Death and Culture Conference – thoughts and observations

Death and Culture Conference – thoughts and observations

13th September 2016: Posted by Karina Croucher

I was fortunate to have attended the Death and Culture conference at the University of York, 2nd-4th September. The conference was truly interdisciplinary, with content ranging from film and literature, bereavement studies, counselling, criminology, sociology, history and archaeology, and many more in between. The timetable was cleverly put together by Julie Rugg, who rather than simply matching papers, went for thematic rather than disciplinary cross-overs, which worked really well in promoting cross-disciplinary discussions. For instance, my paper, on ‘archaeology meets end of life care: cultural understandings of death and dying’ was placed in a session on ‘Continuing bonds’, with research on ‘Rituallising transforming bonds in the Netherlands’ by Brenda Mathijssen, rather than, for instance, being placed with more archaeological papers, such as ‘Evidence of cultural markers of collective identity from Cretan necropolis at the end of the Bronze Age’, by Aurélie Aubignac, or ‘When stone speaks: death in 9th century Anglo-Saxon England as told by the Kirkdale grave-slab’ by Kyla Hollis. The rationale for mixing papers which were related but not from the same disciplines worked incredibly well in fostering discussion,

As well as covering a range of disciplines, the conference was also a mix of career stages – it was great hearing about ongoing PhD research alongside the work of established professors. There were too many excellent papers to discuss here in detail. My personal highlight was hearing David Honeywell speak about his first hand research in prison among lifers in his paper ‘The prison inmate culture of the convicted murderer’. His approach was honest and refreshing, and really enlightening, for instance, in highlighting that most murderers had committed a single crime, flipping in the moment, rather than being calculating killers. In the same session were papers on mass murderers, with Rosie Smith demonstrating that the victim is often forgotten by the media (other than a few ‘ideal victims’), as well as an entertaining look at the gore in the CSI programmes (by Basil Glynn and Jeongmee Kim), which internationally distances the victim, seeing them as evidence or a piece in a jigsaw, rather than looking at their personal circumstances. On a similar(ish!) theme of negating the identity of the deceased, Ivana Paris discussed the exhibition ‘Body worlds’, which highlighted the binary nature of the displays (healthy/unhealthy) but also focused on the anonymity of the body donors, and how once the fat is removed everyone is made to look similar. Rather than symbols of death, the models display themes of youth and health. Other highlights included Bethan Michael’s entertaining paper examining the theme of the ‘returned dead’ in television series and their inevitable impacts on the living. Death in films and novels was also presented by Morgen Cook in ‘Literature and end of life care’, where the disabled protagonists of Widgen’s Me not you and Moyes’s Me before you were ‘killed off’, argued by protestors to be ‘disability snuff movies’.

The conference was concluded by an excellent paper by fellow archaeologist Sarah Tarlow who presented the findings of the ’Criminal Corpse’ research group. The project is interdisciplinary and looked at the treatment of the corpse, and in particular, how ‘death was not enough’ for the worst of crimes, which required further treatment of the body, though dissection or hanging in chains. Notably, the former anonymised the victims, whereas the latter memorialised them, as their bodies hung at prominent places on highways for decades after the executions.

The other keynote papers were equally thought-provoking, with Michele Aaron’s discussion of the romanticised portrayal of death in many films, and Jacque Lynn Folyton, who examined the fashion world. Folyton discussed the use of the skull motif as fashion accessory, as well as examining photography which uses models to pose as dead (notably, usually female and semi-dressed). Eva Reimers used assemblage theory to discuss media events following death. Reimers presented a new perspective which examined the inter-connectedness of death and dying, and how particular deaths, such as that of Fadime Şahinda, are territorialised, de-territorialised and re-territorialised by various groups, as the victim’s identity shifted from being one representing Kurdish concerns, to one of Swedish nationality, to an identity as ‘victim’.

A particularly moving paper was delivered by Chao Fang, who discussed parents in China who have lost their only child, and feel shamed, since an integral component of tradition involves the importance of continuing ancestry, rendered impossible in their cases by the one child policy. Elizabeth Stone discussed tombstone engraving, with the advice to wait at least six months before commissioning a personal tombstone – the tomb serving to memorialise rather than being an expression of grief. The role of families in funerary arrangements were highlighted by Kate Woodthorpe as being problematic, where there is often the lack of a united ‘family perspective’; and the place of those dying before five months of life was discussed by Philippe Charrier and Gaëlle Clavendier, where there is often ambiguity about the treatment of the body. Alysia Trackim discussed Tonkin’s ‘model of grief’, describing how for many, grief doesn’t become smaller, but those left behind grow to encompass it. Grief and the legal situation behind Facebook were explored by Heather Conway, where FB and other social media policy still remains problematic with respect to legacy sites and who has access; for instance, parents of a deceased child, if not ‘friends’ prior to death, are excluded from FB memorial sites – a cautious warning on digital legacies and advice to make plans alongside making a Will.

Obviously the above is a snapshot of some of the conference activities (not least as there were parallel sessions running). However, I hear that the papers I missed were equally remarkable, and the long and frequent breaks and evening activities enabled full discussion between sessions, and contributed towards the open, laid-back and engaged atmosphere throughout the conference, with interesting and sensitive discussions and enlightening and honest accounts; a fantastic event, many thanks to organisers: Jack Denham; Ruth Penfold-Mounce; Benjamin Poore; and Julie Rugg.


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