With such importance placed on rituals and disposal of the body, we think we have taken care of the body and given it a final resting place. But what if someone was to come along and dig it up? We would be outraged, demanding the return of the body and punishment for the perpetrator right?
Saxon Burial (Photo from Wessex Archaeology http://www.flickr.com/photos/wessexarchaeology/8469631615/sizes/m/in/photostream/)
Well, this is exactly what archaeologists do when they encounter ancient burials. They methodically remove the contents of the grave (including the body) and scientifically examine the remains. An Anglo-Saxon sarcophagus, for instance, has just been opened for examination:
Is this ethical? Usually, no one makes a fuss when it’s a pagan burial, such as one from Druid culture or ancient Greek culture, but what if it was a Christian burial? Archaeologists will excavate relatively recent remains (in their viewpoint) from only a couple centuries ago. A field school in Italy explicitly excavates in a churchyard cemetery:
How recent is too recent though? When a body must be exhumed nowadays, it is very traumatic for the family and many people say that it is disrespectful to the deceased person. Is excavating a grave the same thing? Is it okay since there is no living family or community connected with corpse? An article from the Economist (http://www.economist.com/node/1056932) discusses how ethics come into play in burial archaeology. When dealing with human remains, archaeologist must be respectful of how the cultures would want their remains to be handled and they often come into conflict with native people (such as the conflict with Native American tribes as mentioned in the article).
We must weigh the benefits against the damage that burial archaeology entails. I think that what we learn by excavating these graves outweighs the damage that excavation causes. We learn about the culture of the deceased person as well as general trends of how humans deal with death. Just like exhuming a body for forensic analysis in a criminal case will be worth the emotional pain for the valuable evidence it provides.
A part of the process of death is preparing for death. On an episode of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians”, 56-year old Kris Jenner introduces the serious topic of death and burial to the Kardashian/Jenner/Odom/Disick families. In the unfortunate event that one of their family members dies, Kris believes it’s important and essential to be prepared. A mother of six, her inspiration on this topic arose from shortly after visiting her ill mother. The entire family didn’t take her seriously, and started laughing hysterically!
Kris goes to many measures to make sure everything is set in stone for her family’s burial. We may not realize this at first, but funerals are a business. There are a myriad of options of how to treat bodies post-death, many of which are culturally constructed. These options seem normal to us, because that is how our culture makes them seem. After the death of a loved one, we are to decide what kind of casket to get, based on the dead’s wishes and preferences. Thus, some people like to be prepared and have specific preferences on what they want, while other’s don’t mind.
Since Kris Jenner noticed that her family wasn’t really as passionate about this as she was, she decided to take this responsibility upon herself. She proceeded to lay down in a casket and test it out, so she could decide on what kind she wanted to have for herself after death. Kris Jenner took a picture of herself with her eyes closed acting as if she was a dead, embalmed body and sent it to her children via text message. There is a lot of importance placed on “the viewing” and the appearance of the body after death. Her motive was to hopefully shake her children up, and make them realize how she would look if death came upon her. Kris also wanted to prove a point, that this was a serious this topic and also that she’s really worried no one will be there for her to take care of her. Kris even posed in a deluxe model coffin, and although shaken, her daughter Kim was not bothered by the image of her mother’s death.
(Image from The Daily Mail)
Even though her family is discouraged and uninterested, nothing stops Kris Jenner from taking a tour at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery and Funeral Home in Los Angeles, dragging her husband along. Jokingly, Khloe Kardashian says the burial site should have a mausoleum and a moat. The event planner and celebrity Kim Kardashian seems to be interested on just having a “fab” location to be buried in. Kris goes as far as ordering which flowers she would like best at their funeral as well. As a business manager, its in Kris’ blood to be such a big planner. For some, these burial rituals aren’t important, but for others give it a lot of thought and importance.
Kris took her entire family to a potential burial site and planned where everyone’s coffins would be placed on the celebrity-filled Hollywood plot, just for her family. Since the Kardashian/Jenner/Odom/Disick family have all been so close and connected due to the show that is aired on E!, it only makes sense to Kris to be buried together. Funeral homes symbolize the removal from one home to another home. It’s comforting to think that even when dead, the family is close in proximity and stays together.
The idea of planning one’s death may seem morbid and outrageous. However, the ultimate concern of Kris was legitimate. The idea of death may seem scary, due to the fear of the unknown. Also, as a mother, she is worried that her children will not take care of her or care for her when she’s older or dead. Kris is independent right now, but there are a lot of elderly who are suffering due to their children’s lack of attention. Many people laugh it off jokingly, and make it seem like death and burial isn’t an important topic to discuss about since it’s in the future. However, sometimes comedy and satire are ways of dealing with not wanting to talk about this sensitive and emotional subject. Granted it is good to plan for the future, but Kris planning her and her family’s funeral and burial to the T is slightly discomforting.
In the end, I found it slightly weird how her son, Rob Kardashian, tattooed a picture of Kris on his forearm, as a symbol that she will never be forgotten and to let go of the funeral discussion in total. Many times people get pictures, dates, and phrases, or any symbol of memorabilia permanently tattooed to their body when someone close to them passes away. This was Rob’s gesture to show his mother he cared for her. Who knows, maybe this extreme gesture was necessary to finally put Kris to peace?
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.