Death, Dying and Disposal 2019 – conference report

Abi of Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors recently attended the 14th Death, Dying and Disposal conference - she reflects on the experience here...

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Abi Pattenden, Manager of Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors
Abi Pattenden, Manager of Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors

Freeman Brothers has been based in Horsham since 1855 and, as funeral directors who see themselves as part of the community, has always sought to engage with the wider world and the issues surrounding bereavement and loss which affect our clientele in our branches in Billingshurst, Southgate, Crawley, and Hurstpierpoint as well as in Horsham.

Manager Abi Pattenden recently attended the 14th Death, Dying and Disposal Conference (DDD), held at the University of Bath, where academics, researchers, and industry professionals from throughout the ‘death studies’ community met to present on all kinds of issues on the theme of Death, Bereavement and Education. Abi presented on the topic of ‘Educating Tomorrow’s Bereaved Adults Today’, but she here tells us about some of the other presentations she particularly enjoyed.

The range of topics covered over the weekend was diverse and there is no way to include them all, so instead I will mention the papers which I found especially interesting.

Dr Miriam Sitter’s paper on Working with Grieving Children was interesting to me because it connected to my own paper but also because it discussed similar issues from a different standpoint. She was examining, as the subtitle of her paper explained, the extent to which supporting children who are bereaved is, ‘A Social Care between expertise, experimental knowledge and pedagogical tact’. Dr Sitter is from Germany where much support for bereaved children is given by volunteers, which obviously has implications for the services on offer.

What was especially of interest to me as a funeral director was the importance of being honest with children, but that this honesty can be difficult when you are having to be both spontaneous (because you may not expect the question) and responsible. It is difficult for parents and others to answer questions factually, because children’s grief is, to an extent, taboo, but there needs to be an awareness that children can create their own realities and might come to thoughts no-one would want, such as a child believing that the person they are mourning will come back if only they believe hard enough.

The opening plenary was delivered by Professor Dame Sue Black, Pro-Vice Chancellor of Lancaster University and Forensic Anthropologist. Her lecture was sometimes funny and often moving but always interesting as she described the purpose of her role in identification of a person who has died. She covered topics as diverse as the impact of tattoos and piercings, and the Kosovan war crimes investigation as she told us about some of the work she had done over her varied career. The conference was left truly impressed by a woman who carried out such an important role with such a light but respectful touch.

On Thursday morning, I chaired a session which included three papers on: ‘Researching ‘Death Inc.’, in which Tamara Kohn talked about how scholars access the funeral industry and why the two groups don’t overlap more; alkaline hydrolysis (more commonly known as water cremation) and how it is – and could be – marketed to increase uptake, by Michael Arnold; and The Funeral Lab, a project carried out by Janieke Bruin-Mollenhurst as part of her PhD research into what makes a ‘good’ funeral. The audience found plenty of overlap between these seemingly distinct topics and the question and answer sessions were lively and engaging.

Thursday’s plenary was from Professor Havi Carel, of Bristol University, and was on the subject of breathlessness, based on her ‘Life of Breath’ project. It was a wide-ranging talk, including references from Shakespeare as well as medical statistics on how breathing is affected by suffering various illnesses.

On Thursday afternoon I attended papers on a wide range of subjects. Of special interest was a paper on ‘Terminal Lucidity’, delivered by a Japanese academic, Ryosuke Morooka. He talked about research carried out amongst people who looked after terminally-ill relatives at home, and their experiences of a sudden change in condition in the period shortly before death. This chimed with my own experiences of bereaved people telling me that the person who had died seemed to anticipate the approach of their death and either make sure messages were conveyed, seem to improve in condition slightly, or have some control over the time or circumstances of the death taking place.

Other topics included the power of picture books in explaining death and dying to children, the experiences of art professors whose students chose to use images of death or grief in their photographic project work, and assisted dying.

On Friday, I heard some fascinating presentations, one of which, on a possible model for a Death Studies programme, was from a Polish perspective but was so relevant to the UK, discussing how ideas of death being taboo are a huge obstacle to such a programme. The presenter discussed the possible different, but linked, audiences for aspects of the programme – terminally-ill people, children, medical professionals and so on.

The keynote for the Conference was delivered by Simon Cox, Head of Insight at Dignity Funerals, talking about possible future changes within the funeral industry and whether they represent evolution or revolution.

A further plenary, by Professor Peter Bazira of Hull York Medical School, was about his work as a clinical anatomist and lecturer of anatomy. He discussed the impact upon his students, and their ideas about death, dying, and mortality, of having to dissect cadavers, and the relatively new concern in the medical community of the emotional impact of this work. Apparently nail polish has to be removed because seeing a hand which still has it can have a huge emotional effect as opposed to one which doesn’t!

He told us about his own training in Uganda, which was far from satisfactory in tone, mostly consisting of the idea of ‘manning up’ – you’re going to be a doctor so you just have to get on with it. This dichotomy between the need to both think of a Deceased person as a person (so you remain respectful) and not a person (so you are not adversely impacted) made a lot of sense to me.

He also told us that there are academic theories which suggest that the process of dissection is what turns a student into the stereotype of an arrogant doctor. He is obviously trying to prevent this in his work, reminding his students of the gift that has been given by the donor and the respect their body therefore deserves. Apparently, when medical students begin dissection, fainting is not unusual but is not thought of negatively, although ideally it would reduce over time as the topic is approached with increased appropriateness.

This talk was really interesting, because although we have a lot of contact with doctors through our role as funeral directors, I have never really thought about how their training might or might not prepare them to encounter Deceased people, as they do when they come to our premises.

I delivered my own paper on Saturday morning, about which you can read a separate blog post. I’m pleased to report that my talk was warmly received!

All in all, the DDD Conference was a completely new experience for me. I do have an academic background but it’s a long time ago that I completed my MA and it had never really occurred to me that there would be such a large community researching and engaging with different issues about death in an academic setting. DDD moves all over the world, but I would certainly hope to be able to attend again in future.

As promised, Abi’s blog on her own talk will be posted soon – check back to read more about her time at the conference!


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Written by Abi Pattenden


September 18, 2019

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