Anthropologist Donald Joralemon asks whether America is really, as many scholars claim, a death-denying culture that prefers to quarantine the sick in hospitals and the elderly in nursing homes. His answer is a reasoned “no.” In his view, Americans are merely struggling to find cultural scripts for the exceptional conditions of dying that our social world and medical technologies have thrust upon us. The book:
- is written in the first-person for a broad audience by a senior anthropologist, making it an authoritative yet accessible textbook for courses on death and dying and American culture;
- includes contemporary debates about highly visible cases, the definition of death, the status of human remains, aging, and the medicalization of grief;
- demonstrates persuasively that arguments over death and dying are in fact arguments about what it means to be human in modern America.
Table of Contents
1 A Culturally Naked Death
2 Deciding to Die
3 Liminal People, Hard Decisions
Interlude: Reflections on Dying Dilemmas
5 Grief: Is It Complicated
6 Inconvenient Bodies
8 Dying and Death in America: The Prognosis
Donald Joralemon earned his doctorate in cultural anthropology from UCLA and has taught at Smith College since 1983. His first book, on Peruvian shamanism, led to an appearance on the National Geographic television channel's program "Taboo" (on "Altered States"). For the last ten years he has done research on the developed world’s healing technologies, especially organ transplantation, and published articles in various anthropology and medical ethics journals. He has been interviewed by the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Canadian Medical Journal and was invited to submit an editorial to Proto, the journal for the Massachusetts General Hospital. He is also the author of the widely used textbook Exploring Medical Anthropology, now in its third edition.
“I thoroughly enjoyed reading Mortal Dilemmas. Joralemon does a wonderful job of highlighting end-of-life issues, presenting the pros and cons of each and then skillfully giving his own rational thoughts. He has a delightful sense of humor and is an entertaining writer. His treatise on the troubled landscape of death in America scatters case studies from the media throughout. There is a need for such a book, to be used as a mini-textbook or as a supplement to more extensive texts in such academic disciplines as anthropology, sociology, history, philosophy, public health, gerontology, and religion–or simply as a book for the lay reader who wishes to be well informed on the subject.”
—George E. Dickinson, College of Charleston
“Mortal Dilemmas challenges the conventional wisdom portraying the U.S. as a death-denying culture that refuses to allow a public presence for either dying or mourning. Joralemon highlights the diversity and complexity of the many ways Americans actively keep death and the dead in public view, and shows how competing values and political interests clash in passionate debates over alternatives. His insightful overview of trends in medicine, law, bioethics, and private and civic practices pays particular attention to the ethical dilemmas and legal controversies that make death and dying such uncertain terrain. The writing is extremely clear and accessible–a pleasure to read. The scholarship is informed and precise, but utterly jargon-free, making this book appropriate for undergraduates in courses on death and dying in medical sociology or anthropology. I could also imagine Mortal Dilemmas being used in nursing schools and other health professional training workshops, or as a focus for book groups, religious congregation discussions, or Death Cafes.”
—Beth A. Conklin, Vanderbilt University
"Joralemon examines the recent claims by many contemporary scholars that America denies death and dying a place in our culture, thereby perpetuating abbreviated, uncomfortable death rituals, or none at all. He brings to light several instances in which that is not the case, in which American people seek to act against those recent trends.