How do we keep our dead alive?

The topic of death is often seen as taboo... you might even think that we live in a death denying world — but not true, says Dr Kevin Myers, who looks at the issue as we approach Halloween
How do we keep our dead alive?

A model poses as The Night King from Game of Thrones. TV series like this bring death into the lives of millions of homes every day.

HALLOWEEN is fast approaching but before we dress up as our favourite nightmarish ghoul or dead celebrity, we might take this opportunity to talk about death. After all, our annual engagement with the macabre can help focus our thoughts on all things mortal.

One of the prevailing myths surrounding our attitudes towards death is that the subject matter is somewhat taboo. Popular opinion would have us believe that we are living in a time where death is denied, where people’s innate fear of death leads to an avoidance of the subject matter altogether. We are afraid of death, because we are afraid of dying. This denial has also led us to exorcise the dead from our living world. But when we look at the evidence, we soon find that this such characterisations are without substance, especially in today’s Ireland.

Death Denial Attitudes

The banishment and denial thesis developed primarily in the nineteenth century. Western Europe changed dramatically during this period and it was believed that these changes altered our approach to death and dying.

The essential argument rested on two developments, the declining scope of the sacred in social and cultural life and the development of modern medicine.

It was argued that the medicalisation of the body, along with the development of secular values marginalised the dead and dying, shifting their presence and experiences to the margins of Western society. This view was popularised by the work of several authors and academics, particularly those who worked with the dying. Many may be familiar with the work of Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, an American psychiatrist who famously helped develop the stage theory approach to dying and grief.

While stage theories have largely been debunked, you will still find them packing the self-help shelves of bookstores, and importantly in the popular media.

Our New Ferrymen

It is true however that processes of social change have informed our current attitudes and views towards death. Religious change, often referred to as secularisation has made death different. After all, much of the traditional language surrounding our mortality developed through religion. To some extent it still does. Month’s Minds, Masses for the Dead, rituals such as these linked the here to the hereafter, the living to their dead. But that has changed.

The declining influence of the church has left somewhat of a vacuum, a space now largely colonised by the media. And it is here where our attitudes towards the dead are made most apparent. Whether via the newsroom, cinema or hit Netflix TV show, the media brings death into the lives of millions each day. Fans of The Sopranos, Game of Thrones or Six Feet Under will have no trouble spotting all this on-screen macabre.

The recent explosion in communication technologies has revolutionised how people engage with one another. While sceptics often brand social media as lacking in substance and meaning, nothing could be further from the truth. Platforms such as Facebook and Instagram allow people to do what generations before them never could, to speak about their dead publicly, continuously, in highly personalised terms, often long after their passing. And millions of people do so. Such Apps enable a type of on-line solace, making sites like Facebook a new, dominant cyber book of condolence.

The Future of the Dead

There is no doubt that technology will continue to transform our world, in death as in life.

Take for instance the development of HoloLens or other forms of Hologram technology. Roy Orbison died in 1988, but he is not letting that stop him. His current comeback tour is a raging success.

Next year Amy Winehouse will once again take to the stage. There will be no celebrity impersonations here, rather Amy herself in Holographic form, being accompanied by a loyal backing band. These technologies are not quite available to the wider public at present, but it safe to assume that they soon will be. In this sense, the traditional photo of the deceased, or Facebook memorial page, will be supplemented by a personalised holographic keepsake.

With all of this in mind, we cannot reasonably argue that we live in a death denying-world, that the dead have been shunned or have disappeared. Quite the opposite, they have never been so alive.

Kevin Myers is a researcher and author at Hibernia College, Dublin.

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