Its statistics are also interesting. In 2004, for instance, of 56,187 Scottish deaths, only 23% occurred ‘at home or elsewhere in the community’ (a curious formulation). By far the majority – 58% in an ‘acute hospital’, while 18% in residential nursing or care homes. Although some of you may well find this morbid – I’d make another point. It tells is something important about the social life of death in
"The sociologist who chooses to study his own world in its nearest and most familiar aspects should not, as the ethnologist would, domesticate the exotic, but if I may venture the expression, exoticise the domestic, through a break with his initial relation of intimacy with the mode of life and thought which remain opaque to him because they are too familiar." (Homo Academicus 1988, xi)
For instance, you may be surprised to learn that of those who died, a full 57.4% were cremated. The statistical hospitalisation of the phenomenon of death speaks of its entrance into the clinical domain. That, to borrow a phrase from Margo MacDonald, death as the last act of life is not conducted in the sites of ordinary existence – but in a starched environment of white sheets, amid a bustle of nurses or simply alone in the night, punctuated only by the reporting heels of a night porter, pacing the empty, echoing hallways. Our understanding of death is not immune to its setting, one flows into the other. Indeed, one might see the fact that some people get unsettled by hospitals as reflective of their place in our culture as final presence chambers. Although candles may not gutter in gothic light and the vaulting sounds of choirs may not haunt with lachrymose notes – for many, the doors of hospitals are the portals to oblivion, with all the numinosity and transcendent shudders implied.
Change setting. Consider, as some anthropologists have before, how funerals are conducted and how festivals of death and the celebrations of departed life unfold. One of my favourite books on the subject is P Metcalf & R Huntington (eds) (1991) Celebrations of Death: The Anthropology of Mortuary Ritual. Unpacking the complexity of ideas of death – from the biological when to the social and final recognition – the authors end on a section on American deathways, the phenomenon of the open coffin, the immaculate coiffure styled by the ‘funeral industry’, dramatised in the series Six Feet Under. The theme was expanded on by G Laderman’s (2005) Rest in Peace: a cultural history of death and the funeral home in 20th Century
For myself, my favourite section of the document is its elucidations of the regulations imposed on burial at sea. Apparently, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency are responsible for regulating this practice. This in turn seems to be fronted by the Fisheries Research Services, Marine Laboratory, as the licensing authority. This under the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985. Apparently the
This dolorous duty must only be conducted in a coffin ungraced by persistent plastics, lead, copper or zinc. That veneered board you’ve been hankering after – out of luck again. A soft wood, well bracketed is indicated, to survive the splash and sink. To this end, at least 100 kgs of weight, all in, are required, if you are not to bob and eddy and bump into a Peterhead Trawlerman (considerably to the detriment, no doubt, of your coffin’s architectural elegance.) Just in case, the licensers also require extensive holing beneath the waterline – to be precise, at least 12 of 20mms on the top and sides, with three more in the end boards. The second annex, in a tantalising bit of history, identifies two sites on the map where burials at sea have previously been enacted (see map, top left). Whether traversing the whaleways, or slumbering forever in the salty, sandy embrace of the sea -