Death in European Society: Field Research Experiences

Convenors: Roberta Bartoletti (University of Urbino), Asher Colombo (University of Bologna); Francesca Pasquali (University of Bergamo)

For a long time neglected in sociological research, the topic of death and dying now constitutes a strategic sub-disciplinary field in sociology. Starting from the Nineties, an increasing corpus of both theoretical and empirical work has been addressing it, and three main strands of research have emerged: 1) the first strand is focused on end-of-life and dying. Following the work of Glaser and Strauss (1965) a very rich corpus of research deals with the management and organization of death, with analyses centered on the relations among doctors, patients and their families within institutional contexts; 2) the second strand of research deals with what happens after death takes place, in terms of both funeral rituals and interpersonal relationship within families and communities and the management of death on the mundane side (i.e. the funeral industry, its organization, and its professions); 3) the third strand investigates beliefs about afterlife and the relationship between the living and the dead, dealing with grief and bereavement but also with memory and memorialization.

The sociological attention for the theme is also motivated by the major changes that have been affecting, in recent years, social practices associated with death.

Just to mention a few: the shift from burial to cremation, the rapid diffusion, at least in Italy, of funeral homes and the changes of funeral rites that are now facing a variety that might confirm the trend, enunciated by Walter (1994), towards the so-called “neo-modern”, highly personalized, death. Mourning practices are changing with the increasingly important role of social media as a space for communication of death, grief and memorialization. On the organizational side, funeral and death care industry is broadening its field of operation and it is developing new commercial and marketing strategies. At the same time, people working in the industry are gaining in status and social acceptability.

The widely shared assumption that death is totally relegated to the private sphere  - in a simplified vision of the”forbidden death” hypothesis formulated in by Aries (1975) – is therefore becoming more and more inadequate and reductive. The changes in social practices related to death and dying are, in fact, generating new links between public and private sphere, and they are claiming for new theoretical and empirical work.

In this context, the panel offers itself as a place for gathering field research experiences on death that will highlight the ongoing change (and the differences) happening in European society on the following topics:

  • one’s  own death
  • the disposal of dead bodies, funeral rites and ceremonies
  • social media and communication of death and mourning
  • the funeral industry and the administrative organization of death
  • grief and bereavement
  • after death bonds and relations between the living and the dead
  • memory and memorialization

The panel welcomes either ethnographic or qualitative papers but attention will also be given to interdisciplinary papers that integrate, among others, anthropology and history. We also invite papers that engage critically with the methodological and theoretical challenges of undertaking ethnographic research on the topic.

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