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Domestication of Death

Project: Non-funded ProjectProjects

1/10/10 → …

Summary: Prof Sue Wise, Applied Social Science, Lancaster University Prof Liz Stanley, Sociology, University of Edinburgh. Do most deaths now take place in hospitals and nursing homes? What impact does this have for the person who is dying? What part do partners, friends and family play in this? How can death be 'coped with' when its presence is an absence? In what ways are people who have died and memories of them integrated in the lives of survivors and what 'melancholic objects' do they use to help in this? Were the Victorians morbid in producing mourning rings, taking plaster-casts of hands and photographing dead people or was there something deeper going on that we could learn from? Why is there so much present-day interest in memorialisation and does the internet produce or shape and not just support this? The Domestication of Death Project is concerned with exploring these and related questions, focusing on the period from 1840 to the present-day. It is organised around three interrelated themes: 'Theorising the domestication of death', 'Speaking of death' and 'Representing the ineffable': a number of detailed case studies link these themes.

Theorising the domestication of death

Theorising the domestication of death explores two related topics. The first involves revisiting the 'sequestration of death' and 'death taboo' theoretical arguments, both as arguments and by using the empirical data generated by the Project, to point up elisions in the sequestration thesis because of its over-generalised and abstract character. The second builds on Norbert Elias's ideas about the domestic figuration as a nexus for exploring links between the extra-domestic, the domestic, what is 'privy' from others, and the public, to investigate how sequestration and domestication are in practice parallel sets of organisation and activities, rather than the former replacing the latter.

Speaking about death

The 'Speaking about death' component of the Project explores, using narrative interviews with two groups of people, the realities and representations of death as they have experienced them. The first interview study is UK-based and focuses on commercial photographers who work with major memorial websites in offering services for taking post-mortem photographs; a cross-section of such photographers will be interviewed about this work. The second interview study, also UK-based, will interview 20+ people over the age of 50 about their experiences of being responsible for, or being involved with, the death of people they were close to, in relation to domestic figuration and its role in relation to the processes of sequestration. One concern, among others, will be the importance, or otherwise, of photographs (of any kind) in the mourning process. The interviewees from the second study will also be invited to participate in a focus group discussion.

Representing the ineffable

'Representing the ineffable' is a historical inquiry researching the representation of dead familiars in post-mortem photography from the 1840s to the present-day, including in various related representational media from the 1990s on, and the role for some people that these play in the mourning process. It focuses on Britain, although also explores the relationship of nineteenth century migration and settler communities in practices in the imperial metropole, and also the impact of late twentieth and early twenty-first century developments in electronic media. It looks in detail at post-mortem photography in connection with early commercial photography, website 'art galleries', and memorial and commemoration websites.

(a) Commercial post-mortem photography in Britain 1842 to 1924

copyright records Kew: 1840-1924
commercial photographer day-books: August 1859-July 1868

(b) The return of the post-mortem dead - art galleries of death representations

Early Visual Media
Paul Frecker
Stanley Burns

(c) The electronic dead sleep to wake - memorial and commemoration websites


Case Studies

In addition, a number of detailed case studies of different aspects of post-mortem photography and representation are being carried out. These cover the period from the 1840s to the 2010s, using letters, diaries, memorial books and other written sources, and photographs, digital images and websites. The focus is mainly on the UK, although some case studies will explore issues concerning the representation of the ineffable more widely:

1840s-1860s - Roger Fenton 'Mother and daughter mourning a deceased baby' and 'Hush! lightly tread' 1857; and Henry Peach Robinson 'Fading Away' and 'She never told her love' 1858
1861 - Queen Victoria and Prince Albert: post-mortem photograph, Oakley/Le Port painting
1864 - Camille Silvy 'Portrait ordered by R.H.Appleyard'
1867/8 - Matthew Arnold and Basil Arnold
1882 - Lord Frederick Cavendish: hospital post-mortem and lying in state
1903 - Olive Schreiner, Rebecca Schreiner and settler state post-mortem representations
1920 - portraits of Cherry of St Albans
1987 - Che Guevara, the hands of Che
2004 - Susan Sontag in 'A Photographer's Life 1990-2005' by Annie Liebovitz
2007-2010 - Thanatos.com
2005-2010 - various memorial websites
2010 'Last portrait of Mother' by Daphne Todd


For further information about the Project and publications in progress, please contact:

Prof Sue Wise, Applied Social Science, Lancaster University: s.wise@lancaster.ac.uk

Prof Liz Stanley, Sociology, University of Edinburgh: liz.stanley@ed.ac.uk