One of my favorite aspects of my study abroad experience in Spain last spring was learning about the recent history of the country, mostly pertaining to Franco’s rule. Many Americans are not taught this history in school and I had little to no knowledge of Franco before I arrived in Spain. Francisco Franco or “el Generalissimo” was head of state for Spain from the late 1930s until he died in 1975. He assumed power after the civil war in the 1930s between the Republicans and the Nationalists (a sect of fascism). Being a military man that fought for Spain in North Africa, he ruled the country with strict rules and regulations. Soon, his rule turned into a dictatorship. Franco’s nationalists were supported by Hitler and Mussolini, which demonstrates the oppression found in the country at the time of the civil war and at the early points of Franco’s reign. The country was closed off to the rest of the world for many years until a tourism boom in the 1950s exposed the country to the other European countries and even the U.S. The oppression and violence Franco used during his rule has had everlasting effects on the Spanish population, which is why his burial and gravesite continue to be so controversial.
photo by Jaume Escofet
photo by emercado90
With this quick background knowledge, I imagine you can believe that Franco is a sore spot in history for many of the Spanish. It seems unlikely that his grave would turn into a tourist site right? Well that is the opposite of the case. His funeral and open casket drew huge numbers of people to the cathedral in Madrid. Many people can be seen crying in the news coverage. Another large part of the population that attended his funeral were there to show their hatred and disdain for the dictator. While Franco was still alive, he had Republican prisoners start building his memorial site right outside of Madrid. He purposely chose the spot he did because it is close to the resting places of the Spanish kings at El Escorial. The building is massive. When driving between Madrid and Northwest Spain, you can easily see the Valley of the Fallen from the highway. It has a towering cross and a huge mausoleum complex buried in the hill. As I have heard, after Franco’s death and burial the monument was spun to represent the fallen during the Spanish Civil War. The building is extremely controversial and the Spanish are not sure what to do with the monument.
photo by Javier Lastras
Do you allow a building to continue to stand that symbolizes so much oppression? Is it possible to repurpose this gravesite to mean something else? Spain has an intriguing law, la ley de la memoria, that has condemned Franco’s rule and has mandated that all street names and other references to Franco be changed. I believe it is difficult to change this monument because it pertains to death and may disrespect the dead if there are any changes to the monument. The law also prohibits political events to take place at the site of Franco’s grave. This demonstrates that there still are tensions in the community due to the dictatorship and the sight of the grave of a controversial leader can reignite these fractures in society. Because the Valley of the Fallen houses many other victims of the Civil War, it is almost impossible to know how to approach this issue without hurting the individuals involved. Franco’s grave presents an example of how even after someone dies, their influence can continue and can be perpetuated by how they were buried.
When thinking about a lot of the pop culture representations of death, I often think they are over-dramatized or not emotional enough. One of the television shows which I often cite as having the best representations of death is the HBO show Six Feet Under. I started watching Six Feet Under a few years after it went off the air when I was in high school, partially because I remember my father watching it when I was a child and being told to leave the living room when it came on because of the very raw images of death and the way in which death is dealt with on a daily basis. Because of its overwhelming theme of death in all forms, it is a difficult show to handle and comprehend for a child. As an adult watching the show, it is even still difficult to handle at points, but also interweaves the humor of life in with tragedy. It is a show all about death and interpersonal relationships, but also addresses the fundamental human experience and issue from a novel perspective. The premise of the show is focused on a family that owns a funeral home in Los Angeles and all of the family drama that occurs after the patriarch (the mortician) dies. All of his three children deal with his death in a different way and these first initial reactions to his death inform the entire course of the five season show.
The show is controversial in its constant images of death, but also in turn downplays the taboo-ness of death by addressing the issues inherent in the life experience straight on with a great level of honesty. Never before have I seen a scripted show that discusses death on such a philosophical and emotional level as Six Feet Under. Even the theme song and accompanying imagery contains images of cadavers, gravestones, and plant-matter wilting away. The whole show has an underlying tone of death with dark, subdued colors and lifeless images of LA streets. Each episode begins with the death of an individual who eventually ends up in the funeral home owned by the family and interacting with the people embalming them and preparing them for the funeral. Thus, the show poses an interesting paradox about how we, as humans, often feel that the dead are not completely dead and communication is often still possible with someone who is no longer living. The discussion between the dead and the mortuary workers allows the dead to be seen as more than the dead that they must prepare for the funeral. Also, the show presents the mortuary purposes that are often hidden from families and the public by showing what happens during the embalming process or the plastic surgery used to make the dead look more alive.
Death in popular culture, especially television, is often used as a plot device to end or further the storyline of one of the characters. Six Feet Under does not utilize this strategy in the usual sense, but rather uses death as a metaphor for life and emphasizes how the obsession with death and funeral practices consume one’s life if there is no acceptance of death. The inevitability of death is addressed so wholeheartedly in Six Feet Under that one cannot help, but to examine one’s personal perception of death and the death of family members. Unlike shows such as CSI that focus on the biomedical and criminal aspect of after death, Six Feet Under focuses on the philosophical and emotional which is a respite from the usual treatment of death as detached from life. I think that Six Feet Under provides an antidote to the views of death currently portrayed in a lot of television shows as violent or bio-medically defined.
Side note: Six Feet Under famously has one the most well crafted finales. In the spirit of not spoiling I will not reveal what happens, but if you want to see a beautiful ending to a TV show all about death look it up!
This blog is a platform of communication for a college course at Emory entitled "The Anthropology of Death and Burial". The purpose is to use this blog to invite the world into our classroom by drawing on current events or phenomena that surround us and that are relevant to our exploration into the topic of death and how people deal with it.
The course is explicitly cross-disciplinary and besides anthropology we also explore the topic of death through the lens of biology, history, religious studies, medicine, law, philosophy, sociology, literature and art. Feel welcome to explore and participate!
Who we are
The contributors to this blog are all undergraduate students at Emory University in Atlanta GA (USA).
The course is taught by Dr. Liv Nilsson Stutz who is an archaeologists with a special interest in mortuary archaeology and ritual studies. She is also a regular contributor.