We're looking at death all wrong. Here's why.

Can a shift in the way we treat death and dying improve our lives while we're still here?

  • These days, for the most part, the concept of death is consumed by health care and medicine.
  • However, as humans we need to view death as more than just a medical event. It takes into account our psychology, spirituality, philosophy, social worlds, and personal lives.
  • This reconsideration should also apply to the way we treat people who are dying. Life is in the senses, not just our physical capabilities.
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The Nazis' love affair with the occult

Why were the Nazis so enamored with the occult, pseudoscience, and magic?

Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
  • The idea of the Nazi's obsession with the occult has been a popular one amongst the public, but there's a lot of misinformation out there about how involved the Nazis actually were in the occult.
  • There are some truly bizarre theories out there about the Nazis, such as the idea that Hitler was possessed by a demon or that the Nazi conquest of Europe was powered by the magical Spear of Destiny.
  • While these more fantastical theories may not have any basis in reality, there are many real ties between occult societies, racist thinking, and the Nazis during the 20th and 19th century.

Compared to other crimes horrific in their scope, the Holocaust and its Nazi perpetrators stood out primarily for the detached, technical, and scientific nature of the genocide. But while the actual mechanics of the Holocaust were planned with a cruel and meticulous rationality, the Nazis were fundamentally unscientific, picking and choosing beliefs founded on pseudoscience in order to support their worldview. It's no wonder, then, that they would have had an enduring obsession with the occult. However, there is a lot of unfounded speculation out there about the Nazis and esoteric societies, rituals, and so on. Exactly how involved were the Nazis with the occult?

Descended from Atlanteans

As it turns out, the Nazi party incorporated occultism from its very start. The political group that would eventually become the Nazi party (the German Worker's Party, or DAP) was founded in part by individuals from the Thule Society, an esoteric group dedicated to studying the mythological origins of the Aryan race. Several prominent Nazis were either members or active within the society, including Rudolph Hess, who would become the deputy further to Hitler; Alfred Rosenburg, head of the ministry that oversaw Nazi Germany's occupied territories in Eastern Europe; and Dietrich Eckhart, who founded the DAP.

The Thule society's primary focus was on the study of Ariosophy, referring to wisdom regarding the Aryans founded by occultists Guido von List and Lanz von Liebenfels. These individual's beliefs would come to inform significant aspects of the Nazi state, such as von List's belief in the power of magical runes. The most glaring example of this would be the twin "sig" runes that formed the SS insignia.

Von Liebenfels argued that that the Aryan people were intentionally bred via electricity by interstellar deities called Theozoa, while the other races were the result of interbreeding between humanity and ape-men. According to Liebenfels, gradual interbreeding had robbed the Aryans of their magical powers. Liebenfels would also circulate a magazine called Ostara based on these beliefs, whose readership included a young Adolf Hitler.

In addition to embracing these occult ideas, the Thule Society also believed that a proto-Aryan race lived on the island of Thule, a mythological northern island that is probably more familiar by its alternate names: Hyperborea or Atlantis.

Himmler's Rasputin

Totenkopfring

Wikimedia Commons

A death's head ring, or totenkopfring, with the "sig" rune visible. Karl Maria Wiligut played a role in the design of such rings.

Yet despite all of its connections to the origins of Nazism, the Thule Society eventually dissolved prior to Hitler's rise to power. In fact, a great number of German occult societies were shut down, though not because of a sudden surge of skepticism or rational belief. Instead, occult-related activities and organizations were often suppressed in Nazi Germany at the behest of Heinrich Himmler's Rasputin-like personal occultist, Karl Maria Wiligut. The point of this was to ensure that Wiligut's own brand of occultism would be the eminent philosophy of the Nazis.

Wiligut had developed a religion centered on worshipping the Germanic god Irmin. According to Wiligut, German culture dated back to 228,000 BC, a period of time when the Earth had three suns and was populated by giants, dwarfs, and other mythical creatures. He also claimed to be descended from a line of kings from this period of time. It should also be noted that Wiligut was a diagnosed schizophrenic.

Himmler, who was an avid follower of the occult, consulted Wiligut on a wide variety of issues. Using Wiligut's prophecies, Himmler chose the castle Wewelsburg to serve as a base of operations for his SS troops and established a room in the castle with a crystal representing the Holy Grail. Wiligut also helped in the design of the rune-covered death's head rings that the SS troops wore, personal awards that Himmler issued himself.

Himmler was particularly attracted to Wiligut's brand of paganism, as he disliked the Judaic origins of Christianity. After the end of the WWII, Himmler believed that the "old Germanic gods will be restored." Leveraging his influence and his boss's desire to see a Germanic paganism, Wiligut attempted to stamp out competing philosophies to his Irminism.

Stranger and stranger

There are some wackier theories out there about the role that the occult played in Nazism, most of which have little evidence to support them. Perhaps the most extreme and, in a way, comforting example would be the idea that Hitler was possessed by a demon, a theory based mainly off of a passage Hitler underlined in a copy of a book titled Magic: History, Theory and Practice, reading, "He who does not carry demonic seeds within him will never give birth to a new world."

There have also been rumors of an occult society based on Vril, a magical substance described in the book The Coming Race. This 19th century work of fiction describes a traveler exploring a cave who becomes lost and discovers subterranean civilization peopled by supernatural beings called the Vril-Ya. In the novel, these beings made use of a fluid called Vril, which they could telepathically manipulate to heal, destroy, or change their surroundings. Although the existence of an occult society focused on a supposedly real version of Vril are unverified, it's not difficult to imagine that such a society could have found purchase in the occult-obsessed Nazi society.

Further speculation abounds. Some contend that Hitler and the Thule Society worked together to secretly found a secret, totalitarian global government referred to as the New World Order. Others claim that (in)famous occultist Aleister Crowley had made contact with Hitler, or that Hitler had been trained in mind control techniques to control the crowds of Germans he addressed during his speeches. Still others claim that Hitler possessed the Spear of Destiny, the spear that pierced Christ when he was crucified and is claimed to magically guarantee its wielder victory in all their exploits, with the caveat that if they lose the lance they will die.

There are a number of successively stranger and stranger theories about the Nazis and their connection with the occult, a great deal of which have no basis in reality. But developing fantastical, magical theories about how the Nazis came about and how they succeeded in sowing so much horror and destruction is comforting. If they possessed occult power, then we wouldn't have to confront the horrible truth — that regular, flesh-and-blood humans are capable of terrible things all on their own.

A murder map of Denmark

Lovers deadlier than gangsters, first comprehensive Danish homicide study since 1970s shows

Image: Dagbladet Information
  • Danes love tv crime, but rarely commit (and barely study) murder
  • The typical Danish murder involves knives and relatives, study reveals
  • Wealth of stats can help forensic scientists - and lawmakers

One map, 1,417 murders

A murder map of Denmark

Image: Ruland Kolen / Dagbladet Information

A geographic representation of all 1,417 murders committed in Denmark from 1992 to 2016.

Scandinavians love bloody murder. On their tv screens at least: if they're not binge-watching the latest, locally-sourced Scandi noir crime thriller, they'll happily re-watch Morse, Vera, Barnaby, Taggart or any other of the mostly British (and strangely often mononymous) homicide procedurals clogging up all channels, any day of the week.

That massive, if passive, interest in killing must somehow serve as an antidote for its active pursuit, because the Nordics are among the least murderous countries worldwide.

In 2017, Denmark had a rate of 'intentional homicide' of just 1.20 per 100,000 inhabitants, which is among the lowest in the world (1). Given its relatively small population (5.8 million), that translates to a mere 71 murders that year. The other Nordics have similarly low stats: also in 2017, Finland also had a murder rate of 1.20 (69 Finns finished), in Sweden it was 1.10 (113 Swedes silenced), in Iceland 0.90 (just 3 Icelanders iced) and in Norway 0.50 (28 Norwegians neutralised).

The only major countries doing better than that were Indonesia (0.40, i.e. 1,150 murders) and Japan (0.20, for 306 homicides). The United States trends to the other side of the spectrum (2), with a murder rate of 5.30 in 2017, which translated into 17,284 intentional homicides (3).

With murder rates this low and home-grown crime dramas as popular as they are, it could be argued that there are more fictional murders on screen in the Nordic countries than actual ones. It's certainly true that the actual murders - outshone and perhaps outnumbered by their fictional counterparts - get less attention.

Societal value

Toe-tagged body in a morgue

Image: Ralf Roletschek / FAL 1.3

Objectified information helps forensic scientists transcend their own knowledge of previous cases.

Enter Asser Hedegård Thomsen from the Institut for Retsmedicin (Institute of Forensic Science) at Aarhus University. He is conducting the first comprehensive analysis of Denmark's murder statistics since the early 1970s. For his Ph.D. thesis, to be completed next year, he has spent five years examining each and every one of the 1,417 murders committed in Denmark in the quarter century from 1992 to 2016.

Why? "When autopsying a murder victim, forensic scientists use their own knowledge of previous cases to reach their conclusions. My analysis is helpful because it is objectified information, extending beyond personal knowledge", Hedegård Thomsen told the Danish newspaper Dagbladet Information, which devoted an entire supplement to his findings.

But there is also a broader, societal value in a close reading of all those autopsy reports, the paper editorialises: "Even if murder is relatively rare here (in Denmark), it remains the ultimate crime against society, and the one that is punished most severely. That's why knowledge on this topic is so relevant: if murder is to be discussed, prevented or legislated on, it's important to do so based on facts."

X marks the spot

A murder map of Denmark

Image: Dagbladet Information

More chilling than 'The Killing': a real-life murder map of Denmark.

So, what does murder in Denmark look like? According to this map, one X for the location of each murder, a lot like Denmark itself.

Murder density is highest where most people live: first and foremost in the capital, Copenhagen (the white blob, bottom right). Odense (middle, bottom) is also easily visible. Smaller areas of overlapping crosses correspond to other Danish cities such as Esbjerg, Aarhus and Randers.

But killing happens in enough places for the geographic outline of the entire country to become visible. The densely populated islands of Sjælland (on which Copenhagen is located), Fyn (Odense) and Lolland can be clearly discerned. A few murders in Skagen, the northern tip of Jutland, help identify the Danish mainland.

One isolated cross north of Odense seems to indicate a solitary murder on the small holiday island of Samsø. The bunch of x'es to the right represent the island of Bornholm, at greater distance from the rest of Denmark, halfway between Sweden and Poland.

Typology of violence

CIA World Factbook map of Denmark

Image: CIA / Public domain

For reference, an actual map of Denmark

Perhaps more interesting to coroners (and legislators) is the study's typology of violence and victims.

Stabbing was the most frequent cause of death (33.2%), followed by shooting (22.2%), blunt-force trauma (21.9%) and strangulation (17.6%). Since most murders happen at home, Denmark's favourite murder weapon is the kitchen knife. Access to guns is strictly regulated in Denmark, otherwise death by gunshot would probably be the larger category.

Familiarity breeds contempt - and worse: 44% of all killings happen within families. No less than 77% of all female murder victims die at the hands of a relative, and just 24% of men. Spousal homicide is the biggest single subcategory of all murders (26.7%), and 79% of its victims are women. In fact, more than half of all female murder victims are killed by their (former) significant other. For men, that figure is just 9%.

The second-largest category are drink- and drugs-related murders. Here, 97% of the victims are male. Gangland killings and other crime-related murders - which receive wide media attention - are a distant third.

Three out of four murders take place at a home (rather than out on the street), two-thirds occur between 6 pm and 6 am, and most happen on a Friday or Saturday. Monday is the least lethal day of the Danish week.

'Ideal' victim profiles

A set of knives and other kitchen utensils

Image: Kent Wang / CC BY-SA 2.0

Line up the usual suspects...

Based on the 1,417 murder cases in Denmark from 1992 to 2016, Mr Hedegård Thomsen has established three profiles for the 'ideal' Danish murder victims.

  • The average murdered Danish male is between 18 and 50 years old, is killed on a Friday night by a drinking buddy with a kitchen knife, either at his own home or that of a friend.
  • The typical female murder victim in Denmark is between 30 and 39 years old, and is killed at home by her partner or her ex, out of jealousy or because of separation issues. She is either knifed or strangled.
  • Murder victims under 18 years are as often boys as girls, most often killed by a relative - in 75% of cases by their father or another man.

While studying a quarter century of murder must have made for much grim reading, even in a relatively peaceful society like Denmark, there is at least one positive conclusion: the murder rate is dropping to ever lower levels. The annual figures zig and zag up and down, but the trend line goes from just under 80 murders in 1992 to just over 40 in 2016.

This may partly be the result of better care and, thanks to mobile phones, faster reaction times. But other factors may be at work. Perhaps, if the quality of fictional murders on Danish tv keeps increasing, it will be much harder to spot the country's outline on the homicide map of the next 25 years.

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What happens to your digital life after you die?

How to deal with death in the digital age and save your loved ones from headache.

  • Death brings new challenges as we must consider the likelihood that our digital presence will outlive us. Whether it's through social media or an online bank account, the majority of people lead a digital life that they'll leave behind.
  • BJ Miller, assistant clinical professor of medicine at the University of California, suggests preparing to close out your digital life with steps like itemizing digital accounts and passwords.
  • Miller also recommends including a spouse on any credit card accounts. These precautions will save loved ones major time and headache after you're gone.
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The top 4 crises facing the world today

If we make the right choices, there's hope for the future.

  • According to historian Jared Diamond, we currently have four global crises to address: the ongoing threat of nuclear attacks, climate change, running out of resources, and socioeconomic inequality.
  • Diamond believes there's hope for the future, though, because these problems are human caused, and must have human solutions — they are not looming doomsdays like an asteroid poised to strike Earth (of which we are currently largely helpless to address).
  • If we don't aim to solve these issues within the next 30 years, then we — and our children — may end up living in a "miserable world not worth living [in]."
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