Lately, archaeologists have been a bit concerned about memes. No, not because they’re trying to perfect their comedic skills – rather, there’s been a relatively recent rash of popular memes that were derived from several big archaeological finds. For example, a nearly complete human skeleton was recovered in Pompeii, originally interpreted to have been crushed to death while fleeing the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE. The image used to publicise this excavation – a skeleton whose head has been obfuscated by a stone slab – ended up being used by many as a meme on social media like Twitter and Facebook. This led to a further discussion by archaeologists across the Internet on respecting human remains and whether or not it was ethical to make memes out of recovered bodies, regardless of the age and unknown identity (Finn 2018).
Although the main concern with this “meme-ification” of the dead is the ethics at play (for more on the ethics of human remains on display, see my blog post on selfies with human remains in the recent Tomb Raider game), I’m more interested in why memes utilising the dead – or associated with death and dying – are so popular these days.
Let’s talk about late capitalism and how it shapes the average young person’s everyday life, shall we?
Millennials have had the utmost misfortune to reach young adulthood (the “pivotal years”, as many call this time period) during late capitalism. This means that, as a generational group, they are significantly poorer than previous generations (O’Connor 2018), with a growing number unable to even save money (Elkins 2018) from a severe lack of fair wages. This is the generational group that is leaving higher education with high amounts of debt, only to find a feeble job market that demands long hours for little pay. It’s a pretty bleak future that young people seem to have inherited, so it’s honestly hard to blame them for developing such a morbid sense of humour that utilises iconography and imagery associated with death to express such futility in a way that’s become palatable for everyone else.
What interests me the most as an archaeologist is how this affects our perception of death and dying in modern times. Morbid memes may be contributing to a sort of desensitisation of dying, to the point where it has become no longer taboo or fearful to speak of the dead – in fact, people actively make fun of the dead and the concept of dying. I would argue that this could be seen as the opposite effect that the Positive Death Movement is having, which strives to cultivate a more positive and respectful attitude towards death. I think, as archaeologists, we definitely need to push back against the meme-ification of the dead as violation of ethics – but I also think we should consider why this has become a trend, how the socio-political characteristics of the world at large can cause these things to become popular, and how we can take this approach and apply it to our interpretations of the past.
Elkins, K. (2018) A Growing Percentage of Millennials Have Absolutely Nothing Saved. CBNBC. Retrieved from https://www.cnbc.com/2018/02/09/a-growing-percentage-of-millennials-have-absolutely-nothing-saved.html
Finn, E. (2018) Pompeii Should Teach Us to Celebrate People’s Lives, Not Mock Their Death. The Conversation. Retrieved from http://theconversation.com/pompeii-should-teach-us-to-celebrate-peoples-lives-not-mock-their-death-97632
O’Connor, S. (2018) Millennials Poorer than Previous Generations, Data Show. Financial Times. Retrieved from https://www.ft.com/content/81343d9e-187b-11e8-9e9c-25c814761640