In the months after my Grandmother and Grandfather’s death earlier this year, I took a dive into finding out more about the idea of death positivity, and how to spread it. This was partly in response to feeling I had nobody I could talk to about my grandmother’s death (aside from close family). More recently, I’ve been finding out more about becoming a funeral celebrant (fun fact: there is a large market for people who want a ‘humanist’ funeral service as opposed to a religious one, and not that many humanist celebrants out there).
So, I was already thinking quite a bit about how our view of the universe can help us understand death and dying. And then I came across this really interesting tweet:
I don’t entirely disagree. Astronomy has decided to co-opt some pretty gross terminology which I definitely think can be viewed as violent: galaxy harassment? Probably one we can do away with. However, the idea that death metaphors in astronomy are intrinsically violent? I don’t agree.
In the Western world, with our deeply ingrained taboo around death and dying, we often think of death as inherently violent. When we encounter death in popular culture, it is usually as a consequence of violence. Medical dramas, shows such as “CSI” and “Criminal Minds”, and even popular soaps such as “Coronation Street” and “Home and Away” have regularly hinged their attention grabbing storylines off violent death. News stories about violent death are often sensationalised and satisfy our natural curiosity around death without actually confronting the taboos that limit us from openly talking about it.
Consequently, most people will be exposed most frequently to death by violence. Even if you experience the peaceful death of a close family member on a couple of occasions, the frequency with which you are exposed to the idea of violent death via the media leads to the conflation of death and violence.
So how can we use death metaphors in astronomy to undo this connotation? I spend almost all of my working life thinking about how stars die, and the processes that occur after their death. Dying stars are the factories that produce the building blocks of life. All of the things which will be left over after you die - the calcium from your bones, the iron in your blood and every other atom in your body - were all forged in the heart of a dying star. A process of creation, not one of violence. I also think about what happens to the star after the immediate moment of death. This is often the aspect of death that fills people with the most dread and horror. When it comes to death in the cosmos, the remains of a star can create something incredibly beautiful - planetary nebulae, a supernova that outshines an entire galaxy, or the beautiful outflows we see from galaxies that produce a large number of dying stars.
In Western Culture, the processes that follow death are not seen as beautiful - we go to incredible lengths to cover up the natural processes of decomposition, where our atoms are returned again to the universe just like that dying star. Our fear of the natural consequences of death has not only lead to a large number of misconceptions about the corpse (for example, that corpses are disease vectors, or that it is illegal to not have a body embalmed, or that you cannot be involved in the care of the corpse) but the rise of the industry surrounding the beautification of the corpse.
By talking about the incredible beauty and remarkable things that can happen in the cosmic corpses of distant stars, I really hope that I can make people take a second to think that the natural processes that occur after our deaths are beautiful in their own way and take away some of the fear and stigma that surrounds talking about death. Oh, and if I can convince someone to actually write a death plan to help their family, and choose a more ecologically sound method of interrment, as well as saving some pennies by diverging from the narratives of the Western funeral industry, that’s just bonus.
[Doctor Who spoilers below!]
p.s. When it comes to death narratives in popular Western culture, I honestly think Doctor Who probably gets it the best through it’s overarching narrative (and doesn’t usually show the results of any violent deaths) - the whole concept of rebirth is pretty great, and [spoilers] 10/10 for whoever decided to show a wicker casket in the first episode of this new season, which is an excellent, affordable and eco-friendly option if you’re in the market for a casket.