Death and Culture 2016 – Conference Report


Remember Me researchers recently presented our research at the Death and Culture 2016 conference and they report on the experience.

Remember Me project researchers recently attended and presented some of their research at the Death and Culture Conference at the University of York

The international conference, which ran over three days from 1-3 September 2016 brought together researchers from across a broad range of disciplines whose research included intersections between death, art, popular culture, history, palliative care and law.

The joy of attending such a dynamic conference of this nature is that it brings researchers together, people working in completely different disciplines, but who are engaging with similar research problems from an entirely different perspective.

The opening plenary presentation, presented by Jacque Lynn Foltyn from the National University, California took delegates through a wide-ranging exploration of the relationships between death and fashion. From the proliferation of skull motifs on everything from scarves to tattoos, and fashion shoots staged to look like crime scenes, death permeates the fashion industry, creating looks ‘to die for’. It was an engaging and eye-opening presentation, although the news that we have reached ‘peak skull fashion’ left Remember Me’s Dr Yvonne Inall feeling a little self-conscious in her now seemingly passé skull and cross bones blouse!

Such was the wealth of research that the rest of the day ran in three parallel sessions. Indeed all but the four plenary sessions ran in parallel, enabling over 70 speakers to present in 27 panels. The dilemma of parallel sessions is always deciding which session to attend. Which will be most helpful for your own research? Which will be most interesting? Presented with an embarrassment of riches these were tough decisions, and coin-tossing became a valid tie-breaking strategy.

On the first morning of the conference our own Dr Yvonne Inall presented research on the Remember Me ‘Project’s Deep Time Survey’. With a paper entitled ‘The Living Dead: Enduring Relationships between the Living and the Dead in Prehistoric Britain’ Yvonne presented an overview of monumental practice from the Neolithic period through to the early Anglo-Saxon period (roughly from the fourth millennium BC through to the seventh century AD). The presentation highlighted the recurrent themes we have observed in burial and monumental practice. The landscapes of prehistoric Britain are layered with monuments to the dead. In every period, new monuments make reference to, or elaborate upon, existing monuments. From Neolithic longbarrows to the great henge monuments at Avebury and Stonehenge and to the vast barrow cemeteries of Iron Age East Yorkshire the ancestors are prominent in the landscape. Even in Anglo-Saxon times engaging with or imitating pre-existing monuments played an important part in constructing their own sense of ancestral monumentality. Prehistoric monumental practices constantly renegotiated senses of space, place, time and memory. The newly dead were embedded into existing monumental landscapes, becoming imbued with the monumentality of that landscape. These discursive practices revitalised the ancestral forces of the landscape and transmitted their monumentality to the communities which enacted those rites, creating and reaffirming relationships between the living and the dead.

The wider landscape of Stonehenge is layered with Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments. Copyright Yvonne Inall

Meanwhile other speakers in the session included Aleksandra Kurowska-Susdorf from the University of Gdansk who offered fascinating and very visual insight into diasporic influences and differences in the death rites of Kashubs in both Poland and Canada. Craig Young, from Manchester Metropolitan University also explored some of the socio-legal complexities of burial at sea and how changing burial practices in the UK presents new challenges for legal experts.

In the afternoon panel sessions Kate Woodthorpe of the University of Bath pondered whether the ‘good funeral’ exists, and if so, how we might define it. Meanwhile Romany Reagan of Royal Holloway, University of London introduced us to the spectacular mourning art of the Victorian era including intricate, inter-generational artwork fashioned from the hair of departed loved ones. Bethan Michael from the University of Chester engaged with the dead in popular culture and why we have a fascination with the dead returning in television programmes like The Returned and In the Flesh. Finally, Heather Conway from Queens University, Belfast opened our eyes to the legal intricacies surrounding digital legacies.

The after-conference dinner offered further opportunities for discussion and we found we had much more in common than our mutual mortality.

The Friday sessions offered just as much diversity with papers exploring death in popular culture, analysing cross-cultural ways of announcing deaths and how we grieve. Where we bury our dead, and how places of burial can be contested or controversial were traversed along with our responses to the mortal cost of WWI. They evidenced the emerging talents of new researchers in the field of death and remembrance studies as well as some of the leading experts in the field.

On the final day of the conference further members of the Remember Me team had a chance to showcase our research in the first session of Saturday morning. Dr Nick Evans presented findings of fieldwork conducted in Barbados earlier this year. His paper, entitled: ‘The Subjugation of Slave Memory – The Case of Barbados’ shone a light on the erasure of both slavery and the enslaved in the burial monuments of Barbados. The enslaved were denigrated in death by the denial of formal grave monuments perpetuating a form of “social death” beyond physical death. Further, the lack of grave markers continues to create barriers to memorialisation and challenges for contemporary Barbadians in remembering oppressed ancestors. This absence is in stark contrast to the rich and elaborate epitaphs to former slave owners shipped in from their native England. The marble memorials by sculptors in Britain’s slave ports of Bristol and London framed in perpetuity a rose-tinted view of the slave owning plantocracy – masking their inhumane treatment of enslaved African workers.

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Professor Suzanne Schwarz, a member of the Remember Me Project Advisory Group and consultant researcher based at the University of Worcester, presented her research into burial practices in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Her paper ‘Burial Practices and the Burial Heritage of Slavery and Emancipation at Freetown’ examined the ways in which the culturally diverse inhabitants of Freetown were buried and memorialised in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This was a setting in which pre-existing local practices were observed by incomers, including slave traders, former slaves and colonial officials. The implementation of policies of slave trade suppression in the British Crown colony of Sierra Leone after 1808 led to the forced inward movement of an estimated 100,000 enslaved Africans who would have brought with them memories of burial practices from areas ranging from Senegambia to West-Central Africa. By the late nineteenth century, some memorials of ‘Liberated Africans’ combined the influence of European burial styles with an acknowledgement of their African origins. The adoption of Christian commemorative practices by some high status individuals is reflected in the survival of gravestones in Freetown. One memorial, photographed by Remember Me Researcher Dr Lee Karen Stow records that it was set up ‘In Memory of John Taylor (Native of Ilawo Abeokuta, in the Egba Territory) Trader of this Settlement’ who ‘Departed this life on Monday the 2nd of October 1876, at the Good Old Age of About 107 Years, Blessed are the Dead which Die in the Lord. Rev. 14.13’.

Surveying Memorialisation in Freetown
The Taylors Family Sepulchre at the Circular Road Cemetery. To the right is Victor Smith, the cemetery caretaker. Copyright Lee Karen Stow

The panel concluded with a sterling presentation by University of Hull AHRC PhD student Samuel North, who presented fieldwork he had undertaken in Cape Town, South Africa as part of an AHRC Heritage Consortium study on South Africa and the forgotten heritage of slavery. Sam’s paper ‘Memorialising Colonial Death in Modern Cape Town: Forgotten Voices, Contested Identities’ expanded upon the ideas presented in his earlier Remember Me blog post to highlight the challenges of engaging with the physical remains of the city’s slave past and how they may be memorialised in a contemporary setting. Specifically he highlighted how the discovery of a burial ground thought to contain the remains of the enslaved in 2003 produced divisions between academics, officials, and descendants of deceased slaves who felt that their history was being disrespected.

Prestwich Memorial
The Prestwich Memorial, Cape Town. Copyright Sam North

Other papers on the final day of the conference included explorations of the relationship between death and music, cinematic and theatrical representations of death, and changing attitudes to the physical body and palliative care processes. The conference concluded with a plenary session from Remember Me Project Advisor Professor Sarah Tarlow of University of Leicester deconstructing the complexities of exhibiting the corpses of executed murderers during the long 18th century. This was a process designed as post-mortem punishment, but which was in reality often subverted.

Overall the conference was a wide-ranging and endlessly fascinating look at how society engages with death, dying and memorialisation. From art to law, from history to social media, death is omnipresent and the ways in which we deal with death are just as diverse. The conference organisers, Dr Julie Rugg, Dr Ruth Penfold-Mounce, Dr Benjamin Poore and Mr Jack Denham did a spectacular job of drawing together speakers from across the globe to share their research and to facilitate the cross-pollination of ideas that is only possible at an interdisciplinary conference of this nature.


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