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).
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.
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.
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…
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).
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.
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.
Content Warning: This post will be talking a lot about death and the emotional resonance of dead bodies, both human and non-human. No images of human remains will be shown, but there will be images of non-skeletal (mummified) dead animals, so if this may be upsetting, please skip this post.
I was on Twitter the other day when I came across a Tweet about the recent archaeological discovery of the well-preserved body of a dog that had recently been recovered from permafrost in Siberia (Siberian Times Reporter 2018). Looking at photos of the dog’s paws, which still have some fur, I thought, “Oh, how sad.” And yet, I work with animal remains all the time! So what is so different about these remains?
This dog is one of a couple of recent, well-preserved finds in Siberia – in August, a preserved body of a foal (young horse) was recovered (Associated Press 2018), and just weeks after the dog recovery, the well-preserved remains of a 50,000 year old lion cub was also found (Gertcyk 2018). Note the language and imagery used in these articles – Gertcyk refers to the lion cub as “cute” with significant emphasis of how young the lion was at death, the Siberian Times article on the dog makes certain to stress how some of the fur is still present, and an additional article on the foal by Michelle Starr (2018) utilises up-close photos of the hooves, face, and nose of the foal which were especially well-preserved.
Focusing on the young age of the animals – and how this increases the “cuteness” factor, so to speak – is arguably a tactic to incite sympathy and emotion, as well as relatability. This is also seen in human advertisements, especially regarding charity and other social activism for the sake of the living – this phenomenon has been widely studied, with many philosophical and psychological explanations given for why this is both so widespread and effective (Seu 2015). With regards to the dead, emphasis of youth also invokes an emotional reaction akin to something like grief – a life not fully lived, innocence struck down too early.
What is more interesting, and perhaps more effective in evoking an emotional reaction is the constant emphasis of preservation. The ability for viewers to see the recognisable, the things we associate with the living, is what helps in empathising with the body. A very evocative example is the bog body (which you can read more about here, CW: for a photo of actual human remains). The high level of preservation caused by bogs results in such a recognisable appearance that it creates a sensation that Wright (2017) refers to as the “sublime” – an interplay between empathy for the recognised humanity and also a sort of horror at the personification of death. It can be argued that it is this unique ability of bog bodies to invoke such an emotional reactional that led to the numerous art and prose inspired by them – take, for instance, Seamus Heaney’s work.
The power of such reactions may also be evident from the response to a lack of recognisable features. Mummies, for instance, are technically well-preserved bodies. Yet the concealed nature of most mummies creates a need for additional elements to invoke more empathy and relatability; this is further explored by Day (2013), who questions the necessity of facial reconstructions of Egyptian mummified bodies in order for Western audiences to “relate” better to them.
Of course, this is not to say that just “fleshy bits” – skin, hair, fur, etc. – necessarily equate to instant empathy. There is an element of “intactness” that also must be present. The preserved animals that have been previously discussed in this blog post have all been more or less completely intact, again a testament to their preservation. Separating an element, like a limb, from the body would most likely invoke a reaction closer to horror, as we often associate such separation with mutilation and other acts of violence, even if the separation is caused naturally by more taphonomic means.
So, if we accept the argument that having these “preserved” elements causes empathy and emotional reactions, then perhaps we must also accept that there may be some truth to the reverse of this – that skeletal remains, both animal and human, are more difficult to empathise with. To an extent, this is certainly true for animal remains – skeletal animals are often see without issue at museums, in decoration and jewellery, and in the past sometimes utilised for tools and materials. The caveat to this, of course, is the last few decades during which animal rights activism has become more prevalent and acceptable in the public eye.
As for human remains, there is a long and lengthy history regarding the ethicality of display that is also intertwined with colonialist and racist scientific practices. It has only been recently that the repatriation of human remains – specifically those of Indigenous peoples – have become generally accepted as the “right thing to do” by the general public, although of course there remains some within anthropology, archaeology, and museums who fight against the act of repatriation in the name of “scientific process”, despite the horrific racial and colonial implications of said process. Even more recently, this debate has turned towards exhibitions that utilise real human remains to educate others about the body – touring exhibitions such as BodyWorlds have been as extremely controversial as they have also been extremely popular (Redman 2016).
Perhaps another blog post is necessary to further explore the ethicality regarding human remains, both in display and in analytical practice.As technology and preservation practices continue to advance, what new obstacles will we face with regards to our ability to preserve and display the dead? Redman (2016) perhaps offers the best glimpse at what troubles might be ahead, mentioning that BodyWorlds often runs into the issue of displaying the human body like an art piece, rather than an actual person. May there be a time when our conception of the body becomes so far removed that we no longer empathise with the dead, even as well preserved as they are? What does this mean for the future of ethics?