Death and Dying, from Life in the USA: The Complete Guide for Immigrants and Americans

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Life in the USA
Death in the USA

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Full Chapter Outline:
American Attitudes
Hush Hush
---Keep it At a Distance
---Now We Can Talk About It

How Americans Die
---Heart Disease
---Cancer, and Cigarettes
---Behind the Wheel


Hospice Care

Condolences and Sympathy

Death Notices and Obituaries

---The Right to Die
---Phsician Assisted Suicide
---The Death Penalty

The American attitude towards death, in cultural terms, is one of denial. Where many other cultures view death as a natural progression in the cycle of life among generations, the American culture prefers not to talk about death. When death does approach or arrive, as it inevitably must, Americans often use euphemisms: “passed on,” “passed away” or even just “passed” are all in current use. On a more pragmatic level, many Americans fail to plan for their own deaths, even though such an act could make the inevitable death much easier on the family left behind. In the absence of clear cultural norms regarding funeral details, as one example, all too many Americans push the planning aside until the hour is too late. Even in the matter of wills, estate planning, and disposition of property, the treatment of death as something “optional” eventually catches up with the family involved.

While Americans do not like to talk about death when it is close, they tend to iconize dead people once death benefits from the passage of time. This is especially true when a celebrity or entertainment star dies prematurely. Elvis Presley is perhaps the perfect example. His career continues unabated decades after his death. Stage acts all over the United States continue to imitate Elvis. Another cult figure is dead film star James Dean. Movie star Marilyn Monroe share equal status, as does the martyred president John F. Kennedy, and slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. Performers like Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Kurt Cobain take their own place in the iconography of the American dead. A number of actors make a full-time profession out of dressing like and imitating American founding father Benjamin Franklin or Civil War era president Abraham Lincoln, both of whom appear on American currency. Only those dead for at least ten years may appear on American postage stamps.

The sections that follow cover some attitudes toward death, some issues regarding death, and certain American death-related customs that might be useful for a newcomer to know.

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