Content warning: Death, & dying.
I was invited to speak at Museums Showoff WA this month about anything that interested me. After going through several options I settled on death positivity and GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums), especially as I spent half the night thinking about it. As it turns out I'm quite passionate about death positivity, I even have the t-shirt. Nine minutes isn’t long enough to cover everything I want to talk about so consider this to be an introduction, also note that I’m a lover not an expert!
The following is a transcript of the talk I gave at Museums Showoff WA on Thursday the 10th of May, 2018.
I want you all to do a small thought exercise with me. Firstly, think about one of your favourite dead authors (mine is Dorothy Parker), now think about your favourite cemetery (mine is Abney Park in London). What about your favourite mortician (mine is Caitlin Doughty). Oh, what’s that? You don’t have a favourite mortician? Huh. Weird. What about death artist? (Landis Blair) No? Post-mortem jewellery designer (Angela Kirkpatrick)? Not even an International Corpse Explorer? (Paul Kuoudounaris). Oh I know you must have a favourite death Librarian (Megan Rosenbloom) right?
Death is all around us in the GLAM world; we collect records, photographs, recordings, ephemera, and memories of the dead all the time. We may collect these things while people are still alive but the idea of a museum or archive is to keep those materials long after those who created or owned them are gone. Death in a GLAM institution can be seen as simply putting a close date in the $d subfield of an author’s 100 tag in a MARC record. You might even go all out and organise an exhibition to celebrate the life of someone, but where is the celebration of their death? This is where the death positivity movement comes in.
Going back a step, my favourite mortician is Caitlin Doughty, founder of the Order of the Good Death, creator and host of the Ask a Mortician YouTube series, and owner of Undertaking L.A.. Among all this is the attitude around having ‘a good death’, a concept that means different things for different people. A good death covers things like cultural and community practices, advanced directives, cremations, burial, viewings, or even seeing the sunset one last time. Whereas death positivity is about changing wider attitudes towards how we care for, celebrate, and interact with death.
The best way to experience death positivity would be to binge watch Caitlin’s YouTube videos, and I also recommend reading her books. I feel death positivity is a personal journey around finding out what you’re comfortable with, confronting how our culture views and engages with death, and looking at and being curious about our own mortality. If you like me find that our death practices have become sterile, commercial, and hidden you’ll probably also start to look at GLAM spaces with a more critical eye.
So what does death positivity look like in GLAM practice? While there are eight core tenants of death positivity the one that matters most to us is number two:
I believe that the culture of silence around death should be broken through discussion, gatherings, art, innovation, and scholarship.
To me that covers a lot of what the GLAM sphere touches. For example, a project I helped setup is a wiki of WWI soldiers from the Armadale-Kelmscott and Serpentine-Jarrahdale districts. While I was adding metadata and subject categories I realised I could start grouping entries by year of death. Not only that but I could drill down to month and day, show location, and even cause. Want to know how many soldiers died in 1915? Easy. How about those who died of wounds? No problem. While it may be seen as callous reducing people’s lives to category tags it is important in helping discovery and access. Finding out your great grandfather died on the same day as his friend could add to someone’s story and make connections that weren’t there before.
Something that crosses almost all GLAM institutions is the exhibition. Death focused exhibitions are fairly common in museums and art galleries, things like the Pompeii Exhibition at the WA Maritime Museum, any of the Egyptian exhibits at the WA Museum, and I’m fairly sure at any given moment there are at least twenty places in Australia doing a WW1 exhibit. What I want to look at though is how we treat these deaths; do visitors get a sense that the people we feature may have had a ‘good death’? What does a good death look like to the people in our exhibitions and how does that compare to current practices? By asking ourselves these questions we begin to raise other issues, this is possibly why we as a profession might be reluctant to fully embrace death positivity.
When dealing with death in Australia there are challenges relating to the question of recognition. GLAM in Australia is predominantly white, Eurocentric, and colonial, which I see as a big problem. While this is slowly changing it causes issues (conscious or not) when discussing death. We spend literally millions memorialising and remembering the deaths of soldiers but ignore the deaths of First Nation peoples at the hands of white colonisers. When GLAMs do highlight First Nation deaths however it is meaningful and significant, like The Aboriginal Memorial at the National Gallery of Australia. Allowing white settler thinking to decide whose deaths are allowed to be memorialised and recognised is wrong and requires the decolonisation of our GLAM practices. I strongly suggest you all start reading Nathan Sentance’s blog (archivaldecolonist.com) to learn how we can begin to change things. Allowing everyone to celebrate a good death and see themselves in GLAM spaces is something we need to work on.
Another problem I can see pertains to posthumous recognition, especially around LGBTQIA+ issues. This is less about death positivity and more around language use as times change, words are reclaimed, and new ones allow people to identify themselves better. While we could have the best intentions we need to be aware of things like dead naming, and preferred pronoun use. It is sadly common that when Trans and non-binary people die, their families can and do morn them under their dead names or wrong pronouns, which can get attached to metadata or exhibitions.
One of the major ways death positivity and GLAMs can work together is in death tourism. There are many examples of major historical sites that are death orientated from our own East Perth Cemeteries, to the Plague Pits in London. With people becoming less afraid of death and more inquisitive, events like ghost tours, musical nights, and picnics can be a great way to engage our communities. Caitlin has several videos covering death and human remains in museums and archives, not all of these examples have been handled well over the years. Sadly human remains tend to be valued for their scientific value to western partitioners over the cultural or emotional significance to the community they belong to. However, we can use GLAMs to help remove the cover of death, highlight history, help educate, and promote death positivity.
The final point I’d like to cover about death positivity is looking into how the movement will affect us in the future. Natural burials are gaining traction in the death industry, moving away from over commercialised funeral practices and embracing the simple and caring side of burials. Fremantle cemetery has its own natural burial site, allowing people to disappear into bushland when they die. It’s also my own preferred death option. Something significant about natural burials (and also many cremations) is the lack of grave markings; Fremantle has a plaque wall separate to the natural burial spaces to preserve the bushland. Anyone who has done family history research would know that tombstones can provide valuable information, especially when written records have been destroyed or lost. As we move into a future of cremation and natural burials then our written and born digital death records become even more important to maintain.
I want to leave you all with some calls to action around death positivity and GLAM. Death is a significant part of our profession from record keeping to historical sites and human remains, we need to (if we’re not already) become death positive. Death positivity enables us to reflect on how we handle death in our collections and exhibitions. Do we shy away from stories of death or do we embrace them? Do we reflect current cultural attitudes to death and should we, or should we set an example and lift the veil on death and death culture, enabling our communities to reclaim death in their lives. What the death positivity movement really means for GLAM though is showing our community the death in our collections, because ‘by hiding death and dying behind closed doors we do more harm than good to our society’. I feel we have an obligation to use our collections to open up conversations around death and dying, we do no favours to us or society by ignoring these everyday occurrences. When you return to your places of work, you should look around and ask are we harming or helping the death positivity movement?