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Archaeology and contemporary death: Using the past to provoke, challenge and engage

Croucher, Karina and Büster, Lindsey and Dayes, Jennifer and Green, Laura and Raynsford, Justine and Comerford Boyes, Louise and Faull, Christina (2020) Archaeology and contemporary death: Using the past to provoke, challenge and engage. PLoS One, 15 (12). ISSN 1932-6203

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Abstract

While death is universal, reactions to death and ways of dealing with the dead body are hugely diverse, and archaeological research reveals numerous ways of dealing with the dead through time and across the world. In this paper, findings are presented which not only demonstrate the power of archaeology to promote and aid discussion around this difficult and challenging topic, but also how our approach resulted in personal growth and professional development impacts for participants. In this interdisciplinary pilot study, archaeological case studies were used in 31 structured workshops with 187 participants from health and social care backgrounds in the UK, to explore their reactions to a diverse range of materials which documented wide and varied approaches to death and the dead. Our study supports the hypothesis that the past is a powerful instigator of conversation around challenging aspects of death, and after death care and practices: 93% of participants agreed with this. That exposure to archaeological case studies and artefacts stimulates multifaceted discourse, some of it difficult, is a theme that also emerges in our data from pre, post and follow-up questionnaires, and semi-structured interviews. The material prompted participants to reflect on their biases, expectations and norms around both treatment of the dead, and of bereavement, impacting on their values, attitudes and beliefs. Moreover, 87% of participants believed the workshop would have a personal effect through thinking differently about death and bereavement, and 57% thought it would impact on how they approached death and bereavement in their professional practice. This has huge implications today, where talk of death remains troublesome, and for some, has a near-taboo status–‘taboo’ being a theme evident in some participants’ own words. The findings have an important role to play in facilitating and normalising discussions around dying and bereavement and in equipping professionals in their work with people with advanced illness.

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