By Donna Lee Schillinger
November 1, Day of the Dead, is given new meaning with the Showtime premiere of the reality miniseries “Time of Death.” The series breaks new ground in that it will show for the first time as entertainment people experiencing real death. The show “stars” a middle-aged woman who loses a battle with cancer, but also features a number of others ranging in age from 19 to 77 who died on camera. Should be an interesting watch. Let’s make some popcorn and cocoa and watch some people die tonight, shall we?
Pause, please and rewind to the early 1990s when the Jerry Springer Show was the most ridiculous show on television. In my brief exposure to the show, I wondered where the producers were able to find so many people willing to air (literally and figuratively) their dirt to the American public. People for whom boundaries between private and public, intimate and strange were at best blurred, were at worst, cheaply sold. In 1991, I thought Jerry Springer was a joke; today I realize he was a visionary and pioneer of reality TV.
Now, less than 25 years later, there remains, after tonight, nothing sacred—nothing in the realm of the intimate and private that cannot be viewed by the public. Oh, death where is your victory?
If this causes you to squirm, it’s as it should be. America is not supposed to be comfortable with this… yet. It’s the discomfort that will drive the ratings and sell the ads… for a season. We have, however, been warming up to the idea for some time. Early this century it would have been considered vulgar or impudent to announce the death of a loved one on Facebook. Mention you’re going to grandmother’s funeral, ok; but make the official death announcement in a Twitter post? We’ve come a long way since 2004. I recently read this posted on Facebook by a young mother, reposted by a friend of mine: “Our beloved [daughter] became an angel tonight at 7:09 pm in the arms of her mommy and daddy.” It broke my heart, and I don’t even know these people.
It’s hard to put a finger on what is wrong with this. Intermingling the intimate with the unknown isn’t necessarily immoral or unethical and certainly not illegal. And yet it still doesn’t seem right to me. Possibly it’s a generational difference—though some of my peers don’t seem bothered by it. Maybe I am just more resistant to change. If this is true, then there isn’t such a thing as sacred intimacy, it’s just all a matter of what we accustom ourselves to revealing.
I just came back from India where I spent time on the beaches of Kerala and experienced an ayurvedic massage. The bathing beauties of India enter the water in full dress, salwar kameez—hardly any skin showing. In the United States, bathing beauties enter the water with hardly any skin covered. On the other hand, the ayurvedic massage experience in India comes with only a g-string. (That was a very long hour for me.) Whereas, a massage in the United States includes full-sheet cloaking to preserve the modesty of the clientele. Thinking rationally, neither of these country’s customs make sense. If Americans will show almost everything to anyone who happens to be on the beach with them, why can’t they strip down to a bikini for a massage? Likewise, if Indian women can actually relax in a g-string during massage, seems they could at least show their knees on the beach. Fact is, what we are comfortable showing and exposing is not a human universal, but rather culturally dictated.
Those dictates change over time and with new generations and new technology. Nonetheless, for some of us who are behind the curve, the change feels very much like a violation of some immutable and sacred universality. I believed, wrongly, that death could not be made social; could not devolve into entertainment. Millions tonight will prove me wrong.
Donna Lee Schillinger founded On My Own Now Ministries in 2008. She is the publisher of Genuine Motivation: Young Christian Man and Single! Young Christian Woman. Follow her on Facebook: Donna Lee Schillinger.