Dreaming, Death and Legacy

7th November 2016: Posted by Jennifer Dayes

I have always been a dreamer. As a child, I dreamt of becoming the cleverest kid in the class. As an adolescent, I fantasised about being a business woman who made her first million before the age of 30. In my early 20s, I imagined myself becoming the youngest qualified psychologist of my time. Always, I have dreamed of writing a novel. As I grow older and pass by the deadlines I have set for myself, I have learned that with age comes the death of dreams.

It is a sad fact that we will all experience this loss. At some point, like me, each of you will be asked to accept that the person you once wanted to be is just not feasible any more. With a heavy heart, you will have to smile and bid your fantasised-self goodbye, the way you would an old and treasured friend.

Why is this so sad? For me, it is mournful because it means the loss of legacy. I can no longer leave behind the image(s) of myself that I once wished to. In years to come, no-one will say of me, “she wrote The Great Gatsby. She was only 21”.

Perhaps sharing such hopes paints a narcissistic picture of myself. Working as a psychological therapist, however, I am privy to the secret dreams of others’. They are not so different from my own; I am normal. We don’t dream about leaving behind a mediocre imprint of ourselves. Legacy, and leaving a good one, is important to humans.

The fear of not leaving a legacy in the shape we wish to, is harrowing enough to bring some people to therapy. I have met many clients who have been referred, or sought help themselves, due to a rising sense of panic. Anxiety swells, thick and bubbling, and the gnawing, uneasy rumblings of melancholy shudder underneath. These individuals are baffled. There has been no trauma, no unhappy childhoods, no work-place bullying. Their pain is subtle. It started as disturbed nights, explained away by a project deadline. The squeeze of fear, cold and constricting, pulses once or twice in the mornings, but is ignored; there are kids to get ready and meals to plan. There is rush-hour traffic. Yet, the unease, the discontentment, continues to grow. Nothing has changed except time. It is running out to ‘make something’ of ourselves.

Time. Death. Legacy. Such concerns are shared by us all. So shared, in fact, that there is an entire branch of psychotherapy dedicated to them. Existential therapists work under the understanding that we are all here, we will all die, and none of us asked for it. I have met individuals so consumed by these ‘givens’ of life that the entire exercise seems pointless. Why bother revising for exams when in a hundred years’ time no-one will remember your name, let alone what career you had? Why choose to live when the daily grind is such hard work, and it’s all going to end anyway? What, essentially, are we working towards? The futility oozes into everyday life. They ask me, exasperated and desperate, “what’s the point?”

At 29 years old, (with 9 months left to hit that ‘millionaire’ goal!), I’m extremely lucky to witness these existential struggles. I have the benefit of other people’s hindsight. Rather than death and a lukewarm legacy creeping their slimy fingers around me as I sleepwalk through life, I can ask myself the questions which clients come to my therapy room to work out: “What is it that makes my heart truly happy?” “If money, talent and age were no obstacle, what would I choose to do with myself every day?” “Who would I spend my time with?” “How can I make this my reality before it’s too late?”

These questions are seriously scary. If we ask them of ourselves and if, terrifyingly, we know the answers, it brings a responsibility like no other. Not knowing what we want, or where and who with to spend our time, we psychologically release ourselves from the onus of making those things happen. When we know and we don’t do anything about it; well, the fault is ours.

The thing is, acting upon our innermost yearnings can require an upheaval so brave that it takes thirty years to even acknowledge there is a desire there. We might have to break off relationships, move cities, save money, spend money, change careers. We might have to weigh up our own happiness against that of others. The reasons not to act are often good ones. They provide compelling arguments.

When it comes to big life decisions, those around us tend to share their opinions about what they believe is best. It is my opinion, however, that when it comes to the path of our lives, it is nobody else’s place to say that this turning or that, is the correct choice. They are not the ones who will live with those decisions day in, day out. They are not the people who will die with them.

When we do die, most of us, hopefully, will have lived long lives. Towards the end, it is likely that there will be a moment where we ‘take stock’. We will look back over our time on this earth and evaluate how we did. Did we realise enough of our dreams? Have we lived the lives we wanted to? Are we, essentially, dying happy?

For myself and those I care about, I want the answer to be “yes”. Thus, my ultimate message is this: try and be brave enough to think about your death now. Let it be liberating rather than destroying. Allow the fact that you will die to explode a zest for life. Find your own meaning in a life that some people say has none.

Even at fifteen, a friend of mine had this nailed. Brave enough to beat her own path, she wrote the following in my high-school yearbook, “Shoot for the moon and you’ll land amongst the stars.”

Pretty good advice, I think.

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.



Welcome to the Continuing Bonds Project blog, where we’ll be sharing our thoughts and ideas about the project (and anything else we see that’s interesting!) as it progresses… To s…

Source: Blog

Continuing Bonds… or why David Bowie and archaeology have more in common than we think…

Welcome to the Continuing Bonds Project blog, where we’ll be sharing our thoughts and ideas about the project (and anything else we see that’s interesting!) as it progresses…

To start us off, here’s some thoughts that I had upon joining the Continuing Bonds Project as a post-doctoral researcher back in May…

Continuing Bonds… or why David Bowie and archaeology have more in common than we think…

7th September 2016: Posted by Lindsey Büster

 Death has been in the news a lot since Christmas… Indeed, a recent Radio 4 survey revealed that more ‘celebrities’ than ever have passed away in the three months between January and March 2016. Celebrities are in the news a lot, and a lot of what happens in their lives seems a world away from our daily lives. But death doesn’t just happen to celebrities, it happens to everyone.

I am an archaeologist at the University of Bradford, and it was against this backdrop that I found myself at interview for the Continuing Bonds Project, which explores the benefits of using the past to facilitate discussions around death and dying in the present. Just like the abstract world of ‘celebrity’, it might seem that what people did in the past has little relevance in our modern lives. But death doesn’t just happen to us, it has happened to everyone who has ever lived. It is so fundamentally a part of life that it is something that has been experienced by every one of our ancestors and will affect every one of our descendants ­– as it will us.

Archaeology (and ethnography) allow us to observe the many ways in which people (and cultures) have, and continue, to deal with the painful but inevitable. Even a brief exploration of the evidence shows that the traditional mechanisms by which modern western society deals with death (i.e. swift removal of the body from sight and relatively swift burial/cremation, without further interaction with the individual) is not the only one, and in fact represents a relatively recent and unusual phenomenon. Furthermore, ‘death’ is often not the taboo subject which it seems to have become for us.

Since death is very much a part of life, it seems strange perhaps that is avoided as a topic of conversation. As such, decisions about what happens to a person after their death (the individual themselves, their belongings, their memory) are often left until the last moment, made after their death, and/or made by someone other than the individual (and their loved ones) entirely. By talking earlier (and more openly) about death – perhaps even long before the inevitable happens – individuals and their families can take greater control over their futures (both while alive and after death). But how to broach such a topic?

Just as celebrity seems abstracted from our own lives, so too is the past. It is this very fact which allows discussions about the past, and the ways in which past societies (who may have lived very different lives but who faced the same existential issues that we do) dealt with death, to open up discussions of our own mortality.

On 15th January 2016, five days after his death, Dr Mark Taubert (a Palliative Care Consultant at Velindre NHS Trust, Cardiff) wrote a piece on David Bowie for the British Medical Journal blog. The piece was a thank you letter, despite the doctor never having met this celebrity stranger, the death of whom had a profound effect on him and his patients. Below are just a few excerpts…

‘At the beginning of that week I had a discussion with a hospital patient, facing the end of her life. We discussed your death and your music, and it got us talking about numerous weighty subjects, that are not always straightforward to discuss with someone facing their own demise. In fact, your story became a way for us to communicate very openly about death, something many doctors and nurses struggle to introduce as a topic of conversation… We talked about a good death, the dying moments and what these typically look like… I believe this was an aspect of the vision she had of her own dying moments that was of utmost importance to her, and you gave her a way of expressing this most personal longing to me, a relative stranger.

In the run up to my interview I found the similarity between what I was reading in this blog, and the aims of the Continuing Bonds project startling. When the blog speaks about ‘your death’ and ‘your story’ it refers to David Bowie – a named (and well-known) individual – though personally disassociated with either the doctor or the patient. Nevertheless, discussion of this relative stranger facilitated conversation of a very personal and often taboo topic between another two relative strangers. What then do the deaths and stories of our past ancestors have to offer us in the present…?


Burial with grave goods, courtesy Sabi Abyad project, Leiden University