Crossing Over: New Narratives of Death

Lead Research Organisation: University of Hull
Department Name: English


'Crossing Over' seeks to establish a new interdisciplinary network of international experts from different fields of research on death and dying to work interactively and collaboratively on the theoretical and practical challenges posed by the changing face of contemporary death. Both death as a moment in time and dying as a process result in intersections of the theoretical and the social, the academic and the pragmatic, the arcane and the everyday - that is, intersections between spheres which might not usually interact. 'Crossing Over' exemplifies a belief that such complex matters can only be addressed by a wide and innovative exchange of ideas and practices.

The network will consist of scholars from the humanities and social sciences. It will be directed from the University of Hull's newly-established, multi-disciplinary Centre for End of Life Studies but also includes a significant contribution from the University of Sheffield's multi-disciplinary Death Group (est. 2004) convened from the Department of English. A conference in Sheffield in 2015 will share the fruits of the network's research and will be open to a wide range of professionals as well as members of the public.

'Crossing Over' will function through a combination of face-to-face events and on-line communication tools. Individual outputs from a range of disciplines and innovative research collaborations between, for example, a literary scholar and someone working in the hospice sector will not only produce an enhanced understanding of the challenges of contemporary death but will move towards new narratives of death in which a range of theorists and non-academic professionals can have a stake.

Such a network is urgently needed in order to address changes in the cultural and social experience of death, in ideas about death, and in the management of death. The most obvious change is that sudden, early adult death is rare but long periods of frailty and disability prior to death are increasingly common. Where 'end of life' once referred to the moment of death, Age UK have recently suggested an expanded definition that means the last ten years of increased 80-plus lifespans. One can point to, for example, challenges to curative medicine materialised in the Hospice Movement; critiques of medicalised models of grief changing the way loss is understood; and the growth of virtual memorial sites. These shifts in 'ordinary' death have parallels in more radical activities such as the Right to Die movement.

There is also a need to produce theoretical and practical models that will assist in the understanding of bereavement in response to what Margaret Holloway (2007) has termed 'the new death'. Examples would include deaths caused by natural disasters; the increase in deaths caused by alcohol or substance abuse; teenage suicide; and teenage gang-related deaths. These experiences are widely reported but little understood and go hand-in-hand with the fact that, as Christine Valentine (2008) notes, 'the dead retain a significant social presence in the lives of the living'.

At the same time, our relationship with death has become increasingly paradoxical. Mourning is both a social process and something that is fundamentally private. As Meghan O'Rourke (2011) has observed, we live in 'a dysfunctional culture in which we avidly consume news of death on TV and duck away from it in real life.' The network will, therefore, focus on the following research areas:

The meaning of 'the good death' in the 21st century.

Changing narratives of death - literary, media and social - and the continuing social presence of the dead.

New and emergent discourses of spirituality.

The impact of 'the new death' on how we story the dead.

Changing funeral and burial practices.

Planned Impact

The 'Crossing Over' research network has been designed to have an impact beyond its immediate academic environment. Its influence, while intended to be significant within academia, is planned to extend to professionals working in end of life care and the management of death and dying. Indeed, the network's proposed title has been chosen, in part, because it can be interpreted as speaking to the transfer of knowledge between academics and professionals and vice versa.

This engagement will be facilitated in the following ways. First, the network's institutional location within the University of Hull's newly-established Centre for End of Life Studies (CELS) and its close collaboration with the interdisciplinary Sheffield Death Group connects it with two research groupings where relationships between academics and professionals are already well-established. For example, CELS's external stakeholders include those working in social care and in the hospice movement.

Second, including non-academic professionals in the network's activities, means that they can join forces with academics to bring a 'real world' focus research into the changing face of contemporary death. The mix of academics and professionals will help to develop research questions and methods that can provide robust answers to difficult questions; and research strategies that contribute long-term, socially inclusive and environmentally-sensitive solutions. The network's conversations, synergies, enhanced knowledge and new approaches will make a significant public contribution to death education, that is to suggest ways of moving beyond death-denying and death-avoiding cultural attitudes and practices.

'Crossing Over' will benefit the deathcare professionals and policy-makers who currently face the challenge of a society in transition: these include a new mortality demographic which lends death the profile of a gradual decline from chronic illnesses in later life; a shift away from traditional funeral and burial providers into the unknown territory of consumer choice; the emergence of larger conglomerates at a time when standards of funeral practice remain unregulated; the diminishing availability of grave space and cultural resistance to the re-use of existing graves; European legislation requiring the costly filtering of crematoria emissions; a proliferation of entirely new deathcare services and providers, disposal technologies and memorial products which have yet to be evaluated.

The network's activities give professionals (i) access to innovative, historically-informed perspectives on the challenges of change by participating in transdisciplinary academic presentations and (ii) an opportunity to contribute their views and experience to the development of a context in which evidence-based research in death-related subjects can be more readily proposed, funded and completed within a sound ethical framework. Together, these benefits make the series an ideal opportunity to foster stronger links between academics and those 'on the front line' who deliver care and management services in death and dying.

Examples of non-academic potential beneficiaries who will be invited to attend the closing conference include: Institute of Cemetery and Cremation Management; Federation of Burial and Cremation Authorities; Education Officer for National Association of Funeral Directors; National Society of Allied and Independent Funeral Directors; The Natural Death Centre; The London Cremation Company PLC; The Cremation Society of England; and the Association of Natural Burial Grounds. (The Sheffield Death Group has good contacts with all these organisations). The network's 'Summary plus abstracts' will be distributed to their memberships.


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