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The Power of Death

The Power of Death: Contemporary Reflections on Death in Western Society

Maria-José Blanco
Ricarda Vidal
Copyright Date: 2015
Edition: 1
Published by: Berghahn Books
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    The Power of Death
    Book Description:

    The social and cultural changes of the last century have transformed death from an everyday fact to something hidden from view. Shifting between the practical and the theoretical, the professional and the intimate, the real and the fictitious, this collection of essays explores the continued power of death over our lives. It examines the idea and experience of death from an interdisciplinary perspective, including studies of changing burial customs throughout Europe; an account of a"dying party" in the Netherlands; examinations of the fascination with violent death in crime fiction and the phenomenon of serial killer art; analyses of death and bereavement in poetry, fiction, and autobiography; and a look at audience reactions to depictions of death on screen. By studying and considering how death is thought about in the contemporary era, we might restore the natural place it has in our lives.

    eISBN: 978-1-78238-434-2
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-vii)
  4. Notes on Contributors
    (pp. viii-xii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-10)
    Ricarda Vidal and Maria-José Blanco

    In the most general terms death is defined as the final and irreversible cessation of the vital functions in an organism, the ending of life. However, the precise definition of death and the exact time of the transition from life to death differ according to culture, religion and legal system.

    The essential insecurities and doubts over the nature and state of death have affected cultural production since the beginning of civilisation. Likewise our attitude towards death is characterised by anxieties and ambiguities. Death can be ‘a consummation devoutly to be wished’ in the words of Hamlet, or ‘a wonderful gain’...

  6. Part I: Death in Society

    • 1 Life Extension, Immortality and the Patient Voice
      (pp. 13-21)
      Catherine Jenkins

      Throughout human history, people have tried to sustain youth and grasp immortality. Dating from the third century, theAlexander Romancetale, ‘The Water of Life’, tells of a healing spring. In the Middle Ages, the ‘Fountain of Youth’ was said to exist in the elusive territories ruled by the mythical Prester John.The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, published in the late 1300s, includes a tale of the author drinking from the well of youth in India. In 1513, Ponce de Leon went in search of the ‘Fountain of Youth’, but died eight years later. Sadly, none of these historical...

    • 2 Beyond ‘Mourning and Melancholia’
      (pp. 22-38)
      Lynne M. Simpson

      Despite the weighted balance afforded mourning in the title, Freud’s seminal essay ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ primarily examines melancholia as a pathology rather than as ade factostate of mourning (1995b: 243–44). Freud’s metatext informs further accounts in two fundamental ways: first, grief is identified as much as a metaphor as it is as a literal condition; and second, and more importantly, mourning is initially characterised as normative, albeit troublesome and mysterious. This chapter traces the evolution of mourning from Freud to contemporary theorists and speculates about the problematics in the definition and treatment of grief in the twenty-first...

    • 3 War and Requiem Compositions in the Twentieth Century
      (pp. 39-52)
      Wolfgang Marx

      The requiem is one of the oldest genres of art music; for more than 500 years composers used it as a vehicle to express grief, sorrow and consolation as well as anger and fury in the face of death. Over the course of the last century, many requiem settings can be identified as belonging to the sub-genre of ‘war requiem’ – indeed, it sometimes appears as if the requiem – and the ‘war requiem’ in particular – is regarded as almost an ideal type of art music concerned with war.¹ But why is this? And what is a ‘war requiem’...

  7. Part II: Death in Literature

    • 4 Understanding Death/Writing Bereavement: The Writer’s Experience
      (pp. 55-67)
      Maria-José Blanco

      When professional writers go through difficult times, many hold onto what is most natural to them: writing. In this chapter I am going look at writers who, after the death of a loved one, took up pen and paper to narrate their loss. As Mark Lawson observes: ‘In most professions, bereavement leads to time off work, bureaucratically expressed as “compassionate leave”. It seems to me that those in artistic jobs, though, tend to work on through – in an effort to work out – their loss’ (2010). And as Jeffrey Berman states: ‘For the writer […] the way to deal...

    • 5 A Way of Sorrows for the Twentieth Century: Margherita Guidacci’s La Via Crucis dell’umanità
      (pp. 68-80)
      Eleanor David

      This chapter focuses on the Italian twentieth-century poet Margherita Guidacci (1921–1992), and the continual tension in her poetry between religious faith, loss and trauma. In particular, it considers the effect of such a tension on her poetic language, an aspect which has yet to be fully explored by critics.

      My analysis centres on one of Guidacci’s later poetic collections, which places a strong emphasis on the civic role of poetry in a commemorative context.La Via Crucis dell’umanità(1984) uses the structure of the Stations of the Cross to address contemporary suffering and death, with overt references to Hiroshima,...

    • 6 From Self-Erasure to Self-Affirmation: Communally Acknowledged ‘Good Death’ in Ernest Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying
      (pp. 81-90)
      Corina Crisu

      In a growing field of study on the representation of death in literature and cultural studies, critics such as Sharon Patricia Holland, Karla F.C. Holloway, Orlando Patterson and Anissa Janine Wardi pay special attention to the racial, social and psychological aspects of black death and to its complex representations in African American narratives – in works where writing takes place at the unstable boundary between the world of the living and that of the dead. These critics consider the omnipresence of death in African American culture and its intricate literary depictions in texts described as ‘complicated requiems’, which offer ‘readings...

    • 7 Habeas Corpse: The Dead Body of Evidence in John Grisham’s The Client
      (pp. 91-101)
      Fiorenzo Iuliano

      The Client, published in 1993, is one of the first novels written by John Grisham and one of his most famous. Conceived by the author as a realistic portrayal of the American judicial system, it turns out to be an updated version of the traditional ‘American dream’, its characters and plot working as powerful icons imbued with various symbolic meanings. The novel’s emphasis on the dead body, as both a repository of collective projections and anxieties and a semiotic kernel in the narrative economy of the text, will be crucial to my reading. Grisham implicitly theorises death as the unreachable...

    • 8 The Fascination with Torture and Death in Twenty-first-Century Crime Fiction
      (pp. 102-112)
      Rebecca Shillabeer

      Although in its most basic term, crime fiction can be described as fiction that incorporates the presence of crimes, criminals and their motives, crime fiction also provides a critique of society. Immigration, social control, sexuality, scientific discovery, race, religion and gender are just some of the issues that crime fiction touches upon. Many literary novels have crime and the basics of the crime novel at their centre. The main ingredients of this genre – violence, sudden reversals, mystery, deception, moral dilemma and so on – can be found everywhere from the Greek epics to the present day (Turner 2003: 4)....

  8. Part III: Death in Visual Culture

    • 9 The Power of Negative Creation – Why Art by Serial Killers Sells
      (pp. 115-125)
      Ricarda Vidal

      In 2003 the Centre for Contemporary Culture in Barcelona (CCCB) held an exhibition on ‘Trash Culture’. A small room in the show was dedicated to art produced by serial killers: seven small paintings and drawings of diverse styles varying from realist horror to abstract expressionism and almost childish felt pen drawings. The works were accompanied by short blurbs which commented on their artistic style but were mainly dedicated to the biography of their creators, the serial killers Charles Manson, John Wayne Gacy, Nicolas Claux, Ottis Toole, Henry Lee Lucas, Richard Ramírez and Eugene Stano.¹ Next to the dates of birth...

    • 10 Screening the Dying Individual: Film, Mortality and the Ethics of Spectatorship
      (pp. 126-141)
      John Horne

      Bernard Tavernier’s 1980 filmDeath Watchposits a near future where dying ‘the old way’ – through terminal illness – has become a rare event, so rare, in fact, that its presence is seen as suitable subject matter for a media event. When Katherine (Romy Schneider), a middle-aged woman, is given just two months to live, a television network launches ‘Death Watch’, a reality show following her every movement. Briefed to befriend Katherine, journalist Roddy (Harvey Keitel) permits a camera to be implanted in his brain, allowing continual covert filming of everything he sees. Whilst shying, then running, away from...

    • 11 The Broken Body as Spectacle: Looking at Death and Injury in Sport
      (pp. 142-152)
      Julia Banwell

      Advances in visual technologies allow sports spectators to enjoy a privileged view of events through close-ups and slow-motion replays, and YouTube has made it possible to access and repeatedly view footage of unpredictable and disturbing occurrences. Death and serious injury in sport destabilise the notion of the excellence and toughness of the sporting body and expose it as breakable and vulnerable.

      This chapter will explore the potential for reading the repeated viewing of real and reported death and injuries in sporting contexts as ritualistic. It will examine the location of death in contemporary visual media cultures, taking as its focus...

    • 12 Death on Display: The Ideological Function of the Mummies of the World Exhibit
      (pp. 153-166)
      Diana York Blaine

      In 2010, the California Science Center in Los Angeles hosted the world premiere ofMummies of the World, an exhibition featuring the desiccated corpses of both human and non-human animals. Using words like ‘groundbreaking’ and ‘breathtaking’, American Exhibitions Incorporated, the marketing firm in charge of producing this travelling event, described it as ‘the largest exhibition of mummies and related artefacts ever assembled’, and promised to transform ‘audiences into amateur “mummyologists™” ’. The public responded eagerly to this forceful rhetoric, showing up in droves and paying nearly $18 per ticket. So great was the demand that people had to be admitted...

  9. Part IV: Cemeteries and Funerals

    • 13 The Romanian Carnival of Death and the Merry Cemetery of Săpânţa
      (pp. 169-182)
      Marina Cap-Bun

      The Romanian mythology of death and the corresponding funerary ritual are complex and captivating, a privileged territory for research in anthropology. Not only did the world famous Romanian historian of myth, ritual, and religion Mircea Eliade find them fascinating – he wrote a number of essays about them – but Arnold Van Gennep also expressed his regret about not knowing Romanian mythology and ritual practices before writing his seminal workLes Rites de Passage. The creator of French ethnography was so enthusiastic about ‘the richness of Romanian folklore’ that he wanted to create a department of comparative history of civilisation...

    • 14 In the Dead of Night: A Nocturnal Exploration of Heterotopia in the Graveyard
      (pp. 183-197)
      Bel Deering

      The photograph below shows a visitor to a Hallowe’en graveyard event.¹ Hundreds of flickering tealights lit up the tombstones, while storytellers enthralled the crowds with ghostly and ghastly tales. Having attended this annual event for several years I noticed that it attracted people from all over the city and beyond. On a night when there are myriad pop-up cultural events on offer, what could possibly be the lure of a dark and gloomy graveyard? This chapter explores the phenomenon of nocturnal graveyard visits and interrogates the motivations and experiences of the visitors. The study forms part of a larger PhD...

    • 15 Scenarios of Death in Contexts of Mobility: Guineans and Bangladeshis in Lisbon
      (pp. 198-212)
      Clara Saraiva and José Mapril

      In recent decades, the transnational dimensions of migration have assumed increasing theoretical and ethnographic importance. By ‘transnational’ we mean the concept first proposed by Basch, Schiller and Blanc in 1992 and 1994, that implies the multiple and permanent ties sustained between the sending country and the country of reception, in its economic, political and cultural aspects. One of the consequences of such an interpretative shift is the acknowledgement that such ties and mobilities – real or imagined – are frequently accompanied by the social and symbolic construction of places of belonging. As Karen Olwig (2007) and Clifford Geertz (1996) have...

    • 16 Karaoke Death: Intertextuality in Active Euthanasia Practices
      (pp. 213-224)
      Natasha Lushetich

      I was invited to an unusual party in Amsterdam in autumn 2005 – a dying party, organised by a friend and former colleague of mine in honour of his terminally ill partner. The partner, who had been suffering from cancer for over two years and had spent the previous ten months either in unbearable pain or unconscious due to the large doses of morphine he was taking to alleviate the pain, had decided to celebrate the end of a long but nevertheless victorious battle against the medical and bureaucratic apparatus in the Peter Sellars style. Contrary to common belief, the...

  10. Part V: Personal Reflections on Death

    • 17 Death is Not What it Used to Be: A Comparison between Customs of Death in the UK and Spain. Changes in the Last Thirty-Five Years
      (pp. 227-236)
      Lala Isla

      Before I begin, I would like to explain my place in this volume. I am a writer and have spent a good part of the past fifteen years researching for my current book, a sort of sequel of my first oneLondres, pastel sin receta(2002). It is a personal commentary about London, with anthropological, historical and social contents and one of its four parts contains three long chapters on funerary customs. After the death of my mother in 2003 and after the shock I received when I realised how much things had changed in Spain since I came to...

    • 18 The Dad Project
      (pp. 237-254)
      Briony Campbell

      Three months after my Dad died, I found myself hanging photos on a gallery wall that revealed the story of our relationship and of his death. We had recorded it together through photography and film during his last six months, and it became ‘The Dad Project’. He was sixty-five, I was twenty-nine, and two years have passed since.

      While I was stumbling through the process of recording our experience, I had fleeting moments of speculation that if this eventually manifested as something coherent, perhaps it would help me cope with Dad’s absence. During my most optimistic periods I daydreamed that...

  11. Index
    (pp. 255-260)