Professor Young spoke about ‘Making a Place for the Dead’ as part of Humanities in Public 2015/16. Humanities in Public is festival of diverse events all year round at MMU.
By Lucy Simpson
For most, the concept of the dead as ‘present’ and mobile, rather than absent and static, is something reserved to the confines of horror films. However, Professor Craig Young took confrontations with corpses out of the realms of fantasy and into Manchester at his lecture at MMU on Monday 28th September.
Professor Craig Young’s lecture kicked off the new festival programme in true Humanities in Public style as he engaged with multidisciplinary persppectives of contemporary encounters with corpses, in a talk that had something for everyone. He addressed the unearthing of buried history (quite literally) with the reburial of Richard III, alternative burial methods, and students’ responses to seeing and dealing with images of dead bodies in the classroom, remembering a time when he was almost in tears in front of a third year class.
With increasing focus on dead bodies in museums, popular culture, and ‘dark tourism’, Professor Craig Young argued that acknowledging that the dead are “objects who continue to engage, influence, confine, or structure other social agents” is a step forward. By dealing with the social, cultural, and political implications of encounters with the dead, Craig encouraged his audience to consider what is respectable and acceptable treatment of dead bodies.
Craig’s previous work with ‘Encountering Corpses’ and ‘The Bone Ages’ has increased public discourse surrounding issues of ‘death politics’. This was made possible by his success in winning an ESRC Research Seminar Series award of £30,000 to fund a three-year project of events at MMU surrounding contemporary encounters with corpses. This will continue with ‘Encountering Corpses II’ next year.
By placing many of his previous events in museums and cemeteries, Craig forces us to address our engagement with dead bodies and question our responses. He discussed theological objections and prohibitions against burial at sea, for fear of the returning body, making it clear how the deceased still have their own materiality and mobility.
Earlier this year, the body of Richard III was dug up from its original site under a council carpark and moved to Leicester Cathedral for reburial. Even 500 years after his death, York and Leicester both claimed Richard’s body should be theirs, so they could benefit from the increase in tourist trade.
With ongoing commodification of the dead, are we becoming scarily close to forgetting that these bodies were actually once ‘human’? And with death and processes of mourning being placed more and more in the public sphere with roadside shrines, forensic TV dramas, and images of dead refugees and migrants saturating the media, is seeing and dealing with dead bodies on a daily basis being increasingly normal? Questions of ethicality and economic gain in relation to dead bodies are only becoming more and more relevant. Inescapably, the lifeless influence the living.
The treatment, consideration, and conceptualisation of dead bodies is something Dr Young has been working with for years. His interest was inspired by his study of the mobilities of communist corpses in Romania, including leaders and activists, such as Petru Groza. He displays an ongoing interest in how the dead body is a subject of ‘dead body politics’ but also how it the lifeless still have agency in their own right.
At the end of his talk, Craig assessed his own mission, reflecting that maybe engaging with death in the same way we engage with life is an “impossible task”. Accepting death is against our basic survival instincts. However, he certainly made a space for the dead in the heads of his attendees on Monday evening, who said it had made them consider what they wanted to happen to their own body after death and even “opened their eyes to what death is, also perhaps the ‘beauty’ in death”. Craig will continue to make a space for them, outside of the burial ground, and in contemporary discourse.