How great thou art: 50 years of Afro-Caribbean funerals – in pictures
Charlie Phillips, in The Guardian (July 25, 2014)
The spirituals sung, the Scotch bonnet berets worn, and the rum drunk at the graveside … Charlie Phillips’s photographs chart the rituals and the changes in African-Caribbean funerals in London since the Windrush generation, to preserve a part of British culture he feels has been overlooked. Here Phillips recalls the stories behind some of his most striking images
Any large city will always have a migrant population that dies and then fuses its own funeral traditions with the status quo.
These photos by Charlie Phillips of funerals in London’s Afro-Caribbean community are stunning.
The io9 blog and news site (motto: We Come from the Future) is a reliable and entertaining source for science fiction, fantasy, technology, and scientific research information.
Every once in a while, a death related question or story pops up. A lot of the articles focus on radical life extension, which is to be expected.
The most recent death listing was different enough that I decided to feature it today on Death Ref.
Charlie Jane Anders asks a straight-forward but really intriguing question: Which Science Fiction or Fantasy book do you want read at your funeral? I’ll add in Memorial Service in case you don’t have a standard funeral.
Since my early teen years, the introduction to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams was something I wanted read at my funeral. In case you’re wondering, I really did think about these kinds of questions when I 13. I was a walking Judy Blume character.
After thinking more about different options, I came back to a perennial death soliloquy favourite. The problem, however, is that it’s in a film. I’m cheating. I admit it.
I watched the Selfies at Funerals Tumblr link roll across the internet this week and after seeing the images I immediately knew what was going to happen. People would complain about how the kids today were so self-absorbed that civilisation was near its collapse and how today’s youth don’t have any respect. I also knew that after this immediate condemnation, another group of voices would rise up to support the forsaken youth.
And this, Death Ref faithful, is exactly what happened.
But then, as should always be expected, another group of people took a more nuanced stand per the Selfies.
My good friend Caitlin Doughty at the Order of the Good Death wrote a strong defense of the kids on Jezebel and I mostly agree with her thoughts on the images. Where I disagree with Cailin is in arguing that these images represent a broader social disengagement with the reality of death. If anything, these photos show young people engaging with death, and doing so with a specific language that they’ve developed.
We humans invented all of our human death rituals. As a result, this means that all death rituals are constantly being changed, altered, and turned into hybrids. There is nothing innate about any ritual (given its human construction) so I think that it’s important to say that I would be more surprised if young people weren’t taking Selfies at funerals. This is the world they know but that doesn’t mean that today’s youth somehow lack any education about death.
Ironically enough, the Selfies at Funerals Tumblr page probably caused thousands more people to discuss actual death and funerals this week because of its supposedly disrespectful tone. Maybe, just maybe, the kids beat the adults at their own ‘We NEED to talk about death game.’
Katy Waldman at Slate took a wise step and waited a few days before writing anything. She presents a good critique of responses to the images but also brings everything back to the kids using the photographs as forms of grieving. I agree with this point and I kept waiting for someone to roll out a broader discussion about the relationship between photography and death.
Photography has a long standing relationship with funerals, especially in America. The camera phone is only the most recent example of a technology we humans use to capture images at funerals. Another way of looking at these photos is this– what else would anyone in the First World expect teenagers to do with their camera phones at funerals? Megan Garberoct at The Atlantic wrote an uncannily timed article on 19th century postmortem photography and the ability of Victorian era photographers to capture ‘Sprit’ images with their cameras.
But more than the photos themselves, it seems that the people criticising the kids just don’t like the technology involved, i.e., the camera phone that produced the self-taken image.
Here, then, is the key lesson for everyone loving to hate and hating to love the Selfies at Funerals: We humans remain deeply conflicted when mixing all forms of technology with death.
The great science fiction writer Douglas Adams (who died far too young) made the following observation about humans and technology in The Salmon of Doubt:
I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:
1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.
Given that my own research in the University of Bath’s Centre for Death and Society examines how technology and death intermingle all the time, I want to let everyone know that Selfies at Funerals represent only the beginning of a much longer future. We should already be asking ourselves what happens when a person wearing a computing machine, such as Google Glass, captures images and video at a funeral. Is a line being crossed there and why? How? I ask these questions, because it is going to happen and happen soon.
Just remember, and not so long ago, the idea of using the internet for anything to do with death seemed inappropriate. So did playing pre-recorded music on a CD (especially loud rock and roll music), having mourners draw or paint on a coffin, or even choosing to be to cremated.
What we humans forget is that death’s persistence means that we will persistently invent new kinds of death rituals. No ritual lives forever. Will Coldwell’s Guardian article on Dark Tourism highlights how easily the very idea of established and appropriate ‘death rituals’ can be changed.
Earlier this year, Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror television series ran an episode called Be Right Back that effectively dramatised how the not-to-distant future might offer new kinds of technology for human grieving. Here is the show’s description:
Martha and Ash are a young couple who move to a remote cottage. The day after the move, Ash is killed, returning the hire van. At the funeral, Martha’s friend Sarah tells her about a new service that lets people stay in touch with the deceased. By using all his past online communications and social media profiles, a new ‘Ash’ can be created. Martha is disgusted by the concept but then in a confused and lonely state she decides to talk to ‘him’…
Trust me when I say that if the technology imagined in Black Mirror suddenly appeared, the Selfies at Funerals shock and outrage would quickly wash away into the sea of human memory.
So where does this week take us? It’s hard to say, because I have a feeling most people have already forgotten about the Selfies at Funerals and moved on to other more pressing issues.
But I do think that it is now time to officially launch a new Death Reference Desk rule about death and technology. To wit:
The Death Ref Technology Law: Any use of new technology that involves death, dying, and/or the dead body will be simultaneously rejected as a breakdown in human civility as well as embraced as an innovative turn for human grieving.
Or, as my friend Max summed up the situation on Facebook:
I was disgusted by this until I remembered I took a selfie at the last funeral I went to. Now I’m okay with it.
Future Death. Future Dead Bodies. Future Cemeteries
Illustrated lecture by Dr. John Troyer, Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath
20th June 2013
Doors at 6:30 / Talk begins at 7:00 pm
Ticket price £7
The Last Tuesday Society at 11 Mare Street, London, E8 4RP
This coming Thursday, June 20, 2013 I’m giving a public talk for the Morbid Anatomy Library and the Last Tuesday Society in London. The Morbid Anatomy Library talks are normally located in the lovely Gowanus Canal area of Brooklyn (don’t pay any attention its Superfund site classification) but its Librarian-in-Chief Joanna Ebenstein is currently in London to organise this lecture series.
Joanna has been a good friend to the Death Reference Desk and one of our earliest supporters. Indeed, the very first Morbid Anatomy talk that I ever gave (in Brooklyn) was in July 2009. That was the same month and year that Death Ref launched.
It’s been an adventurous four years.
So come to this talk on Thursday if you can or, even better, go to one of the many other fantastic talks curated by Joanna at the Last Tuesday Society.
You will not be disappointed.
Future Death. Future Dead Bodies. Future Cemeteries
Illustrated lecture by Dr. John Troyer, Deputy Director of the Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath
20th June 2013
Doors at 6:30 / Talk begins at 7:00 pm
Ticket price £7
Approximately 1500 people die every day across the United Kingdom, roughly one person a minute. And unless you are a person who works in a profession connected to the dying, chances are good you rarely (if ever) see any of these 1500 dead bodies. More importantly– do you and your next of kin know what you want done with your dead body when you die? In the future, of course, since it’s easier to think that way. Dr. John Troyer, from the Centre for Death & Society, University of Bath, will discuss three kinds of postmortem futures: Future Death, Future Dead Bodies, and Future Cemeteries. Central to these Futures is the human corpse and its use in new forms of body disposal technology, digital technology platforms, and definitions of death.
Dr John Troyer
Dr. John Troyer is the Deputy Director of the Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath. His interdisciplinary research focuses on contemporary memorialisation practices, concepts of spatial historiography, and the dead body?s relationship with technology. Dr. Troyer is also a theatre director and installation artist with extensive experience in site-specific performance across the United States and Europe. He is a co-founder of the Death Reference Desk website (http://www.deathreferencedesk.org) and a frequent commentator for the BBC. His forthcoming book, Technologies of the Human Corpse (published by the University of North Carolina Press), will appear in 2013.
The Last Tuesday Society is honoured to house this exhibition and lecture series cultivated in collaboration with Joanna Ebenstein of the rightfully venerated ‘Morbid Anatomy’ Library, Museum & Blog.
Talks take place at The Last Tuesday Society at 11 Mare Street, London, E8 4RP
The entire TEDx event was organized exceptionally well, and I was impressed by all the speakers. I usually count on at least one speaker who completely blows it and becomes that guy (because it’s almost always one of the male speakers) so that I can be relieved that I wasn’t that guy. But no.
What really stands out for me from the day is the live drawing being done by artist Nat Al-Tahhan as each of us spoke. Nat drew images reflecting our talks, while we spoke, and she nailed the day down. I love the images. You can see them here.
I’m fairly certain that Death Ref readers can determine when I spoke, based only on the drawings.
The video of my talk is now up and you can watch it on YouTube here or above.
Here’s a really interesting article on the cemetery used by Texas prison officials. These are for the unclaimed dead bodies of convicted prisoners, who are given a burial more respectful than you might expect out of this tough-on-crime state.
When the Death Reference Desk started in July 2009, we immediately began discussing death, dying, the dead body and the economy. You can read all of those posts in the Death + the Economy section. I mention these pieces on the postmortem economy (for lack of a better term) since most of the articles tell, and then eventually re-tell, the same story. The New York Times, as one example, has repeatedly run articles with the same basic lead: overall funeral costs have gotten so high that many Americans are choosing cremation instead of burial to save money.
The wider socio-economic picture is complicated but on the whole this analysis is correct. What makes this particular New York Times article slightly different than its progenitors is the focus on how different communities make funeral choices based on costs. The article discusses how African-Americans in parts of Virginia historically resisted cremation since it suggested poverty. There are some significant religious reasons involved too, i.e., a long tradition of the Black Church funeral complete with a burial.
The shift towards cremation for American funerals will not change. Indeed, it appears that more Americans than not will be choosing cremation in the very near future.
Yes, He Sold Fakes. They Are Supposed to Be Fake.
Jeffrey E. Singer and Corey Kilgannon, The New York Times (August 24, 2011)
Paper imitations of luxury items are traditional at Chinese funerals as gifts for the dead, but a seller of cardboard handbags was arrested on copyright-infringement charges on Tuesday.
Ok ok. So the the Fook On Sing Funeral Supplies store on Mulberry Street wasn’t raided, per se, but one of its workers (Wing Su Mak) was arrested by the New York police for offering to sell cardboard reproductions of high-end consumer goods, including authentic cardboard Burberry and Louis Vuitton handbags.
The use of cardboard replicas in Chinese funerals, which go in the casket with the deceased and then are incinerated during cremation, is a long-standing funereal custom. And since this is a long-time tradition it means that the objects people want in the casket also change with the times. Ergo, the cardboard swag.
I have been in the Fook On Sing Funeral Supplies store on Mulberry street and purchased cardboard replicas of items which I proudly display in my office. One of my favorite purchases was the cardboard laptop computer with the Apple computer apple on it.
Come and get me Coppers!!!
The people at Fook On Sing are also really nice and when I visited the store in April 2011, Wing Su Mak took time to explain why people wanted the newer kinds of objects.
So here is what will hopefully happen in the coming days: The NYPD will say sorry for making a mistake and all charges will be dropped. I can only hope that this entire situation becomes the proverbial ‘teachable moment.’
If not, then look out NYPD. You’re going to have the world of Death Studies Scholars leaping to Fook On Sing Funeral Supplies’ legal defense.
And that, my friends, will be no joke.
Fook On Sing Funeral Supplies Inc photo at top by Adam Elmquist
It has been one week since President Obama announced that Osama Bin Laden was dead. I happened to be in New York City when the announcement was made so I immediately began taking stock of the entire situation. Within the annals of infamous dead bodies (Eva Peron, Hitler, Che Guevara, Mao, Lenin, etc.) Bin Laden’s corpse is an important specter for twenty-first century human history. I began collecting news articles on what exactly happened to Bin Laden’s dead body since I knew that controversy was sure to follow.
My first inkling that something was askew came on Monday morning when National Public Radio reported that Bin Laden received a sea burial with full Muslim funeral rites. I’m not a Muslim burial rites specialist but at no time have I ever read about a Muslim burial at sea. The Death Reference Desk has certainly covered contemporary (mostly American) Muslim burial practices and you can read that information here. But even the most contemporary, American Muslim traditions still hew to much older Islamic funeral traditions.
Over the course of last week much back and forth ensued over what exactly happened to Bin Laden’s dead body and how, if at all, it conformed to Islamic funeral practices. Slate.com’s Explainer column posted one of the first good pieces on the entire concept: Bin Laden Sleeps With the Fishes. Central to what occurred was a choice by US Government Officials (I can only assume that this starts with President Obama) that burying Bin Laden anywhere would be problematic. This is a point that many people discussed so I won’t belabor it.
There is one place, however, that I imagine could be used for a “proper” burial and that is Guantanamo Bay. But even mentioning that scenario would create global havoc. That said, I bet money that Gitmo got mentioned by someone and then quickly passed over.
As a result, Osama Bin Laden’s dead body got put in the ocean because the United States wanted to get rid of it. I don’t think that the narrative is much more complicated than that. The use of Muslim funeral rites are nice but what happened to Bin Laden’s body was not a particularly Muslim burial.
Here’s the rub: that might not be a problem. In Sunday’s New York Times, Vanderbilt University history professor Leor Halevi wrote an a particularly good op/ed piece on this very topic, linked at the top of the page. Halevi’s article is the best that I have come across to date. Here’s the crux:
Bin Laden’s religious status is a matter of contention among Muslims. On one end of the spectrum are Muslims who consider him an outsider to Islam: if not quite an apostate, a terrorist whose right to an official Muslim prayer is debatable at best. (In 2005 the Islamic Commission of Spain essentially excommunicated Bin Laden, arguing that he should not be treated as a Muslim.) They must find it as perplexing as I do that the United States government granted the man it identified not as a Muslim, but as a “mass murderer of Muslims,” the dubious honor of a quasi-Islamic funeral.
On the other end are Muslims who believe that Bin Laden is now enjoying the blessings of martyrdom. From a theological perspective, it matters little to them how Americans on the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson disposed of the corpse.
Which is all to say that Bin Laden’s burial was doctrinally irrelevant to some Muslims, and confusing to others. Most of the rest feel uneasy. Perhaps the United States could not have avoided that. But a deeper understanding of the history of Islam’s sacred law could have prevented us from seeming so at sea.
Here is what I know for sure: by the middle of this coming week everyone in America will be talking about something else and that over time conversations will come and go, mostly amongst academics, on whether or not Osama Bin Laden got a proper funeral.
The more immediate political question focuses on whether or not the photo(s) of Bin Laden’s dead body should be released. This question, too, will go away by the middle of the week. The photos were not released now but they will surface in the future. How soon is an open question but we will eventually see the images.
The On The Media program at the top has several good radio segments on Bin Laden, his dead body, and the future of his memory.
I have a hunch that Meg, Kim, and I will be discussing Osama Bin Laden’s dead body again in the near future since America has a long history of dealing with the infamous dead and in ways that keep those infamous dead bodies very much alive.
A short post on a perennial topic for the Death Reference Desk: how the dead body is transformed into some kind of cash value. Rarely, if ever, does this postmortem value involve direct cash exchanges, mostly because the law frowns upon such things. No, these are situations where a dead body is handed over to an institution of some kind in exchange for compensation of some kind.
So, as this article discusses, families donate a body to the Indiana University Medical School and in exchange for their donation receive significantly reduced if not totally free funeral services. More often than not, this means that the cremation of the remains (post dismemberment, more or less, by medical students) is covered by the institution receiving the body.
Most American medical schools accept cadaver donations and gladly thank the next-of-kin with a non-cash gift of some kind. It’s true that even though money isn’t being exchanged there is still a quid pro quo involved…but not too many people that participate in any of this complain.
The bigger question to ask is this: What happens when medical schools, for example, start paying families with cold, hard cash for a dead body? The historians amongst you will already be thinking about Burke and Hare in Scotland, and that’s the historical example that usually scuttles these kinds of questions.
But I’m not so sure, given the economic conditions which many people currently face, that it won’t come to pass.
We’ve been adding story after story about these kinds of dead body transactions and you can see them all here: Death + the Economy.
Never say never…especially when dead bodies are involved.
Yet again, the Gray Lady is reporting on a story that is not particularly new. Or, at least, a new story for the funeral industry. I first read about webcasting funerals in 2002. Indeed, the funeral industry trade journals all discuss webscasting and webpresence and web death (for lack of a better term) nonstop.
The great irony of funeral webcasting (for me at least) is that the modern American funeral developed around waiting for people to arrive for a funeral. One of the reasons embalming became so prevalent in US funerals was that it allowed the preserved dead body to be shipped on a train without decomposing. Embalming also created time for the next-of-kin to arrive for a funeral, without worrying that prolonged travel would cause problems with the body. So, in nutshell, the modern funeral developed around travel time to funerals.
Postmortem Space and Time was expanded.
Webcasting inverts the whole situation. The need for travel time or to ship the body is being greatly reduced. There isn’t anything good or bad with this situation. It does mean that more people will have access to a funeral (given access to the required technology) and that’s certainly better than nothing.
And the webcasting trend is most certainly the future for most funeral services.
The question I always ask myself is this: What is lost by not attending the funeral in person? If anything? Given the choice, I will always attend a funeral in person. My own personal interactions with the other attendees and the deceased individual are important experiences.
I say all this now but I have strong suspicion that in the coming years I will end up “attending” a webcast funeral.
It seems inevitable at this point.
In an effort to find a YouTube video of an actual funeral being webcast I came across the follow advert. This was not entirely what I wanted to use…but it was too good to pass up.
The Great Recession changed the way many people live—and its repercussions appear to be altering how some people choose to die. At least two prominent tissue banks have seen an increase in the number of individuals who are interested in donating their bodies to research in exchange for a break in funeral costs.
This is isn’t an entirely new story: people donating their postmortem brains for medical science research in order to save on funeral costs. Death Ref has featured regular stories on this very topic in the Death + the Economy section. In fact, at one point in Autumn 2009 the Body Farm at the University of Tennessee stopped accepting dead bodies because it had received too many unclaimed bodies from local morgues. The Body Farm studies dead body decomposition, as well as other postmortem issues, to assist forensic investigators. Unclaimed dead bodies are not that extraordinary but the 2009 situation was different. In many cases, next-of-kin knew that the body was at the county morgue but couldn’t afford to retrieve said corpse.
So the uptick in cadaveric brain donation for research, and by extension a cut in funeral expenses is hardly surprising.
Indeed, the brain donation example is one of the current ways that the human corpse is being redefined as a source of biovalue.
Not purely a commodity but something rather close to it.