Where is the Line Between “Respectful” and “Objectifying”? Some Thoughts on Death Positivity and Academia.

I recently finished reading Caitlyn Doughty’s book, From Here to Eternity: Travelling the World to Find the Good Death (2017), which I absolutely loved. As an archaeologist whose research is partially focused on funerary archaeologies, I was happy to find a non-judgemental book detailing the diversity of death practices and cultures around the world. However, I couldn’t help but wonder about “death positivity” (for example, see Doughty’s movement for more positive and normalised engagement with death and dying – see more in this blog post) within academia…what actually is the line between “respectful” and “objectifying”?

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Note: This is a 3D-printed replica of a human skull.

For starters, let me note that Doughty makes clear that her death positivity movement, known as The Order of the Good Death, is based on respect – particularly in regards to the deceased person’s wishes, the cultural values and ways in which death is engaged with that are non-Western/European, and not viewing said death cultures as “oddities” (Doughty 2011, Kelly 2017). In this blog post, however, I am speaking of “death positivity” as a broader movement, which includes but is not exclusive to Doughty’s specific approach. In particular, I am interested in the sort of “death positivity” that  appears in research disciplines and fields that are intimately connected to death studies, such as bioarchaeology and osteology.

As someone who works within these fields, I have a lot of first hand experience of seeing how academics engage with death, both as a concept and as a tangible thing in the form of remains. Amongst some academics, it’s hard not to shake this feeling of pride in their hands-on engagement with the dead – whether it’s by writing about death freely and without fear in literature and papers and texts, or by trying to share these positive interactions with others through hands-on workshops and demonstrations and, again, death positive movements, to show that there is nothing to fear from the dead or from death itself.

But at what point can “respect” cross into “objectification”? Many archaeologists decorate their offices with models of skeletons – sometimes even with real human bones – is that respectful adoration of their research subjects, or reduction of human remains to their ornamental value (side note: I am currently writing this from my home office which is covered with animal bones – both real and fake – so this is not me trying to be sanctimonious or preachy!)? What about how we approach physical analysis of the dead? I know some scientists who refer to their research subjects by name and treat them as though they were alive – on the opposite side, I also know scientists who give unnamed individuals names of their choosing and develop nicknames or imaginary backstories. Is this humanising their research subjects? Or is it (unintentionally) demonstrating dominance over the narrative of a deceased person’s life (and death)?

Perhaps the most serious example of this question is when it crosses paths with research ethics – for example, when a skeleton that could be considered scientifically important for X reason is also being called for immediate repatriation and reburial by the deceased person’s living descendants (Lambert 2012). Is refusing to repatriate these remains until scientific analysis is done a sign of “respect” – in that the deceased person is now (posthumously) contributed to scientific knowledge – or is it “objectification” – in that the deceased person is reduced to data? I’d like to believe that most scientists today would agree with the latter and choose to repatriate and rebury the remains…but, unfortunately, there are still those who decry these acts of respect as “social justice gone awry” or “anti-science”.

I don’t blame folks who think the idea of physical analysis of human remains as a whole could be disrespectful (not including situations in which one has the deceased person’s consent to donate their body to science, of course). Archaeological research of human remains has resulted in a greater understanding of the past and the people who lived within it…but often as the result of racist, colonial approaches that dehumanises and objectifies others. Science has (finally!) begun to take ethical considerations seriously, but we still have a long way to go to regain a semblance of morality in the grander scheme of things.

As with many – if not all! –  of these blog posts, I don’t necessarily have an answer to the overarching question. I think there’s less to debate with regards to repatriation cases, particularly when it concerns the bodies of Indigenous ancestors. But, despite how circular and perhaps unanswerable these thoughts and questions may be, I wonder if we, as academics and scientists who work with death, need to think more about our actions and how we ultimately contribute to death cultures today.

References

Doughty, C. (2011) The Tenets of the Death Positive Movement. The Order of the Good Death. Retrieved from http://www.orderofthegooddeath.com/death-positive.

Doughty, C. (2017) From Here to Eternity: Travelling the World to Find the Good Death. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Kelly, K. (2017) Welcome the Reaper: Caitlyn Doughty and the ‘Death Positivity’ Movement. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/oct/27/caitlin-doughty-death-positivity

Lambert, P.M. (2012) Ethics and Issues in the Use of Human Skeletal Remains in Paleopathology. In A.L. Grauer (ed) A Companion to Paleopathology. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 17-33.

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“Death Positivity” for Pets: Are We Changing Our Attitudes Towards the Death Of Animals?

Content Warning – Today’s blog post will talk at length about animal death and will have some photos of taxidermy animals. Please proceed with caution and feel free to skip the blog post entirely if this is too upsetting.

Screenshot_2018-10-30 Death Salon on Instagram “Our director_s personal haul from #deathsalonboston including moulagedecire[...]
Caitlyn Doughty, founder of the Order of the Good Death, gives a talk at a Death Salon event in Seattle (Photo Credit: @DeathSalon on Instagram)
The “Death Positivity” movement has truly become part of the mainstream discourse recently, ranging from a general increase in appreciation for all things aesthetically macabre, to more organized events that educate others on death and the culture surrounding it. Arguably at the forefront of this movement in the United States is Caitlyn Doughty, a mortician who started the Order of the Good Death as a means of engaging with death and dying in a more positive manner and combatting the anxieties that surround death in modern society (Troop 2013). Doughty eventually began working with other organizers to create “death salons” – based on 18th century intellectual salons, these events gather academics, professionals, and creatives (such as musicians, artists, performers, and even chefs!) together to discuss aspects of death and the culture around death (Rosenbloom 2013).

But while our attitudes towards human death may be changing, what about our attitudes towards animal death? This may be a more complicated question than I originally thought – after all, given our utilisation of animals as subsistence, product manufacturers, and sometimes companions, humans will find themselves constantly confronting animal death. However, there are two specific examples of recent trends that I’ve noticed as someone who consistently works with animal remains in their everyday life…

Screenshot_2018-10-30 Alex Fitzpatrick ( afitzpatrickarchaeology) • Instagram photos and videos
A typical array of “vulture culture” collections, processed and used in artwork by artist and seller Ossaflores (Photo Credit: @Ossaflores on Instagram)

Perhaps one example of changes towards animal death is the popularisation of “vulture culture” online – this term often refers to enthusiasts for collecting animal remains, either as skeletal elements or as taxidermies. Not everyone in the community processes their own remains, but everyone expresses a passion for collecting specimens via online sellers or by finding naturally defleshed remains in the wild. Some enthusiasts are also artists that incorporate animal remains into their artwork somehow.  It is usually emphasised that “vulture culture” collections are derived from naturally deceased animals as part of their ethics (Miller 2017).

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An example of “pet aftercare” in the form of full taxidermy, done by Precious Creatuer Taxidermy (Photo Credit: @PreciousCreature on Instagram)

Another example of “animal death positivity” could also be seen in the rise of pet mortuary businesses that specialise in “alternative aftercare”. This can either be as a full taxidermy piece, as a partial piece (for example, preserved tails or paws), or in skeletal form. Precious Creature Taxidermy, an alternative aftercare and taxidermy business run by Lauren Lysak in California, offers various aftercare services in lieu of what we may consider “traditional human funerary services” that includes the previously mentioned processes as well as cremation (Lysak 2018). Although it may seem a bit macabre to taxidermy one’s pet, you could also consider this as a deeper acceptance of death and its constant presence around all of us…in taxidermy form.

Screenshot_2018-10-30 Alex Fitzpatrick ( alexleefitz) • Instagram photos and videos

So, are we entering a new phase of “death positivity” with regards to animals? Do we even have a right to feeling “death positive” towards non-human species – after all, of course, many animal deaths are directly caused by human activities. I think that, ultimately, this is a very complicated topic that has many layers to it regarding concepts of posthumanism, of ethics, of agency, and so on – perhaps this requires another, more lengthy blog post! However, at least with regards to how humans experience the death of animals, specifically pets, I think we are making strides to better understanding the processes of death and utilising some aspects of “death positivity” as we apply it to humans in our overall understanding of the concept as a whole.

References

Lysak, L. (2018) About Precious Creature Taxidermy. Precious Creature Taxidermy. Retrieved from http://www.preciouscreaturetaxidermy.com/new-page.

Miller, L. (2017) What is Vulture Culture? Vulture Gear Blog. Retrieved from https://vulturegear.com/blogs/vulture-gear-blog/what-is-vulture-culture

Rosenbloom, M. (2013) Death Salon LA…and Beyond! Death Salon. Retrieved from https://deathsalon.org/2013/11/04/death-salon-la-and-beyond/.

Troop, S. (2013) Death Salon Interviews Caitlyn Doughty. Death Salon. Retrieved from https://deathsalon.org/2013/10/02/death-salon-interviews-caitlin-doughty/.