“You’re among friends”

I think it’s only fair to post this blog entry in English, since many of the fine colleagues that I met in Aalborg might end up here. Needless to say the first Nordic Network of Thanatologists conference was a great success. Ideas and grass-root experience were contributed from different researchers and hospice and palliative care professionals. Boundaries were invisible between different scholars, when the subject was common: death and dying.

I especially enjoyed the contribution of our second key note speaker Tony Walter, who is a professor of death studies at the University of Bath, England.  He asked two quite interesting question in his presentation about differences in death cultures between different nations:

– Have you ever been to the funeral of someone you never met?

– Would you go to the funeral of your boss’ mother?

The answers illuminate the different meanings and cultural contexts that death and dying cause, create and sustain in social relationships. I started also thinking about the Finnish phrase of “I’m sorry for your loss“, which is “otan osaa (suruusi/menetykseesi)”. The Finnish phrase translates to something like “I take participation (in your sorrow/loss)“. The English phrase seems to keep one as an individual, as a separate person than the bereaver. However, the Finnish phrase is highly communal, it attaches the people together and they mourn together through communality within this phrase. Quite interesting, when thinking with the idea of the Finns being very “private” and having difficulties(?) in expressing emotions.

Professor Eva Reimers from the University of Linköping, Sweden, asked in her presentation how different kinship relations are linked to death and dying. Who has the role of a main bereaver in homosexual relationships, if the funeral rituals are heterosexual? How the idea of “next of kin” is formated without legal marriage or blood relation?

Professor Reimers also mentioned the change in obituary notices. Current obituaries have usually an illustration which represents the political, professional or other ideology, for example a veteran, a medical doctor etc. This led me to thinking how this phenomena will change, let’s say, in fifty years to come? How an IT specialist will be represented in his/hers obituary? In binary code? How about a florist? Or a school teacher? Or even a thanatologist? Is this a dying culture? Or will the strict concepts of formal obituaries change to more informal?

Anders Gustavsson from the University of Oslo had researched the virtual memorial websites in Norway and Sweden, which of course, attracted my attention. He also found similar results to mine:
– memorial pages are usually made by women
– they have expressions of Christian fate in guestbooks
– they share a belief that children and young people become angels after death
– the deceased is addressed directly in the messages
– memorial pages are made because people want “the memory to live on” and “everbody to know what a wonderful person” the deceased was

All and all, the conference proofed itself to be an excellent forum to share ideas and experiences in death studies, and as Ilona Kemppainen said “without the need to explain yourself and your study”. The next conference will be arranged in 2012 in Finland (hopefully during the spring, so that the Mayans doomsday won’t annihilate us), but before that I will be attending the summer seminar Death & Dying in the Digital Age in Bath.

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