The Culture of Death

By Lang, Valter | Estonian Journal of Archaeology, December 2011 | Go to article overview

The Culture of Death


Lang, Valter, Estonian Journal of Archaeology


This is a small collection of articles initiated by the Centre of Excellence in Cultural Theory and dedicated to the study of some selected aspects of the culture of death in archaeology, folkloristics, and media studies. Such a selection of research fields is to some extent random depending mostly on authors who responded to the call for papers and succeeded in finishing their contributions before the deadline. This selection could easily be quite different and the collection itself much thicker because the focus--the topic of death--touches everyone and forms an essential part in human culture. Nevertheless, even this casual selection of different aspects in the culture of death gives a good overview of the essential and inexhaustible nature of the topic, and of how some nuances of the culture of death share surprisingly many features in totally different research disciplines. The authors hope that their modest contribution complements that extremely large and rich discussion which does exist on the culture of death in various social and human sciences.

Although due to the nature of this journal the emphasis is on archaeology, it makes sense to start with the question from the last paper about the death in newspapers written by Halliki Harro-Loit and Kadri Ugur. They ask: "since everyone dies, whose death is worthy of media coverage?" One can replace the word "media" in this question with some other words more characteristic of someone's own research field. An archaeologist, for instance, could ask: since everyone dies, whose death was worthy of proper burying? The problem here lies in the circumstance that the graves and cemeteries we know from prehistory have often belonged only to a minor part of human population, while the majority of prehistoric people were buried in a way, which has not preserved their burials over longer times. Death leaves traces in human culture only if it is interpreted through that culture, as stated by Valter Lang in his article in the current volume, and by far not every death has shared this fate in prehistoric past. The proper burying, leaving traces in material culture, has been selective for a very long time, in our corner of the world until the spread of Christianity at the latest. But such selectiveness can also be found in many other prehistoric and historical societies around the world, while towards the modern societies it has achieved more shaded or hidden features. The media coverage of death today is actually also selective, therefore compensating the selectiveness of culturally treated death by other and modern means. Thus, death touches everyone of us but its phenomena interpreted through culture very much depend on both time and place. This culture-specificity is also demonstrated by the articles included in this volume.

Trying to answer the question, whose death is worthy of rendering cultural meaning, the researchers of prehistoric to modern societies usually refer to those persona who have possessed more remarkable and outstanding positions in their lifetime. Still, in egalitarian societies of distant past the question of who was buried in a few graves is quite incomprehensible for us, as there is insufficient data to make reliable suggestions. In more complex and stratified (pre)historic societies the buried people were most likely those who shared social, religious and economical power. Today the range of such people is much wider embracing also politically and culturally (in its broader sense) or otherwise active and outstanding individuals. Anyway, whatever has been the exact practice in particular cultures, death has been used as a means for distinguishing and remembering people who were somehow important for those societies.

Speaking of the representation of death in modern press, the main idea of death notices is the wish of survivors (e.g. relatives, friends, colleagues) to inform the others about someone's demise. All such notices and other texts share the grief and mourning; they speak much more about the living people than about those who died (Harro-Loit & Ugur, this volume). …

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