By: Dr. Ruth Penfold-Mounce, Lecturer in Criminology, University of York, UK.
During my criminology PhD research into the relationship between celebrity and crime at the University of Leeds some 10 years ago I came across an interesting story. It entailed the relocation of the mummified arm of murderer, George Carpenter. Dr Charles Kindersley had retained the arm after dissection in 1813 and kept it in his home as a souvenir until it was donated in 1938 to the police museum in Marlborough before being passed on to the National Funeral Museum, London in 2005. I was fascinated by this macabre tourist-like act conducted by a doctor and on returning home to my husband that night (and much to his bemusement) burst out with: ‘Darling, there’s a mummified arm in Wiltshire!’
This marked the beginning of my scholarly love affair with death and culture.
Death and Culture
Being a cultural criminologist based in a sociology department with a research interest in crime, popular culture and celebrity, and death is an unusual combination. It has its advantages, such as being able to draw on my combined research interests and film with the BBC’s Hairy Bikers. I talked them through the murder of George Cornell by the Kray Twins in the Blind Beggar Pub in the East End of London in 2015 (as pictured below).
I also discovered just how hard it is to walk, talk and hold crime scene photos at the same time. It turns out that filming for television is more difficult than I anticipated.
However, as an interdisciplinary scholar I face some unique challenges. I have to constantly work at making sure I do not disappear between the boundaries of disciplines.I battle with not being criminological enough for criminology journals, and yet too crime-based for sociology journals, and too popular culture rooted for death studies journals.Thank goodness for journals such as Mortality that welcomes engagement with death from a variety of disciplinary approaches.
I have had to work hard to establish a death and culture scholarly community by drawing likeminded scholars together through various events including running day symposiums like Negotiating Morbid Spaces (2014) and Marginal Death Research: Doing Edgework (2015). I even ran a three day international conference Death and Culture (2016) where 90 scholars came together from over 15 different disciplines to talk about death from a cultural perspective. The result has been that I no longer feel so isolated, and a strong death network has been formed, it is growing, and it has connected researchers across the globe.
Gazing on Death and the Dead
A driving force of my work in death and culture is my passion to stop people thinking that death is taboo.
Death is actually ever present, ranging from Disney movies (pretty much every Disney character has dead parents think Bambi, Frozen, The Lion King etc.) to executions being filmed in Syria and placed on Youtube. We see more graphic death than ever before. The big barrier that seems to make people think death is taboo is that much of what we see is mediated. In other words, seeing death on television or in film (ie mediated death) gives us a softening lens through which to engage with death. It means that popular culture makes seeing death more palatable and even normal. As such it would seem that it is ok to watch death and see inside the violated human body (CSI autopsies are a great illustration of this) but we are less comfortable chatting about it in personal terms in general conversation. As you can imagine, I do not share this restraint. Instead I work hard at being open about death and making the dead visible. I want to attract people’s attention and get them thinking and talking about death and the dead.
Conveniently for me, death has been particularly evident in 2016. In fact 2016 has been a very productive year for my research. We have witnessed an unanticipated boom in terms of deaths amongst the famous, including:
- singer David Bowie
- actor Alan Rickman
- radio and television presenter Terry Wogan
- magician Paul Daniels
- comedians Victoria Wood and Ronnie Corbett
- musician Prince
- entertainer and ventriloquist Keith Harris
- boxer Muhammed Ali
- actor Gene Wilder
Whilst a common response has been grief or amazement or just general outcry – my response is ‘That’s perfect for my research’.
This peak in celebrity deaths led me to become interested in the posthumous careers of the famous dead and I’ve written about how lucrative being dead can be by using a case study of Marilyn Monroe for Death and the Maiden blog. It would seem that being dead can be a successful career move for many celebrities. My enthusiasm for the famous dead, particularly recent deaths, has provoked responses of concern at my apparent glee at the death of another human.
Please do not interpret my enthusiasm for this topic as macabre or dismissive of the loss of these individuals or dismissive of those suffering a loss. Instead, my enthusiasm is rooted in exploring death within our culture and how the famous dead helps a wide audience engage with mortality.
Since researching celebrity and death it has become clear that the famous dead can have value, not just in economic terms, but also as a cultural symbol to explore fears about life ending. The celebrity dead demonstrate that an individual can have a life in death and not just a life after death. In my book ‘Death, The Dead and Popular Culture’ (with Palgrave Macmillan due out in 2017) I examine not only the value of the famous dead but also the entertainment that the dead in popular culture can contribute to society through the Undead (zombies and vampires) and also authentic corpses (models or live actors who play the dead in a non-fantasy setting). Consuming the dead and death is commonplace and everywhere and provides a safe arena in which to explore cultural fears about mortality.
So what is next for me and death?
Well so far in 2016 I have hung out by Dick Turpin’s grave for The York Press to discuss the famous dead and tourism, and desperately tried not to smile for the camera or rattle the beer cans which were around my ankles. I have also been interviewed about violence against the female dead in television drama with Radio 4.
I have run a workshop on the famous dead at the Before I Die Festival in York and made plans to run an interactive session for the public on ‘Spectacular Justice’ at the York Festival of Ideas in June 2017. I have also taken on more fabulous doctoral students many of whom are focusing on death in relation to popular culture or crime. So I think I will just go and finish writing about ‘A Corpse for Christmas’, a lecture I am giving at St Barts Pathology Museum this Christmas and then get working on my new book with Palgrave Macmillan on ‘Death, the Dead and Popular Culture’. After all, I can rest when I am dead.