Professor Marshall

LESSON 4: Images of Death

Images of Death

Art, graphic imagery and media (via television and movies) have something to tell us about our ideas and feelings of death. Through time, visual representation has been a vehicle for and a reflection of the attitudes of the day--including our ideas about death and dying. Death imagery can tell the story of important events and it can also convey messages about social beliefs, attitudes and feelings (as you recall from a prior lesson, these are measurable, researchable components to sociologists).

Philosophers have pondered questions about death, dying and immortality since the time of Aristotle. Watch here as Dr. Phil Simpson discusses why death is such an important philosophical concept:

Paintings about Death and Dying

It would seem that artists have always been fascinated with images of death. Many famous painters have painted intimate portraits of people who were dear to them at the times of their deaths, while others have painted images of death which can be directly related to society and the social circumstances of their time.

David, The Death of Marat 1793

David's Death of Marat

David painted Death of Marat in 1793, the year in which Louis XVI (a former patron of David) and his wife, Marie Antoinette, were beheaded by guillotine. This famous artwork is a portrayal of political martyrdom and is loaded with history and symbolism. This painting is said to have added fuel to the fire of the French Revolution--Marat was a supporter of the Revolution, and his death came in the second year of fighting. A supporter of a conservative political group (a woman named Charlotte Corday) gained an introduction to Marat, and when she met with him she stabbed him to death. Note that Marat was a writer, and at the bottom of the painting are both the knife used to kill him, an the pen he used to write.

In another interpretation of the death of Marat, Edvard Munch paints the following in 1907, over 100 years after the original painting by David. Notice how different the two paintings are, and think about society in the West at these two points in time. What was the historical context under which each painter lived? What was happening in the world? In the early 1900s in the West, Realism enters the art timeline, and in this period the working class is celebrated. Painting becomes more realistic and rustic (as evidenced by the work of Munch and many others). Beginning in the mid 1800s, democracy was spreading through Europe, and the grandeur and classical feeling of the former Baroque and Romantic art eras was replaced with a more practical and frank approach.

Art echoed life during this time, and the Realists portrayed many social events--including death--more realistically than ever before.

Edvard Munch, The Death of Marat 1907

Munch's Death of Marat

Franz Masereel, The City 1925

Franz Masereel's series of over 100 woodcuts show the influence of the city on the individual and further depict the reality of day-to-day life for some (note the third illustration, which apparently depicts the suicide of a man in the city):

Masereel Image 1

Masereel Image 2

Masereel Image 3

Masereel was one of the first graphic novelists, completing many wordless books which depicted life in the modern city. In 1925, he lived in France, and created the series of woodcuts which would become The City. Note that at the outbreak of WWI, Masereel fled to Switzerland, which was neutral. He became part of a social circle which contained many left-wing artists and writers--these people became his friends for life and greatly influenced his work. He began illustrating for a pacifist magazine and gained an international reputation for his work. Themes in his work centered on the struggle between man and authority, which was very much a part of society in the West at the time. He would illustrate after reading the news to see what was happening in society, and his work was timely and political.

In this 1919 drawing for La Feuille, a French left-wing political magazine, he depicts the very Marxist concept of alienation:

Masereel Image 4

What does this image say about society and about the death of the individual? Certainly, there was a lot of political discussion about the economy, industrialization and capitalization going on at this time. In particular, Karl Marx (one of the industrialized West's original rabble-rousers) was concerned with the condition of the modern worker. Marx feared that the system of capitalism, which was working well at that time, would eventually be exposed for what he felt it was--a system of oppression not unlike the former feudal society:


Perhaps nowhere else is our fascination with death and dying upheld more than with the premature death of contemporary musicians. What is it about these artists that inspires voyages to their grave sites, conspiracy theories about their deaths, and anguish among their fans? There is a long list of musicians who have died before their times (John Lennon, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Selena, and so on) but special attention in this lesson is paid to the 27 Club, an infamous club in which members have no knowledge of having been inducted.

The 27 Club 

As evidence that anything can have a Wikipedia page, the 27 Club has its own entry. For those not familiar with the 27 Club, it is the term that is used to refer to musicians who have all died at the age of 27--Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse are all members of the 27 club (among scores of others), each died (at least in some manner) due to excessive drug and/or alcohol use. This is a reflection of the era and culture in which they died, and thus the sociological component which is of interest to us.

Not until the death of Kurt Cobain was this pattern really noted in the popular culture, and from that point, the Club was established. Some of the most notable members of the Club have died at the heights of their careers.

Brian Jones, 1969

Brian Jones' Grave

Original bandleader and founding member of the Rolling Stones, Jones developed a serious drug problem (he was a frequent LSD, marijuana and alcohol user as well as being an occasional user of cocaine and Methamphetamine) and in 1969 was asked to leave the band. He died less than a month later by drowning in the swimming pool at his home; the coroner's report cited that his heart and liver had been enlarged by his drug use and drinking. By all accounts he was a very talented musician, performing with Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles as well as the Stones.

While other musicians had died at this age prior to Jones' death, his death at 27 was the first of the contemporary rock and roll movement. The "British Invasion" was the title given to the influence that rock and roll bands from Britain in the 60s and 70s had on the world of music--the Stones were one of the most influential bands of the Invasion. The music and culture of this era greatly influenced young people and in many ways, influenced the Hippie counterculture movement of the 1960s in the United States.

It is said that Brian Jones was buried 12 feet underground--concerns that fans would try to exhume the body forced such a deep burial. Many years after his death, the man who owned the estate where Jones died sold pieces of tile from the pool in which Jones died for $100 each to fans. There is no report on how tiles many he actually sold.

Jimi Hendrix, 1970

Jimi Hendrix's Grave

American musician Jimi Hendrix is considered one of the most influential guitar players of the 20th century. He performed at Woodstock (1969) alongside many of the most popular and influential bands of the time. Like Jones, Hendrix was a drug user, and his drugs of choice were LSD, amphetamines and marijuana. He was also a drinker, and when he mixed drugs and alcohol, he often became violent. The official reports of his death cite aspiration (choking on his own vomit) while intoxicated with barbiturates. He apparently had also taken (by the estimation of his girlfriend) several of her sleeping pills.

The culture of the Hippie movement certainly influenced the lifestyle of Hendrix (and most other rock musicians of the day).

Janis Joplin, 1970

Shortly after Jimi Hendrix died, Janis Joplin was also dead of an apparent overdose (heroin and alcohol). Joplin had failed to show up for a recording session, and her road manager went to find her. He found her dead on the floor beside her bed. It is asserted that she was given an overdose of heroin by her dealer (it is also asserted that several of the same dealer's customers overdosed in the same week as Joplin's death). She died sixteen days after Jimi Hendrix. Joplin left $1500 in her will to throw a wake upon her demise.

Joplin was instrumental in opening doors for women in rock and roll, and is considered one of the most influential women in music in the 20th century. At the height of her career, she was known as the "Queen of Rock and Roll."

She was cremated and her ashes were scattered to "the four winds" at her request.

Jim Morrison, 1971

Jim Morrison's Grave

A talented writer and musician, Morrison is still regarded as one of the most charismatic and pioneering frontmen in rock and roll music history. Morrison had a reputation as a drinker, and by the release of the Doors second album in 1968, was showing up at recording sessions visibly drunk.

Morrison was found dead in a bathtub however no autopsy was performed (he was in France, and French law only requires autopsies to be performed if foul play is suspected). His common law wife, Pam Courson (who was staying with Morrison in Paris) stated that he died of a heroin overdose--he apparently thought he was snorting cocaine and instead snorted heroin, leading to an overdose and his death. At the time, Courson had nodded off, and Morrison was left to hemorrhage to death. There is still controversy surrounding his death as at least a few of his intimates suggest that they helped Courson cover up evidence prior to authorities getting to the apartment.

Morrison is buried in Paris, and his site is one of the city's most visited attractions. There have been repeated vandalisms of the markers which have been placed there over the years, and today, the site is fenced off to deter those who would steal from it.

Kurt Cobain, 1994

The Seattle music scene was in part established by Cobain and his group Nirvana. Labeled as the "Flagship Band of Generation X," Cobain was also seen as THE spokesperson for an entire generation. Cobain however was uncomfortable with how his music was interpreted by the public, and by the constant media attention that his celebrity brought.

Cobain struggled with heroin addiction, and pressures from his personal life (in particular, his relationship with Courtney Love). But Love's influence wasn't the only destructive force in Cobain's life--Cobain's childhood was also fraught with hardship. Throughout much of Cobain's life he used some form of drugs, including LSD, marijuana (which he admitted to first using at the age of 13), solvents and alcohol. He had a debilitating and painful stomach condition and he sought pharmaceuticals in response, using prescription and illegal drugs for relief. Beginning in the mid-80s, heroin became his drug of choice, and while he attempted rehab at least a few times, it would become the drug that likely contributed most to his suicide.

Unlike the deaths of Jones, Morrison, Hendrix and Joplin before him, Cobain's death was a suicide--he shot himself in the head. It is surmised that he had also tried to commit suicide once before, in 1994, via an overdose of painkillers and alcohol. That attempt had been thwarted by Love, who had him rushed to the hospital, where he was released after five days. Cobain had been riddled with depression and personal problems and after the release from the hospital, agreed to enter rehab again. While in detox in LA, he climbed a fence and left, returning to his home in Seattle, where his body would be discovered by an electrician who had arrived at the home to install a security system. Cobain had left a note which had been written to his imaginary childhood friend "Boddah." High concentrations of heroin were found in his body, and a shotgun was found pointed at his head.

His ashes were scattered into McLane Creek in Olympia, Washington in 1999.

Amy Winehouse, 2011

Winehouse died of alcohol poisoning, and her album Back to Black posthumously became the best selling album in Britain in 2011 at the time of her death. She has been noted as the vocal talent of her generation, and has been the recipient of numerous awards and accolades. She came from a family of jazz musicians who, along with 1960s girl groups, heavily influenced her style. She paved the way for some of today's most influential British singers, including Adele and Emeli Sande.

In 1987, she married Blake Fielder-Civil and by many accounts, the relationship was violent and riddled with drugs and alcohol. Winehouse admitted in interviews to having physically attacked Fielder-Civil, while Fielder-Civil was quoted in British papers as saying he introduced Winehouse to cocaine and heroin. Winehouse, after the demise of the marriage to Fielder-Civil, was quoted as saying the entire marriage was based on doing drugs.

In several interviews, Winehouse admitted to having problems with drugs, alcohol, depression, eating disorders and self-harm (cutting). In and out of rehab several times, she finally kicked her drug habit only to begin a binge with alcohol which would lead to her death. Her blood alcohol level at the time of her death was 0.416, more than five times the legal limit.

Amy Winehouse was cremated (as is her family's tradition) and her ashes were buried during a Jewish ceremony in North London.

Film, Television and Preoccupations with Death and Dying

Perhaps in no other place does our preoccupation with LIFE become more apparent than in portrayals of DEATH in contemporary film. We are so caught up with suspending youth that we have created an entire television genre based on the hope of eternal life.

The Undead: Vampires and Zombies

While it could be said that Stephenie Meyer's Twilight Series instigated the current vampire craze, film and television have always been fascinated by the undead. Many film portrayals of the undead find their genesis in classic books (Bram Stoker's Dracula, and Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire). And while I'm not aware of any current research on connections between vampires and society (LOL--there could be!), I believe that there may be a connection between our fascination with vampires and our quest for never-ending youth. We are youth obsessed in American society; much of this ethos can be traced to the Baby Boomer population. Born between the years of 1946 and 1964, by sheer percentage of our population, the Baby Boomers are the largest cohort we have. Further, as the Boomers began to age, their ideas about staying young forever became an overarching theme among the group. The Baby Boomers, the youngest of whom are now about 50 years old, have a long standing reputation for chasing youth in a variety of ways, from pushing athleticism to use of cosmetics and surgical procedures to turn back the clock. Is it possible that the quest for Boomer youth has found a response in our current craze of serial killer TV? ...Or is it simply that we have a societal desire to view death and dying? If so, what is it about us that encourages this kind of desire?

Serial Killers

We have a long-standing fascination with serial killers in our society. While the list is too long for this lesson, some of the more notable recent exemplars: John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, and Eileen Wuornos. Each of these killers has had films made about their lives, giving us some insight into the psycho-social connections to their murderous sprees. In the tradition of symbolic interaction theory, that we want to watch this type of "entertainment" says something about who we are as a society and as individuals.

These questions bring up one of the main points that sociologists study with regard to the influence of media: does media imitate life, or does life imitate media? If the media is simply reflecting life, then it is reasonable to assert that we have nothing to concern ourselves with in regard to these graphic representations. But, if media drives or otherwise contributes to behavior, then this imagery is problematic indeed.

Of late, our interest in REAL serial killing seems to have been replaced with a highly stylized Hollywood version of the serial killer. Dexter was the first in this genre, and Hannibal (NBC) and The Following (FOX) quickly followed. All of these shows attempt to portray serial killers (at least in primary serial killer characterizations) in a somewhat sympathetic light. In particular, the character of Hannibal is given attributes that are often quite human--his desire to please as evidenced by his relationship with his own therapist; his desire to protect as evidenced by his feelings toward one of his own clients (a young female riddled with guilt after admitting she had assisted her own serial killer father in acquiring his victims). That he appears to be somewhat normal (intelligent, hardworking, reasonable) makes him even more human.

When human attributes are given to the monster serial killer, what connection is made to us--to society?

Are these portrayals dangerous for society? Do they show us a humanity that we choose not to see about serial killers? Does a multi-dimensional serial killer make us uncomfortable because he reveals something about us--some darker desire that we may have which, while never acted upon, is still quite real? Does this kind of multi-dimensional portrait of who the serial killer is make us a little uncomfortable? Giving a serial killer human attributes such as the ones we ourselves have blurs the line between them and us. What could be the impacts of our identification with the serial killer? Sociologists want to understand the impacts that media has on our lives. They also recognize that the relationship is "two-way," meaning that our lives also drive what the media chooses to create. Oscar Wilde said that "life imitates art far more than art imitates life," but with the constant exposure to media (aka art forms) we have in society today, researchers would not go as far as to try to establish a concrete percentage. That there is a connection, and that we are influenced by media forms is enough--think about the connection to society with regard to "serial killer TV." What does this say about our society?

Dr. Simpson's books are linked below:


There could be an argument made that cemeteries are also physical and artistic representations of how we feel about death. Not only do cemeteries represent ideas about those we have lost, they also say something about how our society thinks about death and dying. While there is a strong religious and/or spiritual component to the idea of cemeteries, the artistic component of cemeteries is not completely religious in origin.

In the early years of the United States, cemeteries tended to be church graveyards and oftentimes they were poorly tended and became eyesores to the local community. Grave sites became very closely packed together as space became an issue for our growing society. By the mid-to-late 1700s more care was taken to select land that was accessible to the community, yet which wouldn't block development of local cities and towns. It was also at this time where families were able to begin purchasing plots which became their property. Major changes to cemeteries occurred in the 19th century and one of the most important introductions was the concept of the Memorial Park.

Today our society places a strong emphasis on curating the concept of funerals and memorials. While the US does not fit this characteristic, many societies around the world are considered "past-oriented" societies, meaning that when someone passes in these societies, the deceased still holds a position with in the community. Not so in the United States, where people are laid to rest in specific areas, and once the funeral is over, the living are supposed to "get on with things." Nonetheless, the dead still hold an interesting place in our society, as evidenced by the increased emphasis on specially designed memorial sites which looked more like parks than they do traditional, plain and simple cemeteries.

As Collier asserts In her research article titled "Tradition, Modernity and Postmodernity and Symbolism of Death," (READ Collier's article) ways in which people deal with death are important aspects of how they relate to and make use of their culture. She states that "activities carried out when someone dies can reveal much about a social group." Drawing on the 1959 work of Warner, she goes on to state that "cemeteries reflect in miniature the past life and historic eras through which the community has passed…"

Hollywood Cemetery

Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond Virginia was established in 1847 and it was created in a rural style to try to fight against the rigid row-like structure of older cemeteries. This Cemetery has paths that wind through valleys and over hills and has beautiful trees and a lot of tranquility, looking as if it was unplanned park rather than a cemetery. Visit the site for a VIRTUAL TOUR of the grounds. Note as you watch the virtual tour How the information is geared towards making you, the loved one of the deceased, feel comfortable and at peace in this environment. Note the sounds of the virtual tour presentation, and note how this information makes you feel.

Bonaventure Cemetery

Bonaventure Cemetery is in Savannah, Georgia and was made famous by John Berendt's book "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil." This cemetery is known for huge live oak tres which are draped with Spanish moss and which line the driveways of the cemetery. Many of these trees have been documented to be more than 250 years old. The cemetery sits on a bluff, overlooking the Wilmington River. This site was designed around the ruins of a mansion and was open for burials in 1847. Because Bonaventure is a publicly owned cemetery, rather than a privately owned business, the official website is rather dry and stuffy. There are, however, many sites dedicated to the history of this cemetery--this site is devoted to tours of the grace of some of the more popular decedents. Note how there is a ghostlike image that hovers over the angel who said at the grave site of Oscar Wilde. Take some time to enter this site and explore some of the information that you'll find there.

Bellefontaine Cemetery

Bellefontaine Cemetery is in St. Louis, Missouri. In 1849, land was purchased outside of the city limits and Bellefontaine was created by a landscape architect who designed the curving roadways views of lakes and trees (he would remain at the cemetery as the superintendent for 46 additional years). Take some time to explore the Bellefontaine Cemetery. Note the tabs at the top of the website, which contain "Art and Architecture," "Education," " Events," and "Our Story." Note that the site is obviously designed to set people's minds at ease and to make people feel somewhat less anxious about the process of burying a loved one.

Mount Auburn Cemetery

In Cambridge, Massachusetts and founded in 1831, this cemetery is designated as a National Historic Landmark. There are more than 5000 trees and more than 30,000 monuments, including the works of many of America's famous first generation of sculptors. Mont Auburn is more than a cemetery. It is also parkland, many people who visit here go to see the trees and the plantings and not just the grave sites. As noted on the Mount Auburn site. The curators of Mount Auburn see it as a "destination site," much like other tourist attractions around the United States. Take some time to get familiar with the Mount Auburn site. In particular, paying close attention to the tab at the top, "What Makes This Place Special?" Also make note of the visit, which provides you with tips for your visit to the cemetery. Scroll down to find visitors guidelines where you will also find a link to wedding photography guidelines; apparently there is a booming business for people who want to get married in a place where other people are laid to rest.

St. Louis Cemetery #1

Located in New Orleans, Louisiana and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this cemetery opened in 1789. St. Louis #1 earned the nickname of " City of the Dead" because of its architecture and above ground tombs. Popularly, people think that these tombs were above ground due to the shallow water table in the New Orleans area, but it's probably more likely to be because this was a style of burial that was typical of the French culture back in the time the New Orleans was populated. Originally, St. Louis Cemetery number one was divided into sections for different groups of people, divided by race and religion. By the late 1700s the original city cemetery had begun to fill up and so St. Louis #1 was built in response, far away from the city because of the fears of disease.

If you've ever visited any of the above ground New Orleans cemeteries, you'll notice that they're a little maze-like with many of the original decedents buried below ground or slightly below ground. But as this site grew and the need for new plots existed, plots were created on top of the old footprint and so there's a tier of semi-below ground burial space that you'll notice if you visit, with above ground tombs that fit over that area. Today there are still several burials a year in St. Louis #1. The cemetery has no official website however there are many ghost tours that take place in St. Louis Cemeteries 1, 2 and 3. Take a look at this pictorial site of St. Louis #1. Supposedly, St. Louis Cemetery number one is haunted by the ghost of Marie Laveau, a voodoo priestess and her daughter, who are both rumored to be buried in the cemetery. Many people visit Laveau's above ground crypt and leave offerings to her--it's also said that if you turn around three times (either direction--clockwise or counterclockwise) in front of her tomb, and then knock on the tomb three times, she will grant your wish.

Arlington National Cemetery

Perhaps the most somber exemplar of cemeteries in the United States is located in Arlington, Virginia. There is probably no cemetery site so evocative as is Arlington. Established in 1864, the site has thousands of identical gravestones, more than 300,000 individuals have been interred in Arlington. This is also the grave site of John F. Kennedy. Note how this website is distinctly different from the other websites we visited. The cemetery is run by the United States military and its sole mission is to lay to rest those who have served the nation and to connect people who visit to the history of the cemetery. Visit the website and take just a few minutes to look at the funeral schedule (at the bottom center of the home page)--notice how many members of our armed forces are buried there every day.


There is so much more that could be discussed regarding the connections between art and death, and the symbolism of death contained in our past and current cemeteries. While the medium of portrayals has changed over the years, there is still a clear relationship between the many facets of death imagery and what is happening to society and to culture. You are encouraged to continue to think about these connections and to ponder on what this tells us, not only about society, but also about ourselves.