Anthropology has long framed death as a crisis, both within an individual’s life trajectory and for the existential continuity of the community. In the tradition of scholarship following Hertz (1960), mortuary and funerary rituals are framed as a site of collective action mounted in response to crisis. They are transformative and curative in their ability to shepherd the dead into new worlds or remake them into new kinds of beings; to provide psychological comfort to the bereaved; and to stitch back together social worlds in the absence of the dead. The performance of religious rituals, production of memorial goods, and speaking of “words against death” (Davies 1998), across multiple generations, effectively locates the deceased within a community and a cosmos.
But what happens when death rituals themselves face crisis?
Over the past year, the Covid-19 pandemic has not only threatened human life and livelihoods, it has disrupted and radically reshaped experiences of dying, body disposal, grief, and memorialization around the world. With its virulent growth, Covid-19 has strained, and in some cases overwhelmed, the infrastructure and human resources in place for handling the dead, as illustrated by news coverage of overflowing morgues, crematoria running throughout the night, and mass graves. Social distancing regulations have impeded rites of washing and dressing the dead, restricted attendance at funerals, and limited cemetery visitation.
The implications of these changes are still emerging, but popular media and industry voices point to their potentially devastating consequences. At the same time, communities around the world have responded to Covid-19-related restrictions with great creative energies, generating new ritual practices and new applications of technology. These innovations are not universal, but respond to particular religious contexts and cultural desires around death.
Anthropologists recognize the capacity of death rites to transform bodies, souls, and social relations, but they have generally been less attentive to what happens when death ritual itself is disrupted or how it is transformed (see Simpson 2018). Nor has anthropology substantively engaged with the experiences of those carrying out the labors of contemporary death care (but see Arnold et al. 2018; Howarth 1996; Suzuki 2000).
Contributions to this Special Issue will examine how disruptions to practices around death brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic challenge, extend, or transform anthropological understandings of death ritual and its place in uncertain times. Contributors will draw on original ethnographic research conducted with death care workers, religious communities, and mourners in diverse locations around the world.Contributions
This Special Issue will include a maximum of five full-length articles (<10,500 words).
Given the limited number of the contributions, scholars are encouraged to write collaboratively in teams, as multiple submissions on a single field location are unlikely to be accepted. Scholars with non-English language backgrounds are strongly encouraged to apply and will be given special support, including opportunities to co-author.
Additional submissions of diverse formats, including ‘Social Thought and Commentary’ (<8000 words), Photo Essays (10 images and 3,000-6,000 words), and book reviews (1000-2000 words) will also be considered. Book reviews on topics related to death are especially encouraged from ECA and graduate students.
See the Journal’s Submission Guidelines for more information on formats.
To apply, please submit the following to firstname.lastname@example.org by March 5th 2021:
1. Authors names, email addresses, and affiliations
2. An abstract of 300-500 words
A CV may also be requested.
First drafts will be due October 31st 2021.