I am a major fan of post-mortem photography. If you are not familiar with the fad, it was the practice of taking photographs of a deceased family member, or of the living posing with the deceased relative. The practice became more common after the invention of daguerreotype photography in 1839, which made taking portraits and photos less expensive and more commonplace. The practice peaked during the late 19th century, and by the early 20th century had phased out of fashion. It was fashionable due to the lack of photography, therefore family members wanted to take photos of and with the deceased, rather than have no photo whatsoever. Further, most of these individuals would have died at home with their family, and therefore most people with familiar with death. The people are often arranged so that they appear to be alive, propped up by furniture or other family members, or they are pictured as in a deep peaceful sleep. The uncomfort many people today feel with this type of photograph speaks to the major change in our society’s lack of relationship and unfamiliarity with death. For some good examples of this type of photo, see the Thanatos Archive.
Why am I bringing up photography, when this is clearly a site about bones and graves? What these photos show us is the importance of the deceased and their body to the living. When we excavate past funerary sites, we need to consider how people viewed the deceased, the interactions they had with the body, and the important role the corpse plays throughout the process of funeral, burial and memorial. An article by Sorenson (2009) states the problem: the agency of the dead body is ignored, and the reciprocity between the deceased and the bereaved remains obscured. In effect, the corpse assumes the role of a neutral object, which blurs the particular potency of the dead body’s materiality”. In essence, there is a tendency to view the deceased as an object, rather than seeing the body as having an important role and an ability to independently create emotion or action. Again, this lack of engagement with the role of the corpse is probably attributable to the more general lack of engagement with modern bodies in the Western world.
Within archaeology, we do need to consider the body of the deceased as more than object, and consider the roles that they are playing: soon to be ancestor, lost relative or loved one, remains of a criminal, and more. It is also important to recognize that bodies do have some agency and action. The bodies of the deceased are not inanimate, despite what we may think. Sorenson (2009) argues that there are two main types of action: first, there is the putrefaction of the tissues, organs and gases which cause movement, and second, there is action created by the living around the body to prepare it for funeral and burial. Williams (2004) notes similar behavior for cremation, but that this type of treatment can also cause action in the form of burning, charring, smoking, and steaming from the fiery breakdown of the body. During a cremation, the body has the appearance of action and is transformed before the mourners. In the past, the cremation would have been led by the family, and they may have been directly involved in maintenance of the fire, so this type of action would have been seen and acknowledged.
Williams (2004) also notes something very important about the ability of the deceased to have an effect: the role of the spirit of the deceased. In many cultures, the dead can return as spirits, vampires, or revenants. When a family buried their loved one, there could be a chance that the burial was done wrong and the individual would return as a vengeful or lost spirit. The fact that burying an individual didn’t mean the end of their ability to act on the world is extremely important when we assess how burial was done and what the relationships between the dead and the living were. As Aspock (2011) found, reopened burials didn’t always mean grave-robbing, many times it was done to appease the dead and prevent their spirits from roaming in the world of the living (for more on this see the whole post: Grave Robbing, Not Always What it Seems).
This is a very different approach to the dead. Williams (2004) argues that we most frequently take the mouner-focused approach since “the dead don’t bury themselves”, but it is important that we consider the central role played by the cadaver, and the varied relationships with the dead during the funeral, memorial, and after burial. We cannot assume the deceased is merely an object. If you are still unconvinced, perhaps watch “Weekend at Bernie’s”, then you can truly see the ability of a corpse to have action and agency (Just kidding, but it is an interesting movie to watch from a bioarchaeology perspective).
Sorenson, T (2009). The presence of the dead: Cemeteries, cremation and the staging of non-place Journal of Social Archaeology, 9 (1) DOI: 10.1177/1469605308099373
Williams, H (2004). Death Warmed up: The Agency of Bodies and Bones in Early Anglo-Saxon Cremation Rites. Journal of Material Culture, 9 (3) DOI: 10.1177/1359183504046894
Aspock, E (2011). Past ‘Disturbances’ of Graves as a source: Taphonomy and Interpretation of reopened early medieval inhumation graves Oxford Journal of Archaeology, 30 (3) DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-0092.2011.00370.x