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by Ruth Penfold-Mounce Julie Rugg and Jack Denham
28th October 2021

Death has been described as an ‘undiscovered country’ in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and by JM Barrie’s character Peter Pan as an ‘awfully big adventure’. Human mortality is an unavoidable and recurring theme in novels, films, poetry, artwork and music. Death might be feared by many or perceived as a taboo but ultimately it cannot be ignored.

Death is an inherently cultural phenomenon. How death is portrayed and understood within a society and the rituals that surround a death are affected by cultural values held within different societies. Mexico is famous for its ‘Day of the Dead’ and Halloween is rooted in death and the paranormal. Human mortality sculpts how lives are lived and how death is marked by the living. It raises the challenge of the disposal of remains and how bonds can long continue with the dead after their physical form is gone.

An interest in mortality as a focus for sociological investigation began to gather at a serious pace in the early 1990s. Since that time, ‘death studies’ have expanded rapidly as an interdisciplinary endeavour. Initial emphases were on end-of-life care, the psychology of bereavement and funerary ritual but this has started to change. Now death scholarship encompasses broader cultural understandings of the ways in which the many aspects of mortality inhabit daily encounters, practices and artistic expressions. Consciousness of mortality is not just for Halloween; it haunts the very essence of being human.

The Death and Culture book series

We are scholars from different academic disciplines and with differing interests and approaches to the study of death. However, we are united in our vision and commitment for cultivating and promoting a sociological space in which ideas and work relating to mortality can be explored. We seek to recentralise the study of death in sociology and to offer a space for a cultural approach to the sociology of mortality.

As Death Studies expands to forge new interdisciplinary links, scholars across the globe are starting to explore the ways in which their discipline can engage with mortality and its various expressions. The Bristol University Press Death and Culture book series aims to gather together these disparate strands of new research to focus more closely on popular and cultural engagement with mortality. The series is committed to publishing innovative and vibrant sociological approaches to the study of mortality. It is a publishing space that seeks to showcase research working with death from multiple angles.

The book series (in its previous Emerald iteration) has so far touched on deviant undertones in the places of mortality, in exploring the execution site of highwayman Dick Turpin and the Cromwell Street home of serial killers Fred and Rose West. There has been discussion of the posthumous careers of celebrities, which provokes questions about ownership and exploitation. Death has always been consumed for pleasure in film, fiction or theatre, for example. But our edited collection on gaming frames a new context for engaging with, mediating, expanding and refining an understanding of what it means to ‘play’ with mortality.

The book series aims to expand explorations of the ways in which death leaves material and visual reminders, for example through post-mortem photography and tattoos. Indeed, the memorialisation of dead pets through tattoos is a reminder that human deaths are not the only death we can encounter.

A focus on culture underlines the ways in which mortality is constantly mediated through specific contexts. An explosion in largely unmediated digital expression has challenged the boundaries of an ‘acceptable’ response to mortality. As death becomes more democratic and unbounded, the social space it inhabits is becoming increasingly financialised. Changing funerary practice evidences a battle between the commercial and the authentic. Globalisation is undermining ‘westernised’ paradigms of what it means to die. Arguably, our responses to mortality are now self-curated cross-cultural ‘mash-ups’ drawn from popular culture. The book series invites proposals that speak to this remarkably broad agenda.

Approaches to the study of death

Sociocultural approaches to death, dying and the dead in the Death and Culture book series are diverse and reflect how the thanatological imagination (meaning how to study, talk or engage with death imaginatively) can be inspired. It reflects how creative approaches and perspectives on death make important contributions to existing debates and questions around death, dying and the dead.

The influence and impact of death on people’s lives, choices and views lie at the heart of the study of death in the context of culture. How this changes over time and new developments are all critical to understanding public engagement with mortality.

Researching death is not just about the recent pandemic, or about assisted dying or end-of-life care. It is these things but also so much more: it is about how life is celebrated after death, how memorialisation changes, how people perceive their mortality and how global society consumes death for pleasure. Death is not just for Halloween – it is for every day of the year, for every person and every society around the world.

 

Ruth Penfold-Mounce, University of York, Julie Rugg, University of York and Jack Denham, York St John University.

Find out more about the Death and Culture series here.

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Image credit: Mathias P.R. Reding on Unsplash