Until 2016, the Greenwood Cemetery in Waco, Texas, kept a fence separating where white and black people were buried. Photo by Rod Aydelotte

How radicalizing death makes us think about post-mortem oppression

Disclaimer: This essay was originally published at TAB UOL, in Portuguese.

How pervasive is racism, sexism, and colonialism? According to The Collective for Radical Death Studies, even death can be affected by these issues. In this collective composed by death care professionals, death practitioners, students and scholars of Death Studies, death is approached from a political perspective, so that these professionals can remove the remnants of racism, oppression, and colonialism from both Death Studies as a field of science but also in funerary practices.

At a first sight, some may think this is an exaggerated focus for a discussion, but cemeteries are historically engendered to separate the dead from the living. After all, not everyone could commission a tomb or an effigy made by Donatello or Michelangelo — this was a privilege of the clergy and the nobility during Renaissance.

In the times of the black death, it was impossible to burry all the dead in the garden of churches as it usually happened. So ossuaries and catacombs were filled by anonymous bones that, later on, would be used to confect the decoration of chapels and churches such as the Capuchin Crypt in Rome or the Sedlec Ossuary in the Czech Republic. The chandeliers and altars made of human skulls and bones, however, weren’t crafted after the body of dead nobles, but rather of anonymous peasant bodies that were discarded in mass graves.

In São Paulo, Brazil, the difference between the dead rich and poor is blatant when you see the tombs and the cemeteries. Before becoming a touristic point for Asian immigrants, the neighborhood of Liberdade was known as Largo da Forca (Gallows Square) because it was at that place where runaway slaves were sent to be executed. There they built the Cemitério dos Aflitos (Cemetery of the Afflicts), where people were separated after their roles in society and their race. Even after the abolition of slavery, in countries like the United States, segregation was still a practice until a little while ago. Only in 2016 the city of Waco, Texas, decided to remove a fence that separated the place where black people were supposed to be buried in the Greenwood Cemetery. This was a common practice in the country, until in the 1950s, 90% of the public cemeteries raised a restriction.

On the collective’s website, however, one can find a thematic division between articles and bibliography that address topics such as gender, women and death, queer death, cultural and ethnical differences, as well as the effects of colonialism, capitalism and genocide. Sayak Valencia’s Gore Capitalism, for instance, is one of the recommended literature as well as Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others and more pop titles like Caitlin Doughty’s Confessions of a Funeral Director, who became famous for criticizing the industrialization of the funerary practices as well as an activist of the “good death” by stressing the importance of making death something natural again, and how we can accept and discuss this topic that has been repressed for such a long time in our societies.

Henceforth, the Collective for Radical Death Studies aims to approach Death Studies from a marginalized and inclusive perspective, so they can abolish segregation between “us” and “them.” An introductory post written by Kemi Fletcher stresses that this segregation was a fundamental characteristic of the European colonization, the imperialism, slavery, discrimination, oppression and privileges that are still accounted in present days. In her words,

More than respecting physical space, Fletcher stresses the importance of respecting the way different cultures and ethnicities understand the concept of death and dying. Curiously, she mentions the physicians Michael Anderson and Gemma Woticky, who are Mohawk descent and argue that “death is not meant to be a medical event.” They also mention that there is no word for death in their native language, a fact that explains much of how this society deals with the topic. So, Fletcher goes on:

Fletcher summarizes that the objective principles of the collective is not simply removing Eurocentric practices in funerary rites around the world, but also the revaluation of a history permeated by white privilege, the excessive focus on rural cemeteries with Christian roots and, finally, increase the awareness of a systematic oppression that affects marginalized communities and non-white people.

In such a critical moment as this pandemic, death has been invading homes and collapsing hospitals. Right at the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis, themes such as Sophie’s choice became a public debate as well as social media were crowded with posts in memory of the deceased. In an effort to publicize death positivity, the blog The Order of Good Death made a series of posts with advice on how to deal with this moment, including how to talk about death during the pandemic. In the case of the Collective for Radical Death Studies, they also addressed how different cultures needed to adapt their funerary rites in order to mitigate contagion risk in crowds.

One of the posts that most caught my attention in the collective’s blog was a post where Tamara Waraschinski addresses the Theory of Terror Management as how death anxiety is something that all humans share. With the murder of George Floyd amidst the pandemic, it became blatant how death is not simply something fearful for marginalized communities, but rather a constant reality — it is this turning point in our understanding of how different people deal with death that the Collective aims to promote.

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Brazilian journalist, MA in Semiotics and PhD candidate in Visual Arts. Head of innovation and futurism at UP Lab. Cyberpunk enthusiast and researcher.