Essay: Performing Death (NGG Conference Religious Studies, 2018)

In the autumn of 2018, I attented the yearly conference of the NGG (Nederlands Genootschap voor Godsdienstwetenschap). The overarching theme was ‘Interpreting Rituals’. Keynote lectures and paper sessions shed a light on a broad variety of topics, challenging me and the other research master students on the spot to search for challenging perspectives. The paper that I am sharing serves as a reflection on the conference and one of its pivotal themes. I wrote it in the aftermath of the event, but the case study that I used will be the starting point for another paper on David Bowie and performativity, which I will hopefully produce this spring.

Death or a performance of Death?
NGG’s conference on ritual and the paradox of hidden spectacles

Tim Bouwhuis

‘’In a ritual, the world as lived and the world as imagined (…) turn out to be the same world’’[1]

The topics of ‘death’ and ‘death mentalities’ have everything to do with ‘Interpreting Rituals’, the overarching theme of NGG’s last conference in Leiden (October 2018). Once a human being dies, rituals and mentalities are all around. The assessment that ‘death is always an event’ appeared to be one of the starting points in two interconnected panel discussions on death mentalities.[2]

In this reflection essay, I intend to outline some of the questions and considerations that were shared by four of the attending scholars, namely Martin Hoondert (University of Tilburg), Joanna Wojtkowiak (Universiteit voor Humanistiek), Brenda Mathijssen (University of Groningen) and Janieke Bruin-Mollenhorst (University of Tilburg).[3] Although the focus of most research (projects) was on particular Dutch contexts, the presentations encouraged attendants (including myself) to think beyond the broad angles that the presenters already provided. In an attempt to revive this stimulating mode of thought, I reason from three underlying goals: 1) to interconnect, as much as possible, the central questions and ideas of the four presentations that I will refer to, 2) to merge these questions and ideas with insights from other scholars (i.e. mainly Philippe Ariès and Michael Hviid Jacobsen) within this particular field of research and 3) to come up with a final suggestion for a future paper of my own.

Ritual and meaning

‘Meaning’ is a difficult term in the context of death mentalities. How could we possibly look beyond the ‘uniqueness’ of separate death cases and mourning processes, should we assume that meaning is mainly something that mourning relatives attribute to the death of their loved ones by themselves? It is no coincidence that most presenters refer to the work of Philippe Ariès (1914-1984) in their own understanding(s) of death mentalities. Besides being the prevailing authority in the scholarly field, Ariès did not limit his research to the thoughts and writings of people in their socio-historical circumstances; instead, he paid ample attention to practices. As a result, ‘meaning’ got to be understood within a broader scope. Not only do we need practices beside or in addition to ideas and images to reflect upon death mentalities, these practices, in the words of Martin Hoondert, [actually] ‘’express and produce the death mentalities’’.[4]

Hoonderts research concerns the ongoing ritualization of mourning and disposal processes through material culture in the Netherlands. During his presentation, Hoondert stated that the introduction of the so-called TOLAD (Totem of Life and Death) in 2017 had been the most immediate cause for conference participation. The TOLAD is a walking stick, designed to scatter the remains of a death person during a ‘group walk’.[5] The relatives can take turns holding the stick, which gives them the opportunity to have an equal share in the process of mourning.

Image 1: TOLAD (source: https://npk.nl/project/cycle-of-rituals/)

There is no ‘transcendental’ meaning of death in the TOLAD case study. Instead, the meaning is in the ritual. The relatives gradually lose the remains of their loved one to nature, the weight of the TOLAD lessens.[6] Death becomes a part of the landscape. According to Hoondert, this philosophy implies an holistic worldview. Death is an element in the natural circle of life, ashes and nature become one.[7]

Celebrating life or hiding death?

The TOLAD is exemplary for contemporary rituals that, quite paradoxically, center around interpretations of life rather than death. Many rituals that Joanna Wojtkowiak located in the pluralistic contexts of secular and Western funerals and memorials can be characterized as ‘life-centered’ or a ‘celebration of life’.[8] This observation connects with one of Brenda Mathijssens focus points in her research on Dutch (secular) death mentalities and post-mortem care, namely the semantic and practical euphemisms that are used to address death people. In language, a corpse sometimes becomes a ‘diseased body’; in practice, relatives can do the make-up of the deceased when he or she has already been dressed. A euphemism, be it semantic or in practice, is a means to an end. It can help us to deny or conceal death, or, more strongly put, to exclude ‘death’ from the discourse of the living.[9] Death becomes the Other. And indeed, how can we talk about ‘corpses’ if we use make-up to aestheticize the body?

Wojtkowiak and Mathijssen both ask themselves whether or not death is still something ‘hidden and forbidden’ (in line with Ariès’s general conceptualization of 19th and early 20th century Western death mentalities) in the context of their contemporary research. Mathijssen locates an initial pro-argument in the preparation process of the body in the Dutch funerary industry, that is set in motion immediately after a person has died. Once his or her death has been confirmed, professionals from the sector arrive to take the body away. While the dressed or ‘constructed’ body (I will come back to that term in a moment) frequently becomes a significant part of the mourning process, the unprepared corpse and the preparation process indeed remain ‘hidden and forbidden’. Mathijssen deliberately counters her own argument in favor of the hidden death when she pays attention to a significant current shift in the funerary industry. The quote from uitvaart.nl that she uses in her presentation is rather telling:

‘’Not so long ago, surviving relatives were usually not present during this matter, but it was performed by ‘men in black suits’. Fortunately, a lot has changed in recent years, and relatives increasingly want to be involved in giving care to their deceased loved one. It is encouraging, and it offers comfort, to personally fulfill a task during the nursing. This can play a positive role in processing the grief.[10]

The shift to an increase in post-mortem care impels Mathijssen to introduce and explain the notion of the ‘accessible’ or ‘constructed’ body. Access is no longer restricted to ‘men in black suits’; instead, the relatives have the freedom of choice and the agency to ‘’make a statement or claim, to honour the deceased, [and] to shape a post-mortem identity’’.[11]

Wojtkowiak addresses the concept of forbidden death in a more figurative way, which might be one of the main reasons that she (albeit latently) seems to perpetuate the idea of a forbidden death at the very end of her presentation.[12] She uses Arnold van Genneps classical idea of the ‘threshold of transformation’ (between life and death, 1909) to argue that, in contemporary ‘life-centered’ rituals, this threshold is not really crossed because sadness and grief are often excluded. In line with the exclusion of these emotions/processes central to death, you could argue that death is still hidden in ritual. If you celebrate life you don’t have to think about death; it’s the memory that lives on.[13]

Death as spectacle

In a thought-provoking 2016 essay, the Danish sociologist Michael Hviid Jacobsen generally argues against the continuing discursive use of Ariès’s forbidden death-phase. Not only does he state that contemporary Western ‘society’ (singular, surprisingly) is moving away from the denial of death and the rule of taboo that characterized the forbidden death, he also proposes a fifth phase that could serve to replace the now obsolete conceptualization of his greatly admired predecessor.[14] ‘Spectacular Death’, deliberately formulated after Guy Debords society of the spectacle (1967), designates a ‘’revival of interest in death, dying and bereavement’’, in which we ‘’see the rise of new rituals and the reappearance and reinvention of old ones in many ceremonial practices [and] media representations’’.[15]

As I will implicitly argue when I propose a future paper subject, Jacobsens conceptualization of the spectacular death may aptly serve to assess the abundancy of mediated death spectacles, especially when we look at celebrity culture and nearly standardized modes of performativity. To which extent, however, can we really assume that the idea of a ‘spectacular’ death, understood in terms of attention, obsession and public fascination, perfectly aligns with our actual attitudes towards death itself, that means, a real and unmediated death?[16]

Jacobsen paraphrases Debord when he says that a spectacle is something that we witness at a safe distance but hardly ever experience upfront. Jacobsen is hitting the nail on the head here, seemingly without realizing it himself. Wojtkowiaks question of aesthetic distance (under which circumstances is death too abstract? And when does the reality of death come too close?) cannot be answered positively when the actual experience of death remains hidden, in this case behind a façade of life-celebrations.[17] Witnessing the spectacle is an aesthetic experience that strictly separates the spectator and the spectacle itself; rather seldomly will we ourselves experience the actual phenomenon that is beyond the mediation.

The act of reading Jacobsen against the grain of his own argument reveals that some elements of Ariès’s forbidden death actually match some of the observations of Wojtkowiak, Mathijssen and Hoondert with regard to contemporary death mentalities, whereas Jacobsen prompts to use his elaborations on the work of Ariès to discern forbidden death and his own conceptual proposal. I already elaborated on Mathijssen’s own process of, be it slightly, moving away from the hidden body towards what she calls the accessible body. Whereas her focus on the ‘hidden’ preparation process firmly recalls Geoffrey Gorers statement that forbidden death typically involved processes of ‘securely locking away’ deceased persons, the subsequent examples of ‘opening up’ through literal access to the body hints at a ‘discourse of death’ that is evolving.[18] Nevertheless, the question remains whether or not this immanent revolution of personal care and openness is actually helping either the mourning process or the initial realization that a person is really gone. Indeed, the centrality of ‘life’ (cq Wojtkowiak) and the increasing discursive presence of eco-spirituality and holistic reinterpretations of the circle of life and death (cq Hoondert) may serve to exclude the actual reality of death altogether.

Bowie and the performance of death

A perfect example of a concealed death case can be found in the recent history of pop and celebrity culture. On January 10th, 2016, British pop icon David Bowie (1947-2016) died at the age of 69. The abrupt moment of this death came at a very particular moment in time: two days before Bowie passed away, he released a new studio album called Blackstar. It was January 8th, his birthday. Although most music critics had been in awe from the very moment of the release onwards, it took them two days to ‘read’ the songs in a completely different light. In Lazarus, one of the singles of the album, Bowie mystically sings:

‘’Look up here, I’m in heaven,
I’ve got scars that can’t be seen
I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen
Everybody knows me now’’

If you keep in mind that Bowie released Blackstar two days before his death, spontaneous thoughts might pop up immediately. ‘Staging’, ‘planning’, and maybe most prominently, ‘performing’ (‘’Everybody knows me know’’; note that Bowie had already been a notorious performer for over forty years). Let’s stick to the facts for now: Bowie knew that he was going to die. The diagnosis of liver cancer dated from 2014, but his direct relatives and colleagues were the only ones who knew.[19] Bowie deliberately hid his illness for the public, and of course he had every right: severe illness is a private matter. But when the public started to listen to Blackstar and look at the clips, it wasn’t. Not anymore. Lazarus, or better, the entire Blackstar-album, is a spectacle. It’s death itself, but we only witness it at a safe distance. Death has already happened; it was private, we didn’t know. What we see is the performance of death. The singer singing from heaven. The scars that couldn’t be seen before. Nobody knew the secret of the hidden death – almost nobody, until now.

Image 2: from David Bowie’s Lazarus (videoclip, YT) (source: https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/news/david-bowie-death-anniversay-the-last-five-years-lazarus-music-video-a7515581.html) (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y-JqH1M4Ya8).

Since the Bowie case only serves as a suggestion for an upcoming research paper (and I’m limited in my writing space), I won’t delve deep into this particular case study here and now. But I do think that David Bowie’s Lazarus could be what Ave Maria initially was in the scholarly work in progress that was presented by Janieke Bruin-Mollenhorst in Leiden: a telling example that relates to the various ways in which religion and music (and, in a similar way, film) can intertwine.[20] Moreover, the lyrics of Lazarus and the stunning way in which Bowie used a particular medium (i.e. the videoclip) to approach death is a tangible, outspokenly visual way, already serves as an invitation to specify the terms that may serve my scholarly purpose(s): spectacular death, performativity, hidden death and, indeed, ritual.  

Conclusion

Amazed by the astonishing imagery in the Lazarus video clip and the dozens of other examples that are certainly out there, I agree with one of Jacobsens catchphrases: death is all around, and it’s neither hidden nor forbidden.[21] Still the question remains which death we are talking about. Is it death itself or a performance of death? This particular question, I argue, is the elephant in Jacobsens paper. Furthermore, I hope that this particular view on the paradox of the phenomenon of death and Western death mentalities, in which visibility and interdiction go hand in hand, may provide a modestly refreshing and helpful line of thought for the scholarly spectacles that are yet to be performed.  

Tim Bouwhuis (Religious Studies, University of Utrecht)

This reflection essay was written in the context of the Noster Grand Course (research school), NGG Conference, Leiden, October 2018.

For my elaborations on the work of the four scholars, I have used the text document (Hoondert) and the presentations (Wojtkowiak, Mathijssen, Bruin-Mollenhorst) that were provided to me by the authors.

Bibliography

Books

Ariès, P. Western Attitudes toward Death from the Middle Ages to the present. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1974.
Ariès, P. The Hour of Our Death. London: Allen Lane, 1981.

Articles

Geertz, C. ‘’Religion as a cultural system’’. In: The interpretation of cultures: selected essays. Fontana: Fontana Press, 1993.
Gorer, G. ‘’The Pornography of Death’’. Encounter 5 (1955): 49-52. Weblink: https://www.romolocapuano.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/Gorer.pdf. Accessed Monday 26th, 2018.
Jacobsen, M.H. ‘’’’Spectacular Death’’- Proposing a New Fifth Phase to Philippe Ariès’s Admirable History of Death’’. Humanities 5, 19 (2016): 1-20.
Penfold-Mounce, Ruth. ‘’Corpses, popular culture and forensic science: public obsession with death’’.
Mortality 21 (1) (2016): 19-35.
Wojtkowiak, J. ‘’Towards a psychology of ritual: a theoretical framework of transformative ritual in a globalizing world’’. Culture & Psychology 0 (0) (2018): 1-17.

Internet

Bowie, David. ‘’Lazarus’’. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y-JqH1M4Ya8. Accessed Wednesday 28th, 2018.
Den Boer, Monica. ‘’Initiatiefnota Moderne Uitvaartwet’’. https://d66.nl/content/uploads/sites/2/2018/11/Initiatiefnota-Moderne-Uitvaartwet.pdf. Accessed Saturday 24th, 2018.
Nos.nl. ‘’Cremeren, begraven of resomeren? ‘Composteren lijkt mij nou perfect’’’. https://nos.nl/artikel/2259013-cremeren-begraven-of-resomeren-composteren-lijkt-mij-nou-perfect.html. Accessed Sunday 25th, 2018.
Rayner, Gordon and Hannah Furness. ‘’How David Bowie turned his own death into a piece of art after keeping terminal cancer a secret’’. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/music-news/12093704/How-David-Bowie-turned-his-own-death-into-a-piece-of-art-after-keeping-terminal-cancer-a-secret.html?2.  Accessed Wednesday 28th, 2018.
Ross, Eleanor. ‘’David Bowie: Robert Fox says nobody knew that star was ill because ‘that’s what he wanted’’. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/david-bowie-robert-fox-says-nobody-knew-star-was-ill-and-thats-what-he-wanted-a6817816.html. Accessed Wednesday 28th, 2018.


Notes

[1] C. Geertz, ‘’Religion as a cultural system’’, in: The interpretation of cultures (Fontana: Fontana University Press, 1993), 112.

[2] Sessions 18, 20, programme book NGG conference.

[3] I got permission to do this from all four scholars that are mentioned and/or quoted in this essay.

[4] M. Hoondert, ‘’Renewal in the material culture of cremations since 2000’’. Text provided by the author.

[5] The idea of a group walk is strengthened by the suggestive nature of the word ‘Totem’ in ‘Totem of Life and Death’. As Hoondert writes in his paper, the word evokes Durkheims view on religion as a socio-cultural product that serves to bring people together. In this context, ‘death’ takes the place of ‘religion’, being the main cause for their ritual walk and gathering.

[6] Does the walk stem to free the relatives of a burden? In Hoonderts paper, it’s both a suggestion and a question, presumably because the idea of ‘losing a burden’ sounds contradictory in relation to (authentic) processes of mourning.

[7] Note the eco-spiritual component here: the ashes also ‘feed the earth and create new life’ (Hoondert). Thus, the TOLAD fits into a development of environmental-ethical disposal initiatives within the Netherlands. Two weeks after the conference, NOS posted a news article about future extensions of the current ‘disposal dilemma’ (choose between a funeral and a cremation). The article refers to a plea from D66 party member Monica den Boer to ‘modernize’ the funerary industry. The three options/techniques that are mentioned include resomation, promession (cryomation) and composting. They have one thing in common: they are more ‘friendly’ to the environment than a (still) normative funeral. See: https://nos.nl/artikel/2259013-cremeren-begraven-of-resomeren-composteren-lijkt-mij-nou-perfect.html. Moreover, Den Boer proposes in her ‘initiatiefnota’ (https://d66.nl/content/uploads/sites/2/2018/11/Initiatiefnota-Moderne-Uitvaartwet.pdf) to permit ‘nature burials’ by law.

[8] This is the first time that the word ‘secular’ pops up in my essay, and this will happen a few more times. Most of the presenters (mainly Mathijssen, Bruin-Mollenhorst) used the term to either characterize the Dutch funerary/cremation industry (secular industry) or (to) question it: what does the term entail precisely? Where should we situate the boundaries? And what happens when we, in the case of Mathijssen, ask whether or not we could speak of a certain ‘hegemonic norms’ in a secular context? The term hegemonic is reminiscent of Gramsci’s idea of cultural hegemony, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that his understanding of ideology can or should be applied or used without further reflection. Indeed, this is first and foremost an association of my own. I see an interesting connection though to Wojtkowiaks discussion of the word ‘secular’ within pluralistic, rather than ‘hegemonic’ or predominant contexts. To conclude, it might be very difficult to perpetuate using the term ‘secular’ without thoroughly assessing the implications. I have decided not to elaborate on this within the main text corpus: when the term is used, it is because the presenter/author did so to characterize his or her research context. 

[9] My own hypothesis here is that there might be tangible relations between the euphemisms that are used and the many discourses surrounding post/transhumanism and the ‘banning’ of death through progress in technology and medical care. Obviously, this is a significant debate that is neither ‘new’ nor untouched upon. Again, I won’t open up the discussion in this particular paper, but I do think that it’s worth looking into, especially in the context of current A.I. and medical developments (i.e. stretching mortality through technology and life extension). I refer to two quotes from Jacobsen (2016): ‘’Thus whereas the primary survival strategy was previously invested in the religiously grounded hope for eternal life beyond bodily existence, in modern society it was rather invested in the hope that medicine and later fitness and health would secure the bliss of immortality’’ (Ariès paraphrased by Jacobsen) and ‘’technically, we admit that we might die… But really, at heart we feel we are non-mortals’’. M.H. Jacobsen, ‘’’’’Spectacular Death’’- Proposing a New Fifth Phase to Philippe Ariès’s Admirable History of Death’’, Humanities 5 (19) (2016), 5. P. Ariès, Western Attitudes toward Death from the Middle Ages to the Present (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1974), 106.

[10] Mathijssen, NGG conference, powerpoint. Accessed December 2017.

[11] Mathijssen, NGG conference, powerpoint.

[12] In Wojtkowiaks powerpoint, one of the questions posed is whether or not we can still speak of Ariès’ hidden death nowadays and/or in the context of her research.

[13] Here, Wojtkowiak questions the very attitude Ariès ‘prophetically’ (cq Jacobsen) worried about with regard to the future of ‘life-celebrations’: ‘’They (i.e. ‘a small elite of anthropologists, sociologists and psychologists’) propose to reconcile death with happiness. Death must simply become the discreet but dignified exit of a peaceful person from a helpful society that is not torn, not even overly upset by the idea of a biological transition without significance, without pain or suffering, and ultimately without fear’’. P. Ariès, The Hour of Our Death (London: Allen Lane, 1981), 614.

[14] Jacobsen, ‘’’’Spectacular Death’’, 2, 14-15.

[15] Jacobsen, ‘’’’Spectacular Death’’, 2, 12.

[16] For my reference to attention, obsession and public fascination, one could turn to Geoffrey Gorer’s classical essay ‘’The Pornography of Death’’ (1955), or, for a more recent example, to Ruth Penfold-Mounces article on corpses and death in popular culture (2016).

[17] J. Wojtkowiak, ‘’Towards a psychology of ritual: a theoretical framework of transformative ritual in a globalizing world’’, Culture & Psychology 0 (0) (2018), 8.

[18] G. Gorer, ‘’The Pornography of Death’’, Encounter 5 (1955), 49-52.

[19] What’s important to (side)note here is that although Bowie knew he had terminal cancer a few months before, he didn’t know the exact moment of his death. While this may seem obvious, the ‘planning’ or ‘staging’-debate flourished when the release of Blackstar had turned out to be the prelude to Bowie’s real death. See: Eleanor Ross, ’’David Bowie: Robert Fox says nobody knew that star was ill because ‘that’s what he wanted’’’. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/david-bowie-robert-fox-says-nobody-knew-star-was-ill-and-thats-what-he-wanted-a6817816.html. Accessed Wednesday 28th, 2018. G. Rayner and H. Furness, ‘’How David Bowie turned his own death into a piece of art after keeping terminal cancer a secret’’. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/music-news/12093704/How-David-Bowie-turned-his-own-death-into-a-piece-of-art-after-keeping-terminal-cancer-a-secret.html?2. Accessed Wednesday 28th, 2018.

[20] To be a bit more specific here, Bruin-Mollenhorst mentioned three possible combinations: religious music in funerals, religion in funeral music and funeral music and religion. This overview was rather familiar to me because a similar approach is frequently taken by scholars who write introductory chapters on either religion and film or religion and popular culture.

[21] Jacobsen, ‘’’’Spectacular Death’’, 10.

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