Poor white women and a public health mystery

Over the past 18 years the life expectancy for white women who didn't finish high school has dropped precipitously. Today, those women can expect to die five years earlier than their counterparts a generation ago. It's one of the biggest magnitude losses in life expectancy ever recorded, and nobody knows what's causing it. At the American Prospect, Monica Potts reports on scientists efforts to untangle the knot of correlations at the heart of this public health mystery and tells the story of one woman, Crystal Wilson, whose life and death mirrors the statistics.

Are you dead yet? Letter sent to pensioners to confirm existence

From the BBC: "A letter sent to about 4,000 retired people in Jersey asking if they still exist has been described as offensive by some of those who received it. ... The department said it wanted to make sure money was not paid into the accounts of people who had died." [via Arbroath]

A moving account of how hospitals negotiate complicated cases of patient rights

Yesterday, a story about human experimentation spurred an interesting discussion in the comments about patient rights — can somebody who is dying make the informed decision to accept a treatment that could lead to them dying sooner? At Scientific American today, an HIV doctor has written a moving account of dealing with a very similar question, as one of his patients made the choice to refuse food, and her family and doctors were faced with the task of deciding whether or not to feed her through a stomach tube.

Anonymous funeral director explains the big con behind the industry, coffins, and embalming


An anonymous commenter who identifies her/himself as a funeral director has posted a magnificent rant to a Reddit thread, explaining all the ways that funeral directors con bereaved families into paying for things they don't need, like $5000 painted plywood boxes and "barbaric," environmentally degrading "mutilation" (embalming), which are often described as legal requirements (they aren't). The post is full of great intel and advice, including mention of the FTC funeral rule, which sets out your rights in clear, simple language. I didn't know that US law requires funeral directors to accept your own coffin, which you can get at your local big-box discount store or have delivered from a variety of sellers through Amazon.

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Death masks of famous scientists

This is Isaac Newton's face, frozen in plaster and wax. It's one of two death masks owned by the Royal Society. (The other preserves the face of mathematician, physicist, and early-20th-century science communicator James Hopwood Jeans.) Why take plaster casts of the faces of the dead? The tradition dates back to the pre-photography era where, if you wanted to see what a person actually looked like, a cast (whether of their face in life, or death) was the most accurate way to do it.

The Royal Society has more on the history of death masks, and pictures of the two they own.

The Coffinmaker, a mini-documentary

Marcus Daly of Vashon Island, Washington, is a carpenter who specializes in handcrafted wooden coffins. One of his design principles is that the coffin needs to be easily carried. "The Coffinmaker" (via the Smithsonian In Motion Video Contest)

The blue glow of death

Nematode worms glow blue as they die — in fact, scientists can watch the blue glow spread throughout a worm's body in the hours before its death. And the glow begins in the intestine.

Life, death, and the people we love the most

Margaret Pabst Battin is a philosopher and right-to-die activist who firmly believes that the concepts of autonomy and mercy demand that we, as a society, allow the sick, the old, and the infirm to decide, for themselves, how and when and where they will die. In 2008, her husband, Brooke Hopkins, barely survived a bicycle accident that left him paralyzed from the neck down, on a pacemaker, and frequently sick. At The New York Times Magazine, Robin Henig tells the moving, beautiful, and sad story of a couple struggling in real life with questions that had, previously, been mostly theoretical. At the heart of it is a big, messy question: What happens if you do, sometimes, really want to die ... but the people who love you aren't ready to let go just yet?

Why Thor's Hammer is on military headstones

John Brownlee on how the U.S. military's epic journey into religious tolerance reached Odinism.
Mjölnir is a weapon of honor and virtue, and a fitting symbol for any noble warrior. So it’s appropriate that American soldiers can now request the symbol for Thor’s Hammer be placed on their headstone if they die in the line of duty. But Mjölnir’s path toward becoming an acceptable headstone option wasn’t easy. It practically took the power of Thor to get it there.

A history of unconventional violence

At Sciencezest, Annelie Wendeberg discusses the strange history of using dead bodies — both human and equine — as particularly messy projectiles during times of war.

Why perform an autopsy on James Gandolfini?

Doctors know he died of a heart attack, right? And he's not actually Tony Soprano, so the chances of someone secretly killing him and making it look like a heart attack are small. So what's the point? Accuracy, says David Dobbs at Nautilus. Research shows that doctors make a lot of mistakes when it comes to assessing death. Fifteen-to-thirty percent of the time, diagnoses of death are incorrect. Five-to-ten percent of the time, that mistake contributed to the patient's death.

Segregated headstones reach over the cemetery wall


These grave markers -- pressed up against either side of an imposing wall, with a pair of clasped hands reaching over the wall's top -- date to a time in Dutch history when Catholic and Protestant graves were strictly segregated. A Catholic and a Protestant married couple, separated in death, arranged for this unique workaround in order to rejoin one another:

In 1842, a colonel in the Dutch cavalry, JWC van Gorkum, married a woman known as JCPH van Aefferden. The union was controversial — van Gorkum was Protestant and van Aefferden was Catholic. Despite the prevailing culture at the time, the two remained married for decades, only separating when van Gorkum died in 1880. He was buried in a cemetery near the Dutch town of Roermond called Begraafplaats Nabij de Kapel in ‘t Zand (“the cemetery near the chapel in ‘t Zand”). Pillarisation was taken very seriously — each community had its own schools, media, and graveyards — and Begraafplaats was no different. It took this segregation literally, with each religion having its own section. Van Gorkum was buried in the Protestant section, as would any other Protestant during that era.

But when van Aefferden passed away eight years later, she couldn’t be buried with her late husband; even in death, Catholics needed to stay with their own. While alive, she made her wishes clear — she did not want to be buried in her family tomb, and, instead, wished to be as close to her husband as possible. The solution, seen above, is her grave site. (Here’s a bigger version of her tombstone, and here’s his.) The two tombstones, separated by a wall and by religions, feature a pair of hands connecting over the brick divider.

Until Death Do Us Reunite [Now I Know]

(via Super Punch)

Why delicate men die more frequently than robust ladies

In general, women outlive men. This is not a new idea. But what you might not know is that the effect can't be explained by some simple hand-waving about risk-taking men, or war, or the allure of the Marlboro Man. In fact, the tendency for men to die at a higher frequency than women happens at every age group — even in utero. Fetal males die more often than fetal females. So what makes the men-folk so delicate? NPR's Robert Krulwich investigates.

By His Things Will You Know Him (podcast)


(art by Daniel Martin Diaz)

Earlier today, we published my story "By His Things Will You Know Him," which is from the forthcoming Institute for the Future anthology "An Aura of Familiarity: Visions from the Coming Age of Networked Matter." I've read the story aloud for my podcast, if that's how you prefer your fiction.

MP3 Link

How many people have died in the Syrian civil war?

In the fog of war, it's not easy to figure out how many people die. Even in the cleanest combat, accurate records are not really a common military priority. Worse, there are often incentives for one side or the other to play up the death counts (or play them down), alter the picture of who is doing the killing and who is dying, and provide evidence that a conflict is getting better (or worse).

All of that creates a mess for outside observers who want to see accurate patterns in the chaos — patterns that can help us understand whether an evenly matched war has turned into a bloodbath, or a genocide. The Human Rights Data Analysis Group is an organization that takes the messy, often conflicting, information about deaths in a warzone and tries to make sense of it. Today, they released an updated version of a January report on documented killings in the Syrian civil war.

They say that there were 92,901 documented deaths between March 2011 and April 2013. That number is extremely high, and tragic. But the number alone is maybe not the most important thing the data is telling us.

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