Star Wars: The Force Awakens, is now the fastest money-making Hollywood movie in the history of the galaxy. Its teaser trailer 2, full trailer and full film incorporate the single most iconic artefact of the entire Star Wars franchise in a pivotal role. It appears in Episode VII as a crematifact. This item of material culture beats all the individual characters/actors themselves, the Millennium Falcon, TIE fighters, X-wings, light sabres, star destroyers and the death stars as key images from the films. This object is readily recognisable by millions of people wordwide.
I speak of course about the mask of Darth Vader. Inspired by historical armour from the Far East, but resonating with grotesque masks from a range of anthropological and historical traditions, this might be regarded as the science fiction version of the Sutton Hoo Mound 1 helmet. I say this in the sense that it is a singularly striking and universally recognised anthropomorphic icon in the modern world.
Cremating Darth Vader
The mask – through the personality and aura it created through its ability to channel voice, breathing and performance, as much as conceal the wearer’s appearance, is pivotal to the identity of the Sith Lord in episodes IV, V and VI. Star Wars Episode VI, 1983’s Return of the Jedi ends with Luke Skywalker cremating Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader in his armour.
The funeral is envisaged as a private act of mourning as well as a public end to the suffering and evil of the dark side of the Force. It is a way to articulate the end of evil forever and it has been influential on the subsequent use of cremation in a range of Hollywood films. It seems that some Star Wars fans view this as a cenotaphic cremation of the armour alone, with Anakin’s body joining the Force in the same fashion as Obiwan and Yoda.
I must confess I always presumed that Anakin’s body was within it on the pyre. I leave that point to Star Wars fans to debate. Whether empty or filled with a cadaver, burning the armour is complementary to the spiritual release of Anakin’s body, whether the latter was burned or simply dissipated to join the Force. The destruction of the image of Vader’s evil self can be seen as enacting Anakin’s own wishes, as well as serving to fulfil Luke’s own mourning for his father, and more widely it articulates the triumph of the light side of the Force’s through the agency of fire.
Cremation has a rather basic write-up as a disposal method by Star Wars fans here, suggesting it had practical and spiritual components to it in the Star Wars universe as in ours. It is considered a single-phase mortuary practice – burning the body – and as is usual in popular discussions, limited attention is given to the post-cremation treatment of the ashes/cremains in sci-fi as in some older discussions by archaeologists.
This has become a movie death cliche: a pyre with the hero (or very small group of key characters) as mourner, whether the deceased was good or evil, friend or foe. It is a way that good but troubled or tragic, and sometimes completely evil characters, are disposed of and honoured in death by the good guys at the end of films.
The Jedi seem to favour cremation. Qui-Gonn Jinn’s body gets an honourable cremation on Naboo in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Incidentally, what becomes of his bones, we are not told.
The Mask Strikes Back!
In the new filmes, supposedly a generation later and yet everyone holding implausibly dim recollections of events taking place only a few decades earlier, we see the bad guys back as The First Order. In case someone might consider their intentions benign and original in their plans for galaxy-wide domination, they pursue an almost identical strategy of creating a death star and the annihilation of worlds. This extends to emulating exactly the material culture and vehicles of the Empire in the previous films: an obsession with white, red and black armour, the same spaceships (with a few new additions and adaptations) and certainly the same broody expressions.
Amidst this resurgence of evil, Vader’s mask has been somehow retrieved from its pyre on Endor and is a focus of veneration by the new Sith Lord wannabe: Darth Vader’s grandson, Kylo Ren.
We encounter Kylo Ren brooding/praying over the mask in private. It is discernibly Vader’s face, and yet the distortion of heat renders it a shell. The broken mouth-guard now has the appearance of hideous teeth. The helmet as a whole has lost its former symmetry; the left-side of the object’s neck-guard is gone for example. The colour has also changed and it lacks its former lustre.
Twisted and evil most assuredly!
It seems that fans of the film and the genre of Star Wars are fascinated by how Kylo Ren got hold of Darth Vader’s mask. That matters less to me than this being a striking and rare instance where Hollywood pays attention to the post-cremation history of burned artefacts. This is important for me as an archaeologist, since post-cremation buried ‘cremains’ are what archaeologists contend with across large parts of the world from early prehistory to recent times. This popular Hollywood sci-fi depiction serves to illustrate the potential mnemonic (and perhaps magical) power of a cremated artefact in modern science fiction narratives as a ‘relic’: a means of conveying memories and the force of the personality of its wielder/possessor: Darth Vader. It is a very clear public reflection on our widespread modern mortuary practices of retrieving ashes and retaining mementos of the dead.
As far as I understand the Star Wars universe, it is living beings that are connected by the Force, but I’m informed by sci-fi fans that in the broader Star Wars universe, it can be artefacts too. So might we presume that, like Sauron’s One Ring, Vader’s mask could retain his personality in a spiritual sense? What does Kylo think? Likewise, why does he need to acquire Skywalker’s light sabre if it is merely an object? I suspect that the mask is indeed regarded as a conveyor of Vader’s personality and identity, and perhaps also regarded by Ren as a conduit to his grandfather’s spiritual power.
Then there is the power of Kylo’s own mask. We at least learn in Episode VII that Kylo Ren, when he removes his mask, doesn’t seem to need it. It is itself a mimicking of Vader’s headgear rather than a necessity due to deformity or to conceal his identity. Like Vader’s mask, it transforms his identity, yet simultaneously to alludes to his dead mentor through the one artefact in his possession: Vader’s cremated mask.
In a science fiction context, this raises important cultural issues regarding the power of cremation in human societies as a visual and public fiery transformation of the dead. In a society where cremation takes place in ovens and human remains are cremulated (ground down) for return to mourners and/or scattering and burial, we are fascinated in the opposite: open-air cremation and the retrieval of discernible items post-cremation by relatives for circulation among the survivors. This is found within a range of contemporary literature and media. In particular, it reveals the literary power of cremated artefacts – crematifacts – retrieved and curated long after the pyre has died down as a focus of mourning, reflection and identity-creation.
I would suggest that crematifacts are often ambiguous and powerful, and powerful through their ambiguity. Part body, part thing, crematifacts convey memories and identities beyond the pyre and the grave and in some examples they are regarded as retaining the personality or influence of their previous owners.
From an archaeological perspective, it is worth noting that this is exactly the kind of feature we find sometimes taking place in cremating societies in the archaeological record; artefacts passing through cremation fires can be reworked and circulated, selectively refashioned and displayed. Scrutinising, divining through, possessing and wielding cremains and artefacts associated with them can be strategies of connecting to ancestors and creating new visions of past, present and future. Ashes and crematifacts can be curated and provide powerful mnemonic connections between the living and the dead following the burning of the body. I have discussed in various academic publications about early medieval cremation in Britain and Scandinavia and contemporary societies.
This relates to wider trends on modern cremation practices. Things connected with cremation in the modern world can sometimes be widely valued today, kept at home, interred in grave-plots or scattered at favoured locales, or transformed into new artefacts from diamonds to LP records. Cremation is not an end, we often want to retain and adapt, display and keep, ashes and items that have been through the fire, whether it is ashes, prosthetics or in rare occasions artefacts.
It seems that, in the human past and sometimes in the present, artefacts that pass through the fire needn’t be destroyed or rendered inanimate; they can become more powerful than we can possibly imagine. Star Wars Episode VII seems to shed light on these wider trends and I hope to use this as a way into this discussion of the significance of crematifacts in my teaching.
As during his life, Vader’s mask is ambivalent, even for the dark side, by being part artefact and part body. In Episode VII, it becomes a memento mori and an emotive and mobilising artefact for Kylo Ren in his desire to follow and complete the legacy of his grandfather. It seems to inspire and torture him.
In this fictional context, cremation is starting to be portrayed as not an end but as a transformation. This is no revelation to archaeologists, anthropologists and sociologists who have long considered cremation in this fashion, despite its many varied uses across time and space. Yet in Episode VII we find that a long time ago in a galaxy far far away, cremation was deployed to release the spirit but also it could foster the persistence of traces of the dead. In the case of Vader, this allows the dark side of the Force to rise again. The Force reawakens, in part it seems, through Vader’s mask. A useful analogy and inspiration for thinking about the very stuff archaeologists dig up all the time!