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  • Writer's pictureMj Pettengill

The Fallen Ones: Dying a Social Death

Updated: May 17, 2022

Magdalene Laundries: Ireland, Public Domain
Magdalene Laundries: Ireland, Public Domain

What is social death? There has been very little written about this subject, yet it is a massive part of our history and who we are today. It is another example of being hidden in plain sight. My work—Etched in Granite—is a collection of narratives of the many who suffered systematic social deaths. They are institutionalized and removed from society. They are victims of poverty, homelessness, orphaned, elders —the “fallen ones”— an inconvenient burden on society. The soul of my work is rooted in a rural County Poor Farm in the 1870s. It does not end there. It is just the beginning. I have explored and shared glimpses into the world of orphan trains, textile mills, the Irish Famine, immigration, and how it fits in with the emerging capitalist agenda during the reconstruction era. The book that I am currently writing—The Crows’ Path—unveils yet another institution that consists of endless horrific secrets, ready for acknowledgment and release. I intend to continue to follow the frayed threads of the unnamed people who lived in constant survival mode. Again, they were technically referred to as inmates because they labored but were not compensated. Girls and women were locked in and abused on every level while they worked themselves to death. Some of us know of the Magdalene Laundries in Ireland. There has been ongoing disclosure and, in some cases, apologies and monetary compensation. Well, these institutions existed in other parts of the world, including here in the United States. I discovered this when writing The Angels’ Lament. I knew that I would return to the Mary Magdalene Laundries when the time was right. I will add that one of the degrees in my compass is theology. I studied ancient Gnostic texts. Mary Magdalene happens to be a significant figure in my world. I do not believe in coincidences. I am currently absorbed in my research. In time, I will share what I have learned—another aspect of social death in a world that is seemingly waking up. I opened another door and walked through it. So, what do we know? Death is part of life. In fact, we can say that for humans, it is universal, manifesting under countless circumstances. The term death falls under the cloak of varying definitions.

The most obvious to us is physical death. The body ceases to function—systems shut down. In the best-case scenario, one lives a long and meaningful life. Grief and sadness surround physical death, which is what we tend to discuss in polite conversations. We comfort one another during this process. Then, death comes in another form when one has dementia or a similar disease that robs a person of his or her identity or “self.” He is present in the body, but only as a shell. These conditions present another example of passing. This could be considered social death, which comes about when a person may still inhabit a physical body but is no longer an active member of society. Another case is with the aged. It is common for the elderly to experience social death when sent away to a facility, separated from loved ones, no longer a productive member of society. With the ongoing global pandemic, I know of older adults in lockdown, separated from the outside world for a year or more. Please understand that this is not a political essay but an observation of more than one elderly person that I know who is deteriorating from isolation and depression.

Even under pre-covid conditions, many seniors face social death when they are separated from family. It’s as if they are non-existent or have already expired even though they are not clinically dead. In their minds, they no longer have a place in the world. Survivors may perceive these individuals as being close to dying, so it’s not that bad, or it eases the conscience to frame it so. Some situations are better than others. Not all people have equal access to favorable resources when admitted to long-term clinical or social care settings.

Again, there is no judgment, only acknowledgment. By researching and writing about these people who experienced social death, we are reaching back to our ancestors and the foundation of who we are today. We continue on our healing journey.


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