Virtual Afterlives
eBook - ePub

Virtual Afterlives

Grieving the Dead in the Twenty-First Century

Candi K. Cann

  1. 212 pages
  2. English
  3. ePUB (adapté aux mobiles)
  4. Disponible sur iOS et Android
eBook - ePub

Virtual Afterlives

Grieving the Dead in the Twenty-First Century

Candi K. Cann

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For millennia, the rituals of death and remembrance have been fixed by time and location, but in the twenty-first century, grieving has become a virtual phenomenon. Today, the dead live on through social media profiles, memorial websites, and saved voicemails that can be accessed at any time. This dramatic cultural shift has made the physical presence of death secondary to the psychological experience of mourning.

Virtual Afterlives investigates emerging popular bereavement traditions. Author Candi K. Cann examines new forms of grieving and evaluates how religion and the funeral industry have both contributed to mourning rituals despite their limited ability to remedy grief. As grieving traditions and locations shift, people are discovering new ways to memorialize their loved ones. Bodiless and spontaneous memorials like those at the sites of the shootings in Aurora and Newtown and the Boston Marathon bombing, as well as roadside memorials, car decals, and tattoos are contributing to a new bereavement language that crosses national boundaries and culture-specific perceptions of death.

Examining mourning practices in the United States in comparison to the broader background of practices in Asia and Latin America, Virtual Afterlives seeks to resituate death as a part of life and mourning as a unifying process that helps to create identities and narratives for communities. As technology changes the ways in which we experience death, this engaging study explores the culture of bereavement and the ways in which it, too, is being significantly transformed.

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The Bodiless Memorial

The Dis-location of the Body

Grieving without Bodies

Recent years have seen an upsurge in spontaneous and grassroots memorialization1 and the rise of popular memorials for the dead: the Columbine shooting memorial, the memorial of Diana outside Kensington Palace, the Oklahoma bombing memorial, the Aurora, Colorado, shootout memorial, the World Trade Center memorial,2 and most recently the Sandy Hook Elementary School memorial. In addition to these large specters of public memorialization, there has been an enormous upswing in local and personal memorialization. Erika Doss discusses this trend in her recent book, Memorial Mania, documenting the phenomenon of memorialization in popular culture and its growing popularity.3 The most curious aspect of this trend is the movement toward memorialization without the body. From spontaneous memorials to memorial services (as opposed to funerals), there is a key element missing: the dead body. Whether it is a memorial located at the place the body was last intact before its death, such as roadside memorials and the Sandy Hook Elementary memorial, or it is a memorial service held with cremated remains and no corpse, bodiless memorials are clearly indicative of the trend toward memorialization without bodies. In this chapter I address the displacement of the body in contemporary memorialization and question the possible problems and meanings behind this displacement. Then I analyze several of the more recent popular bodiless memorials that have emerged in the last ten years, including ghostbike memorials and memorials at the sites of the Nickel Mines tragedy, the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater shootout, and the Sandy Hook Elementary School killings.
The traditional purpose of the funeral is manyfold, but it has two primary functions: the ritual that allows the proper disposal of the body in a way that prepares the dead for the next phase of life after death, and the ritual working through of grief for the community that knew the dead person. Even those who do not believe in an afterlife, however, can acknowledge the funeral’s purpose of providing for the “correct” disposal of the dead. (Whether religious or merely sanitary, the disposal of the corpse is still a necessary aspect of the funeral.) Prevalent in the last 150 years, however, has been the (primarily Western) cultural view of the necessity of the viewing of the embalmed corpse as a part of the remaining community’s “grief work” over the dead person.4 Death rituals traditionally emphasize the dead body as central to the ritual itself, providing an encounter with the dead that allows the bereaved to personally confront death. What then do we do without a body? What does it mean when we memorialize at the site of death as opposed to the location of the dead body itself? Bodiless memorials offer a way to express one’s grief in a publicly sanctioned way, but without the confrontation of death and the corpse. Bodiless memorials—whether they are a spontaneous memorial at the site of death, or a service without the corpse—are a remembering and celebration of the body without the body. In short, a bodiless memorial is a disembodied memorial for the body. As Karen Wilson Baptist wrote about a personal memorial she attended in honor of a deceased colleague: “I sensed no comfort in this contemporary celebration of death. There was no casket, no urn, no body in the room. Nobody led us into ritual commemoration; rather there was an open microphone at the front of the room. Speak at will. Share a story. But we did not share stories nor did we sing laments together: there was no grave to attend to, no ashes to scatter.”5 Baptist goes on to write in this very personal encounter of how this bodiless memorial left her feeling emotionally disembodied—as though the deceased person being memorialized was somehow expected to be present yet gone—and how difficult this was for her own grief work. In short, the memorial allowed her to remember but not to encounter death itself. There is no space for grieving because without the encounter of the corpse itself, there is a fundamental denial of death, underscored by the missing body. The dead body has both figuratively and literally gone missing from death; but with this dis-placement of the body, death itself has become denied, and grieving itself becomes marginalized.
Bodies and their roles in death and bereavement can be highlighted by embalming—the desire to preserve them—and the emphasis placed on viewing them, or having them present. In this way, corpses become central actors in funerals and grieving ceremonies. The dead body, in its encounter by the grieving, actively helps in the bereavement process by impressing on the living that it is no longer present, but dead. But embalming also unnaturally preserves the body, and it is an attempt to preserve and present the body in such a way that it seems most like the living. Embalmment in the last century was not for the preservation of the body and its ultimate resurrection (as in ancient Egyptian society), but rather for the avoidance of the natural process of decay after death. In this way, embalmment was not, as it might first seem, a way of bringing us closer to the dead, but actually a way of further estranging us from them. The dead, as they are, are not presentable and acceptable company; they must first be sewn shut, stuffed, drained, transfused, and made up before we deem them acceptable. Dead bodies thus are no longer part of our lives unless they seem like the living.
Cremation, on the other extreme, completely obliterates the body so that it is no longer present. Cremation is on the rise in American funerary practices, while embalmment is still customary for the majority of deaths; but both are essentially ways of denying the body and the natural decomposition of the corpse. Embalmment, though it preserves the body so that it can participate in the funeral, does so in such a way that the horrors of death’s decay are in many ways ignored and disregarded; cremation, on the other hand, destroys the body altogether. Clark and Franzmann write, “The recent and current popularity of cremation in the West may increase the tendency to divorce death from place even further by completely disposing of the mortal remains and reducing the likelihood of a continued physical connection between the mourners and the deceased.”6 Embalmment and cremation are two opposite indicators of a similar phenomenon in which the natural body in the form of the corpse is denied.
Another element of this denial of bodily death and decay can be seen in coffin purchases in American funeral homes. Some funeral directors have noted that the most popular coffin purchases are those that promise protection from external deterioration; the irony, of course, is that bodily decomposition occurs from within. It is the body itself that causes the deterioration of the body—not the influence of outside elements introduced into the coffin. Nevertheless, the most expensive options offer special elements such as “hermetically sealed coffins” and coffins made of metal alloys that are least likely to deteriorate from natural elements. These “extras” are useless, however, in protecting the corpse from deterioration. (These expensive coffins can, though, confer status on both the dead and the grieving family within their community and so are not entirely without utility.) Embalmment, cremation, and the purchase of special coffins to prevent decomposition are all indicative of a greater cultural phenomenon: the denial of death through a denial of the corpse. The dead body should remain out of sight, or if it is to participate in the funeral, it should do so disguised as a living body, in a close approximation of the person he or she was when living.

The Hidden Body and the Agency of the Corpse

Corpses are powerful in their own way: they help create cemeteries and columbaria, shaping the deathscape and affecting the ways in which the dead intersect with the world of the living.7 Avril Maddrell and James Sidaway discuss the importance of funerals, cemeteries, columbaria, and the ways in which corpses help deathscapes become embedded with meaning.8 Corpses have long held meaning for the living, even conferring sacredness onto a world previously mapped as ordinary. Martyr and saint relics, for example, help bestow sanctification onto a place, mapping the power of the corpse onto a geographical location so that it is no longer ordinary but sacred. From the relics of saints and martyrs in European churches to those of the Buddha and the Buddhist saints in Asia, corpses (and pieces of corpses, whether finger bones, teeth, or drops of blood) as agents of power and sanctification demonstrate that corpses have not only agency over the physical landscapes of the living, but religious agency as well.
The political agency of corpses can be seen in the veneration of the bodies of the dead (such as Mao in modern China9 and Evita in Argentina10 and, most recently, in the burial at sea of the body of Osama bin Laden11). Dead bodies are not passive recipients of action but, in fact, have their own agency and are capable of having, giving, and transferring agency.12 Bodies in wars, suicide bombings, the World Trade Center attacks, or even the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings all take on a greater, more complex, and heavily imbued political meaning. Holocaust victims’ bodies become powerful reminders of the cruelty of extreme nationalism, and corpses of suicide bombings tell tales of extreme belief and desperation and individual agency in the face of bureaucratic systems that sometimes carry religious power and transfer righteousness to its venerators. World Trade Center corpses carry with them the weight of disbelief and a justification for a new style of warfare that no longer follows traditional rules of conflict. The Sandy Hook Elementary shooting victims’ bodies are inscribed with meaning, as they become powerful pawns in the battle over gun control and a questioning of the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment. Bodies in the form of corpses are important because they are powerful and can be inscribed, reinscribed, covered, hidden, destroyed, exhumed, and metaphorically resurrected in the world of the living. Corpses, however uncomfortable they may make us, are essential to our grief: as R. P. Harrison writes, “For what is a corpse if not the connatural image, or afterimage of the person who has vanished, leaving behind a lifeless likeness of him- or herself. If the corpse embodies or holds on to the person’s image at the moment of demise, funeral rites serve to disentangle that nexus and separate them into discrete entities with independent fates—the corpse consigned to earth or air, and the image assigned to the afterlife, whatever form that imaginary afterlife may take in this or that cultural framework.”13 The dead body, then, is not, as many have treated it, a passive and neutral actor in the funeral; rather, it is precisely because of the fear of its agency that dead bodies have recently been banished to reside in cemeteries on the city’s outskirts, or laid to rest and transformed into “natural” landscapes. The corpse is being disappeared from the realm of the living precisely because of its power and ability to make us uncomfortable.
What, then, does this mean for bodiless memorials? As Craig Young and Duncan Light write, “Dead bodies become material signifiers of power and agency. Why (or what meaning) then the need for bodiless memorials, where the body is secondary to the world of the living and its need for memorialization?”14 The living need the presence of the dead body to help them digest the absence of the dead, and yet memorialization seems to be favoring the act of remembering. The disappearance (or banishment) of dead bodies from the world of memorialization is as intentional as it is disturbing. As Baptist writes, “Suspended within the living flesh, the dead exhibit a material subjectivity that simultaneously exhibits both presence and absence, mass, and void. Grief could be said to be haunted by this paradoxically dichotomous subjectivity that is marked by the desire to maintain a continuing bond between the isolated state of the bereaved and the corporeally tangible dead that requires displacement in order to activate ‘recovery.’ ”15 Thus, the disappeared body returns; it returns to haunt, in its absence, its rightful place in the circle of death and dying, and it does this through memorialization. The body, even dead, demands recognition. Bodiless memorials, whether found on the roadside, in a ghostbike, or outside a movie theater, are the body’s way of remapping itself in the popular imagination, in much the same way that embalming erases signs of death and decay and returns the body, if only briefly, to the world of the living. What then, does this say about the place of memorials? What is the role of place in memorialization, if the body is not the focus?

Dis-locating Death: Sacred Space and Bodiless Place

Though dead bodies, or pieces of them, help sanctify a space, this act of sanctification is now no longer exclusively the realm of corpses, but also dependent on the memory of the living. The place of memorialization is important because of the memories of the living and the meaning assigned to the location in the context of grief and loss. Clark and Franzmann write, “The actual spot becomes sacred and is imbued with ritualized meaning by the creation of a memorial marker as a focus for grief and communication. Memorial makers feel authorized to claim that place for the deceased regardless of the designated purpose of that space.”16 In other words, it is not the dead body but, rather, the grief of the survivors that makes the place important. The need to memorialize, separate from the corpse, may be part of the impetus behind the proliferation of grassroots memorialization. In a world where the dead and their bodies are literally hidden, disappeared, or spirited away, memorialization offers a way in which survivors can reinscribe the dead into the realm of the living in a virtual and spatial way.17 Memorials, whether they are tattoos, social network sites, car decals, T-shirts, or roadside memorials, all take geographical (material or virtual) space and, in this way, offer a substitute—albeit cleaner, neater, more sanitary, and less scary—for the physical remnants of the corpse. Additionally, grieving individuals determine the location of these memorial spaces, unlike deathscapes; the grieving experience is no longer relegated to the outskirts of the city, the borderlands of the living, but reinserted into the quotidian lives of the living. Memorials are mapped onto the geographical contexts of the living, forcing the realm of death back into the realm of the living, in ways that are not always publicly sanctioned. Additionally, Baptist and Grey Gundaker claim that material objects often left at these bodiless memorials (usually personal artifacts or items of clothing that once belonged to the deceased) can operate as material substitutions for the deceased, standing in as socially acceptable forms of the corpse.18 As Baptist writes, “The pain of grief is evoked by corporeal withdrawal from the loved one. The material substitution for absence (the photograph, a familiar shirt, the roadside shrine in the landscape) creates a tangible presence for the dead, triggering pain but allowing the bereaved to direct their pain to something outside of the body. The pain of grief remains in the body until dispersed (although remnants always remain).”19 Not everyone welcomes this intrusion of the dead into the realm of the living, however, and some have protested memorials and their assumptive claims to secular space.20

The Body and Its Place in Asia

In both Japan and China the notion of place is integral to the understanding of death and the afterlife. In Japan, when one is born, one’s birth is typically registered with the local Shinto shrine; upon death, the deceased becom...

Table des matiĂšres

  1. Cover
  2. Half title
  3. Title
  4. Copyright
  5. Dedication
  6. Contents
  7. Preface
  8. Introduction
  9. 1. The Bodiless Memorial: The Dis-location of the Body
  10. 2. Wearing the Dead
  11. 3. Moving the Dead
  12. 4. Speaking to the Dead: Social Network Sites and Public Grieving
  13. 5. Grieving the Dead in Alternative Spaces
  14. Acknowledgments
  15. Appendix A: Interview Questions for Tattoo Artists
  16. Appendix B: Interview Questions for Car-Decal Memorial Manufacturers
  17. Notes
  18. Bibliography
  19. Index