Courtney Applewhite, former death investigator, researches death practices and beliefs in the U.S. Courtney Applewhite is part of the impactmania and UCSB’s Human Mind and Migration team looking into the impact of millions of people migrating in our world.
Death, a universal topic, often left undiscussed, concerns people in every culture. impactmania spoke with Courtney Applewhite about how different beliefs, and the commercialization of death, have informed our death practices. And why Americans still believe in Heaven, but did away with Hell.
BY PAKSY PLACKIS-CHENG
Courtney, could you speak a bit about your current research?
In general, my area is North American religious traditions, but specifically I work on death practices and death beliefs in the U.S. My current project is looking at different spiritual or metaphysical communities in Santa Barbara, California. My plan is to look at the Unity Church, the Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara, and the Spiritualist Church of the Comforter I’m following their migration paths to Santa Barbara and learning more about their death beliefs and practices.
We have a plethora of metaphysical traditions in Santa Barbara—more than is standard relative to the population.
How many metaphysical communities are in Santa Barbara?
There are about 11 very distinctive metaphysical communities in Santa Barbara-proper. You’re talking about limited square mileage there. Beyond that there are smaller groups. There is a Wicca community, for example. They don’t have an institutional building, but they definitely exist here.
Then there are meditation groups that connect via Meetup and other spiritual or metaphysical traditions that people engage in.
I’ve been going to these institutions and interviewing the leadership and people that attend to understand how they see death and their afterlife. What they think happens when they die, what kind of a process they want done, and then what they see the institution doing.
What have you learned so far from these groups?
I am currently learning more about the historical connections between these groups and how they developed in the U.S. The Unitarian Universalist tradition develops from mainline Christianity, but the Unity and Spiritualist traditions have different origins.
Many people in these communities do not believe in the Heaven of the Christian Bible. It’s not a place in the clouds that people go to and be with their family. It’s more a peaceful sort of energy dispersal. In general, people don’t really believe in Hell anymore, which is really interesting.
The Pew Research Center surveys show that the belief in Heaven has gone down slightly with the decrease in the belief in Christianity. But Hell has really dropped off. Many more people believe in Heaven than believe in Hell.
What spurred the disbelief in Hell, but maintaining a belief in Heaven?
Some of the influence comes from positive psychology—the Hell and Damnation model of Christianity has gone away with the advent of liberal Christianity.
The emphasis is really on the love that you have for Jesus, and God being a forgiving God and a loving God—it’s the New Testament God, right?
This is a big shift because it used to be the Old Testament God, the punisher God, the Father that will damn you to hell if you don’t do things that are right. That used to be the model, but now it has shifted to the New Testament God that ultimately forgives those who believe in him.
There are a lot of different reasons why that happens. Then, metaphysical traditions have been influenced by the influx of Asian cultures.
When versions of Buddhism or versions of Hinduism came to the United States, they didn’t have that Christian Hell model. The way the traditions were interpreted here, they are more focused on being reincarnated or becoming enlightened. We have those influences coming in from different countries with migration and you see the impact on death belief.
Then you have these metaphysical traditions that are coming out of Christianity, Asian spirituality and Native American spirituality beliefs and blending. My research is looking at these traditions to see if there’s this element of independence in them.
One of the groups that I’m interested in are people that describe themselves as being spiritual, but not religious. Which is a very new term and very new sentiment, right? The idea is that you have different spiritual beliefs, but you don’t necessarily go to church. Or you don’t believe in the institution of Christianity or institution of Islam. I’m framing these metaphysical blended institutions that allow for independence in thought and independence in the way that you view the afterlife or view death beliefs as places where spiritual but non-religious people might attend.
Are these metaphysical traditions a big departure from Christian beliefs in terms of what happens when you die or what needs to happen with your body?
It’s similar, and a lot of that similarity has to do with the fact that there is a deep history of funeral parlors and funeral practice that has overtaken traditional Christian practices or religious practices. The funeral parlors took the body out of the home. The industrialization of death happened. It’s interesting, because it’s changing in both ways. In these metaphysical conditions you have a lot of individualization. There’s a lot more celebration of life.
The body is rarely present at celebration of life, because they don’t believe that the body is significant. Christians still have a lot of the liturgy that exist. There are certain things that people say when you die. In Catholicism, there is a very formal mass. But in those traditions you start to see these elements that the family and the friends want to speak and it is more of a memorial. There’s a blending that’s happening both ways.
The more traditional structures are becoming more liberal, to cater to this growing demand for an individualized sort of service. It’s also becoming a celebration of life, which is interesting, because funerals often were platforms to remind people how you should behave so that, for example, you don’t go to hell.
Now that hell is no longer the greatest concern on people’s minds, you celebrate the life that the deceased had. It may mean that belief in the afterlife is fading in some ways too. Because you usually say things like, He/she is in a better place now.
But if you’re celebrating their life rather than focusing on the next stage it might show a shift in priorities.
I wonder, how much of or has there been a commercialization of death, that has dictated what we do and don’t do at a funeral?
Yes, absolutely. Death is a big business. It’s really expensive to die. Some people can’t afford it. I ran into this a lot at my work at the medical examiner’s office. We would have to refer people, who didn’t have the money to pay, to what would be the equivalent of a pauper’s grave. This is a big mass cemetery where they bury lots of people. It is done at the bare minimum, there’s no service, and it’s a very plain casket. It is for people who can’t afford to pay the $8,000 plus required to have a funeral. Even cremation, which is cheaper, will run around $4,000 in most places.
A huge part of it is commercialization; but you can see people trying to reclaim burials in different ways. There are now alternative burial practices, but ultimately, what happened in the history of the commercialization of death, is that all these regulations were put in place. For example, people can’t move dead bodies. In most states, it’s illegal to have a dead body in your car, which seems intuitive but also presents logistical problems.
Because then, the only people that can pick up from the medical examiners are certified people that have the paperwork that allows the transport of bodies, which are exclusively funeral homes. A person can’t go in and say, I want a certificate to transport dead bodies. And so alongside the commercialization of death, there were all these legal regulations that were put in place that limited the ability of people to break away from the standard model of death, which is basically burial or cremation.
There are experimental things happening—there’s a facility that they hope to build in Seattle where you can be composted.
You lay your person in a plain white shroud, and they go down this very high-carbon mulch, which then interacts with the nitrogen in your body and breaks down the body very quickly. Then your mulch is either returned to your family or put in a conservation region in the Puget Sound.
That’s beautiful in a way.
It’s really nice, but those sorts of innovations are difficult because of all the regulations surrounding death and dead bodies.
Talk to me about your previous work, because, that set you up to study all of this, right?
Yes, that’s right. I worked at the medical examiner’s office in Houston. The facility is called the Harris Country Institute of Forensic Sciences. The medical examiner’s office is one branch. We were essentially the coroner’s office.
I worked there for about three years. I was a death investigator. There are procedures when people die, if they meet certain criteria, that include notifying the medical examiner’s office. Some of those criteria are that it is an unexpected death or a death from unobvious or unnatural causes. So that could be accidents, suicides, homicides, and undetermined deaths—where there was no clear reason why the person died.
We’re notified of those deaths. In events where there is a scene—somebody died at home, or on the freeway, or in a public location—we would go to the scene to take photographs, talk to family and police officers, and get the story of how the deceased was found and their backgrounds.
Then we would take the body back to the medical examiner’s office for the autopsy. Our report would be written up and given to the forensic pathologist, who performs the autopsy. In cases where people died at hospitals, we would get the report from nurses, and then the body would be transported from the hospital. We wouldn’t go to hospitals to take photos except in cases of infants. That’s for additional precautions because it’s so difficult to determine the cause of death in infants.
One of the reasons I decided to go pursue the PhD was because I saw a lot of situations in which the structures that we had in place to help people cope with and understand the deaths of their loved ones were very Christian-normative.
We were very limited in our ability to tell them what to do.There are religious traditions such as in Judaism where they often refuse autopsy. That comes from deep, cosmological beliefs about the role of the body, the importance of the sacredness and the intactness of the body.
We weren’t really briefed on that too well. When we did have these instances in which people didn’t want us to do autopsies, it was a little unclear why that was. As a public servant, you’re just sort of thinking, just let me do my job. I felt there was more to that story. There was more that needed to be explained to the death investigators as far as why people felt so strongly about this. They needed an explanation, as opposed to thinking, they are just doing it to get on my nerves. Unfortunately, many death investigators who experience frequent burn out because they are exposed to these tragedies daily.
I wanted to explore why people have particular religious beliefs around death, but I also wantedto be able to explain the reasons why to people who work in institutions associated with death.
Big Questions as a Framework
What I wanted to do in my study here is to figure out what their answers to the Big Questions were. Then, develop a practical framework for informing people that work in public service: nurses, hospital staff, staff in medical examiner’s offices, coroners, and police officers. I want to provide some tools to think through these traditions that aren’t mainline Christianity, because most people who grew up in the U.S. are probably the most familiar withChristianity and the system is already in place.I want to start to think about how we can provide tools and resources to people who have different kinds of beliefs and practices surrounding death.
Do you have an example of what you came across, where you felt people really needed the tools?
I would say that it happened with some regularity, especially with parents who had young people who died in their lives. The parent would say, “I go to the Presbyterian Church, but my child didn’t go. It was my faith, not hers. I don’t know what to do, I don’t know what she would have wanted.”
Ultimately, I was lost; I wanted to say, “I don’t really know either”. But it would be more useful if I would be able to say things or point them in the idea direction. We, as public servants, can’t endorse anything; public servants can’t say, “You should go to this church.”
But maybe you could give them a list of options. Maybe you could do something in a park or at least have recommendations of other opportunities or places.
I wish I could give them an idea or give them a resource beyond contacting a funeral home that is ultimately for profit.
How do people deal with being buried in a country that is not their home?
There are obviously so many traditions in the world. I’m sure they would all handle this slightly differently, so that’s my caveat to start.
At the medical examiner’s office people, particularly if they were here by themselves or here temporarily, almost always got transported back home. That wasn’t always for religious reasons. Sometimes it was proximity reasons, family not wanting them buried in a place so far away.
The United States is a country of migrants, right? Hardly anyone grows up and ends up living in the same place. There are family plots that exist all over. You often have people driving or flying bodies across the country just to get back in that family plot.
Again, if you think about the blending of religious impulses and also answers to Big Questions. What’s important to you? Sometimes being together with family includes in death, right?
There are Jewish cemeteries that exist and then there are people that want to be buried in Muslim cemeteries. There are designated places for different people. Where do minority traditions go if those places aren’t already established for them?
In India for example, there has been a recent resurgence in the Zoroastrian tradition of a sky burial. Your body is laid out and your body is consumed by different carrion birds. That would probably not be possible here in the United States.
Do you have an experience or example of a ceremony that is unlike the burials we are used to in the West?
There was this fascinating thing that happened in the medical examiner’s office. A Hispanic family, mother and two daughters, that identified as Buddhist came in very distraught.
The woman’s husband and father of her two daughters died. He was in his 50s and it was pretty sudden. It was an overheating incident, which happens a lot in Houston. They came in and they were very insistent that, in their particular strain of Buddhism, certain things needed to be done to his body immediately after death.
They kept saying that he had to wake back up. In hindsight, I think what they were referring to was this idea that you enter a new rebirth cycle. We don’t allow people into the depths of the facility where autopsies take place. But they were insistent, saying, “No, we need to sprinkle him with holy water that was blessed and then put small stones on his eyes. Otherwise, he won’t wake up, he won’t wake up.”
And so our pathologist performed the ritual. They took photographs of what happened and gave it to the family. The pathologist placed the stones on his eyes and he said the words that were given to him on an index card.
What went through your head attending this ritual in the morgue?
It was wild. Sometimes when people deal with seeing death all the time in a lot of different ways…a lot of pathologists wouldn’t have done it. This pathologist was fairly young and friendly about the whole situation. I was impressed with him and his sensitivity to this very distraught family and our own rules that we have around that.
It was fascinating; I wanted to see if the man was going to wake up, because I didn’t know. [Laughs.] They kept on saying the words, wake up, and at the time, I was thinking, maybe he is going to wake up! He didn’t, in the physical way, that is.
What do you think of cryonics [freezing of a human body after death with the hope to be resuscitated in the future]?
I think that it is a continuation of a very long history of wanting to achieve immortality. Almost every tradition has afterlife beliefs because they like to imagine that “you” go on, whether it’s your soul or your consciousness.
There’s a whole theory that religion exists because we’re so concerned about dying that we created religion to assuage our death anxiety.
I think cryonics is a technological interpretation of the same concern that we’ve always had. Perhaps more of a materialist one, in the sense that they think they need this body in order to continue as opposed to, we’ll continue in heaven, or we’ll continue in some other world.
What do you think happens to us after death?
Yeah, that’s a good question. I do think about it all the time. On my most skeptical days, I think, This is it. But then sometimes, if you think about death as often as I do, you are gripped by this existential terror, where you feel like, if this is it, then I should be doing all of these things that I am not doing and could be doing.
Why death, Courtney?
I don’t know. I don’t have any deep history with death. I was a somewhat morbid child, but for no particular reason. The only death that I remember really impacting me was my great-grandmother’s, but most of my family is still living. I think I chose death because the way that people approach death tells us a lot about how they live—what their most deep concerns are in this life.
Is your family horrified that the theme of your work and research is in death? Or are they used to it by now?
Yeah, I think they were more horrified when I was working at the medical examiner’s office. That really creeped my family out. My mom was very concerned for me for a long time, because she thought it was very stressful. It is a stressful job. It’s hard to do for a long time. She thought it was wearing me down in a lot of different ways.
But you wanted to work at the medical examiner’s office, right?
I did, it was definitely a choice. I had a job as an editorial assistant before then. I guess I’m a poster child for applying your Liberal Arts degrees in all kinds of different ways. I have an undergraduate degree in religious studies and cognitive science.. I got my editorial job by arguing that I could write.
Then, I got my job as a death investigator by basically saying, “I am really good at adapting. I understand people really well and I will learn anything you throw at me.” They were, “Okay, we think we can train you.” [Laughs.]
I think in America, in general, death is not a topic that’s easily discussed. Why is that?
Yes, we do avoid it. A lot of that comes from the history of death being erased from the home. When you talk about early 1800s, death took place in the home. Then your family bathed you, your family laid you out.
That’s the reason for a parlor, a viewing space that you have in homes. Then, the body would be carried to the local cemetery right up the road at a local church. With death being very home based, and shorter life expectancy, you saw death all the time.
Now, it is a tragedy when somebody dies because of the medicalization of death. Now when people are to the point where they’re dying, they’re often in hospice or in hospitals—medical facilities.
We almost treat death as a failing in some way. You didn’t make it or your life was cut short. We find it tragic that you didn’t live the expected average age of 86.7 years, or whatever the magic number is now.
How does migration (of people) affect death practices?
In many ways that I know of, and in many ways that we need to explore. Death practices in the U.S. have remained stagnant for the past couple hundred years. It wasn’t until 1913 that a Cremation Association was formed. However, people throughout Asia have been practicing cremation for thousands of years. As those cultures moved to the U.S., I am sure that it created a demand for different kinds of practices.
People in Latin America have a closer relationship with the dead in some ways. In Mexico for example, you have the Dia de los Muertos. People in Mexico see it as rekindling the relationships with the dead. We wouldn’t have anything like a Celebration of the Dead in the U.S. if it weren’t for the migration of people from Mexico. Our culture doesn’t traditionally accept death in the same way, but now these traditions are entering into our culture through migration.
I think death is a constantly changing thing, as weird as that may seem. It is in some ways going to be omnipresent, but it’s also super dynamic. The beliefs and practices that people have are in serious flux right now in the United States.
I’m interested in following those different threads to the many traditions that have migrated here in the past several hundred years and determining how they have impacted practices today.