Conisbee on Burke and Rynearson, 'The Restorative Nature of Ongoing Connections with the Deceased: Exploring Presence within Absence'

Laurie A. Burke, Edward K. Rynearson, eds.
Molly Conisbee

Laurie A. Burke, Edward K. Rynearson, eds. The Restorative Nature of Ongoing Connections with the Deceased: Exploring Presence within Absence. New York: Routledge, 2022. 234 pp. $42.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-367-55483-5; $42.95 (e-book), ISBN 978-1-00-056712-0.

Reviewed by Molly Conisbee (Bristol University, UK) Published on H-Death (March, 2023) Commissioned by Khyati Tripathi (Assistant Professor, School of Liberal Studies, UPES University)

Printable Version:

Some years ago my father died after a short but intense illness. His partner, my brother, and I all chose readings for his burial. I selected a poem by John Clare that we both loved. A few years later, and shortly prior to his death, my grandfather requested the same Clare poem be read at his burial. If possible I would like it to be read at my own disposal (you do not get to research death studies and not plan your own funeral). The poem has become for me an ongoing connection with my deceased family, a way of continuing our conversation even though their physical beings have gone. The poem is for me an affirmation of the subtitle of this book, a presence within absence.

The desire to connect with the dead in some form or other appears to be more or less universal, albeit expressed in ways that reflect our diversity of cultures, beliefs, faiths, and other shaping factors. All societies at least appear to have some form of dialogue with the deceased, through ritual, practice, ancestor worship, memorialization, or other forms of remembering (or forgetting, which is, of course, another form of relationship). Thus, at the core of this fascinating collection of articles curated by a clinical psychologist (Burke) and psychiatrist (Rynearson) sits an existential question that at some point touches all of us: How do we keep this connection with the dead, and can finding such a meaningful relationship support the processes of bereavement and loss that are the price of living and loving?

The book is divided into different sections, covering some of the major faith tradition perspectives on continuing bonds with the dead, the clinical implications, research considerations, and existential experiences, but with the tacit acknowledgement that these categorizations are not necessarily neatly delineated. Grief and loss can carry a number of identities and meanings, and the experience of processing the feelings involved can take different paths. The book’s originality lies in this genuinely open and interdisciplinary approach, not just across academic fields but also through utilizing the voices of practitioners, clinicians, and faith leaders as well as researchers. The contributions take the form of short articles—some describing very personal experiences, others rooted in client case studies—or broader social science and clinical research findings. There is a strong emphasis on future research ideas. The articles are in general clearly written, and given the broad range of approaches covered, accessible for the interested nonexpert reader. For example, the faith tradition narratives cannot possibly summarize other than as general points all of the nuances and debate around different strands of major religions like Islam or Christianity, but they can and do offer a broad-brush perspective on the central tenets of those faiths in relation to the dead. Nearly all of the authors also provide useful bibliographies for those wishing to take their studies further.

Inevitably, a short book review cannot capture the rich variety of perspectives explored, but several pieces have stayed with me. Neena Verma writes affectingly about Hindu death traditions, interweaving her narrative with moving reflections on the death of her own son. Craig Van Dyke describes the remote village community of Otsuchi in Tohoku, northeastern Japan, traumatized by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, whose residents used an old English telephone box as a “wind telephone” to speak to their deceased. Edith Maria Steffen and Karina S. Kamp explore the sensory experiences of bereavement, whereby clients felt the physical presence of loved ones after they had died, many deriving great comfort from these connections. Camille B. Wortman writes with great empathy about people who have turned to mediums to support them in processing their sense of loss, a fascinating area rich with future research questions. Panel discussions with the bereaved are summarized by Laurie A. Burke at the end of the book and help to pull together some of the many different approaches adopted and adapted by individuals in order to maintain ongoing connection with their deceased loved ones.

Thus the book offers a very useful starting point for anyone interested in death studies wanting a broad overview of faith-based, therapeutic, social, and cultural perspectives on the presence of the deceased in our lives. It would also be of great value to practitioners involved in working with or supporting the bereaved, in either clinical or counseling settings. Several of the articles also raise avenues for fruitful future research. As the book focuses on bereaved adults, for example (although Van Dyke does reference the wind telephone offering a chance for children to articulate their sense of loss), the experiences of children and young people would make an interesting companion volume. Internet resources for the bereaved are explored by Camille B. Wortman, and it seems highly likely that technology will continue to play an important and growing role in our experiences of connectivity with the deceased, and there is be much future work to be done in understanding the implications of this. The recent COVID-19 pandemic has thrown up some very interesting forms of online memorialization and virtual memory boarding, for example. The deceased in this volume are human, but there is increasing research on the emotional impact of the deaths of our nonhuman companion species, and whole industries aimed at making memorials, jewelry, and other objects of loss when pets go “over the rainbow bridge.” Our connections with the deceased are an ongoing and evolving set of experiences, and this book admirably reflects the richness and importance of that dialogue.

Citation: Molly Conisbee. Review of Burke, Laurie A.; Rynearson, Edward K., eds., The Restorative Nature of Ongoing Connections with the Deceased: Exploring Presence within Absence. H-Death, H-Net Reviews. March, 2023. URL:

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