By Lindsey Buster, Post-Doctoral Research Assistant
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 (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b076prgl#play). 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 a new project (Continuing Bonds; http://www.bradford.ac.uk/ContinuingBonds) which will explore 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 (http://blogs.bmj.com/spcare/2016/01/15/a-thank-you-letter-to-david-bowie-from-a-palliative-care-doctor/). 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
The Continuing Bonds Project is funded by AHRC and is a collaboration between Dr Karina Croucher (University of Bradford; PI), Prof. Christina Faull (University Hospitals of Leicester NHS/LOROS), and Laura Middleton-Green (Faculty of Health Studies, University of Bradford). Dr Lindsey Büster is a researcher on the project, who will be investigating different attitudes to death in the past. The project will run workshops with health professionals in Bradford and Leicester, using archaeological and anthropological (ethnographic) case studies to encourage discussions about death and dying in contemporary society. To hear more about the Continuing Bonds Project, please visit our website (www.bradford.ac.uk/ContinuingBonds), follow us on Twitter (@CBondsStudy) or join the discussion (#ContinuingBonds).