In the UK, it has been the hottest Hallowe’en on record and I have noticed this has turned mortuary archaeologists even spookier than ever!
Here’s my point: just because I have a blog about the archaeology of death, burial and commemoration in the human distant and recent past doesn’t mean I am going to push the boat out on Hallowe’en. On the contrary. For personal and professional reasons, I think it is a day when mortuary archaeologists and bioarchaeologists should continue as normal, or if they prefer, to take a break and shut up.
Ok, there are a raft of personal reasons that I personally dislike Hallowe’en.
First up, it has no pressing religious significance for me.
Second, I have five kids under 7 and sleep in our household is a precious resource. The kids’ evening meal, bath, bed-time stories and sleep are all the better for not being interrupted by other kids in costumes hanging on the bell begging for cheap sweets their parents can well afford to acquire for them, let alone the premature fireworks of those confused about the difference between Hallowe’en and Bonfire Night. My kids went to school Hallowe’en parties and had a special day-out, but it is logistically too difficult to engage with trick or treating.
Third, Hallowe’en happens to be a family birthday, and I’d rather celebrate that than some meaningless pseudo-pagan, pseudo-Christian, over-commercialised event that means next to nothing to most UK people involved.
Fourth, people die all year round, and two year’s ago a work colleague died on this day: so out of respect for his family and for people who have lost friends and family on this day,I am reluctant to take this day out for the mindless appropriation of things mortuary and macabre.
Now for professional reasons. The very reason I research and write about death is to explore the diversity and changing ways by which human populations have disposed of, and commemorated, the dead. So any public reporting of mortuary archaeology is good news at one level.
And humour shouldn’t be shirked. Sometimes I write about death seriously, sometimes I do it with humour. So I don’t object to the frivolous dimensions of Hallowe’en at all. Death and the dead are there to be joked about as much as they deserve respect; indeed one could arguing that joking about mortality is one way of showing it the respect it deserves and to respect not only the dead, but those who acted to honour and respect the dead.
Therefore, I accept that Hallowe’en provides one opportunity of connecting mortuary archaeology to contemporary celebrations and preoccupations and explore the spookier and more humorous dimensions of death and the dead in the human past. After all, the day of the dead is celebrated today and variations of it have deep historical roots. Whether you really believe this is a time when spirits are abroad or you join the fun of it all (unlike me: the Scrooge of All Hallow’s Eve), whether you take a serious side of it all or a lighter view of spooks and graves, Hallowe’en is a great time for considered engagements with mortuary archaeology and mortality more generally.
However, is this really an excuse to populate social media and archaeological news with a festival of random mortuary archaeology stories, stories about archaeological sites only tangentially connected with Hallowe’en as celebrated today (or indeed in the historic past), and photographs of random skulls and gravestones taken largely out of their cultural contexts? I’m not convinced it is. This outpouring perhaps reminds us that death is understood in varied ways across cultures, but it might also be taken to appropriate and conflate past practices as banal reflections of a universal modern capitalist norm of ignoring mortality 364 days of the year and then mocking it for one day. If we are going to explore and explain mortuary archaeology in the past, and identify its many relevant dimensions for the present, we should not ghetto it into ghoulish and grisly reporting on this day.
Moreover, I think this doesn’t help mortuary archaeologists to escape from criticisms that we are ghoulish nerds who treat graves, cemeteries and human remains as anything other than counter-cultural appendages to personal identities. I think graves and skeletons must remain our subjects of research, not our logos, toys or imaginary best friends. At best, this makes us look a tiny bit sad. At worst, I fear it might mislead people about what mortuary archaeology is about.
If you enjoy Hallowe’en, enjoy it and ignore me! If you don’t, be a kill-joy like me and sulk. Either way, perhaps we need to think more carefully about how we deal with the macabre and whether Hallowe’en helps or hinders in communicating research into death and the dead in the human past.
At the moment, my feeling is that Hallowe’en is best left alone and treated – in archaeological media terms – as just another day of life and death in the news cycle. In short, the archaeology of death – skulls, skeletons, graves and cemeteries, is for all year round, not just for Hallowe’en.
Now I’ve got that off my chest, I’m going to be a complete hypocrite now and write a post about grisly skulls from the Viking Age!