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Report: Dying at the Margins Workshop

by Jesse D. Peterson and Natashe Demos-Lekker

On September 26-27, the Environmental Humanities Laboratory—along with the Division of History of Science, Technology, and Environment at KTH Royal Institute of Technology—hosted the Dying at the Margins Workshop. Put together by PhD students Jesse D. Peterson (KTH) and Natashe Lemos Dekker (University of Amsterdam), this workshop brought together scholars at various stages of their career and from various backgrounds and disciplines to discuss how contemporary perspectives in environmental humanities and the medical humanities might further research on how dying “bodies”—animal (including human), plant, thing, place—challenge natural, normative, and notions of a “good” death. The workshop had two keynote presentations, along with discussions of participant papers and a creative embroidery workshop.

Professor Philip R. Olson presents on human composting

On the first day, Dr. Philip R. Olson (Virginia Tech) presented his work on bodily disposition. Beginning with Roy Scranton’s premise in Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene, he posed the question as to how might the demise of culture impact body care? If the Anthropocene is largely a problem of scale, what challenges and opportunities will face the disposition of human bodies now and into the future? Looking specifically into the practice of “natural organic reduction” (essentially composting human bodies) alongside other disposition technologies—such as alkaline hydrolosis, burial pods, green burial, submersible reef balls, and promession—Olson articulated how these alternative forms of disposition claim to be more environmentally friendly than burial or cremation as well as gentle forms of body recycling. Yet, as he pointed out, individualist norms “die hard,” that is, although a stunning array of new technologies have challenged the social and cultural norms of disposing of a corpse, many end users don’t want to see their loved ones transformed by some kinds of ecological relationships or contaminated by the technologies that process multiple bodies. For instance, what critters and creatures are allowed access to corpses or how do people negotiate the possibility for bodies to be passive rather than active forms of nourishment? As a conclusion, Olson suggested that these issues lead us to consider what kind of species ought we to be, asking us what are the moral virtues to be cultivated and moral vices to shun. He argued that humans not only need a species centered history but a species focused virtue ethics.

The second day, Dr. Marietta Radomska (University of Helsinki and Linköping University)  spoke to us about the need for “queering” death studies. Responding to calls in queer theory and posthumanism that challenge normative conceptions of the human subject, a queer death studies ought to help reconfigure notions of death and practices related to it that have relied upon such conceptions. In other words, by challenging basic assumptions about dying and death, queering death can lead to producing alternative imaginaries about dying, death, and the dead beyond gender and sexuality. It also provides the means for moving away from “normative ontologies”

Marietta Radomska presents Queer Death Studies

Participants were also treated to an embroidery workshop led by Karina Jarrett (Broderiakademi), who stitched together ways in which fine arts feature in memorial, memory, and creative response to loss and grief. Having been working with residents of Malmberget, a town in northern Sweden currently being dismantled and “moved” to allow for the expansion of the local mine (LKAB malmberget), Jarrett curated a personal exhibition and provided the participants with time to express themselves by embroidering a friendship card. The experience highlighted how there is still very much to be done when facing loss even when there feels like there is nothing left that one can do.

Workshop participants practice their stitching.

Thanks to all the participants for their attendance, energy, and enthusiasm.

One thought on “Report: Dying at the Margins Workshop”

  1. What a fabulous event! Thank you for reporting on it as I could not be there. Gave me a good idea of it, and the many amazing people participating. Lovely.

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