ASA14: Anthropology and Enlightenment

(P69)

Designing death: fashioning ends of life and beyond

Location Chrystal Macmillan Building, Seminar Room 4
Date and Start Time 21 June, 2014 at 09:00

Convenors

Hannah Rumble email
Arnar Árnason (University of Aberdeen) email
Mail All Convenors

Summary

This panel presents research from across disciplines and cultures to discuss the many ways in which the legacy of the Enlightenment endures or is challenged in funerary practices and expectations surrounding end-of-life.

Long Abstract

Perhaps an enduring legacy of the Enlightenment is the persistent ideological emphasis upon reason and individualism rather than faith, tradition and emotion in Western public and cultural life. Such an emphasis, always suspect, is thrown into particularly acute relief when confronting mortality. This panel seeks to bring together scholars' work from across disciplines and cultures to discuss the many ways in which the legacy of the Enlightenment endures or is challenged in funerary practices and expectations surrounding end-of-life. The Enlightenment's aim to reform society through reason, to challenge ideas grounded in tradition and faith, and advance knowledge through the scientific method can be exemplified by various cultural designs of death; not least the development of cremation and discourses surrounding suicide, euthanasia and organ donation amongst many other examples. In speaking of designing death we are both alluding to the agency of people in being creators of things or processes that are fashioned in relation to death and dying, as well as what is culturally designed through an encounter with mortality. And in the process of designing an encounter with death, to what extent are beauty, order and harmony qualities that are valued? How are encounters with death and dying both products of the designer and the designed? And how does the legacy of the Enlightenment endure or become obsolete in the process of designing death or in the design itself? We actively encourage an engagement with these questions from a diverse range of disciplinary, theoretical and ethnographic perspectives.

Discussant: Liz Hallam, Douglas Davies

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

The “good” dying

Author: Margaret Souza (SUNY/Exmpire State College)  email

Summary

This presentation will describe the impact of Enlightenment ideas on the dying process as it occurs in the 21st century in the United States. Tracing the historic precedents that underpin the present ideology of dying on “our own terms” it examines how Enlightenment provides a foundational way of understanding the ways in which scientific knowledge informs medical practitioner to respond to those who are dying.

Long Abstract

The Age of Enlightenment provided a different way in which to experience the world. Moving from a belief in religion and social institutions to direct human behavior it turned to science and rationality as ways in which to understand and control the world. This presentation will embed the impact of this view on the dying process as it occurs in the 21st century in the United States. Tracing the historic precedents that underpin the present ideology of dying on “our own terms” it examines how Enlightenment provides a foundational way of understanding the ways in which scientific knowledge informs medical practitioner to respond to those who are dying either in a formidable attempt to ward off death or in an approach that identifies a person as dying and provides low tech medical interventions in a response that these practitioners present as a “good death.” In particular this paper provides a focus upon palliative care practitioners that engage in an ideology of a “good” and “natural” death. These terms obfuscate the conditions that provide this type of death and the prescription for how it should occur. In practice pain control is paramount in this effort to provide a dying process that eliminates pain and suffering and is suppose to provide a comfortable, peaceful, and harmonious moment for all involved. Although the experience of those who are personally involved in the process is often quite emotionally painful and they may even find this approach troubling.

Autonomy at the end of life: choosing where and how to die

Author: Renske Visser (University of Bath)  email

Summary

This paper will discuss the autonomy and agency of elderly at the end of life. How do elderly and their social network make it possible to die at home?

Long Abstract

In contemporary Western societies life expectancy is increasing and many medical treatments available make it possible to prolong life. This has caused the emergence of a Third Age, a time of leisure, personal achievement and self-fulfillment. In sharp contrast to this stands the Fourth Age where people's health deteriorates and people slowly lose their agency and become more dependent on others. This paper will explore the how the concepts of Third and Fourth age relate to issues concerning independence and decision-making at the end of life.

A main aim of the 2008 ' End Of Life Care Strategy' from the Department of Health is to make it possible for people in the United Kingdom to age and die in their preferred place. In Britain, the home is the most preferred place of death, however most deaths still occur in the hospital setting (Gomes and Higginson, 2013). With both political and personal incentives for people to die and age at home this raises questions on how this works in practice. My paper will look at this issue and to what extent older people remain autonomous at the end of life. The majority of people over 85 still live at home and most of them have multiple health problems. This means that in order for them to 'age in place' a care network needs to be in place. In my paper I will discuss the dichotomy between being autonomous and being a dependent older person.

Achieving a good death with dementia: deconstructing values at the end of life

Author: Natashe Lemos Dekker (University of Amsterdam)  email

Summary

In this research I study the values that frame what is considered a good death in Dutch society by looking at the process of dying with dementia.

Long Abstract

In this research I study the values that frame what is considered a good death in Dutch society by looking at the process of dying with dementia. Even though the term good death is contested - a single death can be perceived in different ways - its use and how it is conceptualized reveals fundamental norms and values in a society. I will address how notions of a good death relate to end-of-life decision making and the provision of care for people with dementia. By questioning practices of care and decision making we come to understand the values that are attributed to the end of life with dementia.

In the context of dementia, death is not an event but a process. Kaufman states that dementia "obscures the distinction between life and death" (2006: 23). In this line of thought, it seems that dementia does not fit in our cultural notions of what constitutes life and death. Not fitting these categories, people with advanced dementia can become associated with a social death, which can be perceived as a grey zone between life and death. Ascribing values to life and death has far reaching implications for end-of-life care for people with dementia and their surroundings. The question, what is good care at the end of life of people with dementia, therefore requires us to study how we conceptualize death and where we localize it.

Departed among the living: an investigative study of afterlife encounters

Author: Erlendur Haraldsson (University of Iceland)  email

Summary

Research into experiences of the deceased suggests the importance of questioning the Enlightenment inspired separation between life and death.

Long Abstract

The European Values Survey indicated that 25% of the population of Western Europe had „felt as though they were really in touch with someone who had died“. In Iceland, Italy and USA this figure was even higher. What is it that people experience and interpret as an encounter with someone who has died? How are the deceased perceived, who are they, and under what circumstances do such experiences occur? Over 400 in-depth interviews were conducted with persons who reported such experiences. They revealed interesting patterns and characteristics. Two-thirds are visual, about half are of deceased relatives, they are more common of males than females, relatively common of those who suffered a violent death and often without the experiencer knowing that this has died.

Attempts are made to interpret the results, the various findings are discussed, also in other areas of research, in particular what may be supportive of the survival of death hypothesis.

Urban working-class funerary customs in Britain, c.1850-1930

Author: Helen Frisby (University of the West of England)  email

Summary

This paper explores the creative mixture of the modern and magical which characterised the urban working-class funeral in Victorian and early C20th Britain.

Long Abstract

This paper explores the complex, creative mixture of the modern and the magical which characterised the urban working-class funeral in Victorian and early twentieth century Britain.

The arrival of industrial modernity in nineteenth century Britain occasioned a dramatic demographic shift: between 1801 and 1851 the population mushroomed from 8.9 to 17.9 million. Furthermore the concentration of this booming population in industrial conurbations (by 1860 ten towns accounted for 25% of the population) led to considerable strain upon the municipal infrastructure, including the arrangements for dealing with unprecedentedly large numbers of dead.

Historical attention has hitherto largely focused on rational solutions to this problem, as proffered by Edwin Chadwick and other contemporary funeral reformers: notably the replacement of churchyards with suburban 'Garden cemeteries', and the recommendation that urban working-class families be compelled to remove their dead to public mortuaries.

History has furthermore rather assumed the inevitable success of such self-consciously progressive funerary reform initiatives, and the supposed concomitant decline of much older old, non-rational funerary customs as imported from the Victorian countryside. However this paper explores an alternative narrative, in which emergent modernity creatively co-existed with much older magical and quasi-magical funerary customs in the urban environment - often well into the twentieth century. Indeed, it will be argued that it was such creative tension between the magical and the modern which positively enabled the urban working classes to navigate, and to adapt to, the pains and uncertainties of everyday life in the modern industrial city.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.