Contributors to this book have explored differences in the way death is experienced not only in various cultures but also by men and women. Something of the variety of experience that exists between different ethnic groups is presented in chapters by Smaje and Field and by Gunaratnam. Jonker looks at how these experiences are shaped by the overall cultural and social context within which a particular minority group lives. Social context is explored via the public representation of death and dying and the reactions to it in Littlewood, Pickering and Walter’s chapter. They critique press reports in terms of gender portrayals and in so doing link with those other contributors who underline the need to recognise differences between genders. Here, as in the chapters by Hockey, Hallam and Thompson, the approach is to emphasise specific aspects of death and dying and look at these in the context of gender. Chapters by Lovell and by Riches and Dawson offer a further variable, that is the characteristics, particularly the age, of the person who dies.
We are not all the same in the end. As we asserted at the beginning of this book, death is not the great leveller. In this chapter I will build on the diversity described in previous chapters by considering the way social theory has looked at, or has avoided looking at, death. Underlying the detail of the argument I will present is a concern to recognise that we must engage with the challenges of postmodernism. Even if we do not want to take on the whole ‘postist’ discourse we must consider how far we have space to pick and choose from modernisms. The driving force of modernity, from the mid-to-late eighteenth century, was the belief that both personal and social wellbeing would be enhanced by the application of reason, science and technology. Dying, death and the dead would always occupy positions of challenge to epistemes of control, improvement and certainty. But they also pose challenges for postmodernism in that they intrude the mortal body into a rhetorical approach to the reflexive verisimilitude of the lived world.