High time for a resurrection
Things have been quiet around here for a while. More than a while, regrettably. Life got in the way of writing about Death. Between personal changes (an international move, selling house, family losses, change of job) and massive global changes, I have not found the time and mental energy to update this blog and to give it the attention it deserves. And to be perfectly frank, thinking about death during the pandemic was so all-encompassing that it nearly felt indecent and inadequate to write about it, if only to make sense of the loss of quality of life, quality of death care and life itself it caused (and is still causing). How do you begin to untangle that knot?
As those of us lucky enough to be able to do so slowly emerged from our home offices and things returned to a false sense of 'normality,' I felt the need to pick up the part of the thread I had some purchase on. Motivated by my work, soon enough I found myself writing about death more than ever before, armed with a renewed understanding of the history of its study, and the development of death culture and death care. Perhaps this was a deliberate but unconscious shift that allowed me to put more emotional distance between my personal experiences of death and grief so I could focus on the academic ontology of it. The shift from the heavy work of holding space for the actively dying as a death doula, to worrying about my own mortality in the midst of the pandemic, to taking care of the long dead in my role as curator of a historical medical collection.
Gaining a birds eye view through academic study as opposed to immersion in grief and death culture allowed me to notice shifts in the delicate bubble of the heritage sector in regard to viewing and displaying death. That little bubble is crucial because it is currently the only way anyone can have direct confrontation with mortality at will. The deliberate act of visiting a museum that holds, cares, and displays human remain is the act of choosing to confront the fragility of humanity.
In the decades following 1918 Influenza pandemic, there was a deafening silence on the topic and its effects. Especially in the academic world. The first mention in a work of non-fiction on the effects of a global event that cost the lives of 50 million individuals at minimum, was published an incredible three decades later . It's been suggested that the global trauma of that loss made people want to forget with all their might and move forward, no matter the cost.
“It is fateful and ironic how the lie we need in order to live dooms us to a life that is never really ours.” ― Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death
Perhaps we are seeing a similar shift now resulting in efforts to sanitise, quiet, and bury death in the public heritage sector.
It is so ever-present, why do we need to talk about it after all? I can't speak on attitude changes death care workers may be observing in the more traditional sectors of death care or within more direct outlets of death acceptance activism. But I can't help but notice a deliberate move towards shifting attention away from the unavoidable spectre of death, the visceral experience of it, and its display in the public history sector.
Such a move can only result in death denial and that has never served us well. And it is a pertinent time as any to push against that.
To that end, expect new writing, art, interviews with artists and a newsletter in the coming weeks, as well new social media accounts! Follow Thanatography on IG for frequent art posts and Facebook for more art & death related news and writing.
In the book “The American Pageant” by Thomas A. Bailey, published in 1956.