2019 Death in Time of Crisis, funeral in crisis?

25-26 March, 2019, Aix-Marseille University, Faculté des sciences médicales et paramédicale.

Mass death is a universal phenomenon that takes places in all socio-cultural (and religious) contexts. Some of the most recent events include the Ebola epidemics in West Africa (2013-2016), the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami (2011), the Rio-Paris AF 447 crash (2009), the Sichuan Earthquake (2008), the Hurricane Katrina (2005), and the European Heatwave (2003).

In the event of disasters, a primary challenge is the recovery and treatment of the bodies of the dead/victims. This process requires negotiations around the boundaries between the private and the public as well as the division of labor between the government/state, the medical and funeral experts, and the local communities and the bereaved families. It can involve discussions or conflicts between two or more states as the victims of these catastrophes may be tourists or other visitors of the land in which the disaster has taken place. These fatalities are often considered ‘abnormal’ since bodies of catastrophes are often mutilated, unidentified, contagious, contaminated or missing.

Because of the singularity and rarity of mass fatalities, one thus may ask: To what extend do conventional or customary mortuary rites and burials remain practical and relevant during a crisis? Does mass fatality call for the creation of novel forms of dealing with the dead? Do catastrophes threatens the legitimacy of rituals? The answers to these questions may reveal the capacity of death practices and ideas (grammaire rituelles) to adapt, contain, and nurture themselves on these extraordinary circumstances. Furthermore, one may want to ask if the plasticity of death rites is not one of the attributes that society requires to manage and bounce back from a disaster. In other words, the plasticity of funerals or its absence could mirror the capacity of a society to adapt, and thus its resilience in crisis.

To address these issues, we have invited anthropologists and practitioners of death rites working on mass death/in the context of disasters for a workshop that took place on the 25-26 March 2019 (on a lunch to lunch format) at the faculty of medical and paramedical sciences of Aix-Marseille University. This event was also aiming at funding a multi-disciplinary platform and dialogue to be continued during other workshops organised in Japan.

Organization & chair: Dr Elisabeth Anstett, social anthropologist (CNRS, Ades: Anthropologie Bio-Culturelle Droit et Santé, France) and Pr Sébastien P. Boret, social anthropologist (Tohoku University, RRIDeS: International Research Institute of Disaster Science, Japan)

Discussants: Pr Anne Carol, historian (AMU, Telemme, France) and Dr Pierre Guyomarc’h, forensic anthropologist (ICRC, Central Tracing Agency, Protection and Assistance Programmes, Switzerland).

Participants by alphabetic order & abstracts:

Elisabeth Anstett (CNRS, Ades, France) : Presentation of the short film “Marburg en Angola à Uige: funérailles de crise“ (©2005 Alain Epelboin, Julienne Anoko, Pierre Formenty)

Jennie E. Burnet (Global Studies Institute, Georgia State University, USA) : Mourning after Genocide: Cultural Contestations about Burials, Death Rites, and Memorialization in Post-Genocide Rwanda

Nearly 25 years after the 1994 genocide of Tutsis, Rwanda still struggles with the long‐term consequences of mass death and destruction. Between April 6 and July 4, 1994, an estimated 800,000 Rwandans lost their lives in a state‐sponsored genocide that targeted ethnic Tutsis (United Nations Security Council 1999). The sheer number of dead combined with the magnitude of the disaster in terms of destruction to physical infrastructure, the political economy, and cultural practices surrounding kinship, mourning, and sociality, made normal funerary rites and mourning practices impossible. This paper examines the novel forms of dealing with the dead that arose in the wake of the genocide and considers the vigorous contestations between genocide survivors, the clergy, and the Rwandan state over how the dead should be memorialized. It outlines the successive sets of norms over the treatment of the genocide victims’ bodies that have dominated in the almost three decades since the genocide and reflects on their implications for individual, communal, and national resilience.

Sophie Hooge Seebach (School of Cultural Anthropology, Aarhus U/Moesgaard Museum, Denmark) : Reburials in Northern Uganda. Creating new rituals in a ‘culture in chaos’

When war ravaged Northern Uganda from the mid-80s to 2008, and displaced upwards of 90 percent of the population, it created a devastating chaos, not just in the lives of the people living in Northern Uganda, but also in the afterlives of those who died during the war. People were buried in crowded IDP camps on strangers’ land, they were killed in the bush, never to be brought home to their families, vengeful spirits of the victims of violence roamed the countryside, and the survivors were often unable to perform the required funeral rites to keep the spirits of the dead satisfied. In this presentation, I describe how people living in the town of Gulu, Northern Uganda, work to fix their relationship to the dead in the aftermath of the civil war. Even after the war, Gulu remained a ‘culture in chaos’ (Lubkemann 2008), which entailed both much trouble and despair, but also a blossoming ‘social imagination’ (ibid.), allowing for innovative and pragmatic solutions to the problem of the disrupted relationship between living and dead. Focusing on the phenomenon of reburials, the paper explores how traditional burial rites are transformed and adapted to this new situation, and how these rituals put families on the track towards creating order from chaos.

Claudia Merli (Uppsala University, Sweden): Virtual burials of the 1963 Vajont dam disaster. Past and present

On the night of 9 October 1963 the deadliest landslide recorded in European history brought Mount Toc’s flank to collapse into the Vajont hydroelectric reservoir, triggering a monstrous 250m high tsunami wave that plunged into the Piave valley below at an impressive speed, wiping out five villages in a matter of minutes. Another tsunami wave traveled into the reservoir’s lake and canceled small hamlets on the lake’s shores. Of 1910 victims, only 1464 bodies (or parts) were recovered, only 700 were identified. This presentation will illustrate the historical process of establishing the first main site for burials, and how it underwent structural modifications to account for all victims, how the dead are commemorated in other minor cemeteries in the area. The monumental cemetery at Fortogna as well as the memory of the disaster were and remain a terrain of contention for multiple identities.

Giorgia Mirto (Università di Bologna, Italy): Integrating the migrant dead. Communities in Southern Italy and the Mourning of Border Deaths

The bodies of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea have been washing up on Italian shores for more than 30 years. I have been conducting empirical work in South Italy on how local communities in southern Italy deal with these bodies being buried in their communities, on how the dead are integrated into the sacred collective space of local cemeteries. Through the study of funerary practices effected by local communities, one can observe the labour of mourning and the subsumption of the deceased migrant into the community of the indigenous dead, e.g. through post-mortem baptism, burying migrants in family chapels or in symbolic places, or rituals on the Day of the Dead. The aim of my research is to explore how these communities have drawn on their own historic cultural traditions for the mourning process, rendering it a part of their own history. In so doing they transform local attitudes to migrants in ways that tactically challenge discriminatory treatment of migrants, both dead and alive, by state and citizens.  

Dr Hiroyuki Sasaki and Pr Sébastien Boret ( Tohoku University, Irides, Japan): Managing Mass Fatality during the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami – The experiences of two coastal municipalities.

The presentation examines the management of the bodies of the victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake. On March 11 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and an annihilating tsunami hit the Tohoku region, destroying entire coastal cities, causing the death of 15,894 individuals and leaving 2.558 missing bodies. The overwhelming number of death was further complicated by the extent of the damage suffered by the facilities designed to deal with the dead bodies (hospitals, morgues, crematoriums). The conditions exceeded the capacity of the emergency teams and caused considerable delays in the treatment of the dead bodies. The conventional practice of cremated the dead (no embalming) was particular impossible to carry out in places where the dead bodies amounted to several thousand. National and local Japanese governmental agencies responded by offering to bury temporarily the bodies of the dead who could not be cremated. In order to understand the implications of this emergency practice, this paper examines the administrative, technical, and experiences of two cities that carried out temporary burials. Based on interviews, archives and secondary literature, this study identifies the major medical and social issues experienced by those responsible for managing this mass fatality. Its findings suggest that temporary burial became a source of burden and trauma, not only for bereaved families but also for city personnel. Finally, it concludes with a reflexion on the possible solution for coping with mass fatality in future crisis in Japan and beyond.

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