From Life to Death: Understanding Human Behaviour with Anthropologist Dr Hannah Gould - Don't Be Caught Dead (2024)

Catherine:

Today we have Hannah Gould joining us on the Don't Be Caught Dead podcast. Hannah is an anthropologist and as described on her website, I study the stuff of death and the death of stuff. Welcome

Hannah:

to the podcast,

Catherine:

Hannah.

Hannah:

Hi, thank you for having me. Very proud of that line. I don't know when it came up with it, but it really kind of crystallized a lot of my research interests. So I thought, perfect, I finally got it.

Catherine:

And tell us, what is an anthropologist? I always think of very colonial or European ideas when I think of anthropologists. So what does a modern anthropologist, what does it involve?

Hannah:

Yeah, I mean, I suppose like the European colonial project is certainly very much where anthropology comes from, as kind of most academic disciplines, you know, that's where the university system we have comes from. But fundamentally an anthropologist is a, a type of, social scientists. So we're interested in human behavior. And there's many different types of anthropology. Some people, you know, study bones and archeological kind of formations, and there's people doing forensic anthropology who are interested in questions of decomposition and toponomy. But I'm a cultural anthropologist. And cultural anthropologists are really fundamentally interested in what unites us as humans. What are the kind of fundamental universals of human experience, whether that be things like love or, uh, suffering or loss, all of these big questions. But then also on the flip side of that, what kind of marks us as distinct or, you know, stands us apart, different cultures and societies around the world. So death is a great example of this. It is a universal experience of humanity, probably potentially one of our only universals. But at the same time, you know, the way that we respond to death and dying. around the world is incredibly diverse, right? So the rituals we have, the frameworks we have, the stories we tell each other about, the afterlife, these are all like very diverse, different ways that we confront this universal question. So anthropologists are interested in like studying that diversity and that universalism. And I suppose part of that is also to try and Reflect critically on our own cultural background and the own particular way that we look at death and dying through an exploration of how other people in other places look at death and dying. And

Catherine:

what led you down this path? Was like there a something that happened in your life? Or have you always been interested in other people? Like what was the thing? Is there one moment where you went, aha, that's what I want to do. It's so

Hannah:

incredibly embarrassing in some ways. I didn't really ever think I was going to be an anthropologist. I didn't like going to university wanting to become an anthropologist. I thought I was going to be a philosopher, a philosopher and a linguist, and I ended up continuing with linguistics. And then I just decided to randomly take an anthropology class. I'm pretty sure it was because I had a crush on somebody at the time in first year university and they were taking anthropology. And I was like, yeah, this is great. We're going to do this subject together and fall in love. Look, I ended up falling in love with the discipline and not the person as, as things go. But I, I think the appeal for anthropology for me is, is kind of, it has been described once as like, you know, anthropology is philosophy with people in it. So it's about how people live their kind of philosophies, right? How we live our beliefs and experience the world. And there's something really attractive about being able to do that kind of research and talk to people and experience what they experience and try and shift your world view in that way. Yeah, I suppose I was also already primed for it as well with my upbringing and my parents being really interested in travel and they kind of pulled me out of school. a lot during primary school and high school to go travel because I just felt that that was a better education. So I've been lucky and privileged to have those experiences. And I suppose be primed to wanting to become an anthropologist in many ways. Yeah.

Catherine:

And what did your parents do that they, they valued the experience of travel and what that can teach you over perhaps a conventional, you know, sitting in the class and reading passages from a book?

Hannah:

Yeah. Well, I mean, It's interesting, like reflecting on it, they're both incredibly like humanistic careers. So my mum, the story she always tells is that she was a, gosh, I'm going to get this wrong, a biochemist, or she was, she was studying biology and she had a job testing Melbourne's waterways or something. And then she decided, apparently one day, that basically that humans were more interesting than microbes. So this is the line. And she decided to go back to university and became a social worker. So she worked as a social worker in hospitals and acute boards and very challenging kind of situations for most of my childhood. And then my dad is a, well, he was a teacher and in particular, he became a, he was a phys ed teacher, but he became a student welfare coordinator and like, that sort of thing, which now I'm going to reflect on that, that like those two professions are very kind of human, like, you know, humanistic engage with people and their concerns and troubles. Which is not really something I think I would ever thought I would get into. I always felt I was far more kind of like academic and books and, you know, keeping people at arm's length. But in the end of the day, anthropology is, is, is a bit about getting, getting, getting down in the muck with people and messing human emotions and relationships and all that sort of stuff. So probably take after them a bit in that way.

Catherine:

And tell me, how old were you when your mum went back to university to study?

Hannah:

I, this must've been before I was, What? Gosh, you always think about these things like, wow, I should really talk to my parents about these things. Uh, no, this must've been around about the time my older brother was born and then I, and then I was born. So she, yeah, she's direct part time when I was a young child and, and kind of then went back to full time work as a social worker and continues to this day working as a supervisor for social work graduates and that sort of thing in the university. So weirdly enough, he has been my colleague at some points as well.

Catherine:

Oh, wow. That must've been quite an interesting experience to actually have your mom as a colleague in the same field.

Hannah:

Yeah, I mean, it's a funny, I mean, social work is a different field in many ways, but then I have moved more into doing work in kind of broadly health sciences and working alongside a lot of social workers. So that's been quite nice to really appreciate a bit more of their role and just how important they are around, you know, death and dying and grief and that sort of thing. In a way that it kind of, you know, no one really understands what their parents do when they grow up. And most people don't understand what their best friends do, right? Like you have a vague idea of your key words. But sometimes it's quite nice to actually, ah, gain a greater appreciation, I suppose.

Catherine:

And when you were growing up where did you travel with your parents when you were taken out of school?

Hannah:

Well, so my parents had spent some time in the UK previously. And so the first kind of big trip I remember was when I was six and we went to, gosh, we went all like, you know, through Scotland and England and. Through Paris and France and on the way, cause you know, those days still to this day, you know, it's always a. Southeast Asian stopover. We also spent quite a lot of time in Hong Kong, which was really cool. And so that was the kind of the best, the, the, the first kind of big trip. And then later it was, you know, we were very quickly, I think I was taking out of school, my final year of primary school to, to go to China, which was quite, you know, mind blowing for the 1990s. I think I must've been about nine, nine, two or something like that. And then, you know, a lot of, a lot of, kind of, appreciation of going throughout a lot of, kind of, Vietnam and Laos and those, kind of, Southeast Asian countries. There was also, I suppose, like a very strong emphasis that my parents had on second language education. So becoming fluent in a second language and then traveling to that country a lot. So in my case, that was, It's Japanese because the local primary school just happened to teach Japanese. And so that was the one that I was committed to. I think in that kind of parental way of that's something, a skill that I didn't have, and I kind of maybe an experience or an opportunity they didn't have. And so we're very much invested in me gaining that knowledge and really pushed me to not only just like gain fluency in the language, but then go and travel to Japan and, and kind of gain, gain cultural fluency as well as linguistic fluency. Yeah.

Catherine:

And when did you travel to Japan? Was that part of school or was that later?

Hannah:

No, it was between years 10 and 11. And actually I lunked out on a Japanese language listening test, which was, uh, I was like a straight A student and then got this D for Japanese listening. Which I should say that most of my class failed this test. So I'm not sure it's really a reflection on me as opposed to the, the sensei at the time. But I always knew that I wanted to gain fluency, but it's an incredibly difficult thing to do if you're not in a Japanese language environment. And so I kind of went to my parents and said, well, you know, I'd really like to go on exchange. So I went on exchange in high school in between years 10 and 11 for a couple of months, and then basically have been back and forth to Japan kind of once a year ever since I suppose. And really it was a really transformative experience in just terms of like, Changing the brain to be able to speak Japanese in that way that you kind of, it's quite difficult to get if you're in Australia or in any other country that that's not the majority language. So, um, yeah, I think it was like 15 got on a plane and off I went.

Catherine:

Very exciting. And very must. They're very formative years in which to actually experience another culture to and actually live there for a few months. Yeah.

Hannah:

Yeah, and I, you know, it's, it's that kind of interesting way of the kind of small things like, you know, cultural, how you move through the world, how you treat other people, those kind of difficult to explain and perhaps difficult to put into words kind of cultural norms that you experience early on probably shapes you quite a lot. Like, so like there's lots of different things, but you know, one of them is, is how politeness is expressed and how your relationship to other people. And I think, you know, a pretty strong cultural norm in Japan is that this desire not to, to be a burden to other people or to like, kind of put them out as it were by, by your own actions. Like one of the worst things you can kind of be called in Japanese is, uh, mindokusai, like you're a mindo, which is like a burden on other people. And so, There's a great amount of deference, therefore, to kind of, you know, making sure that you're, you kind of, you have your sh*t together, right? That you, you're not kind of bending other people to look after you in that way. And I think that is quite distinct and different to say, perhaps the other extreme of something like, you know, U S American culture, right. Where it's a very kind of positive sociality and which like expressing yourself and. You know, taking up space physically as well as like socially and emotionally is, is seen as kind of welcome and normal. And you have that kind of stereotype of like, Oh, the American always introduces themselves to you on the bus or the train, the plane, and asks you about their life story. And so obviously I think, you know, Australia is potentially somewhere in the middle there or has a slightly different formation. But yeah, those kind of things I think really shaped me and continue to shape me in, in who I am and how I approach the world, but also then gives you another set of tools, another set of skills that when you're interacting with different people, you can kind of negotiate that relationship, I suppose. And 15 is also great for like food and music and culture and all that sort of stuff that you get to, you know, explore and have fun with. And I think it probably changed a lot of like, I don't know, my popular culture tastes and that kind of thing as well.

Catherine:

I know my son went over, uh, at the same time to Japan for three months and we school on exchange also. And the big things for him that he came back with were, Uh, there was no bins and so that was the thing that he was like really surprised about

Hannah:

and,

Catherine:

uh, the vending machines and what you could buy in a vending machine and what you could buy at a 7 Eleven was amazing, he said.

Hannah:

Fascinating in some ways also to just think about Australia's relationship with Japan. In the space of a few short generations, like my grandparents on both sides were, you know, part of World War II, you know, efforts where the Japanese people were seen as nothing but the enemy, right? And like this kind of really evil force coming to invade Australia as it were. And you know, two generations down I'm marrying them and my husband's Japanese. You know, so it's a real interesting, you know, and it seems like at the moment every second person is heading to Japan for a holiday. Skiing, you know, whatever it is. I've never skied in Japan. I go to Japan like every year and I've never skied. So that's. that tax bracket. But you know, it's, it is interesting to kind of see how, yeah, how, just how much culture appreciation has transformed in two short generations, but just within my own personal life, but more broadly in Australia, I think it's kind of quite extraordinary in some ways.

Catherine:

And especially when the fact that Really, Japan was the only country in conflict that's actually really made it to Australia and the shores of Australia. Unlike, you know, other conflicts where they've been quite at a distance and in European grounds. So it is amazing that We have gone through that transition in, in that short period of time of just really two generations and, and those older generations, you know, some of them still actually survive today. So there's still that recent memory, you know, so it is, it is interesting that that has been the path that we've come from and, and tell me the fascination or should I, should I call it the fascination? I'm not sure. You explain to me what, what is it about death, Hannah?

Hannah:

Oh God. I mean, people ask me this because there's something like, think perhaps people find it unnerving about the idea that like this is my primary interest of research or like this is what I'm interested in. Death and Buddhism. It's a big questions. In some ways, I mean, like, death is the perfect example of what cultural anthropology is all about, right? It's a universal experience that we all do extremely differently which I think is fascinating. But then also, I, I suppose intellectually as well, I'm really interested in how people relate to the material world around them, right? And, and, and how they kind of the stuff they buy or they purchase and they make and that kind of relationship and how that relationship is transformed by this kind of fundamental understanding at the heart of human experience but also at the heart of Buddhist teaching which is that that material world is impermanent and that it will decay and decompose and die. And so how do we kind of navigate a world that is fundamentally uncertain, right? Or because it's always in transition away from us. And in some ways it's like, well, why, why not? study death. And it's like, why this question? It's like, well, there is no other question, right? Like this is the question, like every, why study anything else? Like in some part of me, it's like, well, this is the fundamental question of human experience. Why would I not be spending all my time researching it? And obviously that manifests in different areas subcategories and all these kinds of things and questions and projects, but it all comes back to that fundamental idea of like, well, how do we, how do we be in a world that we know is temporary, that we know is going to. end and die. And so it's come as it's quite funny when I talk to other scholars about their work because they seem so shocked that I want to study death and dying because it's morbid or it's it's taboo or, you know, it's depressing. But I think, well, but it's, it's not once you get into it, you know, it's nothing but fascinating. And yeah, I, I, it's kind of interesting. It's like, why would you study anything else really? It's

Catherine:

interesting that you say that, that scholars are the ones that question you about why you study death and, and Buddhism and the impermanence of life and the ephemeral nature of it. Because there was an interview that I had recently with Lauren Breen and, uh, Shelley Skinner from Lionheart Camp for Kids.

Hannah:

And

Catherine:

Their research, which you'd be aware of, is obviously where they took the questions that children on the first day of camp, uh, they write down what a question is that they've never asked anyone about death and dying. And one of those questions is, and I'm probably going to paraphrase it incorrectly, but you'll get the gist of it is the fact that, you know, why do we live if we die? And like, that's from a child and it really is. Such a profound question.

Hannah:

Yeah, I do think that most of the time when we talk about children and death and Lauren's work and the Lionheart camp work is extraordinary is that a lot of the concern we have about children and how they will react to death and all this stuff is probably, well, probably, it is most definitely a projection of our own concerns about it and our kind of fundamental discomfort with it. And, you know, children tend to model what they see. And so if you are just uncomfortable about death or, you know, don't want to talk about it, then kids are going to grow up thinking they need to be uncomfortable about death and don't want to talk about it. And yet, you know, whenever I've talked to kids at funerals, They're totally fine. They know what's going on. They've got, you know, the tools to deal with it much more than adults do a lot of the time. Yeah.

Catherine:

And when you were a child, did you have family conversations about death or dying or, uh, about, you know, if I die, this is what I'd like, or this is who I'd bank with. Did you ever have any of those round table conversations?

Hannah:

Like, not particularly that I can remember. Probably the first kind of important death in my life was of my grandfather on my mum's side, who he is kind of someone I really wish I had had more opportunity to spend time with. So he had multiple sclerosis and died quite young for those days, but, you know, also kind of lived with the disease for a really, really long time, you know, bedridden and wasn't able to kind of, but he was also, he was a great linguist and a great scholar. And so I feel like in many ways, as my mum talks about him, like we really would have. got on in many ways if we had had the opportunity to do so, as it were. So I do remember him dying and I remember kind of that being the first kind of confrontation with death and dying in our family and the kind of first sense of, you know, of seeing, you know, what do funerals in our family look like? And what does religion in our family look like? And all those kinds of things. What does grief look like? How do you know those kinds of fundamental things that you pick up through osmosis almost. But I don't, I don't think we were particularly death denying in that kind of way, but we didn't also kind of say, well, here's my plan and here's what wants to happen to me and all those kinds of things either. Uh, we do now mostly because I bring it up at every occasion, but I think that's probably just because like, It's my nine to five. Like it's quite hard to be death denying when you've got someone who has a PhD in it, like hanging around.

Catherine:

Yes. I have to say that the conversations have certainly shifted in our household as well. You know, but at the same time,

Hannah:

it's just like, what did you do today? It was like, Oh, I was working in the crematorium today for my research project. Like,

Catherine:

yeah. Or, or the stories that you hear and you go, Oh my goodness, I heard this story. And. you know, there's always something you can learn from different stories, isn't there?

Hannah:

Yeah, I do think, I, sometimes I feel that one of the things about being, working and researching in this area and about, more broadly about this conversation of like, death literacy or taboo and that sort of thing, is that people have a right I actually tend to think that people have a right not to think about death all the time and it's not, you know, I think there's a kind of tendency sometimes within the death literacy, death education space to be like, we must always be having conversations about it. it has to be super open, you know, it has to be, you know, we always have to be thinking about it. And I just fundamentally think that not necessarily, maybe case by case, like you, so sometimes some of the stories that I have in researching in the crematorium, for example, recently, and kind of the very, intimate, pragmatic, practical details that you learn about how ashes are handled, how bodies are handled. People don't necessarily have to know that. If they don't want to know, what happens in a crematorium. And I think that's totally fine that they don't know. I think people have a kind of sense that, oh, if everyone knew everything, we'd make different decisions, but sometimes actually your decision is to not know. And that's kind of fine as well. I think I do have to be careful sometimes as a researcher, but also as a friend, as a family member to, to not share some of the stories that I learned in research, because I think that's also a kindness to people as well.

Catherine:

And what have you seen where you have been surprised by what you've uncovered, you know, is something that you, you never knew that. You'd come across.

Hannah:

I'm in so many. I thought I, you know, I, for my PhD work, I conducted research in Japan for two years or so, you know, 18 months working in Buddhist grave and Buddhist altar stores, you know, going into people's homes and installing these objects that people use to kind of make offerings to the dead to build a relationship with their dead. Um, And so there's, you know, so many fundamentals of a death culture that I was less familiar with, that I've learned that really surprised me about people's relationship to the dead. What is expected of them? What, you know, what obligations that you have to the deceased to look after them? But then also about my own death culture. More recently have been doing a lot of work in Australia and looking at death culture in Australia. You know, fundamentals, just about everyday things, I suppose, about the process of cremation or the process of caring for bodies or memorialization. That do very much feel like you're stepping behind the curtain, the kind of backstage of death and dying. And probably in both of those experiences, more than anything else, what I've really gained is like a fundamental, deep appreciation and respect for death. Whether that be someone who arranges a funeral or someone who digs a grave or washes the body and embalmers coffin makers, you know, religious celebrants of all kinds of stripes and diverse backgrounds. My biggest lesson is probably just how extraordinary these people are and how demonized they are and underappreciated they are by many. Both just in, you know, in society in general, that we don't often think about these people or we continue to stigmatize them and feel that they are in some ways taboo or dirty or their work is not appreciated, they get paid crap, you know, it's not a thankful thing. It's a pretty thankless task. But then also, you know, I think there's been a lot of critique of the conventional funeral sector. And I think most, you know, some of it is very reasonable. But also most of the people I meet in the conventional funeral sector are really just trying to do the best possible with limited resources and thankless tasks and, you know, pretty challenging. Kind of challenging vocational pathways to, to kind of improve their job and change their job. So I think if anything, that's the thing that's probably most surprised me is this, is this kind of group of people who do this extraordinary and yet pretty thankless. work that we don't think about enough and care for enough.

Catherine:

It's sort of like that awareness that we became more conscious of our medical staff and, uh, nurses and, uh, you know, general practitioners when COVID hit. And we had a real appreciation for the healthcare workers then. And You know, I think that that appreciation really needed, especially during that time when resources were so stretched, people didn't realize that the work in our death care industry was still being undertaken and overwhelmed. Like it was never before.

Hannah:

It was like, what we're talking about is the difference between like the front line versus the end line. Yeah. So we had this, this project in mind specifically about this issue. And it was just, it's just fundamentally the obvious oversight of people working in death and dying is somewhat, it would be comical if it wasn't so infuriating. So you know body trans, people who work in body transport, so people who pick up the deceased from hospitals, aged care homes, that sort of thing, you know, despite going into hospitals. into COVID wards, into aged care homes with multiple infectious cases. They couldn't access tests, right, for the longest time. They had to like, I talked to people who had to pretend they had a cough or a cold in order to get a COVID test because their line of work vocation wasn't recognized. For priority testing and similar, similarly with the vaccine, right? Like I, at the time happened to be employed for St. Vincent's hospital as a researcher. So I got access to the vaccine, but people who were actually like. embalming deceased individuals who had died of COVID didn't get priority access to the vaccine, which I think is, it's crazy. And it's this kind of massive blind spot, this massive black spot where the, the kind of death and dying are just not, Fundamentally, they're not built into our emergency response, right? The state government's emergency response, the federal government's emergency response. And you know, partially I think this is just like, Oh, no one really thinks about it. But I think it's also because, you know, death was really seen as like a defeat, right? Like that we were losing the battle to COVID and therefore we don't really want to think about death and dying because we all want to focus on winning. And winning equals life. So yeah, there was just no desire to kind of acknowledge that that was a potential outcome from COVID and that we should do that well. And support people who are doing that work because of that fundamental, I feel like psychological block in people's minds to think about death and dying in relation to COVID as anything more than like a defeat. Yeah.

Catherine:

And in your line of work, have you seen that kind of gap on a, on, you know, on more than one occasion where you look at a infrastructure or a process or framework and, and the death care parts being left out?

Hannah:

Oh, all the time. I mean, it's, you know, it's everything from like, like a fundamental one is urban planning, right? My, my older brother is an urban planner, actually. So, I get a lot of my wisdom and any wisdom I have from him about this. But, you know, when we build a new suburb, or, you know, we think about, you know, the infrastructures of urban spaces, you know, it's all about the living and not about the dead. So it's about, you know, where will the kids go to school? And where's the local library? And where's the swimming pool and the cricket ground? And okay, here's, here's maybe even the hospital and here's the aged care home, but it's not okay. Great. But where are they going to be buried? Right. Or where, uh, the mortuary is going to exist or how are those, how are those infrastructures relate to one another? And I think there is some movement in this. I was talking to someone from Services Australia recently about trying to integrate a kind of more cradle to grave approach to, you know, The delivery of human services in Australia, because fundamentally it has been kind of cradled to aging up until this point. I think, you know, we've seen an incredible amount of progress, much more to come obviously in aged care services sector, that kind of final step of through death and then bereavement is often quite. neglected from that conversation. So yeah, everything from cemetery planning, space planning, to provision of services, to, you know, even just how the death care sector is administered. I mean, it's very difficult if you have a negative experience with a funeral home or crematorium, or it's very difficult to work out who you should go to, how this is regulated. It's a black hole of regulation in many ways, like. It's scary how easy it is to become a funeral director in Australia. I could become a funeral director tomorrow if I wanted to be, I think I have actually become a funeral director for a day cause my friends wanted to illustrate, I wanted to illustrate how easy it was for a talk I was giving. And so they just made me a funeral director, but that shouldn't be the case. Like, yeah, this is, this is this kind of problem. And it is a structural problem in some ways, I think. As I, I've kind of hopefully wittily said in the past, like, you know, the dead are a pretty bad constituency, they don't vote, they don't have a lot of money, uh, they don't, they can't lobby government when you're dead. So it's up for us, the living, to kind of, and bereaved people and people who have gone through this experience to try and make it better.

Catherine:

And how do you think people can advocate for those improvements within the death care industry, Hannah?

Hannah:

It's true. It really is very challenging. I mean, part of it is even where to start the conversation. And I think to be honest with you, a lot of the success that we've seen globally and in Australia has been at a real local level. So it's things like, you know, talking to your local MP or local council. about how they have, you know, how they resource or how they approach these kind of questions of cemeteries, of memorial spaces, of, you know, the use of parks, those kind of things. Then I think there's a more fundamental question of regulation of the funeral sector. I'm very lucky to live in Victoria, where we have a fully state based cemeteries and crematorium organizations, so we don't have private cemeteries or private crematorium, which is a big, you know, there's a big debate about this, but I, I think fundamentally that death is a death, appropriate death care is a human right, and therefore it should be a public service. It shouldn't be something that, you know, is divided by private. entities and like, you know, people disagree with me about this and we can have that debate. But for the regulation of the funeral sector, I think there needs to be more fundamentally kind of, work within the department of health, right. And trying to get them to recognize funeral directors as part of the health provision services, because I think that's the way forward. You know, it's not enough that the business council of Australia or kind of it's an industry led thing. I think it has to be part of an understanding that's part of human health and welfare. Yeah.

Catherine:

And what other advances have you seen during your time, Hannah? I'm sure that you know, the impacts of COVID you've probably done work on, as you mentioned previously. What have you seen sort of with, In Australia or overseas, the developments that have happened post that COVID, you know, pandemic. COVID is like,

Hannah:

COVID is interesting. Difficult and interesting because a lot of the concern and the interest was like, well, is this going to be a trend? Is this going to stay with us or is it not right? Like, you know, oh, are we going to have small funerals forever? Are we going to have funeral streaming forever? That sort of thing. And I, I don't necessarily think we've seen those kind of changes to Australian death culture, or indeed to UK or American overseas death culture in some ways. I think potentially in Japan you have seen the rise of really small macro funerals with just the family. That's certainly a trend. But in Australia, I think the more fundamental transformation has been, mean, it's, it's, COVID has contributed to this, but it's been a far more long, long lasting trend. And that's basically just the shift towards personalization personalization of the funeral, personalization of the handling of the remains. So, you know, people wanting very specific, bespoke celebrations of life or funerals. And increasingly more and more you see that across. Different demographic groups in Australia potentially COVID has contributed to that by kind of because people couldn't do what they thought was the standard or conventional funeral during COVID. They had to be by force of circ*mstance to be more creative. And now there's no circ*mstance necessarily, but, uh, People are still kind of reaching out to do those more creative things at the funeral and moving away potentially from the kind of cultural scripts or religious scripts they've inherited about what they're supposed to do. So I think that's really fascinating as a, as a trend and also probably something that, to be honest with you, that, you know, not just Australia, but probably Melbourne, Victoria leads the way in globally actually because of, because of our history with celebrancy and, and these kinds of other developments in, in history of funerals in Australia.

Catherine:

So tell

Hannah:

me a little

Catherine:

bit about why Melbourne and Victoria are leading the way.

Hannah:

Sorry. Well, Australia is interesting in that, When we think about the invasion and colonization of Australia, uh, obviously that very much brought the Christian church to our shores. But in the kind of early colony, there was not a huge number of, there weren't a huge number of priests. So we already can kind of, from early colonial era, this kind of tradition, I suppose, begin to emerge of lay people conducting funerals non ordained people conducting funerals. And a kind of, I suppose, because of the composition of early settlers as well, a kind of a suspicion of church authority and a kind of that classic Australian pragmatic way of doing things, which I think continues to today. And then, you know, we've always been in comparison, at least to the UK and the US, a country in which religion has played a slightly diminished role in public life and in many ways, I think, which is not to say that we're necessarily more atheistic or more non religious. But even if the kind of statistics are quite similar for the UK and Australia. Religion has played perhaps less of a role in our ceremonies, our rituals and certainly in public life and the, you know, expression of religious religion by political leaders, for example, is very distinct from say the U S which is I think an outline example. But then we had this moment in the kind of 1970s where the attorney general Lionel Murphy and, uh, Whitlam. I believe he was under Whitlam. Uh, he made this move, which was to see the create to create kind of, secular celebrants. So up until that moment, one had to be ordained as a member of a religious organization in order to marry people, right? So you had to kind of get married through the church, the temple, to the mosque, whatever it was. And he made a decision to invest that power in people who were members of the public, lay people, which in some ways felt like a very small move, right? And you're like, Oh, okay. This is, you know, obviously, but when you think about it, this is like investing ritual power in, in people outside religion in Australian life. And I think also that, you know, the first person that he. appointed was a young unmarried woman, or, you know, which is an extraordinary shift from like, what was a predominantly men in the Christian church, being the ones that could marry people and give last rites to a young unmarried woman. And I think one of the first people he also appointed was an Indigenous Australian person as well. So. All of a sudden you had this kind of like fundamental life ritual, the wedding ceremony, being conducted by people who are not connected to any religious tradition. That meant you don't have to get married in a church, you could get married anywhere, right? And not just, you know, not just at Town Hall now, you could also get married, you know, at the park, whatever it was. And then more and more we started to see this kind of slowly but surely this, you know, as people did people's weddings and they said, Oh, you know, we'd love to get the same celebrant to do the funeral. Right. So celebrancy, secular celebrancy kind of took off in Australia and in the, in the wedding sector predominantly, and then slowly, slowly moved his way over to the funeral sector with some controversies and, you know, there's lots of different, kind of subplots there. And so we had our funerals kind of being therefore presided over by people who are not religious. And that was a major kind of contribution to this kind of seeing of like. the rise of a kind of a secular funeral. So, I was on a panel the other day or a talk the other day and people were talking about, well, like, oh, Australians don't really have any death culture or we white Australians, white people, we don't want to do Christianity. We have nothing. We have no rituals. We have no traditions. Like we're really ritually bereft. And I was like, hang on a second. We have death culture. It's just that you don't recognize it. as particularly death culture, like part of us. So part of Australian, like contemporary Australian death culture is the powerpoint and the music, right? This is also fundamentally, like, if you have to recreate a funeral ceremony that it's a non religious funeral ceremony, Okay, what are the readings? What are the rituals that you do? And the things that we've kind of landed on, this idea of a slideshow, PowerPoint of photos, playing sad songs, getting people to cry, giving eulogies. This is all part of like Australian ritual and Australian death culture about what our funerals are. And that kind of format for a kind of secular funeral is actually really world leading in many ways. So, I mean, celibacy, funeral celibacy in particular in Victoria as well. pretty well advanced and Stephanie Longmuir who's a local celebrant here in Victoria in Melbourne. She is really the keeper of this knowledge of this wisdom of of Australian death culture that I'm drawing on. But you know, so we've always been, if you compare that say to the UK where they have a movement for secular funerals, but it's, it's, it's like kind of inflected through this movement, which is the British humanist movement. And British humanism is very much like church without the God. And it's, there's a kind of sense in which people are trying to reproduce religious funeral ceremonies for secular or humanistic means. We don't really have that in Australia because we don't really feel we need it. We already have like a secular movement for our rituals. And so this idea that, oh, is this a humanist funeral? I don't know. It's just a funeral. We're just getting together. Like we know how to do this. That is the model. That is our funeral culture. And that is something that is very distinct and kind of really, we don't recognize it, but is part of like the contemporary Australian. That I think we should be proud of, or at least reflect upon. And then I suppose what I've been interested in more recently is, is how that model as well as being increasingly influenced by. the multicultural diversity of Australia, right? And the adoption of other rituals and borrowings into it. But it is certainly something that's particularly Australian, and I think particularly concentrated in Victoria and Melbourne because of celibacy. Yeah. It's

Catherine:

a

Hannah:

long

Catherine:

story. And so it was, it was, it's interesting because as you were talking, I'm like, yep, that actually relates to all of the funerals I've been to, you know, that inclusion of those rituals

Hannah:

as part of the service. Yeah. Of course we're going to have a side show of photos and like, of course we're going to have eulogies about the dead. And I think it's partly like, you know, the goldfish is the last to discover water. It's like, people don't realize how particular those things are. to Australian. I'm not to say that like people in the US or Canada or the UK don't do these things but that like in some ways they really developed this model and a lot of this is actually like early celebrants. In Australia developed this model. There's a very quite famous Times magazine article from the eighties or something that has like the celebrants, like the future of funerals. Like, like this kind of American reaction to Australian and New Zealanders. Just kind of going at it with non-religious funeral and wedding celebr and being, wow. Yeah. Yeah. I'd love to see that. I've gotta dig it up somewhere. It's but it's like this relic of like. example of how we were being different and we don't kind of notice it or recognize it. Yeah.

Catherine:

That's amazing. And so you've coined a term and I'm not sure whether you've, it's your term, but buddhish. Yeah. Tell me about that Hannah.

Hannah:

Well, this very much relates actually. So buddhish is a term that reflects the ways in which buddhists Buddhism has become a source of cultural borrowing and inspiration for many people in Australia and around the world without themselves necessarily seeing themselves as Buddhist. Maybe it's because they've never really been to, you know, a temple or joined a Buddhist organization. Maybe they've never talked to a monastic, you know, they don't necessarily feel that they themselves are Buddhist. However, they might be influenced by Buddhism in some way, whether that's. you know, reading Buddhist texts popular Buddhist, there's a lot of popular writing, popular writing about, about death in Buddhism. Or, you know, even just having kind of warm and fuzzy feelings about Buddhism and its contributions to the world. And what we're kind of seeing through this research project is that there's kind of a Buddhist death style that is emerging in Australia, in the sense that in kind of searching for ways to negotiate mortality, end of life, aging, where people may have turned to Christianity in the past, or are still influenced by Christianity, they're now increasingly turning towards Buddhism and Buddhist kind of texts. And, It's not meant to kind of suggest that it's not meant to kind of suggest that this is Buddhism, but it's kind of meant to suggest that perhaps Buddhism has as significant a cultural influence in Australian Deaf culture as Christianity once had, or perhaps even is moving towards that. And we see it in a huge range of phenomenon from kind of, you know, lighting incense and Buddhist readings at funerals to mindfulness and meditation being prescribed by the Australian palliative care association, or, you know, Australian medical association around kind of end of life and dying, or all of these kinds of different ways that Buddhist concepts have made it into. Australian death culture.

Catherine:

That's fascinating. Like, and you've also recently, you've released two books.

Hannah:

Apparently,

Catherine:

yeah. One, one specifically focused on, on this.

Hannah:

The first book is about death in Japan when death falls apart. And that's very much about the question of, that's very much about the question of like, what happens when people reject. Or decide not to continue the religious tradition of death and dying. As has happened in Japan. So Japan, I mean, you know, Japan in many ways is, is slightly, you know, it's always kind of a bellwether. So for Australia, in the sense that it's more aging, much more of an aging society, less children, Australia's heading towards that, you know, secularizing, Australia's heading towards that. And there's kind of a problem that's been created where people don't really want to do the religious rituals that they've inherited. But oh no, what do we do now? Which is a similar problem, I think, that many people in Australia are facing. But I'm currently working on a book about Australian death culture, of which Buddhism and Buddhishness will be a part of it. It's one of those labors of love that continues on. I, yeah, try to find the right way to tell that story, I suppose, is the, is always the challenge, as you would know, yeah.

Catherine:

It is. And, and tell me, how have you seen technology? impact, you know, over your research period, what changes have you seen technology play in the death care industry? You know, we've seen QR codes being put on gravestones, uh, that you can actually, you know, scan and it can tell you a story about those people who have you know, died and interred there. What other sort of developments have you seen, Hannah?

Hannah:

So, I mean, I suppose I take a pretty long, long view of technology, which is to say that like, look, everything from a grave to a coffin, these are all technologies in some ways, right? These are all human ingenuity inventions that we have used to manage death. And that goes back to coffins and, you know, through to AI, right? And so, I mean, QR codes are a great example because it's like everything old is new again. I mean, QR codes were invented in the 1990s. and all of a sudden, like we, when we first started in the part of the death tech team writing about QR codes, we thought, you know, Oh, these are the things that like a few people have suggested we put them on graves, but no one really uses them. No one really knows what they are. Welcome to COVID. And like, if COVID has left us with this one thing, it is the rise of the QR code everywhere. And they're great. Why would you not, you know? But. So I think in a way it's kind of interesting to say that, you know, new technologies, I mean, this is the thing about religion and it's thinking about death. is that religions and cultures will always try and make use of the most recent technologies to tell their story, to transform their message, right? You know, whether that latest technology is the printed book or it's, you know, robotics, for example. I think what's important to say is that a lot of those, uh, A lot of those experimentations are ultimately unsuccessful. So we tend to actually say and you know, with the death tech team at Melbourne uni, we've kind of had this catalog of like dead death technologies. So death technologies that like have failed or given up or been abandoned or didn't work as many more of them than the ones that have succeeded. Right. So, you know, of the ones that have succeeded, obviously things like PowerPoint and audio visual. And, you know, live streaming are the ones that come to mind most recently for, for funerals, but also probably the most kind of, the most, uh, perhaps energetic or most interesting kind of new developments in this area have been around actually the disposal of human remains, right? And new ways to handle human remains, whether that be through I think alkaline hydrolysis is a great example, but also human composting and. Things like living legacy, the treatment of ashes, those kind of, that sphere of technological development has already also really popped off in the last kind of 10 to 20 years. And again, with mixed results, like some of them haven't been taken up and haven't been successful. But it's a really interesting kind of new sphere because it's possibly even more, you know, it's even more backstage and more taboo in some ways. Like these are not things that most people would necessarily think about when they think about death and dying or funerals.

Catherine:

And Have you done anything to prepare for your own death, Hannah?

Hannah:

It's so funny you ask this because like I have this like strange desire to interview death studies researchers about like their plans and like just get a survey of what they want. Because I think the interesting thing actually is that for a lot of death studies researchers, where they kind of land is like, I don't really care at the end of the day, which is a, an odd thing to come to. But I think it's because a lot of the kind of fear or uncertainty has been entirely removed from them. it, and therefore it's like kind of comfortable with whatever happens. Now, I mean, that comes from me, which I have a particularly, I suppose, atheistic, Buddhist perspective on all of it. So I, I mean, everyone, I think everyone in my family knows, which is that I would want my, I'm an organ donor, sign up as an organ donor. So if possible, you know, take all of the organs. Up until a little while ago, I was kind of thinking about donation to anatomy schools, but then I started to teach medical students as part of my job and I was like, I dunno, , I know some of these kids, like this would be weird. So not that . But yeah, I'd like to be an organ Don. And then ideally to be cremated, weirdly enough, working in the crematorium. This is actually quite specific, but, shane, who works in the crematorium in Lilydale, is one of the nicest human beings in the world. Uh, lovely. And I had this weird moment where I, I kind of shook his hand and said, look, you're still working here when I die. I'd like you to cremate me, which is kind of a bizarre and interesting and incredible thing to like, know that, right? To like, yeah, this is the person I know them. I've had a meal with them that I consider them a mate. Like this is the person that I want to cremate me. But then it struck me also, it's like an incredibly bizarre thing about contemporary modern life that we don't know who that is, right? Like that we actually don't know who these people are, who will be responsible for burying us. But as he said, he's like, wow, I think you'll outlive me. So I have to find someone to cremate me, hopefully. And yeah, and then I don't really care, which sounds odd, but that's probably inflected by my own religious, you know, background and inclinations, which is, I don't think I'll be there. Like I don't, I don't mind what happens to me. I hope people have really good food. and wine at the funeral. That's very important. But other than that, you know, hopefully my body, my worldly body can be as much good use to as many people as possible. That's about it.

Catherine:

Now, I know you're very particular about food and wine, Hannah. I'm surprised that you haven't written down what the list of, you know, wine should be available and the cheeses that should be there. This

Hannah:

is what you need to do, Kath. You have to cultivate good friends who you trust the food selection of, to make that decision for you. Cause I mean, that's all I really care about is like that there is good food and wine. This is my belief about funerals is that there should be good food and wine. I once had this kind of argument with this death doula teacher who was saying that like, Oh, you know, grief is so hard. And then at the funeral, like no one really wants to eat. They're just being really like, I was like, Oh my God, like, no, like good food and wine and what is what it's all about. And that's the one thing I kind of,

Catherine:

It's so funny that you say that because, uh, it's really very few, very rare places now that you still get sandwich points.

Hannah:

Oh, I'm so I was on radio the other day and there was this big argument because I was on like seven, seven, four callback and. Michelle, who's the host, was like, oh, I have this deep love for like, bad sandwiches. And I was rallying against it. I was like, this is, like, why is it when we have a funeral, it's like, you have to have terrible sandwiches. It seems like a punishment after everything you have to go through that day. Here is the like, bad catering. Food is really interesting. I think, actually, I have a new research project I'm doing about it's called feeding grief. And it is about the role that food plays in, in death and dying, which I think is, it's also just a nice way to get into it, right. Into this topic. But you know, there's a lot of, there's, you know, a lot of traditions also, and, and particularly like, traditions coming out of India and, and, and Sikhism, for example, where it's like, you know, when someone dies, it's, it's kind of a, uh, an obligation that you hand out food, right. That you do charitable acts on behalf of that person. Or, uh, you know, funeral feasts can often be extraordinary affairs with, you know, many hundreds of people that you feed and you look after. And of course we have our own food traditions in Australia, right? About, you know, You know, if your friend dies or, you know, neighbor dies, like one of the first things we do is like lasagna. Like, it's like, there

Catherine:

is a capital. Mine's chicken soup, you know.

Hannah:

Yeah, so, which is kind of, you think, oh, this is pretty normal. Again, this is one of these things about anthropology. There's a phrase in anthropology, which is like, the goal of anthropology is to make the strange familiar and the familiar strange. Right. So that, which is odd and weird to us, make it really normal. And I go, yeah, that makes sense. And then to kind of look at your own culture and reflect and think, Oh my God, that thing, which I thought was really super familiar and normal, it's actually kind of odd that we do that. And so when I say to people, like, what do you do if someone dies? Oh, I'm going to bring them up. soup or lasagna or potatoes or whatever it is. And I say, that's very odd. That's an Australian thing. That's a, do you know that that is an odd thing? She's like, but that's not universal, right? Because in Japan, you don't do that. Right. And I had to, when I was in Japan, I had to explain this kind of idea that actually in, in Australia, when someone dies, what you do is you give gifts to the bereaved, right? Because the bereaved need to be cared for and looked after and fed. Whereas in Japan, when someone dies, you give gifts to the dead and they're usually gifts of incense because you burn the incense for them, because in Buddhism, incense is the food that the dead can consume, right? And so it's important that you give gifts gifts to the dead, you know, and it's not to the bereaved. And so it's a totally different way of relating to death and dying, but it's like, huh, that thing, like the, the chicken soup or the lasagna that I thought was totally normal, totally normal, normal. It's like a really weird thing about Australian death culture. It's fascinating.

Catherine:

I really want to actually have you back on when you do this research because, you know, there is the rise of people and I can't remember what term you probably know what they called, but the rise of the people on TikTok that are actually going round and eating the food. at the grave of the person of the recipe that they've actually just made their food. I genuinely

Hannah:

think this is like the best thing you can put in your gravestone. I'm slightly obsessed with it. It's like, so for people who don't, haven't heard about this, who are not on TikTok is that there's a number of gravestones in the U. S. that have recipes on them, which I think is wonderful because it's such a huge part of like, family legacy as well. Like if you think about the things you inherit, I think particularly women, I think it's very gendered, which is interesting. But if you think about the things that you inherit from your family, like one of them is like, well, grandmother's recipe for eggs, right? Like this is how my food traditions are family traditions. So there's a number of gravestones that have recipes on them. And then there's this trend on TikTok, which I think is lovely of people Like taking that recipe, making the food and then going to the grave and eating the food there as a kind of like offering celebration, you know, thank you. It's wonderful. I mean, actually that might be the thing I want on my gravestone. I don't particularly want a gravestone, but like a recipe book would be a great QR code download. Do you know what I mean? These are the

Catherine:

It's such a strong, it's such a strong connection. Uh, one of the. The first interviews I did for the podcast was I asked one of the, I asked the guest what was their most sentimental thing that they'd inherited. And it was an icing icing sugar bowl that their mum used to always Make the icing for their birthday cakes, and that is her most precious item and it's the same that she now uses that same icing sugar bowl to create the icing for her children's cakes for their birthdays. And so there's something so beautiful in that. And when I was speaking to Jenny from Tender Funerals, she was also talking about that they have a picnic. Whereby once a year they make the food that their loved ones, uh, was their favorite recipe and go and have a picnic and, and get together and they taste each other's food, I'm like, I want to be invited to that picnic.

Hannah:

Yeah. It sounds, I mean, so on a personal note, I think mine for that is the pot lid, it's like a enamel pot saucepan lid that I own that is the size of. The pasty like dough for making Cornish pasties that I got from my grandmother. I don't know what the rest of the pot is. I don't think the pot exists. It like is this lid that has one function, which is like once a year when we make pasties, that will be the perfect size for cutting out the dough to make the pasties, right? And it's hilarious. On a more kind of I suppose serious, but also fundamental note. There's this extraordinary ethnography. In anthropology, this is an anthropologist called Carol Kidron. And she has this wonderful paper called toward an ethnography of silence. And she's kind of interested in the ways in which like trauma and legacies and death have kind of like had these kind of little. they pop up in everyday life, but they're quite, they're not necessarily commented upon, right? Or reflected on. They just become part of your everyday. And she particularly works with Holocaust survivors and families who've experienced the Holocaust in, I think in the U S actually. And she has just extraordinary example of this woman who inherited a spoon. That was the spoon that someone used in the concentration camp to like every day to feed themselves, like this is the one thing they had. And that this spoon now becomes this thing that she feeds her daughter with, well her great granddaughter, you know, that they've inherited. And that the kind of, how being able to like, feed their next generation with this spoon. Is this such a powerful example of like, we have overcome, right? That we have overcome this incredible thing that tried to erase us from existence. And now it's this part of, of, of who we are. And there's this kind of interesting thing because all these people are like, oh, you know, this should be in a museum. Like, this is an incredible artifact. It's like, no, it's so much more powerful that it's part of everyday life, right? Like, this is this inheritance that we have that sustains, literally sustains her children, right? Through feeding them. And it just reminds me of all of these kind of I mean, this is why I'm interested in material culture and objects and death and all these wonderful questions. It's because it's like, wow, look at this story of just like, look at this story of what humans are and the kind of, you know, narratives we create in the face of death and destruction. That's so beautiful.

Catherine:

And speaking about items, Hannah, I'm fascinated with the skeleton hanging behind your head. Yes, I have

Hannah:

my, some, some point during COVID Zoom, I decided that a death study is Buddhist studies research. I needed to have some good decorations. So I have, yeah, these are my, I mean, this is I don't know if you, I don't know if you know this beautiful painting. Oh, that's fantastic. So let me, I'm just going to Google the actual artist, but uh, yeah. So this is the garden of death. So it's by a Finnish painter, Hugo Simberg. And it's one of my, obviously podcasting is not a visual, uh, format. So I will explain that it is kind of the Grim Reaper tending to a garden. It's like a little, tending to a kind of, uh, maybe a glass house or something. Yeah, with raised beds. Yeah. Which is. I suppose in is, is kind of this kind of paradox of death, but also then the renewal of life and rebirth, which is some things that I think we tend to think about as quite contradictory. But in anthropology, there's a famous book about how a lot of funerals include symbols of like rebirth and real life and, you know, this kind of new life. after death is like a really important part of a lot of religious and funeral traditions around the world. My skeleton, which is from a museum in France, I believe. I love a museum gift shop. So, Musée de Croix en Vallée. And then, yeah, a lot of Buddhist religious art and Shinto art and things I have inherited that make me, you know, Remind me of the passage of time, but also, you know, look great in the background of a I love your skeleton. I've got to hang this up. Yeah, I've got to find ways to.

Catherine:

Yeah, to add to it. That's fantastic.

Hannah:

Someone, someone might skeptically say that I got into this line of work because I love the merch and it's not untrue.

Catherine:

I have to say the merch is pretty good in the old death industry. Gotta get the good merch. Now, Anna, I love you. Is there any traditions that you've had from your family that you've, you want to keep on in your own family or are you still on it today? Is it the, the Cornish pasty making? Definitely

Hannah:

the Cornish pasty making. We're not Cornish. I don't know why we make pasties. Neither

Catherine:

are we, but we do anyway,

Hannah:

as well. I suppose it's a general English thing. Yeah. I mean, it's kind of interesting as well now because I obviously, so I say obviously, so my husband's Japanese and he, you know, there are a lot of traditions around death and dying that he has inherited. So he actually comes from a family that. is part of kind of like a Buddhist temple family in many ways. So there's like quite specific death and dying traditions that, that he has in his family. None of which he very much cares about, it should be said. But I feel somewhat obligated that if we had kids that, you know, that that would, that I would be responsible for passing down both, right? Sets of traditions in an important way. I think more than anything, it probably is that like love of good food and wine. I think, you know, that's the kind of, you know, spending, saving up all your pennies so that you can go overseas for six weeks. Like that kind of, what is important to you and what is important to you is good food more than anything else. And, and, and good, you know, wine. And that's probably, The legacy in some ways of, it's kind of interesting once again, it's like, well, people, perhaps people who don't think that they're particularly religious, or I think a lot of white Australians have a tendency to think, Oh, I don't really have any culture. I don't have any cultural traditions. You do, you just don't think of them as culture because you assume that like culture means non white people, which is, you know, a lie. That is incorrect. You people, everyone has cultural traditions they want to pass down. And so, yeah, they are very much about those ideas of, of enjoying life and the good things in it. Yeah.

Catherine:

And given your experience, uh, is there any advice or encouragement that you'd like to share with others about, you know, end of life planning, death care, death, Ah,

Hannah:

Hmm, I think, two things. Okay. I think what I'd like to share is that like, you can resist the temptation or the pressure to make death positive. I think death positivity is a really important movement, but I think we can also all agree that like death is a bit sh*t and losing the people you love. is terrible. And it doesn't, you know, thinking about death and learning about death and contemplating it doesn't mean that you are all happy about it all the time. Like I'm a death studies, religious studies researcher. I think about these questions all the time. Doesn't mean I'm feel happy about the idea. You know, I'm not super chill about dying or my friends dying, my family dying. It doesn't solve it because fundamentally you cannot solve death. Like it's not. It's not something that you can fix, which is a hard thing to kind of come to terms with. So resist trying to make it all better because it's not going to become better. And then I think the second one very much connected to food and wine and everything else is, is that the antidote to to grieve for existential angst in this manner is, is beauty. And that is beauty of being in nature or being surrounded by friends or good food and wine or appreciating little moments in everyday life. If you can find moments of beauty, as you try and navigate that which is quite overwhelming and terrifying and complex and family, family dynamics and finances and all of that, then I think it provides some relief to what is a very challenging experience.

Catherine:

That's a beautiful way to end Hannah. Thank you so much.

Hannah:

Thank you for having me. Anytime.

From Life to Death: Understanding Human Behaviour with Anthropologist Dr Hannah Gould - Don't Be Caught Dead (2024)
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