Death Without Weeping Summary

Instructor: Kerry Gray

Kerry has been a teacher and an administrator for more than twenty years. She has a Master of Education degree.

In this lesson, we will summarize the article 'Death Without Weeping,' in which Nancy Scheper-Hughes discusses her experiences and research regarding the high infant mortality rate in the shantytown Bom Jesus da Mata in Brazil.

Infant Mortality

In America, the death of a child is considered among the most tragic things that could happen to a mother, but not all societies feel that way. In many third world countries, infant death is so common that mothers have come to expect it. Nancy Scheper-Hughes wrote the article 'Death Without Weeping' in 1989 to share her experiences as a researcher in a shantytown in Brazil; in 1993, she expanded on that article with a book by the same name. Today, we'll focus on the article to learn more about the views regarding a child's death in Bom Jesus da Mata, Brazil.

Economic Conditions

To understand how a mother might learn to accept the death of a child as a natural part of life, it is important to understand the economic conditions of the women living in shantytowns. Most families living in these areas are single mothers without familial support. They are generally left with one of two options: they can work in the sugar plantations for very low wages or they can do domestic work in the homes of the wealthy. Either way, women are not allowed to bring their babies to work. Wages are so low that the women can't afford babysitters, either. As a result, babies are left home alone, or with siblings who are ill-equipped to care for them. Add drought, malnutrition, and unsanitary conditions to the mix and the result is an unusually high death rate.

Withholding Maternal Care

As a result, women have learned to withhold love, affection, and care from babies whom they assess to be born 'wanting to die.' Since most women lose half of their children at a young age, it is considered devout to cooperate 'with God's plan' by 'allowing nature to take its course' if a midwife or healer determines the baby to be unhealthy. After the death of a child, there is no funeral service, no tears, and no grief. 'Scarcity, loss, sickness, and deprivation have...robbed them of their grief, seeming to turn their hearts to stone' according to the author. Women are trained not to grieve at the loss of a child because 'her tears will dampen the wings of her little angel so that she cannot fly up to her heavenly home.' It is seen as a sign of mental illness and a 'lack of faith' to grieve the dead.

The Church and Society

While paperwork is required for most things in Brazil, such as registering a car, there is very little required to bury a child. No one asks for the cause of death and almost anyone can fill out the death certificate since no medical documentation is required. Once the paperwork is filed, the family is provided with 'a voucher for a free baby coffin.' Often, doctors have seen the sick and starving babies for immunizations at the free clinic, but they typically don't intervene in situations of neglect. Sometimes, they even provide sleeping pills to keep sick babies from crying.

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