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Internal News - 12 March 2008

PhD student to discuss death rituals on Radio 4

Sheila Harper, PhD student in the Centre for Death & Society and editorial assistant of the centre’s journal Mortality, will be interviewed about her research into death rituals on Radio 4’s Thinking Allowed programme today at 4pm.

Shelia will be speaking about her research into the different roles played by the dead body in England and the United States. On 30 March she will present her conference paper: ‘Shhhhh! Granddad is sleeping!’ Viewing the recently-dead in England and the United States at the British Sociological Association conference at the University of Warwick.

Sheila said: “Although the death rituals of England and the United States – two ‘contemporary Western societies’, between which there is cultural, social, political, and ideological exchange – possess similarities, the role played by the dead body in mourning is notably different. It appears within death rituals in different ways and for different lengths of time.

“My research focuses on the ways in which the body is displayed in a American funeral home and a English funeral directors, and the meanings given by mourners and the public to viewing, or not viewing, the body.

“Do mourners in England and the United States have different socially prescribed experiences of the dead body within funeral rituals? How do the two publics assign meaning and value to the physical remains of recently dead bodies, if they do so at all? I argue that the dead body is an active agent within the social space it occupies during the liminal period between death and final disposal.

“This research is timely as the aging of the baby-boomer generation will significantly increase mortality rate over the next 40 years, thus also increasing the number of bereaved individuals involved in death rituals. Research into the meaning of these rituals will therefore inform how mourners understand and relate to the recently-dead as more of the population navigate the particularly difficult early days of bereavement.”

The British Sociological Association Annual Conference is the year's key networking event for sociology academics and professionals. The conference programme will include presentations and special sessions which will invite debate about the relationships between the natural and the social, and the ways in which the nature-culture distinction is being challenged by developments within both social theory and empirical research.