Guest Post - Is Death Taboo?

    Recently I received a guest post from someone who has submitted a guest post in the past on their experiences with the hearse.

    This time they submitted a rather interesting post about the taboo of death, aggressively questioning the way and reason  society perceives death as taboo.  This post got me thinking, especially as the 'taboo' of death is directly relevant to my thesis.  So you can read their post and my reply below where we discuss whether or not death is really taboo.

Firstly the article by Death Correspondent (DC):
Ok cool cats today I’m writing about the taboo around death. Firstly cut it out, stopping being so taboo about death and funerals and cemeteries and skulls. Can anyone explain to me why it’s so taboo? I don’t mean to be cold but I really just don’t get it. Death is something that we will all have to face with our friends, our families and eventually ourselves. I read an article today that was signed off with ‘future corpse’ and I thought wow they really hit the nail on the head with that one. Be warned I’m in my ‘time to change the world’ mood today so internet feel my wrath. I want to eliminate this bad street cred that death seems to have picked up. If death was a person I would want to hang out them, I think it would really make you feel alive, what a way of putting everything into perspective right? 
So I think we have established that I’m pretty comfortable and ‘tabooless’ (yeah I just made up a word, what of it?). I was visiting my dear grandmother in a nursing home the other day. I thought I’d dress nice and accessorised my outfit with a pretty scarf…which may have had sculls on it. I didn’t see this as inappropriate, nor did my mother who I car pooled with. I must mention that my parents are also fairly tabooless as well. When we walked in my Aunt, Uncle and cousin were also visiting. I was there for about half an hour when my Aunt exclaimed “Look at your scarf!” in a very disapproving tone. In the car on the way home I mentioned that I didn’t think she was very fond of my scarf. My mother stated that she thought it was fine, but thinks my Aunt found it inappropriate. She suggested that perhaps there is a time and place for my scull accessories. I tend to agree with her, yes there is a time and a place. I wouldn’t wear them on funerals, but a nursing home? They are all there because they are still alive! Is everyone forgetting that? It’s like they have half ticked her off as dead if they are being offended by sculls being worn in her presence. Of course that is a matter of opinion. 
Anyway that’s my rant, if I am to ever accomplish only one thing I hope that it is get you all thinking about what you’re really so afraid of. Think of it as the facts, make it black and white and maybe lift some of the taboo that our culture seems to have picked up. 
-- Death Correspondent
    The first question asked is rather important, and central to the whole article as the answer determine the direction of the argument.  That question was "can anyone explain to me why death is so taboo?", in a nutshell no because death itself is not taboo.  We may think of death as taboo but it is far from it, talk of death is quite common and healthy within society on a public setting (healthy in the sense it is diverse and deep).  Take the political setting, with debates on abortion and euthanasia.  Or the medical setting with discussion of morbid obesity, war on cancer, and so on.  Or the social and ideological spaces such as religion where a lot of focus of the doctrine is on the post-life aspects.  Or in media where images of dead and dying are happily shown, like with the Boston bombing this year where many papers had a front page of the blast going off or images and descriptions of the injured.  Or even the academic field such as in sociology with Durkheim's discussion of suicide as a way to explore the role of the social influence.

    Death is all around us and happily so, we discuss it on a regular basis in many different ways.  By no means is death a taboo thing, not in this regard.  But here lies the confusion, death is not taboo yet it is sequestered from the public space and transferred to the private setting.  There are a few good arguments that this is due to modernity rather than death; that modern society likes certainty and order, take OH&S as an example, potential risks are calculated and accounted for so they lose the sense of uncertainty.

    Death by almost every definition is an uncertain, unorganised, and uncontrollable thing.  We all die and have no choice in the matter, sometimes we have no say or warning of even when or how we are to die.  Basically death is something we do not understand and cannot control, so it has no place within an organised and certain system.  It's not so much that death itself is taboo, but it does not fit with the modern system around us.  It exists in direct opposition to our system.

    The confusion around this comes from the term 'taboo', I use it as I find most understand it.  Taboo is simply a thing shunned and makes people uncomfortable.  But it is an older term and idea that has become outdated with current lines of thought and perspectives.

    We call our relationship with death taboo, using the old terminology  yet discuss the relationship with a modern perspective and new questions.  Which naturally does not line up at all and leads to confusion, to use an old term with old definitions and notions along side a new argument and perspective results in only incongruity and a lop-sided discussion.

    The new term we should be using is 'normative', the notion not of removing unwanted, but of normalising and homogenizing that around us.  Basically we do not remove death but reframe it and reshape it, bringing it into line with our modern society and systems.  The scarf is a good example of this, the objecting to the skulls was not so much an objection to death, but to you not conforming to their preconceptions and sense of appropriate.  The objection to the skulls was a normalising action, it lets you know that they re not appropriate for that setting, leading to you internalising the sense of appropriate and conforming to the 'norm' next time.  You even had a conversation about this later and discussed together what is and is not appropriate, or 'normative'.

    And the thing about 'future corpse' reminded me of the line "we are born to die" by Shakespeare, that in the end death is the inevitable constant and unknown variable, no matter what we do it ends.  Yet this is a rather one sided view, while I don't believe in an after life I do think the bit in between life and death counts for too much to simply be dismissed as 'inevitably over'.

    Look at all we do, how we mostly watch TV, play games, watch movies, listen to music, mess about and generally waste time.  If you look at our lives a good chunk is spent procrastinating and wasting it.  Which to me is rather inspiring, we are not living in fear of death and thus avoiding it.  Rather, we are enjoying life too much to want it to be over.  So instead of thinking we fearing death maybe we love life.  Also, despite all our time wasted we accomplish so much and leave such impacts on others and the world around us.  In the last few months I have watched hours of movies and TV shows, sat on the grass and not done much of anything, and generally wasted weeks worth of time overall.  But at the same time I have written pages upon pages, read so much I have lost track, and gotten a nice chunk of work done on multiple things.  Our achievements and our lack of productivity both indicate, for me at least, that we are all busily happy and not fearing the end in a regular manner.



  1. Death Correspondent26/4/13 17:20

    I agree with what your saying here, however I still believe that some aspects of death are 'taboo'. I class as morbid because I don't mind visiting cemeteries, and can openly discuss death and apply it to everyday situations. If it didn't have this stigma attached to it then I wouldn't be morbid, I'd be normal.
    I blame horror movies, everyone has this idea that bodies will come alive on my table, and that my mortuary is haunted. They don't realise just how clinical it all is.
    That is why I'd love to help change the public's view of death, dying and funerals...and why I love your blog so much.

    1. You visiting cemeteries is not so much 'taboo' as 'un-usual' which we then term as the taboo. It gets strange with that example, basically as part of modern society we have moved to a system of specific specialisation and juxtapositions and oppositions. Such as with the hospital, a place built for only one thing and designed to do that one thing as best as possible. Foucault uses the cemetery as his example of a 'heterotopia' (essentially places of many relations between multiple things). He explains that the cemetery was built in the heart of cities but over time was moved to the fringes, to the outskirts (Town Hall Cemetery to Rookwood Cemetery are a perfect example). This was because the cemetery gained a point and purpose, it was to store and/or remember the dead. Something which existed in opposition to daily life, it was not 'taboo' but it was a confrontation to life; expressed through concerns of disease and such.

      There might be taboo perspectives, but if we dig under these taboo views we find a deeper cause. The cemetery might be seen as taboo, but this is not simply because it is taboo, and not simply because society views death as taboo. The 'taboo' is simply a symptom (if it even exists). Rather, the cemetery has a very specific point and use, you are not using it for this point, you are voiding the very reason a cemetery exists when you go to simply go. It would be like going to a hospital simply to read a book, strange as that's not what the place is for.

      Combine this with the way our society exists in oppositions and you get negative views. The cemetery is for the dead and remembering the dead; dead and death exist in opposition to life and living. We define life by opposing it to death, just as we define death by opposing it to life. So when visiting a cemetery for reasons other than why it exists you not only question the reasons it exists, you enter a place marked as a direct opposition to daily life and living. In other words your visiting the cemetery is not 'morbid' or 'taboo', but these thoughts and feelings are how we express and understand a complex interaction with the space of the cemetery.

      You can't blame horror movies for this! Although the thought is rather direct and amusing, it gave me a smile :D But it simply isn't accurate, it relies on a one-directional relationship, that media (in this case horror movies) influences people and yet people don't influence it. All research I know of tends to point the direction much more the other way if anything. The funeral industry is a good case of this, changes in social attitudes changed the industry, the industry did NOT change society. Take cremation, once seen as destructive, abhorrent, and sacrilegious; especially amongst Catholics as their death beliefs see death as a re-birth into the 'next life'. As a resurrection which requires an intact body, hence why it was such a punishment to destroy bodies of criminals. However, now the Catholics have their own nice crematorium. Social views (us individuals combined) direct media as they do the funeral industry.

      And I'm not trying to change public views so much as foster healthy discussion and understanding ;) Debates like these are a HUGE part of that!!


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