We don’t like to talk about death. This has been emphasized to me by funeral directors, cemetery managers, hospital chaplains, aspiring clergy, and nearly everyone who faces the material and spiritual reality of mortality on a daily basis. In polite conversation, it’s a topic we often avoid, or that we hope we can ignore until those final moments when we’re reminded that we don’t know precisely what comes next. But we all will share this unsteady time—we all have to talk about death.

We have to talk about death because it’s an existential challenge. But it’s also more. It’s brutal, painful, a kind of wound that can never heal. It inspires a terror that numbs the mind and makes us shiver; it pulls the living into an unknown darkness and sends others—ghosts, spirits, demons—back to trouble our waking lives. Death haunts our dreams but also our cultural imagination: religion, science, and all kinds of philosophical systems lay claim to the homes and bodies of the dead. What one may see as inert matter another sees a source of theological power. These bodies are a site of conflict.

 

Death and dying far outstrip any solitary contemplation: they are experiences colored by injustice, oppression, violence, and grief.

 

Yet even if we take note of the various cosmologies that clash and co-mingle over the decaying body, we still only begin to grasp the complexity that makes death such a critical phenomenon. It’s existential, spiritual, and scientific—but also political and social. Militaries argue over how to classify the victims of slaughter—soldier, combatant, or civilian—and states continually justify their own right to execute, to produce endless streams of bodies. Class and race dictate the resources available during death, and those unfortunate in life are fated to die without adequate medical care, memorialization, and ritual attention. Death and dying far outstrip any solitary contemplation: they are experiences colored by injustice, oppression, violence, and grief.

To talk about death, then, is to talk about all these concepts. And as these concepts flow through every aspect of life, so too does death bleed into our daily lives. Though we desperately cling to silence, we too embrace an almost constant chatter that at every point remains only a few words away from death. “Death talk” gestures towards nearly every aspect of human experience, just as that very experience inevitably ends with those same words.

This week, Cosmologics explores death talk—the words, feelings, and impulses that fill every moment of dying, mourning, and loss. This is important because, as we’ve seen, death pulls on so much of human life. But it carries even greater significance for us at Cosmologics because death does not only reflect the diversity of an existence at once exhilarating and vicious: as the meeting place of religion, science, law, violence, and so many other strands of human and divine activity, death, and in particular the dead body, works to shape and define each of these experiences. Death is not composed of the existential, the political, and the religious. Rather out of death—that unnamable whole—emerge each of these responses, all mutually constituted and delineated. By examining death talk, and its relationship to these categories, we realize that mourning is scientific, science is political, medicine is spiritual, and religion is just as much for the living as for the dead. The point is, death obliterates categories and divisions we once thought firm. It recasts life in innumerable and unpredictable ways.

Cosmologics’ investigation of the death and death talk begins by talking to Ann Neumann about how race, class, and religion affect how Americans die. The hospital and the prison have a greater hold on American deathways than many would feel comfortable admitting. Next, Kate DeConinck writes about mourning September 11th in New York. For DeConinck the absence of the body and the physical trace represent a challenge to mourning, but also a window onto the diversity of responses to catastrophe. Finally, Cosmologics talks to Kimberley Patton about death and the body in both the present and the past. While the horror of death persists, funerary ritual reflects the constant shifting of any culture.

 

We aim to add to this body of work that sees death as the tangled center of life, the point at which all threads of experience converge.

 

Many scholars have used death as an anchor for a much wider societal commentary: for Peter Brown, the dead body is a site of religious, and therefore societal, power; for Achille Mbembe, the maimed dead body is the raw material of hellish modern politics.[1] At Cosmologics, we aim to add to this body of work that sees death as the tangled center of life, the point at which all threads of experience converge. Yet we also understand death as that which obliterates these separations. Death unsettles us, forces us to question our assumptions, and refocuses our attention on a fluid and ungraspable life. It reminds us of our own intellectual limitations—and that is why we have to talk about death.

 

[1] See Peter Brown, The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982); Achille Mbembe, “Necropolitics,” trans. Libby Meintjes, Public Culture 15.1 (2003).

Graveyard angel from Flickr via Stefano Sciascia

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