Into the black: Why are we so fascinated by death and dying?
Posted by drmarkgriffiths
If you type the words “weird addictions” or “strange addictions” into Google, there is one story from 2006 that comes up time and time again. It is usually headlined “Addiction to Funerals” and concerns a Brazilian man called Luis Squarisi. The story claimed that Squarisi (who was 42-years old at the time) had attended every funeral in his hometown of Batatais for more than 20 years. The story also claimed that in order to attend every funeral, Squarisi had given up his job to “feed his addiction to funerals”. He was quoted as saying:
“What set me off was my father’s death in 1983. The first thing I do every morning is to turn on the radio to find out if anyone has died, if I don’t hear it on the radio I call the hospitals and the local funeral home”.
A spokesman from the local São Vicente funeral home where Squarisi lives said: “We don’t want him to go to therapy, everyone expects to see him at the funerals.” If you are regular reader of my blog, it won’t surprise you to learn that I don’t consider Mr. Squarisi’s activity an addiction at all (although the habitual daily ringing of the hospitals and funeral parlour combined with the giving up of his job might potentially be indicators for some types of addiction or compulsion).
However, it did get me thinking about the morbid (and for some almost compulsive) fascination that some people have with death and dying, and whether there were other possible links to addictive, obsessive, and/or compulsive behaviour. Fascination with death and dying is not a recent phenomenon and extends back into ancient history. Historically, many cults have been formed around death gods and figures including Anubis (the jackal-headed Egyptian religious god associated with mummification and the afterlife), Osiris (an Egyptian god usually identified as the god of the afterlife, the underworld and the dead), Hades (the ancient Greek god of the underworld), and Santa Muerte (i.e., “Saint Death”, a sacred and skeletal Mexican figure symbolizing death to remind people of their own mortality).
More recently, people’s fascination with death have included wanting to contact the dead via séances and/or psychics. The greatest evidence of the general public’s fascination with death is the coverage that death gets in the popular media (“if it bleeds, it leads”). There also seems to be an appetite for death as art such as Gunter von Hagen’s Body World’s exhibitions. As US journalist Winda Benedetti put it in her article “Is digging the dead normal or just plain weird?”:
“I have gawked at the skeletons decorating the walls of the Kutna Hora Bone Church in the Czech Republic. I’ve stood transfixed before the towering piles of skulls that mark the Khmer Rouge’s Killing Fields in Cambodia. In Cairo, it was the display of mummified kings and queens that lured me to the Egyptian Museum. And in London, not even the cruel bite of the bitterest winter on record could keep me from standing in a line half a city block long for a peek at “Body Worlds,” a display of dozens of cadavers skinned, dissected and posed for all to see… A new thought occurred: Does my preoccupation with the dead make me a freak? Am I really so different from everyone else? Take a look around. These days it seems the dead are everywhere. Every week on television, actors pretending to be crime-scene investigators pick over the fetid cadavers of the deceased on not just one but three different ‘CSI’ shows. And while these programs are TV-fake, the images of the dead are unflinchingly real”.
While researching this blog, I came across a number of online references about US novelist Charles Dickens being “addicted” to and/or ‘obsessed” with mortuaries and checking out murder scenes. Dickens admitted: “I am dragged by invisible force to the morgue [and] the attraction of repulsion”. He allegedly visited the city mortuary for days at a time observing the dead bodies coming in and watching the morticians who worked on them.
Anyway, the next death-related “addiction” I came across (excluding some recent reports of some people becoming addicted to ingesting embalming fluid!) was “Woman is addicted to eating the ashes of her late husband” from the US television documentary series My Strange Addiction. The woman in question lost her husband following a fatal asthma attack and allegedly developed “a strong compulsion” to keep his ashes by her side at all times that then developed into eating the ashes. She says the ashes eating began when she was first transferring her husband’s cremated remains from a box into an ornamental urn. She accidentally got some of the ashes on her finger and “not wanting to just brush them off, licked them off, starting a habit that has become compulsive”. At the time of the television programme being recorded (and despite the ashes tasting horrible) she had been eating the ashes for two months and had consumed approximately six pounds of the ashes.
Again, I don’t think the woman in question is addicted but the behaviour appears to be an unusual type of pica (i.e., the behaviour in which individuals eat non-nutritive items or substances) and which in some cases has been shown to be compulsive. Other online commentators have speculated that the eating of her husband’s ashes is a way of symbolically holding onto her husband in the easiest way possible.
To me, this ash eating behaviour is reminiscent of one of the ten sub-types of necrophilic activity described by Dr Anil Aggrawal (Maulana Azad Medical College, New Delhi, India). He published a necrophilia typology in a 2009 issue of the Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine. This new classification of necrophilia included one sub-type that he termed “romantic necrophiles”. According to Aggrawal romantic necrophiles display only “very mild necrophilic tendencies”. This type of necrophile typically comprises people whose loved ones have just died and who do not seem to fully believe or psychologically appreciate that the person they love is dead. Therefore, the sexual contact may not (in the person’s view) be seen as necrophilic as they still believe the person is alive to them. Aggrawal claims that in some cases, romantic necrophiles may mummify the body (or body parts) of their partner. The necrophilic activity is typically short-lived and is something that stops once the person fully accepts that their loved one is dead.
Back in the 18th century, Martin Schurig in his book Spermatologia, described the case of a Belgian woman, who secretly cut off her husband’s penis he died and treasured it as a sacred relic in a silver casket. This was then turned into a powder and described it is an efficacious medicine. The sexologist, Havelock Ellis, cited the case of a French woman who embalmed and perfumed her dead husband’s genitals and preserved them in a gold casket. Obviously the women who ate her husband’s ashes did not do it for anything sexual but all these cases kept some embodiment of their loved ones in order, as Dr Aggrawal might argue: “to fill up a psychosexual vacuum that their death has caused”.
Maybe the internet will start to fuel the sexual side of death? I’ll leave you with two confessions I came across on the internet. They may – of course – not be in any way representative, but they do seem to suggest that some people out there are fascinated by the sexual macabre:
“I have an addiction to dead bodies. The site of gore porn really turns me on. How should I satisfy my sexual fantasies?”
“I’m 15 years old – female, and I love looking and reading about murder cases and I’m addicted to looking at pictures of murder victims on the internet. I’ve seen ‘3 guys one hammer’ and it didn’t disturb me at all. When I see people I look at them and I can picture in my mind how I could kill them (even if I don’t know them or they’re my friends). Am I disturbed?”
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Aggrawal, A. (2009). A new classification of necrophilia. Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine, 16, 316-320.
Aggrawal A. (2011). Necrophilia: Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects. Boca Raton: CRC Press.
Benedetti, W. (2006). Is digging the dead normal or just plain weird? Seattle PI, September 29. Located at: http://www.seattlepi.com/lifestyle/article/Is-digging-the-dead-normal-or-just-plain-weird-1216015.php#ixzz1uTvnqX9R
Digital Journal (2006). Man addicted to funerals. November 10. Located at: http://digitaljournal.com/article/48897
Ellis, H.H. (1923). Studies in the Psychology of Sex (Volume V: Erotic Symbolism, The Mechanism of Detumescence, The Psychic State in Pregnancy). Davis FA.
Geekosystem (2011). Woman is addicted to eating the ashes of her late husband. August 9. Located at: http://www.geekosystem.com/woman-eats-husbands-ashes/
Neatorama (2009). Four writers and their strange obsessions. February 7. Located at: http://www.neatorama.com/2009/02/07/four-writers-and-their-strange-obsessions/
Schurig, M. (1720). Spermatologia historico-medica. Frankfurt: Johannis Beckii.
Seaward, A. (2012). Embalming fluid as a drug. Addictionblog.org, April 19. Located at: http://drug.addictionblog.org/embalming-fluid-as-a-drug/
About drmarkgriffithsProfessor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Distinguished Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. In 2013, he was given the Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 800 research papers, five books, over 150 book chapters, and over 1500 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 3500 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.
Posted on May 25, 2012, in Addiction, Compulsion, Eating disorders, Obsession, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Paraphilia, Pica, Popular Culture, Psychology and tagged Charles Darwin, Compulsion, Death, Death fascination, Dying, Eating ashes, Funeral addiction, Necrophilia, Obsession, Paraphilia, Strange addiction, Weird addiction. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.
Isn’t death the most important part of life, in a way? Kafka said “The meaning of life is that it stops”. It is the greatest uncertainty. I guess it’s pretty normal people are intrigued by it…