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…
Leeds City Museum: Dying Matters Week Exhibition
31st July 2017: Posted by Haaroon Ahmed
(3rd year undergraduate, University of Bradford; Continuing Bonds placement student)
Were people in the past more obsessed with death than we are today? I found, during my visit to the Leeds City Museum, that the more significant objects in the exhibitions were those that were associated with mortuary practices. I often found the more decadent the object, the more associations it had with death. Take the Egyptian sarcophagus, with its beautifully intricate illustrations, gold ornaments – and its sheer size – for example; one could assume that the living cared more for the dead than they did for their peers. For me it rebukes the assumption that societies from the past gave little to no regard towards their infirm and dead; death was an inevitable path that all must take, but it was not the end. One just has to look at the ancient custom of placing grave goods in burials, for use and transfer to the afterlife: jars from Jericho containing fruits and foodstuffs, Egyptian coffins containing miniature figurines to serve the dead. They valued death, subjectively more so, than perhaps we do today. But I believe that they were more similar than different to us in many ways.
There are two examples from the Dying Matters exhibition in particular – funerary coins and Egyptian grave goods – which I feel can be compared with contemporary attitudes. The Romans would mint ‘mourning coins’, depicting the person who had passed away. These coins would then be kept; a memory of their loved one gone. There are many parallels in our current society, in regards to what people keep from their deceased love ones or relatives; an item that is invaluable – a necklace, a ring, etc. Whilst this might be enriching for one person, however, for another it may be decadent. Perhaps a personal belonging would be more fitting, rather than a coin minted post-mortem? Nevertheless, memorialisation is universal; maintaining a memory of the deceased person is something we need; essential though ‘bittersweet’. The Romans appreciated this, just as we do today, and the concept itself is timeless really.
My second example is the Egyptian figurines. Grave goods are a particular custom I’ve often found fascinating. It was a widely practised custom in the classical world and beyond, and took many forms, according to religious and cultural beliefs. As a child, I was intrigued, especially by the Greeks and their mythology regarding the afterlife, either from cartoons or books read in school. One observation was that the Greeks would place a coin in a burial as payment to Charon, the boatman, who would ferry the souls to the underworld. As an 8 year old, it was bizarre and wonderful to hear, as I wasn’t so accustomed to this practice, growing up in an Islamic household. Rather materialistic doesn’t it seem, I thought? So continuing with this view point, the particular objects that struck me most from the rest of the grave goods, were the miniature Egyptian figurines. Called ‘Shabti’, these objects represented servants that nobles would be buried with: a chef, a tailor, a miller, a farmer etc. Why though? According to Egyptian religious beliefs, in Amduat (the underworld), the deceased would be given land by Ra, ruler of the created worlds. Egyptian nobility did not wish to work in their afterlife, so they brought servants with them. At first I thought it was absurd, and then I came across modern burial goods such as teddy bears, flowers, photographs. Why do we do that? If we are a modern, rational society, then surely we must know that the deceased don’t see what is placed on their grave. As it did then, so it does now, this practice tells us more about the living than the dead. Religious traditions today have certain rites with regards to burial: cremation for Hindus and burials for Muslims – if you are raised in a different background, either of those concepts could seem distasteful. Mutual understanding should lie at the heart of it. If the funerary rites the Egyptians engaged seem ludicrous to you, yours’ might be to someone else.
In the end, I find it condescending to assume that pre-modern societies indulged more in death than they did in life. The issue with viewing the past, particularly with a 21st century British narrative, is that we tend to patronise previous societies with a sense of juvenility, than with comprehension. To truly understand what your country is, you would have to experience others. I believe the same is true with time: to appreciate the era in which you live, you must understand others. In essence, these people are the same as us. Life expectancy was far shorter than by today’s standards, and so death was more prominent in daily life. You must utilise the time that you have before it is over; and the concept of life is much diminished without the fact that death is forever lingering over us.
Disillusionment with the Tourist
5th June 2017: Posted by Jennifer Dayes
To the North of Naples, underneath houses, restaurants and tourist shops, lie the Catacombs of San Gaudioso. The earliest parts date to the 4th and 5th century AD and they have been extended and modified over the years, for the treatment and burial of the dead.
We come across them by accident, my partner and I, after a trip to the larger and better-known Catacombs of San Gennaro. On emerging from the San Gennaro catacombs, our group is told that if we rush, through the busy streets and into the Basillica Santa Maria della Sanita, we will arrive just in time for a tour. The guide is in full-swing Italian when our group arrives and, on learning that we are English-speaking, adapts her presentation to the two languages. She now has a big group and when guiding us to the Catacomb entrance, suggests that one goes on without the other, giving her attention to each group and it’s respective language in turn.
Both Catacombs have been opened to the public only in the past ten years. If I remember correctly, the Catacombs of San Gaudioso opened just four years ago. The guide tells us that she and her colleagues are all volunteers. They went to the Vatican for permission to open the catacombs to the public. They fund it’s upkeep themselves.
As we go down, our guide asks us to ensure we do not lean or brush against the walls as this damages them and the delicate frescoes some are painted with. I am very careful. After all, I work in archaeology.
As you might imagine, the Catacombs are a series of corridors and small rooms with low ceilings. You cannot see too much further ahead and generally, follow the group, engaging with the sources of interest as you pass. During one of our ‘off’ turns, the guide focussing her attention on the other group, we wander into a series of rooms. It takes me a couple of minutes to realise that the people up ahead are using the torches on their phones and that we are somewhere we are not supposed to be. There is a small staircase. I don’t think we should be going up there. But, I do.
I’m curious I guess, although this is no excuse and my coat brushes against the walls. They leave a fawn-coloured dusty residue which later, I will brush at in shame. There is a small room up there with a tomb. I come back down, guilty, and resume the lighted pathway.
The guide then notices that some of the group are not within the lighted area and panics. It seems clear to me that she is worried, not for them, but for the archaeology, which has remained down here for nearly 2000 years, and risks being brushed off by the scrape of a jacket or the scratch of a rucksack. Her panic only fuels my own shame. I should know better. We all should.
Later in the tour we reach a corridor with 17th century frescos either side. They depict bodies, the torso and limbs painted as skeletons or clothes, with possessions round the feet. The head is a real skull – that of an aristocrat or clergy. These frescos are thought to be the only example of such practice in the world. One man continues to ignore the guides’ advice and goes behind a partition to climb up the back of a fresco and have his picture taken at the top. What is he doing? Maybe, unconsciously, it shows him wanting to conquer death, to climb above it and return home with proof of his immortality. Or maybe it’s not that deep at all.
The following day, my partner and I visit Pompeii and Hurculaneum, and my disillusionment with the tourist intensifies. Pompeii is thought to date back to the 7th or 6th century BC. Both settlements were buried by volcanic ash in 79 AD which not only killed the inhabitants, but preserved them in incredible detail. At Herculaneum, the actual wood of door-frames and shelves, 2000-year old wood, still exists.
My partner wakes me early and we arrive at Pompeii before it opens. We have come to the wrong entrance for an audioguide (and I do love an audioguide) so, as soon as the turnstiles are in working order, we have the unusual experience of rushing from one side of the empty city to another, just in time to see swarms of tourists buzzing through the entrance-way on the other side. Even at 9:30am, there are hundreds of people. People with babies, ramming their prams against the ancient cobbles. People in high heels, people with food, even people with dogs. Now, I love dogs but what dog-poo could do to the delicate parts of Pompeii, I don’t even want to imagine.
And we are no different, my partner and I. Weaving in-between the tour groups and father’s applying sun-cream to their kids. Our shoes also scrape against the Roman walkways.
I get it though. I get the curiosity, the awe of marvelling at mosaics made of glass beads as bright as the pictures on the walls of our flat. What I can’t get on board with is seeing these places through the lens of a camera, rather than one’s own eyes. Everywhere, people are taking pictures.
It makes sense to me to take a few of each new element, the things you want to remember. But not the constant clicking of camera-phones. The selfies. The selfie-stick pictures which only capture the taker’s face, not the environment around them. This says to me that the photographer is more interested in their own image, the subsequent posting on social media, the ‘likes’, than the archaeology around them.
We meet a Canadian couple as we walk round. We’re outside one of the thermopoliums, sort of a Roman-esque cafe, recognisable by their marble work-surfaces and enormous inlaid terracotta pots. I hear the chap use the word ‘latrine’ and being a bit of a perfectionist and a know-it-all I correct him, identifying the pots as for food, not as toilets. He tells me that he knows and laughs, recounting how his wife photographed him sitting on one earlier in the day. This is a Roman thermopolium, one of the best preserved in the world, and he has been sitting on it. Andrew Keen, author of Digital Vertigo: How Today’s Online Social Revolution is Dividing, Diminishing and Disorienting Us, says that we live in an era of ‘digital narcissism’. At Pompeii, the digital narcissism is rife.
And so I’m left wondering, what is best? Should these places have remained undiscovered, Pompeii and Herculaneum hidden in their protective ash until a society who would have been more careful discovered them? Or is it best to let people ‘get in there’, to engage tangibly with these places, to take pictures of your husband sitting on a cooking pot? I can’t endorse the latter, but I would welcome a compromise.
Upon returning to England and to my role as a researcher, my colleague asks me, ‘what is it that bothers you about this’ and I guess it comes back to respect. There’s just something arrogant about damaging something that is irreplaceable. Something that once it’s gone, it’s gone. Perhaps in our modern world, some of us are not only guilty of being digital narcissists, but archaeological narcissists as well.
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
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.
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
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