Mediating “Good Death” in End-of-life Documentaries

By: Outi Hakola  

There has been something of a proliferation of end-of-life documentaries in recent years, including films, television documentaries, special episodes, and documentary series. The growing interest in mediated images of death and dying can be related to the aging population, death awareness movements, and increased demand for hospice care in the Western world. Directors have also recognized wanting to contribute to public discussions on death by giving visibility to dying people. This paper explores documentaries that deal with end-of-life issues, including questions of right to die (assisted suicide), palliative care, and hospice practices with the view that medical care is not enough on its own but that end-of-life care should also look after the psychological, spiritual, and emotional needs of the dying and their families. These documentaries emphasize the debate around “good death,” a common phrase that defies any clear definition. Most often it is used to refer to meaningful and dignified death, where personal choice and autonomy take precedence over medical (or even legal) practices. Most importantly, “good death” is about culturally defined expectations and processes which come into play in the documentaries as well. Each end-of-life documentary redefines the limits and practices of good death, thus highlighting the cultural and social values related to death. In this way, by mediating certain discourses and representations these documentaries participate in public discussions over death and dying. In this paper, by using the practical example of end-of-life documentaries and concept of “good death,” I will take further the discussion about relationship between mediation theories and everyday life. With the help of content analysis, I analyze how these films have selected their approaches to dying, how their narrative elements are organized, what focus the films have, and most importantly, how these choices construct, normalize, and challenge cultural understandings of “good death” through mediated discourses and politics of representation.

Mediation Cultural Representations
Media Theory
Paper Presentation in a Themed Session

Outi Hakola

Researcher, Department of Cultures, University of Helsinki, Finland

Dr. Outi J. Hakola works as a senior researcher (Academy of Finland Research Fellow) at the Department of Cultures, University of Helsinki. Her background is in media studies, and her research concentrates on questions of death and dying in films, television and social media. Her major publications include "Rhetoric of Modern Death in American Living Dead Films" (Intellect / Chicago University Press, 2015); "Death and Mortality: From Individual to Communal Perspectives" (edited together with Sara Heinämaa and Sami Pihlström, University of Helsinki, 2015), and Death in Literature (edited together with Sari Kivistö, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014).