How should the 1995 Chicago heat wave deaths be commemorated?

An arts critics think about how Chicago might remember the deaths of hundreds in the 1995 heat wave:

After all, events that caused far fewer deaths have been the subject of remembrances, designed to honor those who died. July 1995 has yet to make into that civic category, but it deserves a spot. Perchance someone may convene a discussion between those who were involved in that crisis and ponder what was learned (I should note that Klinenberg also charges the media, including the management of this newspaper, with some culpability in the tardiness of the connecting of the dots, while acknowledging some formidable reportage).

More useful, though, might be an artistic response.

A commissioned symphonic piece, perhaps played outdoors. A concert honoring those who died. A dance work. Some stirring poetic words. Some deep collective thoughts from city leaders as to if, or how, the city has changed since then and where there still is work to be done. Some consideration of whether we now do a better job of taking care of each other, whatever the weather outside. It is worth the attention of the city’s artists. And politicians.

“Marking it as a historic event is important,” Egdorf said. “If only to remind people to look after their neighbors.”

Three quick thoughts:

1. Given the demographics of those who died, such a commemoration could also go a long ways toward addressing social divisions such as those involving age, class, and race. Important figures are often commemorated but what about a mass number of average residents?

2. For the social forces that contributed to who died in this particular heat wave, I recommend Heat Wave by sociologist Eric Klinenberg.

3. The idea of having an artistic response to this disaster is an interesting one. We often have solemn commemorations but this presents an opportunity to create something new of tragedy.

Noted architects often have uninspiring graves

A new book suggests while noted architects may have designed important buildings, their gravesites don’t often reflect their skills:

I was inspired to visit Graceland, located at 4001 N. Clark St. and home to the graves of many other notable Chicagoans, by the new book, “Their Final Place: A Guide to the Graves of Notable American Architects.” This slim, self-published volume is no masterwork, but it raises an intriguing question: How, if at all, do architects, who spend their working lives creating monuments for clients, choose to memorialize themselves?…

What Kuehn discovered is surprising: The aforementioned memorials at Graceland, which distill the essence of their subjects’ architectural style and achievements, are the exception, not the rule. Many architects are buried beneath simple headstones. Some look as if they were ordered from a catalog.

“It seems strange that these great architects, who created landmark structures during their lives, put so little thought into how they themselves would be memorialized for time eternal,” Kuehn writes. “Apparently most of these architectural giants, like most of us ordinary people, either did not feel like dealing with death or felt that a lasting memorial for them was not important.”…

Yet he notes a countertrend: Many architects have had their ashes scattered on bodies of water, on landscapes or in buildings that have special meaning. There’s no memorial to Chicago architect Harry Weese at Graceland; Weese, a sailor, wanted his ashes scattered on Lake Michigan. In another interesting tidbit, Kuehn reports that the ashes of Paul Rudolph, a former dean of Yale’s architecture school, were distributed in several places, including the ventilating system of the Rudolph-designed Yale Art and Architecture Building (now called Rudolph Hall).

Perhaps these architects put all they have into “living” buildings or the scale of a memorial is simply too small? The flipside of an analysis like this would be to then look at the people who do make elaborate plans for their graves and death. If they aren’t architects, are there patterns to those who do prepare?

I do wonder how more elaborate memorials might be received. I’ve seen a few articles over the years criticizing larger gravestones or mausoleums, tying the excessive size and cost to McMansions. The key here might be to create tasteful, innovative, and relatively small graves.

Despite “info gap,” good number of Canadians still believe in life after death

A sociologist and a researcher note that although people have little information about life after death, a good number of Canadians still believe in it:

Our surveys confirmed the hunch. Close to 40 per cent of Canadians say they “definitely” or “possibly” will see people again who have died. Some 30 per cent say they don’t know, and only about 30 per cent have actually closed the door on the possibility, including just one in two of those who have “no religion.”

But what we have been taken aback by is the remarkable extent to which people believe that individuals who have died are interacting with us.

More than five in 10 Canadians think the deceased see us, know what we are up to, and share in our lows and highs. About four in 10 claim that they themselves “have been in touch with someone who has died” – up, by the way, from 25 per cent around 1980. Differences by age and religion are negligible. Similar levels and patterns are also found in both the U.S. and Britain – which have very different religious histories and trajectories – leaving us scratching our heads as to where these beliefs come from…

The findings underline a paradox in the Information Age: We know more than enough about just about everything in life. But we continue to know very little about what happens after death. Credible expertise is scarce. Academics are reluctant to touch the topic, and religious leaders tend to have little to say. The extensive market is left largely to channelers and charlatans, with the predictable result that claims are trivialized and claimants stigmatized.

Three thoughts:

1. The argument here is that there is not “credible expertise” about life after death. The implication is that people today tend to need such hard data to believe in things. Where is the evidence? Personal stories might be more influential than people think.

2. There are also hints here that while people in Canada and the United States are less inclined to identify with traditional markers of religion, some still hold to religious beliefs. Religious ideas may just have longer lives in individuals beyond formal institutions.

3. I’m intrigued by the suggestion that “religious leaders tend to have little to say” about life after death. Really? All religious leaders?

Just curious: do “channelers and charlatans” equal Hollywood movies like Heaven is for Real?

Traffic deaths predicted to be 5th leading cause of death in the developing world

Even as the conversation about safer autonomous cars picks up in the United States, traffic deaths are an increasing problem in the developing world:

It has a global death toll of 1.24 million per year and is on course to triple to 3.6 million per year by 2030.

In the developing world, it will become the fifth leading cause of death, leapfrogging past HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis and other familiar killers, according to the most recent Global Burden of Disease study.

The victims tend to be poor, young and male.

In one country — Indonesia — the toll is now nearly 120 dead per day; in Nigeria, it is claiming 140 lives each day…

In 2010, the U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution calling for a “Decade of Action for Road Safety.” The goal is to stabilize and eventually reverse the upward trend in road fatalities, saving an estimated 5 million lives during the period. The World Bank and other regional development banks have made road safety a priority, but according to Irigoyen, donor funding lags “very far below” the $24 billion that has been pledged to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

It sounds like while diseases are well known and relatively well-funded, not many people have caught on to the problems of traffic deaths. This is all about social construction: where are the Bill Gates of the world to come in and tackle traffic problems in poorer nations?

Perhaps this gets less attention it is because cars are viewed as things that may help developing countries improve: owning them means citizens have more economic power and have more independence to get around as well as help their own economic chances (can carry things around, etc.). Particularly from an American point of view, cars are generally good things. But, of course, cars bring other problems in addition to safety concerns: pollution (a huge problem in many large cities), clogged streets, and an infrastructure that may not be able to handle lots of new cars on the roads (maintaining roads, having enough police, driver training, cities that have to redevelop areas to accommodate wider roads).

It will be interesting to see if this gets more attention in the coming years. It is one thing to discuss longer-term consequences of cars like increasing pollution but it is another to ignore large numbers of deaths each day.

Does urbanization in America explain the declining deaths by lightning strike?

Here is an interesting research question: is urbanization responsible for the sharp decline in Americans who die by lightning strike each year?

In the lightning-death literature, one explanation has gained prominence: urbanization. Lightning death rates have declined in step with the rural population, and rural lightning deaths make up a far smaller percent of all lightning deaths. Urban areas afford more protection from lightning. Ergo, urbanization has helped make people safer from lightning. Here’s a graph showing this, neat and clean:

And a competing perspective:

I spoke with Ronald Holle, a meteorologist who studies lightning deaths, and he agreed that modernization played a significant role. “Absolutely,” he said. Better infrastructure in rural areas—not just improvements to homes and buildings, but improvements to farming equipment too has—made rural regions safer today than they were in the past. Urbanization seems to explain some of the decline, but not all of it.

“Rural activities back then were primarily agriculture, and what we call labor-intensive manual agriculture. Back then, my family—my grandfather and his father before that in Indiana—had a team of horses, and it took them all day to do a 20-acre field.” Today, a similar farmer would be inside a fully-enclosed metal-topped vehicle, which offers excellent lightning protection. Agriculture has declined as a percent of total lightning-death-related activities, as the graph below shows, but unfortunately it does not show the per capita lightning-death rate of people engaged in agriculture.

Sounds like more data is needed! I wonder how long it would take to collect the relevant information versus the payoff of the findings…

More broadly, this hints at how human interactions with nature has changed, even in relatively recent times: we are more insulated from the effects of weather and nature. During the recent cold snap in the area, I was reminded of an idea I had a few years ago to explain why so many adults seem to talk about the weather. Could it be related to the fact that the weather is perhaps the most notable thing on a daily basis that is outside of our control? As 21st century humans, we control a lot that is in front of us (or at least we think we do) but can do little about what the conditions will be like outside. We have more choices than ever about how to respond but it prompts responses from everyone, from the poor to the wealthy, the aged to the young.

Uptick in McMansion type cemetery plots and mausoleums?

Sales of big houses are on the rise as are sales of expensive cemetery plots:

The generation that brought us the McMansion is now reviving the McMausoleum. As more boomers contemplate their final years, some are spending sums of $1 million or more to buy or build spacious resting places in exclusive historic graveyards, as Stefanos Chen of The Wall Street Journal reports this week. The result, says Chen: An eruption of bungalow-sized luxury tombs, flanked by colorful statuary (think roller skates and Fender Stratocasters) in memorial parks previously known for their grim sobriety…

For Americans, big spending on burial today is more an issue of location, location, location. Older cemeteries that already host the remains of prominent people are able to command premium prices for their dwindling supply of plots. Ray Brandt, a 66-year-old attorney, talks with Chen about his $1.1 million mausoleum in Metairie Cemetery in New Orleans—where the plot alone can cost $250,000. How do you get from there to seven figures? For starters, the lot is bigger than any New York City apartment I ever lived in, at 1,024 square feet, with resting space for 12. “There will be two sets of bronze doors, one of which will open to a back patio with picnic-style furniture and a view of a lagoon,” explains Chen. “I guess it’s the last house I’ll buy,” says Brandt.

Even boomers with smaller budgets are influencing the look and layout of cemeteries. In the Hollywood Forever cemetery in Los Angeles, one of the most common requests is to be buried near the grave of Johnny Ramone (born John Cummings), whose plot features a bust of the late punk rocker wailing on his guitar. (Ramone, who passed away in 2004, isn’t actually buried there yet, but the cemetery says his ashes will be moved there along with his wife’s after she dies.) Those who can’t be near such monument statuary are increasingly asking for equally distinctive décor, Chen reports, custom-ordering, say, a bust of a Greek warrior or a frieze of flamenco dancers.

Some thoughts:

1. I think this is a convenient story-line: boomers who like McMansions also like big burial sites. While there is an attempt in the second paragraph of the story to suggest other American generations have also liked big plots, the hook to the story is that the boomers spend excessively.

2. There is little to no data in this story suggesting there is a real uptick in the sales of these large plots.

3. Does this mean that even more than ever those with money to purchase such monuments will be remembered much more than people who choose cremation?

4. This story hints at another issue: historic cemeteries are running out of space. This means they can drive up the asking price but does it also mean they are very nearly “dead” institutions? With the rise of cremations, is there a glut of space in newer cemeteries or on the whole are cemeteries slowly easing out of existence?

Can changes in states bring about “zero deaths” by car crash?

It may be a very difficult goal to reach but a number of states are aiming for no deaths in car crashes:

So the immediate focus is on putting an end to crashes that lead to fatalities. The roots of the program can be traced to Sweden, where 16 years ago safety officials declared that zero crash deaths is the only morally acceptable goal.The Illinois Department of Transportation adopted the goal of zero roadway fatalities in 2009 when it revised the state’s strategic highway safety plan. About 30 states have established their own programs aimed literally at driving down the death toll to zero.

A new study by the University of Minnesota evaluating the effectiveness of zero-death programs found that the states that have worked the longest promoting the four “E’s” of safety — enforcement, education, engineering and emergency medical services — have been the most successful at reducing crash fatalities.

Washington State in 2000 and Minnesota in 2003 were the first states to adopt the zero-fatality goal, the study said. Utah and Idaho also operate successful programs in which the study determined that a statistically significant fewer number of crash fatalities occurred after the zero-death initiatives were introduced.

While the research suggests pursuing this goal cuts the number of deaths, is there a point of diminishing returns or where the number is more “acceptable”? Perhaps this cause might join with other long-term wars in the US: the “war on auto deaths.” There could be some interesting work for sociologists to do here about the social construction of these goals. As the article notes, pursuing no deaths is at leaset partly a “morally acceptable goal.”

Another possible takeaway from the article which notes there has not been a death in four years on a commercial aircraft in the US: people should be more afraid of driving than flying.

Sociological study: NYT obituaries have more celebrity deaths over the decades

Here is a unique place to look for American’s obsession with celebrities: examine the “Notable Deaths” section of the New York Times since 1900.

Sociology researchers at the University of South Carolina analyzed obituaries in the New York Times from the same 20 randomly selected days in 1900, 1925, 1950, 1975 and 2000. From this sample, they ranked how much attention was given to the deaths of people in certain occupations in each year. They found that obituaries of entertainers and athletes marched steadily to the top in rank — from seventh in 1900, to fifth in 1925, to third in 1950 and first in 1975 and 2000; in 2000, celeb athletes and entertainers accounted for 28 percent of obituaries in the newspaper, the researchers said.

Meanwhile, the researchers said the number of obituaries for public figures in manufacturing and business halved over the century. Similarly, religious obituaries fell from fourth place in mid-century to last in rank, and the researchers said they did not find a single notable death article for a religious figure in their sample for the year 2000.

“Most striking are the simultaneous increases in celebrity obituaries and declines in religious obituaries,” lead researcher Patrick Nolan said in a statement from the University of South Carolina. “They document the increasing secularization and hedonism of American culture at a time when personal income was rising and public concern was shifting away from the basic issues of survival,” added Nolan, who details the research in the journal Sociation Today.

So have celebrities replaced some of religion?

It would also be interesting to see whether the New York Times did this consciously and if so, how exactly this conversation went. Did readers actually suggest they wanted to see more celebrity news in the deaths section?

Some thoughts on Progressive and Matt Fisher

By now, you’ve no doubt run across Matt Fisher’s blog post titled “My Sister Paid Progressive Insurance to Defend Her Killer In Court”. (If you haven’t yet seen Matt’s post, take a moment to read the original and his follow up). There have been lots of reactions to Matt’s story (to put it mildly), including over at Above the Law, where blogger “Juggalo Law” makes the following two observations:

1. Matt Fisher’s “grief is impossible for most, if not all, of us to imagine.”

Katie Fisher died in a car crash and her brother lashed out at the insurance company that made life for her surviving family more difficult. Matt Fisher’s overwrought tumblr post can be excused by the fact that, you know, his sister died in a car crash. His grief is impossible for most, if not all, of us to imagine. And yet thousands of people put on their imagineering hats and did just that.

As an initial matter, this seems like a denial of even the possibility of empathy. Is ATL really arguing that it is “impossible” for people generally to even imagine another person’s grief in the wake of death? Except for the very young, virtually everyone has known someone who has died, and we each face the inevitable prospect of our own mortality. Of course no one besides Matt Fisher knows the precise contours his grief, but this is hardly a persuasive, blanket argument that humanity generally is incapable of even imagining what his grief is like.

Furthermore, the tragedy at issue here is a death caused by an automobile accident. While the number of motor vehicle deaths in the U.S. varies from year to year, during the years 1981-2010 it ranged from 49,301 (1981) to 32,885 (2010). In all, 1,268,122 people died over this 30 year span. Even in a nation of over 300 million, this is an enormous number. Matt Fisher’s loss of his sister is tragic, but, sadly, it is not unique.

2. Insurance companies are “inhuman” entities whose “existence…is predicated on their attempts to make money. ”

Sometimes, life deals you a sh**ty hand. Death, however, always does. And yet, those stuck behind will undoubtedly encounter a world that barely shrugs in acknowledgement. And that’s how it should be. You will still be asked if you want a coffin with gold plating and you may be asked if you want your loved one’s ashes compressed into a beautiful diamond that you can wear around your neck for a lifetime. And all the mundane features of our economy will seemingly laugh at your grief. But they’re not laughing and insurance companies and all of the other businesses that survivors must joust with aren’t “inhuman monsters.” They’re merely inhuman. And they will follow protocol and attempt to minimize their own exposure as much as is possible. The existence of insurance companies is predicated on their attempts to make money. And nothing in this case suggests that their actions were borne out of anything other than this absolute truth.

Here, the ATL blogger seems to argue that insurance companies automatically get a pass for distasteful behavior because they are “inhuman” (with a strongly implied “what else do you expect?”). I think this approach lazily obscures rather than thoughtfully resolves any of the issues Matt Fisher’s personal tragedy raises. Obviously, the facts in this case are disputed and not fully known (at least publicly), and I have no personal knowledge of this matter. However, taking Matt’s original post and follow up clarification at face value, it is clear that Matt is not blaming Progressive for his sister’s death. Matt’s argument (and the general outrage) against Progressive boils down to these alleged facts:

  • Katie was a Progressive insurance customer with underinsured motorist coverage.
  • Katie was killed in an automobile accident with an underinsured motorist.
  • Asserting that Katie herself might have been responsible for the accident (in which case Progressive would have no legal obligation to pay under Maryland law), Progressive refused to pay what it owed under Katie’s policy to her surviving family members.
  • When Katie’s family went to court and sued the other driver to establish that he was liable for the accident rather than Katie, Progressive sent in its own lawyer(s) to help the other driver prove he was NOT liable.

So far as I can tell, the general outrage being directed at Progressive arises from this last assertion. I think most people understand that “fault” in auto accidents can be murky, and I think that many people would have understood if Progressive had refused to pay Katie’s policy until this issue was conclusively resolved by a court.

But that’s not why Matt’s post went viral. It went viral because he alleges, as he puts it in the title, “My Sister Paid Progressive Insurance to Defend Her Killer In Court.” The extreme outrage is not that an insurance company wanted to be 100% sure it owed money before paying out. The outrage is that (allegedly) an insurance company unleashed its lawyer(s) against its own customer. I agree with ATL that one generally expects auto insurance companies to “attempt[] to make money.” However, I submit that many do not expect auto insurance companies to proactively work against their own policyholders who are involved in accidents by making common cause with the other driver. It is one thing to dispute liability and force a court to sort the issue out. It is another thing to send lawyer(s) into the resulting lawsuit on behalf of the opposing side.

On the same day that Matt posted about Progressive, Bob Sutton blogged about how “United Airlines Lost My Friend’s 10 Year Old Daughter And Didn’t Care” (it’s as bad as you think, assuming the facts Bob recounts are all true). Bob narrates one part of the story in which the father is on the phone with a United employee located at the same airport as the lost 10-year-old, who was flying as an unaccompanied minor. When he “asked if the employee could go see if [his daughter] was OK,” she replied that she “was going off her shift and could not help. [He] then asked her if she was a mother herself and she said ‘yes’—he then asked her if she was missing her child for 45 minutes what would she do? She kindly told him she understood and would do her best to help.”

Bob writes:

This is the key moment in the story, note that in her role as a United employee, this woman would not help [the parents]. It was only when [the father] asked her if she was a mother and how she would feel that she was able to shed her deeply ingrained United indifference — the lack of felt accountability that pervades the system. Yes, there are design problems, there are operations problems, but the to me the core lesson is this is a system packed with people who don’t feel responsible for doing the right thing.

“Juggalo Law” titled its ATL post “Progressive Insurance Is Inhuman,” as if this fact excuses inhuman behavior. But just because corporations themselves aren’t people doesn’t mean their shareholders, managers, and employees aren’t. As Bob Sutton notes in his article on United Airlines, “a key difference between good and bad organizations is that, in the good ones, most everyone feels obligated and presses everyone else to do what is in their customer’s and organization’s best interests. I feel it as a customer at my local Trader Joe’s, on JetBlue and Virgin America, and In-N-Out Burger, to give a few diverse examples.”

Assuming the facts Matt alleges are true, Progressive clearly didn’t act in their customer Katie Fisher’s best interest. That’s not simply a sign that it wants to make money–or is legally organized as a corporation. If true, it’s a sign that it will act against its own customers whenever it can. Ironically, in a competitive marketplace, that approach is not in Progressive’s best interest. Indeed, the near-universal condemnation levelled at Progressive over the past few days suggests that such a narrowly self-interested approach is suicidal once it comes to light.

McMansions in the cemetery

This may seem like a strange application of the word “McMansion” but this I have seen several other articles that apply the term to cemeteries. With just the right amount of money, one can purchase a plot in one of New York City’s “most prestigious cemeteries”:

Woodlawn, the final home of honorary New Yorkers such as the publisher Joseph Pulitzer, the composer Irving Berlin and the musician Duke Ellington, calls itself the “resting place of a host of history’s greats”…

Labelled the “McMansions of the dead” by Susan Olsen, the cemetery historian, these tombs come complete with features, such as ornate carvings and mosaics, that are detailed in glossy brochures.

“We’re a little pricier than most places,” said Ms Olsen. “It’s not only because of the quality of our mausoleums but also the service we provide.

“Our lawns are mowed every 10 days, we have full-time security and we transport visitors to the graveside. It’s sort of like staying in the fancier hotels. We’re certainly the Ritz of cemeteries.”

I like the emphasis on service: that money should buy you more than just a piece of real estate.

The allusion to McMansions apparently refers to the wealth and opulence of such homes. But this isn’t fit just for anyone with money: in addition, Olsen also suggests this trend was started by people with “new money” who wanted to establish themselves. If you can practice conspicuous consumption in life, why not also in death?

I suspect wealthy families might not like having their plots and mausoleums labeled “McMansions.” Could this hurt the cemetery?