General Anthropology Division
Volunteered - Oral Presentation Session
Seven billion bodies will be disposed of in the next century as baby-boomers age and the developed world enters a period of ‘peak-death’. Put bluntly, approximately 3.6 billion kilograms of flesh and bone must be disposed of annually worldwide. Conventional techniques, burial and cremation, are economically and environmentally costly, and their future viability questioned. Transforming conventions, however, include shifting ideas about personhood, relationality, cosmos and futures, and are challenging, as dead human bodies are much more than waste.
This paper draws on fieldwork with death workers and designers in the US, Japan, UK, and Australia, to examine emerging technologies such as “recomposition” or human composting, “water cremation”, and forms of natural burial that cater to individual and community desires and global environmental concerns.
Anthropologists have long examined body disposal as a stage in a larger death ritual cycle that provides order and continuity. Surprisingly little attention has been paid to techniques of disposal themselves. In this paper, we consider ways of conventional disposal, and of engaging with or resisting disposal alternatives, through a re-consideration of Mauss’ Les techniques du corps (1934). His systematic, comparative analysis of how bodies move through life from childbirth to adulthood, stops just short of death. However, by framing disposal in terms of bodily actions that are “effective and traditional” (1934: 75), where “education is superimposed on prestigious imitation”, we consider how new technologies are drawn forward by new ‘effective’ and affective requirements, at the same time that they tend to gravitate to the ‘traditional’.