The taboo body: How memorial practices avoid the corpse
The presence of the body is delicately avoided when people gather at...
My father was a very precise man, his training as an industrial chemist meant it was a matter of course for him to write down the exact details of every move he made in the laboratory - the exact volume and composition of every compound, the exact degrees of heat applied to test tubes and retorts. And he applied the same meticulousness to his death.
Long before his 70th birthday he produced a one page list of instructions which was simply headed: "After I've Gone". No church service, said number one; no speeches, said number two; no bringing body home, said number three; cremation not burial, said number four.
And then in brackets after this last directive was the simple phrase, which I suppose in his brusque way he put there as a way of consoling my mother: "I'm not there anymore."
For dad, death was death was death and that was it. He'd hardly have revelled in Hamlet's graveyard reflections on corpses:
Extract from Hamlet
How long will a man lie i' the earth ere he rot?
I' faith, if he be not rotten before he die--as we
have many pocky corses now-a-days, that will scarce
hold the laying in--he will last you some eight year
or nine year: a tanner will last you nine year.
Why he more than another?
Why, sir, his hide is so tanned with his trade, that
he will keep out water a great while; and your water
is a sore decayer of your whoreson dead body.
Here's a skull now; this skull has lain in the earth
three and twenty years.
Whose was it?
A whoreson mad fellow's it was: whose do you think it was?
Nay, I know not.
A pestilence on him for a mad rogue! This same skull,
sir, was Yorick's skull, the king's jester.
Let me see.
Takes the skull
Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio.
Reflections on dead bodies and their characteristics, which I learnt from a new research paper by Kate Woodthorpe, would be regarded as rather out of order in a modern graveyard.
Kate, who's a lecturer in sociology at the Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath, she calls her paper Buried Bodies in an East London Cemetery: Revisiting Taboo and she's now with me in the studio.
Let's just talk about this word "taboo". First of all, because I think I'm pretty familiar from having had other guests on this programme about the idea of there being a taboo surrounding death; historically we had a number of people who promoted this idea. Tell me a little bit about their argument.
The idea of taboo originated primarily in anthropology and there were some very famous anthropologists in the early 20th Century who wrote about the disposal of bodies and this idea of taboo.
This was taken forward in the 1950s, 1960s by sociologists and anthropologists - Geoffrey Gorer and Mary Douglas being some of the main names - who wrote about the idea that there's something very polluting about bodies and, Geoffrey Gorer in particular, has said that death has replaced sex as the pornography.
And there was the idea, wasn't there, that there was a time when people almost took death in their stride, when it was a tame thing: you all expected it, it happened all the time so it wasn't anything special. But now we've moved to a state where we really didn't want to know about it, it was like sequestration - we kept it out of sight.
Yes and it was concealed, hidden in hospitals, bodies were no longer dealt with in the home. That has been critiqued, though, because it's been said that that actually romanticises the past, and actually that suggests that somehow we're always wrong and the past was always better.
So people have come along and said really they didn't quite agree with this idea of there being a taboo?
It's been a pervasive theme within the greatly expanded field of death studies, which incorporates sociology, psychology, anthropology.
And what's emerged in the last 20 years has been a growing consensus that perhaps this is outdated - this idea that it's hidden - because death is all around us.
And [with] palliative care and things like that, we've come to terms with it more.
Yes. [For example] if you looked last week on the BBC there was big debates about showing death on that programme [Inside The Human Body] and it's everywhere - it's not hidden in the same way. That is one argument, yes.
Now of course you've come along and want to qualify this argument in turn,; and you do it with this particular project. Tell me about this little project. You went out to this East London cemetery and you spoke to people? Who did you speak to?
Well I went to the City of London, it was actually my doctoral research for a PhD, and I went into the cemetery and I spoke to visitors, I spoke to staff and I spoke to members of the local community and asking about what happens at the grave was one of the key themes within my research.
I spent a lot of time going up to people in a cemetery and approaching them and asking what they felt about what was going on.
And very surprisingly, most people were very keen to speak to me; they had a lot to say.
You were asking what they were doing there really, were you?
Yes, and what they were leaving on graves; how did they feel about the site and what was their perception of what other people were doing.
But interestingly, of course, you noticed that in their conversations about what they were doing and what was going on they weren't mentioning the body particularly.
No, this is what kept coming up and really got me thinking because, on the one hand, you have academics having a very theoretical abstract argument about taboo and sequestration and concealment; and then actually, there I was in a cemetery, speaking to people and they were first of all saying that death is taboo, but then also there was something going on - and that they weren't actually talking about people who were buried there.
You use that as the "residential euphemism" - they've come visiting someone, but they're not talking about really what it is they're visiting. They bring toys, sweets and all sorts of other things, don't they?
Yes, there's a lot of visiting going on.
But what I was finding is whilst they are actually going to the location of the buried body, so there's something very significant about that, they're not actually talking about the body, they'd use euphemisms.
So the person was sleeping there, or resting there - and they were going to join them at some point. People were even saying things like 'that's where his bedroom is now'.
And what is so delicious - sad as well I know – [is] the ways in which almost everything is talked about except the body itself. There's a lot of discussion, isn't there, about the plot and where the plot ends and....?
Oh, absolutely and a lot of containment. If anyone's interested in cemeteries I'd just say go down to your local cemetery and have a look because there are a lot of people trying to actually contain the integrity of the plot.
And also at the same time graves are constantly backfilled, so if there's any physical sign that the body underneath the ground is decomposing the grave will be backfilled.
And we can imagine there are going to be more anxieties about this following the publication of The Times survey of 300 local councils showing that the number of sites which are available for burial are getting dramatically reduced all the time.
Well, we're an island aren't we? We're going to run out of space eventually and grave reuse is one of the big issues within this country.
And I think central to that needs to be our relationship to those bodies.
When we're talking about the fact there is a taboo around the idea of the body breaking up or the body leaking or decomposing or whatever, there are just simply no references to that - except in the way in which the graves are almost constituted so that we aren't aware of those type of things happening.
That's what Mary Douglas has been particularly important in talking about - the leakage of bodies and how we have sanitised to prevent our actually encountering these horrible, gooey whatevers.
But your research would suggest that, in a way, some of those theories haven't been looking deep enough. If you begin to really start to talk about the bodies, and what's happening to the bodies, and the decomposition that's when you begin to discover the euphemisms, that's when you begin to discover the concealment, that's when you rediscover the taboo.
Yes and you need to start looking at the materiality of death. It's all good and well talking about very big sweeping statements about what death is in society, but I'm arguing 'no, you need to actually start looking at people's actual engagement with the stuff of death'.
And just tell me, do you see any changes in the way that we remember the dead, any differences? You're talking here about graveyards and burying, as we said, is something that's going to perhaps decrease in the future [because] It's costly - I think about £4,000 a time somebody said. But do you see memorialisation - more and more memorialisation but less and less reference to bodies and to, if you like, the corporeality of the whole event?
There's certainly a shift going on in what people are doing in cemeteries, in terms of they are perhaps not finding expression in the use of headstones, so they're going in and leaving lots and lots and lots of paraphernalia on graves; and that's becoming an increasing issue within cemeteries, and how that's managed, and I can't see that actually changing any time soon.
There's more and more stuff left, is there, in the same way that we've seen more and more flowers by the roadside and these types of shrines?
Absolutely. And it's a big issue in cemeteries of how that's managed and, like I say, I can't imagine that's going away any time soon because it's all to do with 'my rights' - this is my right to do what I want.
Kate's paper appears in a book called Deathscapes; Spaces for Death, Dying, Mourning and Remembrance edited by Avril Maddrell and James D Sidaway.
This discussion was originally broadcast as part of Thinking Allowed on BBC Radio 4, 18th May 2011.
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Originally published: Monday, 23rd May 2011
Last updated on: Monday, 23rd May 2011
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