Decolonizing Death Studies by: Kami Fletcher, Ph.D.

For those not readily familiar, Death Studies can be defined as the interdisciplinary study of death, dying, burial, and last rites rituals.  Scholars, students, and healthcare professionals alike use death as a lens to understand or even construct past civilizations and cultures.  Archeologists use cemeteries to do the deep dives into history, excavating burial remains to reconstruct personhood and kinship patterns.  Literary scholars position epitaphs as poems navigating and uncovering thoughts and thought processes of generations long ago.  Historians position the cemetery as an archive, a treasure trove of historical records that is the window into past lives that doubles as a mirror to the present.

Death Studies, in all its variations, reflect life.  It reflects the life of societies – their political systems, social customs, norms, values, religious beliefs.  Leading death scholar Eric Seeman in Death in the New World: Cross-Cultural Encounters, 1492-1800 points out that deathways (ways of dying which can also include burial practices, funerals, mourning, corpse care) told who ancient cultures were and, perhaps more importantly, who they were not.  In his discussion of early Atlantic World cultures, Seeman clearly illustrates that historically, deathways were a distinguishing characteristic between cultures so much so that when cultures clashed death was a key determinant if someone was labeled “like us” or “not like us”.  This us-versus-them difference led to othering which played a significant role in European colonization, imperialism, slavery/plantation-complex, discrimination, oppression, and privilege.

Albeit forced/coerced or through assimilation or acculturation, systems of power and privilege were passed through deathways and death practices.  It is, then, imperative to recognize how European colonialism – via slavery, war, and genocide – has marginalized, trivialized, and outright negated deathways and death practices, of nations, cultures and persons deemed “other”.  Once direct colonial rule was established and mass genocide followed, later in the twentieth century Native American burial grounds were not seen as sacred spaces but untapped discoveries where American archeologists could build the discipline.  Until 1990, the practice of digging up and ravaging the sacred burial grounds of Native Americans was for the greater good of historical discovery, so to display skeletal remains and burial wares in American museums was normal and natural.  

Albeit forced/coerced or through assimilation or acculturation, systems of power and privilege were passed through deathways and death practices.

Michael Anderson and Gemma Woticky, both medical experts and healthcare professionals with the former of Mohawk descent, contend that in contemporary times it is not just that burial grounds of Native Americans/First Nations/Indigenous peoples need protection but that what is really needed is a deep understanding of how European colonization has reconfigured their deathways.  The authors say that “death is not meant to be a medical event” and that “the absence of a word for death…underscores how differently the end-of-life experience is constructed by Indigenous people”.1  Starting towards the end of the nineteenth century, the American way of death (read white American) was to deny death and put it away in a hospital.  Death became disconnected from life in a way.  This is the exact opposite of what Anderson and Woticky argue.  Anderson and Woticky plainly state that among the Indigenous and First Nations death is not solely about the body but the spirit, a healing of the spirit through ceremony.  This is so because birth and death are spiritually connected.  The spirit is thought to transition between birth and death because as the authors put it “The colonial worldview frames death through a linear, biomedical, and physical lens [whereas] Indigenous people view themselves as a spirit having a human experience.”2 And through colonialism that sought to eradicate and trivialize their death practices, options for palliative care, specifically, among Indigenous peoples are limited.  The solution is to provide options to terminally and severly ill Indigenous peoples beyond hospital/hospice and to validate their deathways, namely the Medicine Wheel.

Therefore, it is imperative to decolonize death studies, that is, through scholarly inquiry and research, recognize that Indigenous cultures, all over the world, have deathways and death practices different and equally important that, when suppressed, are detrimental to that Indigenous culture.  And like Anderson and Woticky, it is important to a) understand how colonialism has affected deathways/death practices while b) simultaneously working to recentralize the death norms of that Indigenous culture.

Therefore, it is imperative to decolonize death studies, that is, through scholarly inquiry and research, recognize that Indigenous cultures, all over the world, have deathways and death practices different and equally important that, when suppressed, are detrimental to that Indigenous culture.

The scholars, students, funeral directors, death practitioners, and activists at the Collective for Radical Death Studies (CRDS) see decolonizing Death Studies as a call to action to:

  1. dismantle the Eurocentrism that frames last rites rituals while pushing to centralize the death rituals of communities of color
  2. deconstruct the historical ways in which white privilege has pervaded death work;
  3. remove the hyper focus on rural/lawn/New England burial grounds
  4. raise awareness of the systematic oppression that undergirds mortality and fatality of marginalized groups and people of color.
Dismantling Eurocentrism that frames last rites rituals while pushing to centralize the death rituals of communities of color 

We must call attention to the ways in which European settler colonialism through plantation slavery, war, and genocide has affected the death, dying, burial, last rites rituals of persons of color.  The incessant labor of American plantation slavery coupled with the racial hierarchy pushed by white supremacy allowed African/Black bodies to be disposable.  During the Transatlantic Slave Trade, Africans were literally worked to death and through slave narratives we know that these persons were denied proper burial, relegated to slave cemeteries with ephemeral headstones and open-air burials.  Before forcibly taken to the Americas, the Middle Passage greatly impacted the ways in which Africans died.  Africans died less from natural causes but overwhelming due to disease, starvation and suicide onboard slave ships.  Once slaveholders found out that many Africans believed in transmigration3 they started to decapitate them post-mortem because transmigration back to Africa was only believed to occur if one’s body was fully intact.  Europeans, knowingly, disrupted African deathways which is why, in contemporary times, it is imperative to centralize African American deathways by, for example, properly memorializing African ancestors who were denied a decent and proper burial.  Centralizing African ancestors who were enslaved and history has tried to marginalize and erase is a must.

Deconstructing the historical ways in which white privilege has pervaded death work  

We must realize that in America white privilege is the by-product of Eurocentrism.  And the American Way of Death, first popularized by Jessica Mitford, must be understood as death work from a white American perspective.  In her book, Mitford positions the early 20th century funeral director as a greedy male who charges exorbitant fees for funeral services because 1) bereaved family members bought into the idea that funeral service is now the domain for trained funeral professionals and 2) because the funeral business, which was first a trade, remained unregulated until 1975.  The point was that funeral directors had usurped death work from the family while also cheating bereaved family members out of every dime they had, namely life insurance money.  This withstanding, Mitford ignored the African American funeral director and how the primary objective was not money grubbing but providing a proper funeral in the face of Jim Crow segregation and this most certainly meant making Black children, men and women decedents look like the kings and queens and not the maids and porters that white society saw them as.  She ignored Dia De Los Muertos and how this work of annual remembering is kinship keeping at its best and therefore foundational to Mexican culture.  Ultimately, she did not even begin to unpack the heterogenous way of American death work that has been compounded by race, gender, religion, and class.  

Remove the hyper focus on rural/lawn/New England burial grounds

This French historian Pierra Nora, known for his work on memory, invited readers to see cemeteries as lieux de mémoire or “sites of memory” – memories about a society and its norms, customs, beliefs and kinship patterns.4  From this perspective, a cemetery is not a static piece of land.  Instead cemeteries are deathscapes, cultural landscapes inscribed by the living’s deathways and death practices.  And with gravestone/cemetery studies overwhelming consumed by cemeteries in one small geographical region of the US where there is hyperfocus on Puritan/Protestant burial grounds, only a certain memory is represented as American identity.  Cemeteries are cities of the dead that reflect our living memories.  They help us remember who we were and learn who we are.  If this is the case, then there must be a more heterogenous display of remembrance.  American Gravestone studies, leading publisher and promoter of gravestone/cemetery research, recently published the first of a two-part series on African American cemeteries.  This is a step in the right direction but what is required is a structural shift in focus that encourages a wider scope for cemetery/gravestone studies – otherwise it is mere tokenism.

Raise awareness of the systematic oppression that undergirds mortality and fatality of marginalized groups and people of color

“All people die, but not all people die alike.”5  Maurice Jackson reminds us that death is not the great equalizer.  Instead, for people of color deathways reflect our very lives within systematic oppression that underscores how we die.  Yes, there is conversation about the maternal mortality rates of Black women.  The documentary “Death by Delivery” explores this linking racism to the high rate of mortality of Black mothers during childbirth.  However, the popular and mainstream discussion about end of life is hospice and terminal illness so much so that death directives dominant this conversation.  The assumption is that Americans (read white) will live into old age unless terminally ill.  We must realize that there are systems in place to disallow people of color and the poor from living wills and even the rudimentary of life insurance.  Raising awareness about how ill-fitting death directives can be for people of color, poor and working class, can help with better address end of live for these populations.

Join the Collective for Radical Death Studies in our quest to decolonize the field!

  1. Michael Anderson and Gemma Woticky, “The End of Life is an Auspicious Opportunity for Healing: Decolonizing Death and Dying for Urban Indigenous People,” International Journal of Indigenous Health 13, 2: (2018): 49-60.
  2. ibid.
  3. Transmigration is a belief spawned from the Atlantic world that if a person died away from his homeland and could not be buried in his/her village, his/her soul would return to its land of birth.
  4. Pierra Nora, “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Memoire,” Representations, 26 (1989), 7-24.
  5. Maurice Jackson, “The Black Experience with Death,” In Death and Dying: Views from Many Cultures. Edited by Richard Kalish. 1977 (New York: Baywood Publishing Company).

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