Death: A Cross-Cultural Perspective
Annual Review of Anthropology
Vol. 13: 385-417 (Volume publication date October 1984)
P Palgi, and H Abramovitch
In lieu of an abstract, the publisher reproduces the  first page of the article. (Link)

My recently deceased loved became HIV positive decades ago at a time when that diagnosis often meant death was imminent.  He had contemplated his own death in a way that many of us have not.  Even though decades had passed, the subject of his death still came up by virtue of his HIV status.  I had contemplated his death, but always with the thought that there would be some illness beforehand.  Upon hearing that his “numbers were good” I always breathe a sigh of relief especially given that he had gone so long having HIV without contracting AIDS.  Even more, just prior to meeting him he had come through a successful bout with cancer, not to mention the successful bout with the hard partying of his youth.  He easily looked ten to fifteen years younger than his age.   He smiled often; he laughed mischievously.  It wasn’t just death be not proud; it was death be gone from here.  His death was sudden and not due to AIDS.  In early conversations, he had forewarned that his family didn’t do funerals.  His body was cremated without public ceremony.

In reading “Death: A Cross-Cultural Perspective,” I learned that my reaction to Daniel’s death may be very typically American in part.  At least somewhat consciously the fact that he had in a sense beaten HIV and cancer, feed into my  “culturally sanctioned expectation that technological solutions can be found for all problems on this earth—death not excluded.”   In the end I may have thought his death to be much less likely than that of others.  He was a proven medical success story.  On the other hand, I may be less typically American in that I didn’t feel a need to shy away from him because he was HIV positive.  Palgi and Abramovitch note that one of the manifestations of Americans having a problem dealing with death is avoidance of dying persons.  I’m old enough to remember the days when HIV positive was equivalent to saying “dying person.”

The writers (I don’t really want to write “Palgi, et al.”) refer to a 1968 (American) study by Glaser and Strauss, Time for Dying, that mentions the “dying trajectory.”  Reading about the study, I felt more comfortable with my level of discomfort:

Dying trajectory has duration, shape, and implicit expectations concerning the interrelation of time and certainty.  There are four types of “death expectation”: 1. certain death at a known time; 2. certain death at an unknown time; 3. uncertain death but a known time when the questions will be resolved; and 4. uncertain death at a unknown time.

Impact of various trajectories are discussed in terms of lingering trajectories, expected quick trajectories, and most disorienting of all, unexpected quick trajectory, e.g. suicide or unexpected death during surgery.

Having in a sense prepared for one type of death, being confronted with one that was “unexpected” and “quick” was all the more disorienting.  I had set in my mind that he would die from AIDS after a period of illness.  I felt broadsided.

Along with an expectation of a certain type of death, I may have also had some expectation of a funeral despite the warning I received.  Though Daniel’s sister was very generous with her time and sharing her feelings, there wasn’t a public memorial service at which the family was present.  Writing again on American culture, the authors note the following:

…the thinness of the funeral ritual, together with intensive emotional involvement concentrated on very few individuals, a pattern characteristic of modern nuclear families, leaves an unresolved tension in society.

Local Buddhists conducted a memorial service that was attended by his very local friends.   I think the service helped reduce the tension of those who attended.

Prior to this, most of my death and funeral experiences were very similar.  The writers note that “the available ethnography suggests that American funerals are remarkably uniform.”  My experiences fit the pattern described:

…the basic structure of funerals in the USA includes the following stages:  rapid removal of the corpse to the funeral parlor, embalming (which many individuals believe, incorrectly, is required by law), institutionalized viewing of the cosmetically restored corpse, and disposal by burial…

I remember hearing as a child that viewing the body was an essential part of recovering from grief and mourning.  I fought the strong urge to ask Daniel’s sister, who identified his body, whether she were certain the body was his.  I wonder whether I feel bound to the expectation learned in childhood that I will never be quite right with his death having not viewed his body.