Abstract: This ethnographic article discusses funerary practice, Orthodox Christian ideas of body and spirit, and the ways in which people make memorials for each other on the Zege Peninsula in northwest Ethiopia. I pay special attention to gravestones because, here as in many other places, physical memorials to the dead become locations where latent uncertainties and conflicts about the relationship between spirit and matter, body and soul, and this world and the next, tend to crystallize. I show that material memorials highlight ambiguities in Orthodox attitudes to human embodiment and challenge priestly monopolies over relations between the living and the dead. Because of material chains of mediation and memorialization, the disaggregating practices of Orthodox funerary ritual can never fully untangle the deceased from their worldly social entanglements.
Abstract: If much has been written of the forms of bodiliness reinforced by hospitals, less attention has been paid to the medicalization of the soul. The medical management of death institutionalizes divisions between body and soul, and matter and spirit, infusing end-of-life care with latent Christian theological presumptions. The invisibility of these presumptions is partly sustained by projecting religiosity on those who endorse other cosmologies, while retaining for medicine a mask of secular science. Stories of conflict with non-Christian patients force these presumptions into visibility, suggesting alternative ethics of care and mourning rooted in other understandings. In this article, I explore one such story. Considering the story as an allegory for how matter and spirit figure in contemporary postmortem disciplines, I suggest that it exposes both the operation of a taboo against mixing material and spiritual agendas, and an assumption that appropriate mourning is oriented toward symbolic homage, rather than concern for the material welfare of the dead.
Abstract: Through practices such as cryonics and plans to build robotic bodies for future “consciousness transfer,” the Russian transhumanist movement has engendered competing practices of immortality as well as ontological debates over the immortal body and person. Drawing on an ethnography of these practices and plans, I explore controversies around religion and secularism within the movement as well as the conflict between transhumanists and the Russian Orthodox Church. I argue that the core issues in debates over the role of religion vis-à-vis immortality derive from diverse assumptions being made about “the human,” which—from prerevolutionary esoteric futurist movements through the Soviet secularist project and into the present day—has been and remains a profoundly plastic project.
Abstract: Since 15 March 2011, Syria has seen a humanitarian crisis escalate and we are now witnessing outright civil war in many parts of the country. From a relatively peaceful start, the whole affair has turned ugly. Bombs are exploding not just in remote parts of Syria but in its largest cities. Death and dying has now become a salient feature of Syrian life, both inside and outside its national borders. It is this salience of death and dying that I explore in this paper. My focus will be on Syrian Christians and their ways of perceiving the materiality of death. Most centrally, I argue that the fear of extinction that death and dying evoke in the minority prevents them from embracing oppositional politics and is instead used by the regime to propagate the fact that it alone will be able to ensure a future for all of the country’s citizens.
Abstract: In this paper, I argue that the Catholic Church and Western medicine assumed historically significant roles in the use and circulation of human remains and, in so doing, established distinct traditions of dissection, preservation, and display. Furthermore, both institutions still maintain an essential role in making human remains ever more popular and culturally acceptable. The Church and Western medicine uphold various means of interaction that effectively keep the dead undisposed for specific purposes: as forms of cultural capital, objects of veneration, and fetishized, or aestheticized diversion. As such, the institutionalized dead have come to inhabit very particular spaces where they are made to perform a variety of duties for the living.
Abstract: Over the last decade, the cult of La Santa Muerte (St Death) has attracted a remarkable number of followers in Mexico and the USA. Whereas the social context of her devotees, who tend to live on the fringes of society, has attracted ample attention from scholars and journalists, one of the principal puzzles is still how a skeleton image of death has come to be seen as a saint by large numbers of Catholics. How is it possible for this figure to embrace such antagonistic qualities as death and sainthood in a Christian context? In this semiotic-material exploration of the image’s genealogy, I suggest that La Santa Muerte should be seen as a coalescing of two radically distinct images of death: the popular-secular Catrina and the occult-biblical Santísima Muerte. The St Death venerated today encompasses the ambiguities of the two and creates an exceptionally vibrant and popular Catholic image.