Gazing at death and the dead

Workshop report (by Linde Tuybens)

The most dangerous person at a funeral is the body in the coffin –  Richard Cobb

On May 5th and 6th, researchers from all over Europe and the USA met in Antwerp to explore a range of fascinating topics around death and the dead. An initiative of the Contested Bodies project, this workshop promised a rich program full of unravelling contributions and discussions on the material, commemorative and emotional cultures of death.

Attendees in Antwerp

With his public lecture “A magic we can believe in”: belief, unbelief, and the sacrality of the dead, Thomas Laqueur (UC Berkeley) set the tone and invited us to reflect on the charisma of bodies, bones and dirt (!), and the role of dogma, beliefs and unbelief in how we treat mortal remains. Exploring necrosociality, he made us wonder whether caring for the dead as act of civility and love is what makes us human, and how these practices relate to the supernatural world. What do Diogenes’ disregard of his own corpse and Antigone’s concern about her brother’s remains tell us about the dis/enchantment of dead bodies? What is the work of the dead?

Laqueur’s lecture provided an inspiring framework for the upcoming presentations. The evening ended with a dinner amidst religious statues (Elfde Gebod) and a ghostwalk through the centre of Antwerp.

Silvia Cavicchioli (University of Turin) opened the actual workshop on Friday with a lecture on the instrumental use of human remains and the implementation of the sacred language of martyrology into the political space of nineteenth-century Italy. During the Risorgimento and post-Risorgimento period, the idea of the revolutionary martyr and his accompanying relics became instruments of politics, inspiring patriotic acts of sacrifice for the nation or remembering the human actions they represent. These secular relics and their histories served as communicative tools for the narration and sacralisation of the unified nation in a vocabulary well-known to the Italian people.

Moving forward in time, Amy King (University of Bristol) continued to explore the powerful narrative of martyrdom. Structured around the case study of Nicola Bonservizi (local Fascist leader shot in Paris in 1924) and that of Guiseppe Carisi and Michele Ambrosoli (two Blackshirts killed in New York in 1927), she examined the repatriation of fascist bodies during Mussolini’s regime and the commemorative culture it entailed. This geographical distance and the transnational exchange of the martyrized bodies allowed the regime to construct the imperial rhetoric of the nation (i.e. fascist ideology) as something that cannot be contained by national borders.

The next two papers took us away from the secular martyrs into the wondrous world of the incorrupt body. Leonardo Rossi (University of Antwerp) talked about the journey of the bodies of foundresses of new religious congregations in 19th- and 20th-century Italy. The deep bond with their communities during lifetime was often followed by an intense desire of that community to transfer,  preserve and display the sacred remains of their spiritual mother inside the motherhouse. These bodies, often perceived as miraculous and exceptional, hold deep religious meaning to its guardians. The corpse represents their history and identity, and enables them to maintain a relationship with their foundress as if she was still alive.

In his turn, Andrea Pezzini (University of Bern) looked into promotion strategies of exceptional dead bodies in 19th century Italy. From the early 18th century onwards the institutionalisation of sanctity and the centralisation of the canonisation process led to a model of sanctity with an increasing importance of heroic virtues and a diminishing role for the miraculous. However, the devotion of miraculous (dead) bodies flourished during the nineteenth century, especially in popular piety, which raises the question how these exceptional corporeal phenomena contributed to the development and increase of the fama sanctitatis of the saint-to-be. With the examples of Ignazio da Santhià (1686-1770) and Vincenzo Maria Strambi (1745-1824), Andrea showed us that the promotion strategies and their outcomes concerning incorrupt bodies changed according to different local contexts.

Leonardo Rossi, Andrea Pezzini & Kristof Smeyers (chair)

After a delicious meal – for indeed, the living do have needs -, the group moved to the Letterenhuis to admire their collection of death masks, or at least a small part of it. The Letterenhuis, safeguarding the literary heritage of Flanders, has more than one hundred death masks of Flemish writers in their archives. For the occasion, they put a selection of their collection on display and allowed us to gaze at the source of the artist’s genius.

The afternoon session started with a paper by Jen Baker (University of Warwick) on domestic idolatry of the child corpse in 19th-century consolation literature. Frequent references to the deceased child as a beautiful angel and the fetishizing of body parts, e.g. a lock of hair, as if they were relics, implied the idea of the child as being sacred. Because of the Protestant condemnation of idolatry, this worshipping of the deceased child could become problematic. However, Jen argues, these practices should not be considered as controversial idolatry, but rather as a consolatory practice, confined to its domestic and ordinary meaning. In the end, they did accept God’s reason and understood the celestial status of the child as a reward of keeping faith in God and his divine providence.

Next, Bernadett Bigalke (Leipzig University) introduced us to the Theosophical Society and its cremation discourse. The Theosophical Society was a transnational esoteric movement from around 1900 that was involved in many reform movements. In her paper, Bernadette investigated its entanglement with the European secular(ist) cremation movements. She underlines that in order to understand this entanglement and the theosophical ideas about cremation, we should understand their knowledge system which was a combination of science, religion, philosophy, astrology, spiritism and occultism. Analysing conceptions of religion and science in relation to death, apparent death (& safety coffins!) and cremation leads her to identify shared ideas and mutual practices between materialistic and non-materialistic/esoteric cremationists.

Revived by some coffee and cake we were now ready to listen to Kristof Smeyers (University of Antwerp) who used this opportunity to reflect on the conceptual meaning of the Catholic gaze in relation to (extraordinary) dead bodies. In order to say something about the Catholic gaze, Kristof marked some questions to take into account: which bodies are involved and whose gaze are we talking about? Can we speak of a Catholic gaze at all? And what about the power relation between the living and the dead? Who is it that dominates this act? Furthermore, gazing was never only gazing. A diversity of sensory experiences was described by the Catholic onlooker. The exceptionality of opportunities to gaze at these bodies made the occasion all the more significant.

Tine Van Osselaer (University of Antwerp) then took us along on her hunt for reliquary sculptures of early Christian martyrs. Responding to the nineteenth-century need for saints, Rome distributed thousands of relics of Roman martyrs all over the world. These fragments of human remains were put into wax sculptures representing the body of the saint. The saint him/herself was almost always unknown and without a devotional past, but that did not matter as long as it was a martyr. In her presentation, Tine addressed this new mode of display, the aspired emotional effect of these sculptures and the diverse responses to them at the start of the nineteenth century in Belgium. Meant to move the faithful, these reliquary sculptures turned out not to be entirely unproblematic and could also inspire mockery rather than awe.

The workshop was closed by Angela Berlis (University of Bern) with a paper on death masks and postmortem photographies as secular and sacral memory. With the examples of the Letterenhuis fresh in our minds, Angela guided us through the history of death masks and how they developed from surrogate faces through objects of science into civil memorabilia. She emphasised their multiple interface in religious view – representing memory, presence and expectation – and discussed the influence of photographical enactment in the 20th century. Angela concluded that death cults and memory cults were always shaped in a specific religious and/or secular context.

Angela Berlis

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