Author Archives: Jason Danely

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AAGE Member News- October 2016

AAGE members do exceptional things, and as part of a regular monthly feature of getting to know our members, this section will highlight their latest achievements. If you’d like us to include your news in the next post, you can email them to us at admin@anthropologyandgerontology.com, including “AAGE member news” in the subject line. Also, if you are interested in being part of the member news team, please let us know!

The member news team (that would be me) have been taking a well-earned summer holiday, but it seems that all of you have not. You just keep on working, writing, presenting and stacking up your achievements. Well, we’ve dusted off the pom-poms and ready to cheer for all of your successes! Here’s a start: Continue reading

AAGE at #AAA2016! How to get involved in Minneapolis this November

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The AAA meeting is massive. This year, thousands of anthropologists will descend on the “City of Lakes” for the four days of talks, meetings, workshops, and events, and once again, AAGE is there to help you find the most exciting panels on aging and the life course. The guide below contains links to the AAA program so that registered members can add them to the personal scheduler. There are also links to the AAGE/ Anthropology of Aging and the Life Course Interest Group meeting (Friday, 18 November 12:15PM-1:30PM) and  the AALIG special interlocutor session with Margaret Lock in conversation with Jay Sokolovsky and Athena McLean (Saturday 19 November 12:15PM-1:30PM). If we missed your panel/paper/poster or event, let us know. See you in Minneapolis!

*Please note that since the original post, room assignment are no longer listed on the online program and the rooms listed here may be incorrect. Best to check in closer to the conference!

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AAGE at #EASA2016

EASA 2016 was hosted by Univ. of Milano-Bicocca. (Photo: D'uomo, by Jason Danely)

The magnifient Duomo in central Milan. EASA 2016 was hosted by University of Milan, Bicocca

This was my first time attending the biennial meeting of the European Association of Social Anthropology, and with over 130 panels, laboratories, films screenings and events and some 1700 attendees from across Europe and the world, it didn’t fail to disappoint. It had all the breadth and excitement of the AAA meetings, but on a more modest scale that facilitated the kinds of interactions you get at smaller meetings of only a few hundred attendees. The meeting was hosted by the Department of Human Sciences and Education ‘Ricardo Massa’ and the Department of Sociology and Social Research at the University of Milano-Bicocca. Not as flashy as a convention centre or hotel (the book exhibit consisted of about ten tables set up in a corridor), but I have to say the organization and technical support was outstanding. Aside from a mostly comical issue with a live feed during the opening plenary with Didier Fassin, everything seemed to run well (see Allegra Lab’s blog for an interesting take on Fassin’s talk). Which is very good news indeed when you are dashing between sessions trying to catch all the panels that you can!

As with most anthropology conferences, I didn’t get to see half of the panels I wanted to, and if anyone else reading this blog had a favorite panel related to ageing that I don’t report on, my sincere apologies. Please leave a comment below and let us know about it! Continue reading

AAGE Member News June 2016

As this month’s member news attests, it is not only the senior members of AAGE who get all the accolades. All of the entries for this month’s news are students and early career (within 5 years of last degree) members who deserve tremendous praise for finding success in this highly competitive field.

For those of us who can no longer count ourselves among the ‘early career’ group, it is always nice to remember where we came from and how AAGE influenced where we are now. In what is also to be a regular feature of the news, scroll down to see a short reflective piece by one of our long-standing members, explaining why they continue to participate in AAGE and what it has meant for their career. You might think of this as member news on a different scale of time, but we also hope it encourages our current members to make the most of this association and to get to know their colleagues.

Now, to our members!

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“Not in His Right Mind”: The Life course of Adoptees Diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder in the United States

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By Rachael Stryker

In spring 2010, Tennessee adoptive mother, Torry Ann Hansen, sent her seven-year-old adopted son, Artyom (Justin) Savelyev, back to his native country of Russia with a note that effectively said “Return to Sender.” Her reasons? That the child was “not in his right mind,” “violent,” and “mentally unstable” (Batty 2010). In the weeks that followed, the world witnessed a twisted version of “he said/she said” as government officials in Russia and the U.S. attempted to determine exactly what went wrong with Savelyev’s placement. Even months later,  the rhetoric would prioritize saving political face within economic and diplomatic relations, rather than addressing those factors associated with international adoption pathways that would drive a mother to send her adoptive son back to his sending country (Loiko 2013).

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CFP: Foolish things, clever stuff? The material side of nursing and care

Date: 18th20th January 2017, deadline for abstracts 25 May, 2016

Location: Heidelberg, Germany

Nursing is more than an interpersonal rapport in which individuals are connected to one another in a special relationship. In the course of the organisation of nursing and care – whether in a nursing home, a hospital or at home – a multitude of diverse items are involved, each with their own object-logic. Exactly what these are and how they are perceived by the nursing staff or the patients varies considerably and is dependent for instance upon the setting under consideration or the temporal context. How though, when considered in combination, do things which are neither an arbitrarily applicable means to an end (foolish things) nor as sophisticated troubleshooting all-rounders (clever stuff) – contribute to the construction of nursing and care?

The interdisciplinary and international conference ‘Dumme Dinge, schlaue Sachen?’ (‘Foolish things, clever stuff?’) takes up this question and focuses as well on the things of care: Material objects have until now usually been considered as ‘auxiliary resources’. In academic discussion as well as in collections, museums and exhibitions they remain largely unseen. This conference forms the conclusion of the interdisciplinary research project: ‘Die Pflege der Dinge – Die Bedeutung von Objekten in Geschichte und gegenwärtiger Praxis der Pflege’ (Care and Things – Objects and their Significance in Past and Present Nursing Practice, in brief: Pflegedinge) sponsored by the German Federal Ministry for Education and Research. The central element of the conference is to offer the opportunity for dialogue and for networking among researchers with a focus on material culture studies and researchers with a focus on nursing and care. Along with the presentation and discussion of the central results of the project’s collaborators, the conference is above all aimed at bringing together scientists, researchers and academics from beyond their particular disciplines and beyond national borders, who wish to present object-centred approaches to the following, or similar, issues:

  • How are/were theoretical and conceptual developments in things of care materialised?
  • How do/did individuals and things in nursing and care settings interact? How can/could objects lead to changes within the nursing and care sectors?
  • How do/did new nursing-oriented knowledge and the introduction of new things interact with one another in nursing and care settings?
  • How do/did societal perceptions and arrangements materialise in things of care, and how do/did things contribute to constructing them? Who had/has access to what knowledge? How are/were possible power structures formulated here?
  • (How and why) do things in nursing and care settings contribute to creating or preventing for instance personal privacy, autonomy, safety, normality, intimacy and
    affinity?

Contributions from nursing studies, ethnology, cultural anthropology, gerontology, history, history of nursing, museum studies, social pedagogy and organisational studies, sociology and other, related disciplines would be very welcome.

Contributions may be submitted and presented either in German or English. Please send your abstract (max. 500 words) together with a brief introduction of yourself (max. 50 words) at the latest by 25/5/2016 to: ferenc.kantor@gero.uni-heidelberg.de

Further information on this research project can be found at: http://www.http://www.pflegederdinge.de/englishsummary

AAGE Member News, May 2016

AAGE members do exceptional things, and as part of a regular monthly feature of getting to know our members, this section will highlight their latest acheivements. If you’d like us to include your news in the next post, you can email them to us at admin@anthropologyandgerontology.com, including “AAGE member news” in the subject line. Also, if you are interested in being part of the member news team, please let us know!

 

Annette Leibing (Universite de Montreal) has been a long-time member of AAGE and Editorial Advisory Board member of Anthropology & Aging. She has had several recent publications on various studies of aging and health, including two single authored pieces on dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease:

Leibing, A., Tournay V, Aisengart Menezes R et RF Zorzanelli – How to fix a broken heart: Cardiac disease and the ‘multiverse’ of stem cell research in Canada. BioSocieties, online pre-publiation, mars 2016.
http://www.palgrave-journals.com/biosoc/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/biosoc20165a.html

Leibing, A, Guberman, N et J Wiles – Liminal homes: Older people, loss of capacities, and the present future of living spaces. Journal of Aging Studies, 37(April2016): 10-19,
http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0890406515300360

Leibing, A. – Dementia in the making: Early detection and the body/brain in Alzheimer’s disease. In: Popularizing Dementia, Public Expressions and Representations of Forgetfulness, Aagje Swinnen and Mark Schweda (eds.). Bielefeld: Transkript, pp. 275-294, 2015.

Leibing, A. – Understanding Alzheimer’s disease. In : The Routledge Handbook of Medical Anthropology. Lenore Mandersen, Elizabeth Cartwright, and Anita Hardon (dir.)., Routledge,

Annette also presented “Recent changes in the conceptualization of dementia: Ethnographic notes from Brazil” at the Brocher Foundation workshop : “The redefinition of Alzheimer’s disease and its social and ethical consequences, » organized by Richard Milne (U Cambridge), Shirlene Badger (U Cambridge) and Jason Karlawish (U Pennsylvania); 14-15 April 2016, Geneva, Switzerland. Coming back to Canada, she gave a Keynote talk for CASCA (Canadian Anthropology Association, Halifax, 11-15 May, 2016) titled, “Ageing in times of Alzheimer’s: Tales of change, culture, and solidarities.”

Looking ahead, Annette will be travelling again to Europe (Zurich University, Switzerland this time) for the Cultures of Care Conference, 18 – 20 November, 2016. In anticipation of her contribution to a forthcoming book on “Successful Aging” (Edited by AAGE’s own Sarah Lamb), her paper is titled, “Successful Selves? Heroic tales of Alzheimer’s Disease and Personhood in Brazil.”


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Casey Golomski (second from right) during his fieldwork at a racially mixed facility for people living with Alzheimer’s or frailty in South Africa

Some of the most excited news comes from some of our newest members, and what could be better than landing that coveted tenure-track appointment? Congratulation to  Casey Golomski, who has been recently appointed as Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of New Hampshire and as an Associate Editor with the African Journal of AIDS Research. He returns to New England after being a University Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow in Social Anthropology and Public Health at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. There, along with Hylton White and Nolwazi Mkhwanazi, he co-initiated a research unit “Life Course, Obligation, and Dependency [LOAD]: Ethnographic Perspectives on Intergenerational Justice in Southern Africa.” As part of the unit and with funding from the Wenner Gren Foundation, he undertook four months of research at a racially mixed frailcare and Alzheimer’s facility in a small town. He recently workshopped his first manuscript based on this project, titled “Race and Joking Relations in a South African Alzheimer’s Home,” at the 2016 Northeast Workshop on Southern Africa for submission to a (fortunate) anthropology journal.


Janelle S. Taylor (Professor of Anthropology at the University of Washington, Seattle), will step down from her current role as department chair in July, and looks forward to having more time and energy to devote to research about friendship and dementia. This is wonderful news to all of us who love Janelle’s writing and are eager to read more. A first publication from her new work, titled “Should Old Acquaintance Be Forgot? Friendship in the Face of Dementia,” is slated to appear in the volume Successful Aging? Global Perspectives on a Contemporary Obsession (in press with Rutgers) edited by Sarah Lamb (see the news from Annette Leibing above).

The University of Washington’s Memory & Brain Wellness Center recently ran on its blog a short feature about this research: “Time to Redef   http://depts.washington.edu/mbwc/news/article/time-to-redefine-successful-aging


More congratulation to our Past-President of AAGE, Samantha Solimeo (University of Iowa) for her promotion to Director, Ethnographic Methods and Implementation Core (EMIC), Center for Comprehensive Access & Delivery Research and Evaluation (CADRE), Iowa City VA Health Care System. Samantha continues to be recognized as a leader not only in gerontology, but also to applied anthropology. She was recently elected board member of the Nominations Committee for the Society for Applied Anthropology.

Recent papers

Solimeo SL, Ono SS, Stewart KR, Rosenthal GE, Stewart GL. Clerical Workers in VA Primary Care Teams and the Organizational Invisibility of Patient-Centered Care. Medical Anthropology Quarterly. In press.

Solimeo SL, Stewart G, Rosenthal G. Critical Role of Clerks in the Patient Centered Medical Home. Annals of Family Medicine. In Press.

Edmonds, SW, Solimeo SL, Nguyen T, Wright NC, Roblin DW, Saag KG, Cram P.  Understanding preferences for osteoporosis information to develop an osteoporosis-patient education brochure Permanente Journal. Accepted 3.29.2016.

 


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Jason Danely (Pres-Elect AAGE) and daughter Loïe

Finally, new President-Elect Jason Danely (Senior Lecturer in Anthropology, Oxford Brookes University, UK) was awarded a research grant from the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation to study “Dynamics of the Aging Japanese Prison Population. He was also a co-applicant on a successful British Academy Conference bid for 2017 titled “Vulnerability and the Politics of Care.” My most recent article was published in the March 2016 issue of Contemporary Japan, titled “Hope in and Aging Japan: Transience and Transcendence“.

The busy summer traveling seems to have begun already, as in April I presented my current research on unpaid carers in Japan at the UK at Monash Centre, Prato, Italy. Over the rest of summer I will be giving a Keynote presentation at the University of Manchester, UK; Tokyo University, Japan; and the conference of the European Association of Social Anthropology in Milan, Italy. Last, but not least, in January we welcomed the birth of our third child, Loïe Amelia Danely! 

Still about a year away, but we are getting ready for the biennial AAGE Conference for 2017. We have secured some initial funds to hold the conference in Oxford, England and are hoping to get additional funds to help with student travel costs. Need an excuse to come to Europe next year? Stay tuned!


Thank you to everyone for their AAGE member news updates. Keep up the good work!

Who Wouldn’t Want to Retire in Vancouver?: #SfAA2016 Conference Report

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Vancouver is a beautiful city, often topping the list of best cities in the world to live and retire in. It is not surprising that this year’s SfAA meeting was the most well-attended ever. Quite a few of us interested in the anthropology of aging and life course issues were there. While gazing at the gorgeous harbor views and walking in Stanley Park, we enjoyed having a chance to visit and discuss things going on in our field. Beyond the scenic outdoor settings and many cafes where we planted ourselves, we also attended relevant sessions at the conference venue.

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AAGE President Iveris Martinez organized an excellent session co-sponsored by the SMA (Society for Medical Anthropology) and COPAA (Consortium on Practicing and Applied Anthropology Programs).The title of this session was “The Value of Applied Anthropology in Gerontology: Imagining alternative career paths at the intersection of anthropology, health, and aging”. Panel participants included Jay Sokolovsky, Sherri Briller, Megan Stamey McAlvain, Nanami Suzuki (below left)and Peggy Perkinson (pictured above left). Session discussants were Jean Schensul & Jay Sokolovsky. This panel explored the intersection between anthropology and gerontology in applied settings. It brought together anthropologists (both senior and junior) who work in a variety of settings seeking to employ anthropology to provide innovative ways of helping health professionals view and respond to health issues in late life. Specific topics covered included graduate medical education in treating older adults at the end of life, Japanese care workers helping older adults after the Great East Japan Earthquake, training staff for a Chinese Continuing Care Retirement Community, anthropological experiences in training physicians and healthcare workers for working with older patients, anthropologically training medical students and physicians about health and late life in cultural context, and teaching at the intersections of anthropology and aging.
AAGEatSfAA3_suzukiSome aging related topics appeared in other sessions including: joint development of health interventions with older adults in senior housing (Schensul, Radda, Reisine & Foster-Bey), discriminatory service delivery and understanding elders in HIV prevention campaigns in South Africa (Darling), power, sexuality and aging (Maynard-Tucker), CBPR physical activity intervention for rural residents (Schoenberg, Hoogland, Bardach & Tarasenko), caring across cultures: Mexicanas shaping eldercare (Kniseley), animal assisted therapy and aging issues (Yonce), museum anthropology and aboriginal seniors (Krmpotich),and generativity and older adult museum volunteering in the US (Shay). A special shout-out to those who gave aging related posters in the student poster session: factors that influence older women’s long term care planning (Corthright) and cultural associations between self-reported well-being and diminished physical performance among older adults (Snodgrass).
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On Saturday morning, we presented ourselves at the International Suite at the Westin Bayshore for our AAGE annual networking breakfast and roundtable event (left). Thanks to Maria Vesperi and Jay Sokolovsky who helped us reserve such a lovely space for our breakfast meeting and to Tom May for making it possible. Thanks to Iveris Martinez and Amy Paul-Ward who helped us forage for the breakfast offerings ahead – there is no shortage of nice things to eat in Vancouver! In this elegant suite, we decided to forego our plan for having separate roundtables and have a larger more free-wheeling group discussion instead. We introduced the topics we had planned for the individual roundtables: preparing and engaging in applied gerontology careers, addressing social and cultural barriers to aging services, building social and health interventions with older adults, teaching about anthropology of aging and the life course, aging in place in Japan, reaching non-academic audiences with news about aging. Going forward, full sessions on any of these topics would likely be welcome for our upcoming conferences.

 

We discovered that nearly half of those who attended the networking breakfast were new to AAGE – a very encouraging finding indeed! Hopefully, all of these folks will become interested in joining our organization and continuing to participate. The breakfast discussion was lively about future directions and opportunities in the field of anthropology of aging and life course studies. One especially exciting development was that several of the students who presented their emerging work at our AAGE health disparities workshop conference in Miami, FL in 2015 gave updates at SfAA on their projects (Stanley and Stamey McAlvain). We are looking forward to hearing more from them and others at the 2017 AAGE conference which Jason Danely is organizing in Oxford, UK.

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From this brief report, you can see that lots was going on of interest for those who are interested in the anthropology of aging and the life course. We explored Vancouver and learned more about each other’s important work in the field of aging.  Some of us even had our first Malaysian food at the Banana leaf restaurant in the company of other gerontologists –delicious! In short, it was great to get together with our colleagues, hear about new developments in their work and the field as a whole – and have an excellent time exploring the treasure that is Vancouver.
See you at SfAA in Santa Fe next year!

Sherylyn Briller, SfAA Liaison

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“Time is no longer a river”: Reflections on life, death, and youth in the digital age

digital_memorial

This post is part of the Life Course Collaborative Research Network blog exchange, also available on the website of ACYIG. To see all of the posts in the series, click here.

In a recent editorial about how our “overdocumented lives” are making it more difficult to let go of the past, Susanna Schrobsdorff writes:

Most of us type more than we talk these days. And the more we live in this parallel digital world, the blurrier the line gets between present and past. Because when nothing is lost, nothing is past. Even if you want it to be. Unbidden, Facebook’s Memories function has started posting photos of a meal you ate seven years ago with people who may not even be alive anymore. And those images sit in your feed along with photos of the mimosa brunch you’re having on vacation right this very second. Time is no longer a river; it’s a looping series of digital paths.

While human beings have long found diverse means of organizing and traversing the flow of time, Schrobsdorff’s observation raises interesting questions for anthropologists today: How are “digital paths” and practices changing the way people navigate and experience the life course? How is the contemporary obsession with documentation and digital connection altering our relationship to time, memory, and even death? How might digital technologies and social media be reconfiguring the experiential boundaries between life and death, and reshaping practices of mourning and memorialization? Finally, how might the youth, the most avid users of such technologies be particularly affected by these developments?

These are questions I am just beginning to explore in my new research on death in the digital age. For instance, I have come across very moving examples of bereaved children using online memorials to communicate with a deceased parent even months and years after the death occurred.  As one ten year-old girl posted several months after her father’s death, “Hi Daddy! It’s me again! I miss you so much! Tell God I say Thank you for taking care of u for us!” Two years later she began another post with, “Dear Daddy, I got into the spelling bee and made it to the second round.”

This girl’s appropriation of social media for the purpose of mourning and memorialization is becoming increasingly common among youth. Some observers interpret it as evidence that digital technologies are playing a key role in “democratizing” the mourning and memorialization process. Others suggest that online memorialization among the youth is generating new intergenerational conflicts about who has the authority to mourn, memorialize, and even communicate with the deceased. Indeed, a number of scholars studying “virtual mourning,” have observed that messages posted on online memorials typically take the form of a letter or message written directly to the deceased. This has led them to conclude that in the digital age, biological death is less and less congruent with social death. The deceased are often kept alive, or at least in circulation through the postings of online friends and others, and in many cases, as Lim has found, “the dead are either assigned, or else presumed to have active social roles” (Lim 2013).

“…perhaps these ongoing and prolonged attempts to communicate with the dead could be conceptualized as a digital drying of the bones. Perhaps, they reflect not only a desire to maintain connections with the dead, but also provide the bereaved with a way to ferry the deceased to the other side.”

This raises further questions for anthropologists about the functions that online mourning and memorialization serve. Are such practices providing young people with a way to transcend the embarrassment of grief and more effectively cope with loss? Or alternatively, as Hartman has proposed, does cybermourning recharge “the libidinal cathexis to the object” launching it “into ever-new iterations such that the ego is no longer impelled to give up the object”(Hartman 2012:463- 465)? Could the current popular fascination with the “Walking Dead” be reflective of a digital society where the dead do not so much disappear, as linger on in varying states of animation?

It might be tempting to conclude that in a society of networked selves and hyper-connectivity, the human fear of disconnection has become exacerbated. After all, “nomophobia”- the fear of being separated from one’s cell phone is now recognized as a legitimate disorder among younger generations. And a recent report by CNN found that teens currently spend about nine hours a day on social media and check their Facebook pages approximately 100 times!

And yet it is also clear that the attempt to maintain connections with the deceased is as old as humanity itself. As such, anthropologists might also consider how digital technologies are providing the bereaved with new means for pursuing a very old desire- continuing bonds with the deceased.

From my vantage point, examples of online memorialization by children are interesting not only because they suggest that the digital age is enabling bereaved children and youth to play a much more active role mourning but also because these examples suggest fascinating parallels with many other ethnographic contexts where extended mortuary processes and the double burials are the norm. As Robert Hertz noted long ago, “We cannot bring ourselves to consider the deceased as dead straight away: he is too much a part of our substance, we have put too much of ourselves into him, and participation in the same social life creates ties which are not to be severed in one day” (Hertz 2004:209-210).  Considered from this perspective then, perhaps these ongoing and prolonged attempts to communicate with the dead could be conceptualized as a digital drying of the bones. Perhaps, they reflect not only a desire to maintain connections with the dead, but also provide the bereaved with a way to ferry the deceased to the other side. Perhaps writing and posting messages to the deceased does provide contemporary Americans with a ritual means through which the deceased are rendered dead, and ultimately incorporated into a collective world of ancestors.

To be honest, I am not sure what to make of all of this yet. But I do know that if time is no longer a river but rather a looping series of digital paths, as Schrobsdorff suggests, then anthropologists should be actively considering what the entailments of this change are. How is the digital age shaping the way youth navigate the life course and deal with matters of life and death?

Works Cited:

Durkheim, Emile. (1912) 1995. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, translated by Karen Fields. New York: Free Press.

Hartman, Stephen. 2012. “Cybermourning: Grief in Flux From Object Loss to Collective Immortality.” Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 32: 454-467.

Hertz, Robert. 2004. “A Contribution to the Study of the Collective Representation of Death” In Death, Mourning, and Burial: A Cross-Cultural Reader edited by Antonius Robben pp.197-212. Malden MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Lim, Ming. 2013. “The Digital Consumption of Death: Reflections on virtual mourning practices on social networking sites.” In The Routledge Companion to Digital Consumption edited by Russell Belk pp.396 -403. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis.

Schrobsdorff, Susanna. February 2016. “In our overdocumented lives, letting go has gotten a lot harder.” Time Magazine. 59. http://www.cnn.com/2015/11/03/health/teens-tweens-media-screen-use-report

 

Jenny Huberman is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She is the author of Ambivalent Encounters: Childhood, Tourism, and Social Change in Banaras, India. Her current research explores how experiences of loss, mourning, and memorialization are changing in the digital age.

 

Read the AAGE member companion to this post on “Death and the Life Course” by Cristina Douglas

Return to Life Course CRN Blog Exchange list

Growing old and growing up: Teaching and learning about death

Romanian funeral

(Photograph by Cristina Douglas, do not reproduce without permission)

This post is part of the Life Course Collaborative Research Network blog exchange, also available on the website of ACYIG. To see all of the posts in the series, click here.

In 2004, as part of my research regarding the beliefs in ‘strigoi’ (a term referring to dead people who come back to harm and even kill the most loved relatives who survive them) in a Romanian community, I observed the roles in funeral rituals performed chiefly by older women and young children. Later, I became interested in the teaching and learning about death as components of both the processes of growing old and growing up, which are strongly intertwined. As a child, growing up in Romania with my maternal and paternal grandmothers around, I learned my own community’s view of the good way of both ageing and dying.

(Photograph by Cristina Douglas. Do not reproduce without permission)

(Funeral gifts create bridges between the living and the dead. Photograph by Cristina Douglas. Do not reproduce without permission)

For older people in Romania, “successful ageing” refers to the maintenance of an active life, the avoidance of becoming physically dependent on other and dying “in full awareness.” The inevitability of death at the end of a long life and its “serene” acceptance (what Philippe Ariés (1974) called the “tamed death”) is supposed, culturally, to come with age. Good death, associated with dying in old age, is the death that finds someone “fully prepared” as part of this acceptance. After their retirement, Romanian older people’s savings are destined mainly to support their own funerals, and the shopping list will include the funeral gifts (towels, hankies, scarves) for the potential participants in their burial. These gifts (some of them offered specifically to children) are considered payment for the 44 customs that the soul has to cross in its journey through the underworld, where malefic creatures will try to make it lose its way unless they are paid. From an anthropological perspective, these gifts create “bridges” between the living and the dead, the old and the young, and they assure the deceased’s remembrance for as long as the material objects exist?.

In rural parts of Romania, growing up as a child is intertwined with the process of the ageing of their caretakers, the discourse of dying well, the performance of funeral rituals and being taught to manifest personal and cultural grief.

Both of my grandmothers, long before they passed away, made sure that all of the ritual funeral gifts and the clothes they wanted to be buried with were bought early enough so that death wouldn’t find them ‘unprepared’. Other older people from my village were going yet further, buying their own coffins and using them for the storage of cereal, before eventually being used for their intended scope. Another way of preparing for one’s own death in old age is the ritual called “alms while living” (“pomana de viu” in Romanian), which is performed only by older people while still alive. These people either don’t have any successors or feel like they need to take “extra measures” in case their successors don’t properly organize the traditional funeral feasts at 40 days, 1 year and 7 years after their death (during which the soul is traveling in the underworld). They participate as an “absent presence” in their own funeral feast as if already dead – serving and observing the others, rather than eating themselves. Conversely, at the funeral feast after someone’s death, a person of the same sex and age will wear the clothes of the deceased offered as funeral gifts, announcing his/her (absent) presence as if still alive.

(Photograph by Cristina Douglas, do not reproduce without permission)

(Passive learning about death. Photograph by Cristina Douglas, do not reproduce without permission)

 

The acceptance of death and the preparation for it also manifests in its inclusion in daily conversations between older people and potentially anybody else. This represents another feature of the Romanian cultural model of manifesting one’s appropriate old age, and it is quite often brought into discussions between grandparents-grandchildren. Several psychologists (see Corr 2000; Corr and Corr 2013; Kastenbaum 2000) argue that coping with death, loss and absence is an implicit part of growing up. In Romania, children learn how to face loss, how to grieve and how to remember (make present) the absent dead as part of learning how to show affection, take care and behave “maturely.” Passive learning about death (hearing adults’ talking about death; observing funerals, see Astuti 2011) is supplemented by an active teaching, both conceptually (what happens with the body and with the soul) and ritually (gestures to be performed). This “teaching about death” role is a key feature of Romanian intergenerational relationships and an important component of the kinship system of caring: while children learn how to take care of the elderly from their parents caring for their own parents, grandparents take care of their grandchildren by teaching them about how to age and die “with dignity” (according to the community’s cultural norms), and how to care for the dead. From an anthropological perspective, teaching children about death is part of an elderly caretaker’s role, and becomes an assurance of the maintenance and transmission of culture.

In many communities from the South of Romania, the teaching goes even further by interchanging various roles in funeral rituals. ‘Bringing the water for the dead’, a funeral ritual meant to assure the soul’s water for its journey through the underworld, can be performed either by a young girl ‘who didn’t meet men’ or by an old ‘clean’ woman (a woman who has entered menopause and does not have sexual relations anymore, usually a widow). Both groups – the children and the elderly – are represented as having a ‘fringe’ social status. Thus they are considered to have a higher capacity for communicating with the other world through ritual because of their proximity to it through life cycle. It is this status of children and the elderly in the funeral performance that reflects death as a manageable condition and doesn’t allow it, ritually, to damage the community.

(Photograph by Cristina Douglas. Do not reproduce without permission)

(Photograph by Cristina Douglas. Do not reproduce without permission)

While helping her to sew her own funeral towels, I remember Machi (the way we used to call my maternal grandma – a diminutive of the word “maica” used for grandmothers, meaning ‘old mother’) giving me instructions about which scarf or towel should be given to whom after her death. She often asked me to light candles for her and to cry at her funeral, somehow training me as a child to imagine how my life will continue in her absence and how, ritually and emotionally, I should face my encounter with her death: acknowledging the pain that her death would cause me, but grateful that this came during her old age so she could die prepared and believing that this is yet only one step in her continued existence in another world. In rural parts of Romania, growing up as a child is intertwined with the process of the ageing of their caretakers, the discourse of dying well, the performance of funeral rituals and being taught to manifest personal and cultural grief.

Sometimes I wonder, just as Jason Danely pointed out in the first essay of these collaborative posts, whether my interest in the anthropology of death and dying would have been the same in the absence of this early learning about death from my grandmas. The following years of education and research seem often as if they just added further structure to my approach of a subject I was initiated into by the elderly people around me ever since my very first years of existence.

 I would like to thank Jason Danely for his invitation to write for these collaborative posts and also for his and Elise Berman’s helpful comments, suggestions and assistance.

Works cited:

Ariès, Philippe (1974). Western Attitudes toward Death: From the Middle Ages to the Present. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Astuti, Rita (2011). “Death, Ancestors, and the Living Dead: Learning without Teaching in Madagascar”. In Children’s Understanding of Death: From Biological to Religious Conceptions edited by Victoria Talwar, Paul L. Harris and Michael Schleifer, 1-18. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Corr, Charles (2000). “What Do We Know About Grieving Children and Adolescents?”. In Living with Grief – Children, Adolescents, and Loss, edited by Kenneth J. Doka, 21-34. Hospice Foundation of America: Brunner/Mazel – Taylor & Francis Group.

Corr, Charles A., and Donna M. Corr (2013). Death and Dying, Life and Living. Belmont: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.

Kastenbaum, Robert (2000). “The Kingdom Where Nobody Dies”. In Living with Grief – Children, Adolescents, and Loss, edited by Kenneth J. Doka, 5-20. Hospice Foundation of America: Brunner/Mazel – Taylor & Francis Group.

 

Cristina Douglas is a PhD candidate (awaiting examination) in cultural anthropology at the University of Bucharest, Romania. Her main interest is focused on the anthropology of death and dying in relation to cultural transmission, representations of good/bad death and beliefs in immortality. Recently, she focused on researching the New Zealand institutional settings for the dying (end of life and palliative care). Currently she works in two projects: one dedicated to the imaginary of (shameful) death, diseases and hygiene in the political discourse of anticommunism, and another one that explores the medical learning of the body through the use of cadavers.

 

Read the ACYIG member companion to this post on “Death and the Life Course” by Jenny Huberman

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