Examining the culture of death

The Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research hosted a symposium titled Life of the Corpse. We spoke to Pamila Gupta, one of the organisers.

Where did the idea for the discourse on the corpse come from?
The corpse elicits a range of issues from a variety of academic disciplines. So the idea for the symposium started as a conversation between myself and colleagues Debbie Posel, director of the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (Wiser), and senior researcher Achille Mbembe.

We had each worked on death and death practices but coming from different academic disciplines and intellectual developments. We initiated a study group with the purpose to pose a variety of theoretical questions around the corpse and to think through a variety of specific historical and ethnographic contexts. We were a group of roughly 20 participants, coming from different backgrounds, specialities and interests. We met regularly over an eight-week period. The symposium then grew out of the many conversations we had in the study group—particularly questions around the dualistic life of the corpse—as a material object as much as a signifier of wider political, economic, cultural, ideological and theological endeavours.

In exploring the topic of dead persons and populations, we addressed five central concerns: defining and bounding the human, disgust and the erotic, revisiting the secular, rethinking sovereignty and recasting governmentality. In other words, we wanted to use the corpse as a lens on the nature of our humanity and sociality, as well as the workings of power, sovereignty and religion.

Why does the work of the German anatomist Gunther van Haagans provoke such a range of responses of admiration, curiosity and horror for his Body Worlds exhibition?
His provocation is something we need to fully contend with, not just dismiss as artistic license, as his popularity says something about changing relationships to corpses, death and regeneration.

His exhibition was extremely popular for a reason. Also the focus on corpses itself was crucial, for so many approaches to death studies fail to look at the physical, literal corpse, instead looking at the metaphorics of bodies and death.

We wanted to take a somewhat more novel approach by keeping to the corpse itself, the way it has been handled once it reaches death and is in a stage of close putrefaction.

How do we return its humanity when it is close to being merely a piece of rotting flesh that needs to be disposed of? Issues of etiquette, burial, mourning, the afterlife, ritual, all become crucial for understanding how different societies deal with corpses.

We could argue that in South Africa we have too many corpses. Have we become obsessed and desensitised about dead bodies?
Yes, we have become almost de-sensitised to dead bodies, which are increasingly removed to the hands of death experts who handle the dead so that we don’t have to deal with it. We barely see the newly dead now.
We have also become very obsessed with death, I think, but maybe because we understand it so little and because we are surrounded by it, both in the media and in our daily lives.

There does seem to be a growing audience for the spectacle of corpses and death. Issues of transgression and taboo are always there with regard to corpses and are very much tied to taboos of eating and sex.

Why does the idea of cannibalism horrify us so?
Because it forces us to think about what a corpse is actually. That is exactly the point about South Africa, we have too many corpses, both Aids bodies and others, in particular from car accidents and violent crime.

How much does the way one dies have to do with the way his/her corpse is treated in death? And why is that we don’t know what happens to these corpses. What about the racialised corpse during apartheid, when blacks and whites were treated differently in death/burial? There is also the unmarked migrant corpse.

What to do with his/her corpse if there is no place that we can call home for this person?
By focusing on the corpse in South Africa we can also say something about contemporary society, culture and politics and suggest that the high numbers of death in South Africa need to be reckoned with and are about so many other societal issues that need to be addressed. So even death refigures itself in post-apartheid South Africa.

What constitutes a rightful burial for loved ones?
There are concerns around mass death and mass corpses, for instance following the tsunami and 9/11. The question is how to account for the dead, and give families a right to their loved one’s bodies or parts, or DNA samples even.

There are different cultures of death that different societies reconcile themselves with, including examples where the corpse itself is immaterial or the corpse is cremated, or individuals go off to die alone ... all of these death practices suggest the power of the corpse as a lens on to so many other processes—issues of humanity, animality, sovereignty, governmentality, religious practice, theology, sexuality, eroticism, disgust, pleasure, as well as the fact that we are running out of space for the newly dead.

What is the future of society’s corpses? To be buried vertically to take up less space, cremation, cryogenics organ donorship, increased cannibalism?
One thing that we realised is that we clearly had not finished our conversation around the life of the corpse.

Pamila Gupta is a researcher at Wiser

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