back and forth on the bridge, thinking, waiting. You see a group of police officers, looking almost bored (which was probably hyper-aware nonchalance), talking a man back over the railing.

And yet, I can’t tell if that footage actually added anything to the discussion of the issues of mental illness, depression, and coping which were at the heart of many of the jumpers’ problems. Does watching death make it any more understandable to family members. To audience members? The footage doesn’t say why, it just shows us how, and those aren’t quite the same things.

Here’s an earlier post on The Bridge, a graph of suicides by location on the Bridge, and the New Yorker article by Tad Friend that inspired the film.


Controversy over The Bridge

One of the films premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival is The Bridge, a documentary by Eric Steel about suicide and the Golden Gate Bridge. The trailer is available on the festival site but be warned that it contains actual footage of people climbing over the railing of the bridge to commit suicide.

The Bridge was inspired by a 2003 New Yorker story by Tad Friend called Jumpers, a piece about suicide and the bridge. The subject of suicide is often not discussed in the media. Self-inflicted deaths aren’t usually reported in the newspapers or on TV. Suicide prevention activists caution against suicide contagion due to media exposure of individual suicides leading to copycat deaths.

But that’s just the start of the controversy surrounding the film. In order to secure a permit to shoot the Golden Gate (which he did for the entirety of 2004, amassing almost 10,000 hours of footage), Steel said he was shooting footage to capture “the powerful, spectacular intersection of monument and nature that takes place every day at the Golden Gate Bridge”. He says he lied to discourage people to seek out his cameras to immortalize their deaths on film, but it’s also true that Golden Gate National Recreation Area officials certainly wouldn’t have given him a permit to film suicides.

Steel interviewed family members of the jumpers without disclosing that he’d filmed the death of their loved ones (again to avoid publicity for the filming and the death immortalization problem). Some family members felt manipulated by the omission when they learned of it.

Then there’s the matter of the filming itself. The film crew’s basic job description was to wait for people to die…they needed people to die for their film. If there’s no good footage of people jumping, there’s no film. Without too much trouble, you can imagine Steel instructing his crew to shoot the next one at a wider angle, the crew refining their techniques for catching the jumpers on film, and the mixture of excitement, dread, and the satisfaction of a job well done when they catch a jumper on film. But the crew was also trained in suicide prevention and intervened in several attempts. And listening to Steel talk about the film, it obviously wasn’t meant to be Faces of Death Part XII.

Here are a few more articles on The Bridge:

- Film documenting Golden Gate Bridge suicides premieres, San Jose Mercury News
- Golden Gate star of dark documentary, San Francisco Chronicle
- Man Survives Suicide Jump From Golden Gate Bridge, ABC News


There’s nothing good about the shooting of

There’s nothing good about the shooting of airline passenger Rigoberto Alpizar by air marshals. Guns on airplanes โ€” I don’t care who’s wielding them under what authority โ€” is a bad idea; some alternative thinking is needed.


Graph of suicides by location off the

Graph of suicides by location off the Golden Gate Bridge. This is a fascinating graph. More overall deaths on the SF half than the Marin half and way more on the bay side. A lot of people walked pretty far before jumping. And lightpost 69…it looks to be about halfway between the towers…lots of symbolism there for the jumpers.


I’m in luck because it would take

I’m in luck because it would take more than 260 cans of Pepsi to ingest enough caffeine to kill me. How much of your favorite beverage can you drink before suffering death by caffeine?


An ethical will is a good way

An ethical will is a good way to pass on your values to your descendants. Here’s a template and some advice to get you started.


Death in the celebrity age

Are you worried about the future glut of obituaries in national newspapers? Because I sure am. Think about it: because of our networked world and mass media, there are so many more nationally known people than there were 30, 40, or 50 years ago. Fifty years ago, to be famous you had to be a politician, a movie star, a sports star, a general/admiral, a writer, a musician, a TV star, or rich. These days, we have many more popular sports, more sports teams, more movies are being made, there are 2-3 orders of magnitude more TV channels and programs, more music, more musical genres, more books are being written, and there’s more rich people. Plus, these days people routinely become famous for appearing in advertising, designing things, being good cooks, yammering away on the internet, etc. etc. A year’s worth of guests on Hollywood Squares…there’s 2300 people right there that probably wouldn’t have been famous in 1953, and that’s just one show.

Frankly, I don’t know how we’re all going to handle this. Chances are in 15-20 years, someone famous whose work you enjoyed or whom you admired or who had a huge influence on who you are as a person will die each day…and probably even more than one a day. And that’s just you…many other famous people will have died that day who mean something to other people. Will we all just be in a constant state of mourning? Will the NY Times national obituary section swell to 30 pages a day? As members of the human species, we’re used to dealing with the death of people we “know” in amounts in the low hundreds over the course of a lifetime. With higher life expectancies and the increased number of people known to each of us (particularly in the hypernetworked part of the world), how are we going to handle it when several thousand people we know die over the course of our lifetime?


The tortoise and the hare

Remember that old fable of the tortoise and the hare? Basically, the faster hare is overconfident and loses a foot race to the slower, but steadier, tortoise. Somehow, the moral to this story is: “slow and steady wins the race.”

I beg to differ. The race was not won by the tortoise; it was lost by the hare. The moral should read: “don’t fuck around when there’s shit to be done.” Or something like that.