Posted by: | 27th Apr, 2011

Death and Social Custom

Issues of death and associate customs have been on the minds of many people who live in the University Neighbourhoods areas of UBC.  The University’s longstanding attempt to bring a hospice for the near to death onto campus ran up against the cultural values and sensibilities of a group of residents living in a high rise complex called Promontory.  This wasn’t, however, the first time the hospice has faced opposition from campus groups.  Previously, UBC students, allied with the Wreck Beach Preservation Society, raised concerns about the first planned location for the hospice – near to St. Johns College and the Marine Towers Residence on Marine Drive. The students and their allies were concerned that having dying people near them would extend what they called UBC’s Campaign Against Fun into their front yard and student residents would find themselves under the control of the silence police – late night parties and other sophomoric celebrations would need to be curtailed.  So the university retreated, regrouped, and then relocated the hospice to a site literally under the shadow of Promontory in the Hawthorn Place Neighbourhood.

The issue for Promontory residents involves more than a recreational annoyance – but strikes to the core of cultural sensitivities – both of these mainly new Asian immigrants AND of well established settler/immigrant communities.  This issue also picks up longstanding racialized antagonisms and themes that have dogged BC politics since the early days of settlement.

But what is it about the issue of death and the way we deal with it that evokes such strong responses from human beings?  In an amazing book about death in Brittany, anthropologist Ellen Badone talks about how death was medicalized and separated from daily life in rural Brittany through the 20th century.  In her account, something was lost by hiding death away in sanitized medical institutions that looked more like factories than places for people to live – even if they were soon to be dead.

Amongst north west coast Aboriginal peoples there is a strong sense that the dead must be treated with respect.  Along the north coast of our province the dead were placed on platforms in trees or, if a person carried a strong or potentially dangerous spirit, in caves on cliff faces or on islands placed at some remove from the village.  Yet, the dying did so amongst family in their homes – not in isolation or seclusion.

Two films in the 2011 Film Festival feature social customs around death and dying.  A Japanese Funeral brings us on an intimate journey with the family and friends of a young man who passed away suddenly in his sleep.  In Loving Memory brings us into the sitting rooms of a series of Irish women who talk about and show us their collection of memory cards received and given at the occasion of the death of a family member or friend.  These are two very different worlds  -one Japan, the other Ireland, yet they are united by a concern with how one lives with death and remembers the ones who have passed away.  Despite the differences in place and culture we grow in our understanding of the importance of living with death as a part of life.

These films screen May 1, 2011 at the Old Barn Community Centre as part of the 5th International festival of Anthropology Films

In Loving Memory screens at 11:00 am.  A Japanese Funeral at 11:25.   Discussion to follow.

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Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 Canada
This work by The Ethnographic Film Unit is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 Canada.