As noted in a previous post, I’ve recently just published a co-edited book on archaeology and death today: Archaeologists and the Dead. This is an academic book about how archaeological professionals and academics engage with contemporary society and its attitudes and practices surrounding death. Yet we didn’t really include what I talk about here, how mortuary archaeology affects the personal engagements with mortality of mortuary archaeologists. I want to write briefly about my dealings with death today as a mortuary archaeologist.
Death affects us all. The loss of pets, friends and family, the losses of those who matter to friends and family, the loss of public figures and celebrities who we collectively share virtual experiences of. Death is sometimes shocking and unexpected, sometimes a long struggle and long expected.
This year has seen a long trail of news reporting and commenting on the deaths of celebrities. Moreover, as an academic in his early 40s, it is horrifying to increasingly learn the deaths of archaeologists I have known appearing regularity in my Twitter and Facebook feeds.
Furthermore, in my work as editor in recent years, I’ve had to edit the work of dying and dead archaeologists: people I never even met but whose work was known to me and whom I helped with key incomplete publications.
Also, death has also touched my family, with the passing away of kind and generous people who my family have known and respected.
Positives: I can perhaps put these deaths into context and think on how they are being honoured and remembered in relation to broader trends in long-term history. I might reflect on mortuary practices from prehistory to recent decades and their spatial and material dimensions. I am more familiar than most to encounter both ancient tombs and modern ash-scatterings with the same academic curiosity. Therefore, writing about the deaths of people both from long ago and far away, and those close at home and recent, helps me to contextualise the deaths of those that affect me personally.
Also, being a mortuary archaeologist makes me particularly attentive to the range of euphemisms, metaphors, spaces and materialities by which death today is situated. I see through some of the ways that our society uses to shroud death, frame it, package it and sell it. I have now got a track-record of publishing on ‘contemporary archaeology’: the archaeology of us, looking at such issues.
I’m also aware that death has become part of identity. I recognise it is something to joke about as well as be serious over. Death is sad and disturbing, but also uncanny and funny, whether we like it or not.
Still, it would be a lie to claim that I feel confident and prepared to articulate my own beliefs, emotions and feelings about death any more than anyone else. Like many, I feel unsure what to say, how to act, when and how to articulate my own senses of loss and equally how to behave to communicate with the bereaved.
Most of all, I fear the expectation that I will be able to cope with death more than others. I’m not a man of God, a doctor or an undertaker. I study death, I don’t live with it. I don’t have some special connection with death and I don’t work at the ‘sharp end’: daily digging up skeletons or investigating cadavers during criminal investigations. I simply study outcomes: bodies and tombs, artefacts and substances, spaces and places.
Looking to the future, there are many more deaths coming. For those I’m around to witness, but also for my own, I wonder what my archaeodeath training will do for me.