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Death takes center stage at Health Sciences Campus forum

USC medical librarian leads a lively discussion on a novel topic: What exactly is a ‘good death’?

Caitlin Doughty and Lindsey Fitzharris speak on a panel
Caitlin Doughty, left, and Megan Rosenbloom speak at the Health Sciences Campus event. (Photo/Ricardo Carrasco III)

It’s not every campus presentation that begins with the question, “How many people here have seen a dead body in person?” But that’s exactly how USC medical librarian Megan Rosenbloom opened a session on “Doctor’s Orders for a Good Death.”

The April 6 presentation the Mayer Auditorium on the Health Sciences Campus, part of the USC Visions & Voices arts and humanities initiative, featured Caitlin Doughty, a mortician and expert on death acceptance, and Lindsey Fitzharris, a medical historian and creator of the website The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice.

When Rosenbloom asked her provocative question, she seemed surprised at the large number of hands raised in the affirmative.

Americans, in particular, have become more and more detached from death.

Megan Rosenbloom

“Over the course of the 20th century, Americans, in particular, have become more and more detached from death,” Rosenbloom said. “And they had fewer interactions with corpses in particular. And that lack of interaction, that sort of detachment, has led to some pretty big impacts on our culture.”

Doughty, Fitzharris and Rosenbloom discussed topics ranging from the birth of antisepsis and surgical hygiene to cultural practices surrounding death around the world, to the benefits of medical students being taught with donated cadavers.

“It’s the emotional experience of cutting into that cadaver that is the thing that sticks with medical students, because it is a rite of passage,” Fitzharris said. “It’s much more than just the training of the doctor. There’s something else there … I think to kind of take that away from medical students would also make it more difficult for them to accept the realities of death with patients.”

Doughty noted that a “good death” is really one in which a person has been clear about their priorities with their loved ones. “If you don’t lay that out, none of it’s going to happen,” she said. “You’re not going to stumble into a good death. You’re not going to stumble into a well-rehearsed, organized, painless death. It’s just not going to happen.”

Death takes center stage at Health Sciences Campus forum

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