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Archeological perspectives: stereotypes of death, burials, and long-held traditions

Sian Anthony is a researcher in Historical Archaeology. She defended her PhD titled, ‘Materialising modern cemeteries. Archaeological narratives of Assistens cemetery, Copenhagen,’ in November of 2016. She has worked as an archeologist in the UK and in Denmark. Her primary research interest is in the interaction between human behaviour, material culture and structural changes of society relating to the processes of modernity, industrialisation and capitalism.

This interview took place on the 29th of January, 2018. 


 

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“There’s a common idea that there is a death taboo. And I think that needs to be a little modified. I think there’s this idea that in the 20th century people stopped talking about death. I don’t think that’s necessarily true. How people dealt with death and handled it changed. It perhaps changed from very elaborate and public displays—but it didn’t just disappear, it didn’t just go underground. Perhaps we just haven’t learned to recognise where it is and where it isn’t.

I can say that death is all over the media, for instance. You can see wars, you can see people being executed on Youtube, or people being very open about their experience of dying. So I think there are other ways in which people are dealing with these things. I think we need a 21st century language of death. One which is perhaps more open. And I recognise the contradiction in what I’m saying. But, I refer to the ability for people to choose more what they want, and not just refer back to stereotypes.”

“Another example of stereotypes. When you think about this elaborated age of 19th century death, when you had everyone dressed in black and the hearse pulled by horses wearing plumes, you have to realise that there’s a minority of the population that could afford that. There’s a lot of research going into this elaborate and material funerary culture, which is really a cycle between consumers choosing to conspicuously consume and the funeral industry which encouraged this. However, poor people—they weren’t having these funerals. They were having pauper’s burials. Where a parish or authority of some kind would pay for the cheapest wooden box you could think of, placed within a communal burial space. This is seldom thought about. People have finally started to puncture these stereotypes.”

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