Friday, 28 March 2014

'Encountering Corpses' - Manchester, 2014

I'm so lucky I was able to attend one of the UK's most anticipated death-centric events (besides our own Death Salon UK of course!) The conference was Encountering Corpses at Manchester Museum, organised as part of Manchester Metropolitan University's 'Humanities in Public' debate.

In a similar vein to the upcoming Death Salon UK and to many of the events I've previously organised here at Barts Pathology Museum, the theory behind the conference was to discuss, in a medical-humanities forum, how we encounter the dead in all forms. The fact that tickets to this April event were sold out last October is evidence that this is a discussion many people, from all disciplines, want to be a part of and feel they can contribute to. Perhaps after the knee-jerk reaction to human remains retention in Alder Hey and Redfern, which led to the creation of the Human Tissue Authority and Act in 2004, those involved in the fields which encounter these remains and issues are hoping for an open discussion which can lead to clarification on all current legislation and practices.
For example, many people don't know that archaeologists excavating human remains in England and Wales are required to hide their fieldwork from public view via the aid of screens. This is for reasons of 'propriety' which seems like a clear and positive motivation for this regulation. However, in one of the talks, Dr Faye Sayer relayed how her and her team carried out a ground-breaking public engagement project in which they got permission to remove the screens and invited the locals to help with the dig. During the course of the project which was entitled 'Bones Without Barriers' the public's attitude began to evolve from one of suspicion to one of involvement and learning, as well as a feeling of being a 'part of something'. In fact it was this earlier screen usage which had created the air of suspicion in the first place: the general consensus being that if the archaeologists were hidden from view of the public it was because they were up to 'no good back there'. This was a very interesting point and one which illustrates the folly of groups of legislators feeling that the issue is clear cut and the solution is 'obvious' - it was actually ambiguous. 

It certainly supports the idea that people don't want to be shielded from the dead, and in fact Sam McCormick's interesting talk on Ashes Creations showed that the bereaved are continuing their relationship with their deceased using cremation ashes in tattoos, vinyl records which can be played and ceramics which can be constantly used (for example tea pots). She said there is an indication of a movement of the material dead, who are "shifting outside death's landscapes" - shifting closer to us.
Not everyone will agree with the above points and some comments following Lee Mellor's very interesting talk on serial killers and their different relationships with their deceased victims were quite negative. Lee, a PhD student based in Canada who has written two books - one on spree killers and one on serial killers - was illustrating a specific relationship some killers have with their victims which he has coined 'expressive/transformative'. This relationship with the corpse can indicate the character of the killer in society and is useful information for profilers and those in law enforcement. However there was a concern that showing a crime scene photo to illustrate the mode was 're-humiliating the victim'. 
Similarly there was quite a negative response to photographer and artist Sue Fox's short film reel showing her mortuary photography from the 1990s, some of which you can see in the wonderful book Vile Bodies (above). However, it wasn't the graphic autopsy photographs which appeared to offend but the detailed description of putrefaction which formed part of the audio. I had to remember that, unlike myself, not everybody has had forensic training and not everybody who comes to a conference such as this will have dealt with human remains.

And this is the main crux of the issue: bringing death out of the scientific field is very valuable indeed, but we (in this instance medical museums) have to be aware of many people's lack of physical experience with the dead and be responsible for any offence taken. We as a society don't experience death as much as we used to and are struggling with a desire to know more but also a fear of what we may see or feel.
And nobody can illustrate society's changing relationships with the dead more than the wonderful final speaker Dr Paul Koudounaris, author of 'Heavenly Bodies' and 'Empire of Death' - collections of exquisite photography from catacombs, tombs and more all over the world. The jeweled skeletons (like the one above) illustrate that what we could consider absolutely crazy today was fairly normal in a different time and context. He points out that many cultures would allow their dead relatives to remain at home for a year or two in some cases. However when Norman Bates did it in Psycho it's a clear indication of mental illness! Our attitudes to how we interact with and treat our dead are constantly evolving.

In summary, we encounter anonymous corpses in museums, at funerals and perhaps as we walk past cemeteries. We encounter bereavement and the issues surrounding it with our own, named dead. Death affects everyone. Despite the opposing opinions and different viewpoints when medicine and humanities come together it's fair to say that Encountering Corpses illustrated a need for discussions about death and was a very rewarding event to attend.