Death and Culture in York- My Thoughts..

I just wanted to return here to document some interesting ideas and information I gleaned from the recent Death and Culture Conference at York University. The conference was an interdisciplinary event involving a wide array of perspectives across the full range of death, dying and bereavement topics, but not excluding other related areas.  Here is a summary of my highlights from a varied and fascinating three day programme:

Dr Karina Croucher presented a very interesting talk about her partnership with Christina Faull of LOROS Hospice in Leicester on their joint research, combining archaeology and continuing bonds.  An unusual combination on the surface until she explains ‘I study the mortuary practices (i.e. the ways in which people reacted to death and treated their dead) in the past’ and then you realise this joint research is completely logical and will be fascinating when completed.

Brenda Mathijssen spoke on the theme of continuing bonds.   She talked about the wearing and retention of ashes and how these items, created from the remains of our loved ones, are so significant when we are initially bereaved, but over time they lose their significance.  The continuation of bonds that are so necessary for us to grieve, ultimately become transformed bonds- which reminded me of J. William Worden’s final stage of relocating the deceased.  Interestingly she stated that there is a 30 day waiting period in The Netherlands after cremation before you can collect the ashes.  Those 30 days are designed for thinking and processing.

Dr Heather Conway raised the issue that there are currently 3.5 billion internet users worldwide, so  consideration should be given to the legal aspects concerning our digital legacy.  There are many issues to consider: what is a digital asset and what expires at death, the etiquette of virtual cemeteries, digital wills, Facebook memorials, other social media sites and legacy or deletion decisions.  She asked; are digital companies sustaining the view of an afterlife, how are the hierarchies of grief affected, what about contested narratives, what should the virtual memorial rules be etc.

Chao Fang delivered a fascinating presentation on the advent of ‘Shidu’ or the loss of an only child in China.  Due to the government policy of one child per family, the death of a child has political ramifications that perhaps don’t exist in other cultures.  Additionally, older people in China are reliant on their children as there is little social support, so the loss of their child has significant secondary loss implications, including financial implications.  There is also a ‘shame’ in not having children in China, that makes them feel that they are ‘unable to face their ancestors’ after the death of an only child, and that this is ‘the most distressing thing ever’.

There were also talks that discussed the issue of the ‘social dead’ i.e. slaves in Capetown and Barbados. I wondered about the bereaved and their ability to process meaning making after such heinous events, but the focus was on the deaths and lack of memorialisation not the living…

There were also presentations about the sensationalism of murderers and the lack of narrative surrounding the victims. I wondered if I would welcome public reminders of my loved one if they had been murdered?

Lastly a special mention & thanks to Dr Ruth Penfold-Mounce and colleagues for organising this event, it must have been a lot of work but well worth it – a fabulous time was had by all!