Every culture has unique ways of facing the loss of the important people in our lives. Anthropologists, sociologists and religious studies scholars have tried mapping out the intricate rites and rituals surrounding death around the world since the inception of their disciplines (we should not forget that the early social scientific interest in death is intertwined with colonialist and racist history). Yet, what might be missing from the social scientific encounter with death? Why are some stories privileged over others?
A new edited volume, Beyond the Veil: Reflexive Studies of Death and Dying, explores these and other questions by turning back to the researchers themselves. Recognizing that "objectivity" is more an ideal than a reality, the scholars in the volume interrogate their own relationships to mortality, alongside the communities they study.
We had the opportunity to speak with the editors of Beyond the Veil, Aubrey Thamann and Kalliopi M Christodoulaki, who shared a little about themselves, how their edited volume addresses contemporary issues, and what they think the future of death studies looks like.
Beyond the Veil: What Anthropology can Teach us About Death
Can you tell us a little about yourselves, and what brought you to the study of Death & Dying?
Kalliopi: My personal exposure to death came late in my life, although I watched family members following mourning rituals as a young child. I was 17 when my great-grandmother died on the Greek island of Karpathos. Since I was recently engaged to be married, I was not allowed to attend the funeral (it was thought to be a bad luck). A cousin, who was a newlywed, and also not allowed to attend the funeral, encouraged me to secretly watch the funeral procession to the church from a balcony. We hid behind the columns and peered down the narrow alley.
I saw my grandfather, who for the first time looked weak and small, carrying the coffin lid leading the procession. My great-grandmother followed in a small wooden coffin carried by family members and behind the coffin came family and friends dressed in black or some other dark color weeping or looking sad. It was a surreal experience.
What followed after the funeral were mourning rituals that I did not understand at the time, but which I knew were important to those who partook of them. The importance of these types of rituals surrounding death combined with a keen interest in dying and death in diverse cultures, quickly became of interest to me.
Aubrey: My path here was a little convoluted. When I started grad school, I was largely interested in folklore—specifically urban legends and how horror films utilized similar motifs. However, all my anthropology faculty kept telling me I needed a group to work with—I had to do ethnography if I wanted to really be a cultural anthropologist.
At that time, I didn’t think there was really a “horror community” to speak of, so I started thinking about what I was really interested in, which was our views on death in the US. What group is around death regularly? Funeral directors. So I decided to do an ethnographic study of funeral directors. I even started out that fieldwork trying to focus on folklore, but there were other, more prevalent cultural themes at work, so my focus shifted to the social role funeral directors play.
What inspired you to create this book and how did you choose the scholars to feature?
Aubrey: Kalliopi and I had discussed working together before. It took me a really long time to finish my dissertation, and a collaboration just sort of fell to the back burner. In 2017, I was adjuncting at Wittenberg University, and they asked me to give a talk for their fall colloquium series. I essentially whittled my dissertation down to the chapter included in this collection, and presented that. There was such a positive response, so I reached back out to Kalliopi about collaborating.
Anthropologist Renato Rosaldo’s introductory essay to his text Culture and Truth heavily inspired my analysis of my time in the field, so I incorporated a lot of my own experiences with loss and grief. I wanted the rest of the essays in the collection to be reflexive as well.
We put out a call for papers in several places: H-Net, the AAA, the ASA, as well as a few death-related caucus areas. We really wanted to focus on that reflexive aspect, so we chose authors who really incorporated that in their abstracts.
Kalliopi: This book was inspired by the connections that Aubrey made during her dissertation. She was also the force behind the creation of the book. I believe the death of OM Watson, which included a gathering that brought Aubrey and I together for the first time in years, was the impetus. It was then that Aubrey explained her ideas to me and asked me to work with her as co-editor.
How do the book's themes relate to current events, and how will it be helpful to those who read it?
Aubrey: With the staggering losses we’ve had with the COVID pandemic, I think everyone is facing their mortality in a more direct way, even if they haven’t lost anyone. I would argue that even “covid deniers” are as well—I wonder if the denial is—at least in some small, subconscious way—a reactionary denial of their own mortality. In the US we tend to stick our heads in the sand when death is brought up—we don’t want to talk about it at all, or we lessen its significance (e.g., comparing flu-related deaths to early COVID death tallies, or arguing they died from other things).
In my essay I talk about Terror Management Theory, which in part argues that one of the reasons we might watch horror movies, or slow down to look at an accident, is that these incidents give us an outlet—we’re able to face the concept of mortality, without having to think specifically about our own. With a massive death event—and in this case one in which we so often lose the opportunity to say goodbye in person (whether at the hospital, or at the funeral home, due to all the restrictions), there are a lot of stunted experiences of death and grief.
So I hope that, in light of current events, at least two things happen—one, that scholars who study death might see the problems inherent in doing so in an impersonal, purely objective manner—we will all deal with loss at some point in our lives. And two, that anyone else who might stumble across our book might see themselves in the questions each of the scholars ask.
Kalliopi: Death and dying have been all around us during this pandemic and this book addresses both in the context of other situations. In the end, death is a biological phenomenon that is understood culturally and felt personally. It is our hope that reading these accounts will help people understand the different ways people make sense of dying and death.
Research objectivity is an ideal in academia, yet Beyond the Veil is very reflexive and personal. Why does this matter with respect to social scientific research and death studies in particular?
Kalliopi: Anthropology has moved towards reflexivity for decades. The research should explain their connection to their study and make the reader aware that their description of the phenomenon they study is based on their perspective. In the end it is the choice of each researcher how they decide to present their findings. We choose this format because it was something that had not been explored and we wanted to see how others who study dying and death were impacted by their work.
Aubrey: Personally, I am heavily influenced by Renato Rosaldo. I think it is my American Studies background—I feel obligated as a scholar to contextualize everything. So with respect to social science in general, I think we all need to acknowledge that as socialized beings, we will always bring biases to the work we undertake. Too many scholars think that because they’re aware of these biases, they can set them aside and be completely objective. While I do think research objectivity should be a goal (depending on the thesis), we’re not superhuman, and we’re not omniscient. We’re products of our cultures and socialization, just like the people we work with. Anthropology and other social sciences as they are largely practiced today are Western constructions in the first place. It’s important to acknowledge that.
The anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski wrote in his “Magic, Science and Religion” essay, “The savage is intensely afraid of death…He does not want to realize it as an end, he cannot face the idea of complete cessation, of annihilation.” Malinowski was a functionalist—the pinnacle of objectivity, right? He was writing about the indigenous communities he studied. For Malinowski, fearing death is something that only “natives” do. Members of Western society, like himself, are above fearing death. Yet, Jeremy's chapter, which looks at contemporary immortalists—is about an entire society centered around not being able to “face the idea of complete cessation.” Anyone who is aware that death happens—death scholars included—fear death. That’s why we deny it. And why, I would argue, most scholars write about it objectively.
For death studies in particular, I think objectivity at best can be a crutch—terror management—"I’ll write about how this culture deals with death, but not acknowledge that people die in my culture, too; I don’t have to acknowledge that I will die.” At worst, it denies the visceral experience of real grief. Rosaldo goes through that journey with the loss of his wife—at first he can’t understand why the Ilongot head hunt in grief (when an Ilongot died, the tribe would capture and decapitate a neighboring villager and toss away their head). He doesn’t get the anger. He objectively discusses the Ilongot take on grief and anger, but doesn’t understand the connection.
When his wife died in a freak accident, he finally understood. He was sad, yes, but more than that, he was angry, and he wanted someone else to suffer because of it. Emile Durkheim, whose theories were some of the stronger roots of functionalism, argued that people mourn in socially prescribed ways—they might believe they’re really sad, or angry, or whatever emotion, but really they’re just doing what they’re supposed to do when someone dies. Rosaldo knew firsthand this was totally wrong. I know firsthand that’s wrong, as do the other scholars in this collection.
Certainly there are culturally prescribed practices of mourning—wearing black, wearing white, the mourning t-shirts Kami Fletcher (of Rad Death Studies) mentions in her essay. Cremation, burial, endocannibalism. But grief—in whatever emotion it may manifest—is very real, and is by its nature subjective. I felt the loss of my grandmother differently than my mother did. She felt the loss differently than her brother did. I don’t believe there is a way to talk about grief objectively. Mourning ritual and practices, yes. Grief, no. And if we talk about both, we get a more complete picture of what it means to us when people die. I think the essays in this collection show that beautiful balance of objective discussion of mourning, and subjective discussion of grief.
What do you think the future of death studies looks like?
Kalliopi: I would hope that even more voices would be added to the discussion. Additionally, the advances in longevity research, as well as treating diseases associated with aging, may shift some discussions of death to include much older individuals, other forms of dying, and/or treatment of the body.
Aubrey: If it isn’t happening, I’d like to see it become more inclusive. The funeral directors I work with have talked about parallels between funerals for covid patients and funerals for AIDS patients. The queer community had to mourn their losses differently for so long. What major changes in death care have queer elders witnessed?
Also, death care remains largely segregated still—there are homes that serve mostly white families, homes that serve mostly Black families; homes that serve mostly Catholics, or the Jewish community. Some scholars have addressed this. Charlton McIlwain looks at differences between African American and European American funeral practices in his book Death in Black and White. Is this segregation largely because word of mouth is so important to continuing business, and people tend to stay with homes who have a history with the family? Or is it more than that?
I’d also like to see more scholarship on memorial societies. Some are anti-funeral, others are more focused on death care being brought home. Why these different foci?
I will say that our collection reflects the broader scope of who offered submissions. I do hope a more diverse set of voices emerges, because experiences of death, grief, and mourning practices are diverse. Every culture and subculture has its own set of these experiences. The more voices we hear, the more patterns we’ll see emerge, getting at the root of what it means to be human.
Beyond the Veil: Reflexive Studies of Death and Dying is available for purchase at your favorite book retailer and through Berghahn Books.