Death, with Permission


Death mask of an unknown girl found in the Seine in the late 1880s, also a popular piece of art in homes in the 1900s (L’inconnue de la Seine).

What does it mean to be dead? On the surface, it seems like a pretty straightforward condition marked by cessation of life-sustaining biological conditions. But death in the modern era is much more complicated than that. In 19th century America, death was determined by consensus and commonsense. It wasn’t until the 1900s that death certificates emerged, followed in that century by the concepts of legal death and brain death.

If the state is going to document identities and track life events, it only makes sense that the state will need to know when that legal entity is no longer active. One of the first things Americans do when they are born is get a social security number. This national identifier enables one to pay taxes, get a driver’s license, legally work, etc. Upon your death, this number is retired and any benefits associated with that number will go to your legally identified dependents–children or spouse. This system is great for linking membership with privileges and serving to fix identities over time. However, it also has the power to impact how we think of death.

I want to start with a personal example. In late October, my oldest brother died in a motorcycle crash. My immediate family all flew to Las Vegas to receive his body from the medical examiners office, which was a crazy experience in itself. But the thing that has stuck in all of our minds was the time of death recorded on his death certificate. The accident happened at approximately 2:45am and we were told that he died on impact. The recorded hour of death is 7:10am.


A death certificate from a simpler time, 1918.

Now, we all know he did not spend 4 hours 25 minutes dying on the interstate that is just how long it took for someone with the authority to declare death to arrive. But someone on the scene must have been aware of his biological death because he was never transported to a hospital, while others were, and someone called the individual the state granted the bureaucratic power to determine death. His legal death was declared on the scene by a state licensed coroner and that is where the official story of his life ends– approximately 4 hours and 25 minutes after his life ended.A slight delay in death does not carry with it much in the way of consequences. It is a bit disconcerting for the family, sure, but legal death can get much more complicated. Jahi McMath and Donald E. Miller are both dealing with premature declarations of death.


Jahi McMath, dead or alive?

Jahi McMath, a 13 year old, checked into the Children’s Hospital Oakland on December 9th for a surgery to correct sleep apnea.  She awoke from anesthesia but shortly after complications arose. She was declared brain dead on December 12th. The Alameda county coroner issued a death certificate that day (leaving the cause of death blank) and her doctors prepared to remove her from the breathing machines that prevented her biological death. But her family and their lawyer disagreed with the diagnosis of death. A legal battle ensued. Jahi breathes, regulates temperature, has a heartbeat and occasionally moves (though doctors point out this is reflexive) giving her family hope that she might recover despite the lack of brain function. The hospital kept her on the ventilator, under court orders, but refused to insert a feeding tube because they don’t perform procedures on corpses. On January 5th, Jahi was released to the coroner and then transferred to the family’s care and relocated to an undisclosed facility where she will receive life sustaining treatment though she remains legally deceased. 

If Jahi recovers (this is extremely unlikely), she may want to seek some advice on life after legal death from Donald E. Miller Jr. Donald was declared legally dead in 1994. Turns out he was just living and working off the grid to avoid having to pay child support. The mother of his children, unable to locate him, presumed he was dead. With no evidence to the contrary, his children began receiving survivors’ benefits from social security.  Imagine everyone’s surprise when after 11 years he showed up at his parents house where it was explained to him that, technically, he is dead. The now 61 year old appeared in court in October 2013 seeking an appeal of his death. The Ohio judge found he missed the three year deadline to dispute a claim of death and declared that Donald E. Miller Jr is to remain dead. As long as this condition persists, Donald will be unable to claim the rights and protections granted to living people; he can’t apply for a driver’s license or legally work. Death is not simply a biological fact it is an act of the state. 

ZombieThe fact that Ohio even has a three year limit to reverse declarations of death points to the fact disputed death isn’t unprecedented. I don’t know how many states set limits on challenges to death but I do imagine that those states will be the best positioned to identify and monitor zombie* outbreaks. Just imagine a world where zombies can be given new legal lease on life! They can be given special identity cards and be granted the privileges typically reserved for the living. This might help pacify the undead and prevent any apocalyptic scenarios. *It didn’t seem right to end this post without mentioning of zombies.


2 thoughts on “Death, with Permission

  1. Excellent post. I’m so sorry about what you and your family have been going through. But I also really appreciate how it has inspired you to think about the intersection of culture, law, and death. I was aware of issues surrounding the definition of death that arise with modern medicine (for example, does death occur when your heart stops? when breathing stops? when brain activity stops?). However, I had not thought about the role of authority in issues of death until your post. As someone interested in authority and truth claims, I found this post especially provocative!

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