The stuff of death and the death of stuff
Cultural anthropologist Dr Hannah Gould researches death and discarding – looking at spirituality and how COVID-19 is changing the way we deal with the dead
Eavesdrop on Experts - stories of inspiration and insights. It’s where expert types obsess, confess and profess. I’m Chris Hatzis, let’s eavesdrop on experts changing the world - one lecture, one experiment, one interview at a time.
It’s safe to say that 2020 threw up a unique set of challenges that has not only disrupted our lives, but has also transformed experiences of dying, death, disposal, and commemoration. COVID-19 forced us to be creative in how we harness technology to ‘be present’ for others and make mourning meaningful.
Dr Hannah Gould is a cultural anthropologist interested in questions of death and discarding, material culture, and spirituality. Her research spans new traditions and technologies of death rites, the lifecycle of religious materials, and minimalist movements.
Hannah Gould is ARC Research Fellow at the DeathTech Research Team, based at The University of Melbourne. It’s an interdisciplinary research group investigating the intersection of death and technology in the 21st century.
She now researches high-tech death – and how the COVID-19 pandemic is changing the way we deal with the dead.
Dr Hannah Gould sat down for a Zoom chat with Dr Andi Horvath.
So what do you tell people at barbecues that you do?
Look, it’s definitely a topic that gets a lot of interest. Usually, I say that I’ve just come from a photoshoot at a crematorium or interviews with morticians or quite recently, I’ve been attending a lot of funerals, happening during COVID. So it’s been quite a year to study death. I like to tell people that I’m interested in the stuff of death and the death of stuff. So I’m interested in material objects. Material, culture and technology and how we use those technologies to forge a relationship with the dead. Both dead bodies but also the kind of dead as a memory or a spirit or an ancestor after they’ve passed on.
So I’m really interested in how when someone’s become absent, all the different ways in which we try and make them present in our lives.
So you’re a cultural anthropologist. What does that mean? Does that mean you kind of look at an aspect of culture, sort of through the eyes of you’re an alien that’s just landed on the planet without judgment?
Yeah, in many ways it does. Cultural anthropology, I suppose, is all about attempting to adopt the world view of another group of people or someone else within your same culture but perhaps who has very different experiences from you. So that kind of old adage about trying to walk a mile in somebody’s shoes. Anthropologists really spend a lot of time getting to know somebody, not just in formal interviews or surveys or something like that but actually hanging out with them at work, in the break room, in different aspects of their life online to try and work out what it means to be that person and what it means to see the world from their perspective. So we both have what is called an emic perspective, which means to look at the world from an insider position and then we bring to that, what's called an etic perspective. So that’s kind of an external theoretical framework.
So we both engage with the kind of theory of social sciences and then also bring to that, really close attention, ethnographic detail about how people lose their lives to solve contemporary issues that affect us all today.
So what do you research as part of your Death Tech group, which is an interesting title in itself.
Yeah [laughs], so the Death Tech group is an interdisciplinary research team based here at the University of Melbourne and the team is made up of anthropologists like myself but also specialists in human-computer interaction. We have also some media studies scholars and some science and technology studies scholars. We’re all interested in questions of death, technology and social change. So how is it that new technologies are transforming our understanding of death memorialisation and grief? But also, how are big social shifts affecting the future of death in Australia and how are we trying to respond to those through various technologies?
So for example, our earliest work, we began researching ideas like mourning on Facebook. So how does social media affect processes of grief and memorialisation? More recently, we’ve moved on to other questions about cemeteries and about the treatment and handling of dead bodies in Australia.
Well give us some insights into those explorations, what has surprised you or what’s emerged from this research?
Yeah, one of the things I’m really - I’ve been continually surprised about is just how creative and resilient people can be around death and dying and memorialisation. I think there’s a kind of belief [laughs] both maybe popular and also within scholarship that death is very taboo first of all and that people are very traditional or conservative in their ideas about what they want to happen to them and also to happen to their loved ones around death.
But actually, we continually encounter a great degree of creativity in how people want to memorialise the dead, how people want to be remembered when they themselves have died and how people feel about things like the future of our cemeteries and cemetery spaces.
So to just give one example, we recently, as part of the future cemetery project, which we’re collaborating on with the Greater Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust as a linkage grant here in Victoria, we’ve been looking at the future of Australian cemeteries and we recently conducted a national survey of the Australian population. A representative sample survey about their ideas about the future of Australian cemeteries and what should happen.
I thought people would be quite - really conservative in their ideas about cemeteries are very solemn places, they’re only for mourning, only for funerals but actually, what we found is that two-thirds of people were open to new and perhaps innovative uses for cemetery space. Whether that be something like a walking tour or a botanical garden or even something kind of more out there, like a - perhaps fitness classes or spaces for dog walking. Or even public events like theatre or festivals, that sort of thing.
So people are actually a lot more, I think, open to transformation and change around death than we might originally think they are.
I remember as a kid, I found cemeteries quite scary but a friend of mine said, they’re just seashells and I thought, that’s a very calming way to think about cemeteries. Aren’t we running out of space for cemeteries? What’s the technology that might take us into the future with the management of the deceased?
Yeah, we are running out of space. It’s one of the big challenges that are affecting cemeteries in Australia but also, I suppose around the world. There are some countries, for example some areas of our neighbours in south east Asia and north east Asia, where space is really at a premium. They’re actually pulling people out of the ground, closing down cemeteries, because there’s really no space for the dead. Obviously you think Australia, gosh we’ve got a lot of space, we’ve got a lot of land. How can it be that we’re running out of cemetery space? But the problem with cemeteries is, first of all, we could move them further and further and further away from the living. Further away from the cities but people generally want to be quite close to their dead so that they can go and visit the graves.
So it’s not just a matter of building cemeteries further out into the countryside, it’s about finding space in our urban city centres for the dead. That can mean trying to find new ways to use public space that integrate burials and also open park spaces or different kinds of recreational spaces. It can also mean looking to new ways of treating and handling human remains and new technologies that are coming in. So if we look at contemporary Australia, we know that 70 per cent of people - around 70 per cent at the moment are adopting cremation and that number has really steadily been rising since after the Second World War.
There are, however, several communities, particularly Islamic, Jewish communities, orthodox Catholic communities, for whom cremation is never going to be an option and so we do have to continue to look for space for burials. But there’s also outside of burial and cremation, all these new technologies that are emerging. So things, for example, like human composting also known as natural organic reduction which has recently been legalised in Washington State and Seattle. That’s kind of a way, I suppose, of accelerating what would be a normal decomposition process in the ground. So you know, we might bury someone in a coffin, in a casket and put them in the ground now and that might take 20, 30 years for that grave to be what might be called re-usable. Empty again or cleared of remains, depending on the location and lots of different factors. But this is a process where they’re promising that within two to three months, even a matter of weeks, that they could transform the human body into soil and that soil could then be used on National Parks or somewhere else.
So it’s a way of reducing the amount of space that we devote to the dead without lessening the importance that we continue to place on death memorialisation in the city. So it’s really exciting to look at those new possibilities coming from overseas and to think about how they might be applicable to the Australian situation and how also, Australians and their particular relationship to death and cemeteries might allow us to find new creative uses for cemeteries.
How has the digital age changed the way we ritualise death or memorialisation?
Yeah, so the digital revolution, I suppose, has had a huge impact. Not only on how we live our lives but obviously also how we interact with the dead. As I said, the earliest parts of the Death Tech Team were really in response to these quite public incidences of Facebook memorial pages but also then, those pages being trolled and different types of interaction that can happen on those spaces. It's quite interesting to think both that when we die now, we not only leave a whole heap of physical possessions for people to look after and care for but we also leave a huge amount of digital information for our - for future generations to care for.
That can be obviously both a blessing [laughs] in many cases for our future generations to connect with us but you know, it can also be a curse. It can also be a bit daunting. It’s not every part of your identity that you’ve shared online you maybe want people to know about [laughs]. And it’s quite difficult to access and there’s lots of problems around, for example, who owns it and what you can do with it.
But it also gives us a whole another technological tool for us to forge a relationship with the dead. So for us to re-enliven those relationships with someone who’s absent. One of the really interesting things that our team has found about the digital spaces and these kind of tools is that in many cases, they bring - at least in Western death culture, they bring an animation and liveliness to the dead that previously wasn’t there.
So if we think about the kind of major metaphors or major ideas that we use in Australia and the west to think about death, one of them is sleep, right? So the idea that the dead are at sleep. In a - in a cemetery. Actually, our word for cemetery comes from the Greek for a sleeping place. So it’s - the dead are at peace, for example. But now, the dead are at peace but they’re also popping up with Facebook notifications or they’re on your Twitter or for some people, even you might have an AI bot that Tweets out for you after you’ve - if you’ve got - you’ve passed.
So all of a sudden you might have died but you might have a hot take on the latest election results, for example [laughs] which is a whole other layer of agency and animation that’s been awarded to the dead through this digital technologies.
So really has the potential to shift our relation - our understanding of what does it mean to be alive? What does it mean to be dead? If you can continue participating in contemporary debates, well when does your identity end? When does your social agency end? Then how do the living and the dead both occupy that same social space? Which I think is a really fascinating question and one that we just have to hold on tight because it’s all going to emerge in the next couple of years and it will be interesting to find out what happens on that.
You’ve been working on some case studies under this COVID era.
You have an interesting paper, which is “Research at a Distance: Japanese Studies in an Age of COVID-19.”
Yeah, so I’ve been really interested, actually, about how COVID-19 is affecting both the work that we do as researchers, so I suppose the implications for professional labour and what it means to actually be an anthropologist.
Obviously, for anthropology in particular, as I was just talking about, fieldwork and being there, being with people, hanging out with them is essential to how we do our work. That’s really difficult when you’re not allowed to - for example, go outside or move 5 K from your house [laughs].
So I’ve been doing a little bit of work recently, both on thinking about how Japan studies and how researchers who work in different countries around the world might conduct research. But also then about how death and dying in Australia, I suppose, is affected by that and how is we as researchers - there’s an interesting analogy or similarity between these ideas of being far apart that the researcher experiences but also the bereaved family or the society experiences. We can’t go to the field, we can’t do our work but also, that kind of experience of absence or distance is very much shared by people who are actually - would love to be with their loved ones who are dying or would love to be in the hospital, in hospice. Would love to be at the funeral home. So we have also, like the bereaved, had to connect through Zoom and through all these new tools in order to try and experience the presence of the dead and to be with them.
That’s been very, very challenging both for scholars and I suppose for everyone in a way. So it’s a kind of interesting, shared experience that we’ve been able to feel with our research subjects and something that, hopefully, we’re not sure how long it’ll go on for but hopefully we can get back into the field sometime soon.
During COVID, it’s confronted us with our own mortality and the mortality of others. This must be a really difficult area to research?
Yeah, I mean, it’s interesting as somebody who researches death and in particular researches things like cremation and body care and embalming and that sort of thing. You’d think that there was not a lot that can shock you. We have conversations in cafes about various aspects of death care [laughs] which I’m sure we get very odd looks about and we really - you think about this a lot. So I think that for many, we’ve kind of blocked out or overcome a lot of those fears and taboos around death but that being said, when I - I took on this project on Australian death care during COVID, not only was I forced to confront the kind of realities of what it would mean to try and do fieldwork, to do interviews during a pandemic and in situations in which you can be putting yourself into risk as a researcher attending funerals and talking to people but also, I suppose the kind of emotional realities that people who work in death care have taken on during this period.
We often in Australia in particular, or around the world, we have these ‘clap for the carers’ or frontline heroes. That’s often really focussed around healthcare, right? Healthcare professionals, doctors, who are doing extraordinary work. But it also should be noted that the end-line, the frontline workers who work in death care, they have simultaneous - they’ve also been putting themselves on the line to care for the dead and provide this completely essential service which is very rarely recognised as an essential service.
No, not recognised necessarily by the government, not necessarily recognised by popular culture, by media. So all of the baseline stigma and taboos that they have about their job and the work that they do has just been entirely compounded by this new situation of COVID. I’ve talked to crematorium workers who, on a usual day, would maybe cremate five, six bodies, who all of a sudden area asked to do twice the amount. So they’re working until 11:30, late into the night, cremating cases of COVID and people who have died.
Those people who have died who are in their care, they have an extreme level of respect and care and love for the dead and they want to do their best by them, particularly when they know sometimes that that person has not seen any bereaved family member for a very long time because of lockdown. So that this death has kind of happened in isolation.
So they feel extreme pride and I suppose responsibility in the work that they do but it’s work that’s often invisible and when it is talked about, it’s a difficult conversation. So as much as the research itself was - has been quite difficult and particularly looking at and assessing all those materials of mass death coming from New York and from London now as well, I always as a researcher try and just think about how difficult it has been for people who I’m interviewing. Who work in mortuaries, who work in funeral homes and who work in crematoria and try and make sure that I can do everything I can to bring their voices into the open. To kind of ask the public to recognise the labour they do because it’s not necessarily pretty and it’s not necessarily labour that we like to think about but it is essential. I think that when you die yourself, I think you can only hope that you would be awarded the same amount of care and respect that those people perform every day.
Are there misconceptions that people have about death and is it blurry because it goes into the realm of religion?
Yes, I think there are a lot of misconceptions that people have about death and particularly about modern death care as it operates in Australia. I think it’s worth noting that we live in this age, this modern way of death which has been really characterised by - classic theory is the sequestration of death. So that we’re not so much in contact with the dying and the dead as much as we used to be. You think of that word funeral home or funeral parlour and the original origins of the word funeral parlour were that your parlour, the front room of your house, would be where the dead body was kept, right? So where you would care for the dead and wash them and dress them and prepare them.
But we don’t really do that anymore so death care has become professionalised. We rely on others to care for our dead, with some exceptions. It should be said that some communities still do perform all those labours. Particularly in Australia, some communities are really involved in that labour.
The other thing is that a lot of us are no longer dying at home. So we’re not necessarily open or experienced in the dying process. Even if we’d really, really love to die at home and when surveyed, most Australians actually say they’d love to die at home, what ends up happening is that we mostly die in hospitals or in aged care or palliative care.
For a number of reasons, that can be a good outcome and that can be a negative outcome, depending on the situation. But it does mean that we’re not necessarily experiencing dying and death from a young age and it’s often something that we don’t really think about or necessarily want to think about. So when we come to have to deal with - we’re forced to confront death, that can create some really big misconceptions and also problems for people. People are not aware of their options and there’s a huge range of options but people really don’t know what to do. They feel uncertain. They might feel insecure and that can lead them to either choosing something that they later regret or perhaps picking something that’s too expensive and they didn’t need to spend that money or being pressured into a certain option that they didn’t want and having conflicts within families about what’s the best option.
Often, that’s just because the dying - the dead themselves have not made clear what their intentions are, what they’d like to happen with them because we don’t really talk about death so much in our society. So it is the kind of - a huge kind of question about should we be trying to - encouraging as researchers, as scholars as well, us to have these conversations? I think we’ve got better about it. I think millennials and hopefully even baby boomers, I think, are becoming more and more confident about talking about this with their families. In Australia in particular, baby boomers are going to have a lot of power. A lot of influence and significance in shaping our death culture because there are so many of them. Baby boomers are this huge generation and they’re now reaching an age where they’re getting closer towards the average of mortality so they’re going to need to start thinking about these conversations.
I think in the next 10 to 20 years, we are going to see, as baby boomers confront their own mortality, these conversations come to the fore in Australian public discourse. But that also means that we probably need to make some huge shifts in our Australia deals with dead and dying. So those are the kind of changes that we’re trying to identify and advocate for.
I really like the fact that you’ve asked us to think not just about the healthcare workers but the death care workers and that the conversations regarding our death, our own and of others, needs to be normalised. Is there anything else that you’d like to activate in society, given a podium or some extra funding?
Oh wow, a podium and/or some extra funding. What a [laughs] - I think for me, a lot of it is about death care workers and understanding that yes, they are a part of a commercial industry but they are also doing extraordinary work. I’d love for people to think more about their own death and mortality and how that might affect future generations et cetera and what they’d like to happen for them. I think the other thing that is really important in Australia and what I’d love us to think more about and to kind of more centre in our conversations around death and dying, are the real diversity and breadth of our death cultures.
You know, the - we kind of think of funerals, the Australian funeral and the Australian death, we kind of know what that is. But really, that’s quite a one-dimensional view of perhaps a white Anglo Christian idea of what a funeral is and that can really be problematic when it comes to things like government legislation around funerals, around dying and death, for example.
So you know, during the COVID lockdown, a lot of the government guidelines were about how many people could attend a funeral. But what does a funeral mean? Is that a wake? Is that visitation to the grave? Is that sitting shiva? Is that some kind of ancestor worship festival or a memorial that happens many weeks or months after?
We’ve been told also that you’re not necessarily allowed to wash and dress the dead but that implication has very different significance for someone who’s in a tradition where washing and dressing and shrouding the dead has huge significance and implications for the afterlife and the future welfare for that deceased’s soul.
So we have this idea of what Australian death culture is but we often don’t really appreciate just how diverse our death traditions are and how much that diversity is going to affect the future of death care in Australia. We need to make decisions and make sure when we’re making public policy, that those communities and those conversations are always at the forefront because otherwise, we make policy, we make decisions around death, that really can adversely affect a lot of people.
The next time we drive past a cemetery or a crematorium or visit a gravesite, what would you like us to think about?
Stop the car, get out [laughs] go take a walk. Cemeteries are amazing spaces to walk around and experience and we often do it when we’re overseas. You know, you go to historical cemeteries et cetera, but you don’t think to go to the one in your backyard, right? I think you really should. Cemeteries are extraordinary historical landmarks that tell the - tell the history of our country and of our communities. Not only who’s there and who’s memorialised and how they’re memorialised but who’s not there. Who is not given a big gravestone? Who is not made part of the public talk or who’s not got the huge angel or the cathedral or whatever built on top of them.
I think if you want to understand the diversity, Australia’s - Victoria’s multiculturalism, you should go to Fawkner Cemetery or Springvale Cemetery and just walk through the cemetery and see how many different ways there are of burying and memorialising the dead.
You can see a huge range of religions, a huge range of cultural practices. You can see graves going back to the 1800s, 1700s. You can see some of the original Jewish graves that have now been moved to Fawkner Cemetery where it’s extraordinary. I think they’re amazing sites that could be so much better utilised and activated. Not just for experiences of grief and memorialisation, which obviously really important for - but for us to understand who we are as a community. As a country. I think cemeteries are really great places that need to be explored and they can also help us have some kind of interesting conversations about death and kickstart that conversation about what you might like to happen to you.
Dr Hannah Gould, you’ve really made me think about death and dying and I think I’d like to be human compost but I’d like a plaque somewhere with something humorous on it. Thank you for talking to us.
Thank you for having me.
Thank you to Dr Hannah Gould, cultural anthropologist and ARC Research Fellow at the DeathTech Research Team, based at The University of Melbourne. And thanks to Dr Andi Horvath..
Eavesdrop on Experts - stories of inspiration and insights - was made possible by the University of Melbourne. This episode was recorded on January 14, 2021. You’ll find a full transcript on the Pursuit website. Production, audio engineering and editing by me, Chris Hatzis. Co-production - Silvi Vann-Wall and Dr Andi Horvath. Eavesdrop on Experts is licensed under Creative Commons, Copyright 2021, The University of Melbourne. If you enjoyed this episode, review us on Apple Podcasts and check out the rest of the Eavesdrop episodes in our archive. I’m Chris Hatzis. Join us again next time for another Eavesdrop on Experts.
“One of the things I’m continually surprised about is just how creative and resilient people can be around death, dying and memorialisation,” says Dr Hannah Gould, ARC Research Fellow at the DeathTech Research Team, based at The University of Melbourne.
“I think there’s a kind of belief that death is very taboo... but actually, we continually encounter a great degree of creativity in how people want to memorialise the dead, how people want to be remembered themselves and how they feel about the future of our cemeteries and cemetery spaces.
Dr Gould’s work shows that two-thirds of Australians are open to new and perhaps innovative uses for cemetery spaces including walking tours, botanical gardens, fitness classes – or even public events like theatre or festivals.
“Our word for cemetery comes from the Greek for ‘a sleeping place’,” says Dr Gould. “So the dead are at peace, for example. But now, they’re also popping up with Facebook notifications or you might even have an AI bot that Tweets out for you after you’ve passed. If you can continue participating in contemporary debates, well, when does your identity end?”
Dr Gould says that the COVID pandemic has changed some of our attitudes to death and dying.
“During the pandemic, we have had the ‘clap for the carers’ or frontline heroes events. That’s often really focussed around healthcare professionals like doctors who are doing extraordinary work.”
But Dr Gould says it should also be noted that the end-line, the frontline workers who work in death care have been putting themselves on the line to care for the dead.
“They have an extreme level of respect, care and love for the dead, particularly when they know that that person has not seen any bereaved family member for a very long time because of lockdown,” says Dr Gould.
“I’d love for people to think more about their own death and mortality and how that might affect future generations and what they’d like to happen for them.”
Episode recorded: Jan 14, 2021.
Interviewer: Dr Andi Horvath.
Producer, audio engineer and editor: Chris Hatzis.
Co-producers: Silvi Vann-Wall and Dr Andi Horvath.
Banner: Getty Images