An exploration of the role of visual and material culture in mediating people’s relationship with death 


“Material culture mediates our relationship with death and the dead; objects, images and practices, as well as places and spaces, call to mind or are made to remind us of the deaths of others and of our own mortality. Central to this project is the shifting and often elusive field of memory and the way in which memory practices provide perspectives on the past as well as inflecting views of the future, situating us in time as well as social space.” (Hockey and Hallam, 2001)

Across the world, societies have established forms of visual and material culture to aid and develop their own understandings of the impermanence of life, and the nature of associations with their deceased loved ones. The body itself transforms upon death from a living, breathing subject to a material object that is capable of stirring people’s thoughts and emotions. Hallam (2001) believes that this attribute of the corpse is dependent on whether death is perceived as ‘a continuity, rebirth, or absolute end of life’ (pg. 131). Leading with this theory, I hope to explore how the visual and material norms and practices of the actual, for lack of a better word, “discarding” of a corpse play a significant role in moulding remembrances of the dead and death itself. (Note: I specifically use the word ‘remembrance’ and not ‘memory’ because of its assortment of similar, yet different meanings, ranging from the action of remembering something, the action of remembering the dead, a memory or recollection, and a thing kept or given as a reminder or in commemoration of someone (Oxford dictionary, online). I believe that, as a consequence of whether a community buries or cremates their dead, a series of further visual and material conventions are put into operation that help sustain their relationships and remembrances of the dead.

To help demonstrate this, I will explore the social mourning practices of two cultures, the Sora tribe of Orissa that cremate its dead (Vitebsky, 1993), and the Christian community in modern England that bury their dead (Hallam, 2001). In this process, I also hope to prove that these two cultures, though contrasting in their customs and rituals surrounding death, both strive towards not only understanding and perpetuating their knowledge of what happens after death, but also attempt to “hold on” to the dead by keeping their memories alive and involved in their social world.

In the second half of the essay, I shall focus singularly on the increasingly significant role that photography has come to play in people’s relationship with death. With networks of communication running across the globe, photography has been imbibed into social practices not just of the West, but also of cultures in every part of the world. Furthermore, the photographic image is now popularly used an important source of gaining and transmitting information through forms of media like the television and the Internet. Consequently, I believe that the proliferation of these forms of media in the 21st century has contributed to a possible transformation of the function of the photograph in individuals’ dealings with the dead, the nature of which I will explore with the aid of works by Elizabeth Hallam (2001), Nicholas Mirzoeff (2005), Susan Sontag (2002) and Barthes (1981).

Cremations and Coffins

According to Pier Vitebsky (1993), when a member of the Sora community dies, he/she is believed to be transformed into a Sonum, or a Memory, as Vitebsky chooses to call it, that lives on in a separate realm of existence from the living, but nevertheless still plays an active role in society. This role is made up of two important yet paradoxical features: the Sonums are thought to bring upon illness and death to their people but they are also their source of nourishment and protection.

Sora people communicate regularly with Sonums through Shamans, usually during funeral rites (often to find out the cause of the person’s death), and at divinations held to cure illness (to understand the cause of one’s illness and to see if their sacrifices have been accepted by the Sonum) (pg.6). In these visually compelling dealings with the dead, the Shaman sits with her (for Sora, Shamans are often women), legs stretched out with relatives of the Sonum sitting around her on their haunches, while her assistant lights a lamp. Singing a song, her soul is said to turn into a monkey and ‘clamber’ down a large tree that links the living world with the underworld, where it joins her Sonum family. Those around her rush forth to unlock her from her position, for her body has now become tight and strong. The Shaman’s now soul-less body is ready for a Sonum to occupy, in order to communicate with the living (pg.18-21).

The ritual described above, I feel, is a powerful part of Sora visual and material culture. The deed of a Sonum talking with the aid of a Shaman’s body, which in my opinion has now been transformed into a mere material vessel through which the dead can speak to the living, too is an act that arouses one’s senses of hearing, sight, touch, along with one’s emotions and imagination; and I believe that this observance is not only important, but essential to grounding the Sora people’s relationship with death in a tangible, palpable form.

Most Sora people, when they transform through death into Sonums, are first, as classified by Vitebsky, Experience Sonums; evil, angry, and revengeful. Over time, however, Experience Sonums become Ancestor Sonums, converting all their evil thoughts and actions into ones of protection and peace towards their lineage. This transformation correlates directly to the way that the dead are remembered. ‘The reason why the redemption of the deceased is a slow and painful process is that the living person is unable to free himself from the memory of what things were like before this transformation [from living to dead]. An illness then appears as a resurgence of this old memory.’ (pg.10) I feel this illness, as the resurgence of the memory, demonstrates the strength that one’s emotional state can have over one’s physical body. As the living get more time to deal with the physical separation from their loved ones, they start to heal, and come to peace with their memory (or should I say Memory?); simultaneously, the Experience Sonum transforms into an Ancestor Sonum (pg. 12).

The Ancestor Sonum lives on until the last person who holds his memory is taken by death. The Sonum then dies for a second time, this time in the underworld, and is transformed into a butterfly that flies high above the reach of anybody (pg.15); a peaceful, yet powerful image evoking in my mind the impermanence of any stage of being, be it in life or in memory.

The Sora tribe cremates its dead, burning the corpse until there is nothing but ash left. Because of this act of making the body disappear, so to speak, no material aspect of the deceased is available for his community to locate it as a physical being any more. I believe that the Sora view of the dead always being part of the living world, just not in the guise of their fleshly body, accommodates itself for the feature of cremation quite smoothly. For, with the body burnt to ash, the only place where the deceased is still “alive” is through the memories of those who remember him. This diversity of memories among relatives of the dead person allows the living to form a Memory that has a dynamic personality, and sets about a chain of visual and material actions that, as we have seen above, perpetuates the role of the deceased in day-to-day life. They are thus, never entirely dead, not until the last person in whom their memories lie has passed away (pg.15).

The Sora tribe interprets death not as an annihilation of life, but simply the physical separation of the deceased (pg17). Christian tradition, on the other hand, in Modern England upholds the belief that death is final, but the spirit lives on while the body is left as a material object that decays after death (Hallam, 2001, pg.132). This spirit is very different from a Sonum; a Sonum is an active agent that is accepted as natural in Sora society, but a spirit has no place in the world of the living, and ‘interactions’ with spirits are perceived as abnormal. However, members of both cultures actively involve themselves in social practices that preserve the memories of the dead. The manners in which they do that, I hold, differ greatly because of the different types of funerals that they carry out.

Christians are known to bury their dead in the ground of a cemetery, on top of which they usually fix a gravestone commemorating the memory of the departed. The corpse therefore gains a place in the physical world, and can be located easily, even if it cannot be seen from above the ground. This enables people to visit their loved ones’ burial place and interact with the grave, including the gravestone, which has now gained ‘embodied life’ (pg.132). The Sora, in contrast, do not have this option, because of the cremation of their dead. The one palpable presence that dead Sora members have is through their social relationships with their kinsmen, and this is materialized not in a physical place but through a shared consciousness of the ‘rememberers’, rooted in memory (Vitebsky, 1993, pg.15).

Among Christians, in an expression of love and remembrance of the dead, flowers are conventionally offered at the grave. This earthly symbol is one of the ‘aesthetically acceptable ways of visualizing the process from life to death’ (Hallam, 2001, pg.133) that is a metaphor for the passing of time, a token that not only resembles the life of the deceased but also the condition of the memory of the deceased in the rememberer’s mind. In an exceptional example, Hallam describes a cemetery in Nottinghamshire where graves began to ‘carry the appearance of domestic spaces’. ‘Potted plants and vases of flowers, poetry in small frames, letters and cards, toys and small ornaments, decorative windmills and wind-chimes, lanterns and candleholders, a can of beer’ (pg.147), all these material items that held immense emotional value to both the mourners and the dead whilst they were alive, were found to occupy the space around people’s graves. During Christmas, graves were festively decorated with lights; and one family was even reported to bring food to a young man’s burial place (pg.149). These ‘personal, material investments’ transformed the atmosphere of the graves, re-establishing the deceased’s place in social life (pg. 153).

These visual and tactile evocative acts of memory-making and sustaining are an insight into people’s emotional desires to keep their departed loved ones “alive”. And although the body is dead and decaying, its material presence in a particular area (the ground above the coffin), injects it with ‘embodied life’ of its own through remembrances. In fact, the particular engagement with the bereaved that Hallam talks about at the Nottinghamshire cemetery could be likened to that of the Sora’s confrontation with Sonums, for both correspondences are part of the present, stable, social world, using (or allowing) everyday events, objects and actions to mould their memories and relationships with the dead. However, an important point of difference that must be noted here is that, in the Sora tradition, Sonums have a flexibility of movement; they do not reside in one place in the living world but their movement through time and space is homogenous with the people who hold memories of them (Vitebsky, 1993, pg.14). Within the Christian convention though, the strongest association with the deceased, the place where the dead body lies, is stationary and unmoving. I believe these distinctions are directly related to the fact that the Sora, as they cremate their dead, are unable to trace the physical body of the departed, while Christians bury their dead, and hence they are drawn, and perhaps limited to ‘feel’ the strongest presence of their deceased only where the corpse rests. Thus, whereas the people of the Nottinghamshire cemetery had to physically transport aspects of their social life to their departed loved ones, the Sora are able to effortlessly and fluidly involve the Sonum in their day-today lives without a change in routine.

Similarly, Hallam writes that the corpse itself changes from a living subject to an inert material object (pg.134-135). This object, though, if used to stimulate remembrance, has the capacity to hold a great amount of symbolic power. Parts of the dead body may be assigned a place between the living and the dead, a partial-life, to preserve its memories among the living. Prior to 16th century England, bodies/parts of bodies of departed saints were often thought to hold magical, healing powers, and were revered and worshipped in holy places as if they were the saints themselves. After the Protestant Reformation, these relics were discarded as a sign of corruption and the excesses of the Catholic Church (pg.134-135). The notion of relics, however, lived on, transforming from a social phenomenon into a private one (Ranum, 1989, quoted in Hallam, 2001 pg.136). In 19th century Victorian England, the hair of a deceased person became a popular manner of remembrance among family members. Hair, because of its ‘quality of endurance and specificity of reference to a particular individual’ was ‘worked into brooches, lockets, rings, and bracelets’ (pg.136), which were worn by mourners as a symbol to keep alive the memory of the bereaved, and were simultaneously a constant reminder of death.

I conclude this section by asserting once again the relevance of the type of funeral that the members of a culture conduct. I do not claim that the sole act of burying the dead determines what corresponding visual and material traditions exist in relation to death, but I maintain that, if the deceased of the Christian tradition were cremated, many of their observances affiliated with death would be significantly altered. The roles of the material symbols described above, of the grave and (mementoes of) the corpse, are firmly rooted in the process of coming to terms with impermanence, and the reason why these particular symbols exist and can be physically established is because of the primary material custom of the burial of dead. The same, I believe, applies to the Sora tribe and their funeral practices. Yet what is distinctly evident in these two accounts of death-related practices is, through the substantial use of visual and material culture, these societies that are dissimilar in both physical location and ideology have perpetuated a means through which the remembrance of the dead holds a strong position amongst their members.

The Photographic Image and Death

The emergence of the photography slowly but steadily replaced the use of hair jewelry (Stewart, 1998; Olalquiaga, 1999 quoted by Hallam, 2001, pg. 141) as its accessibility grew amongst the public. A photograph, with its ability to capture a person in their actuality, along with the closeness that is shared with the camera and the photographed subject, acquires the ‘power to evoke sensations of intimacy with the departed’ (Pg. 143).

A style of photography that gained popularity in the 19th century, particularly in America and to a lesser extent in Europe (Wikipedia), was that of post-mortem photography. Funeral photographers were called in to take pictures of the deceased after their death but before the funeral service. Family members would assist in arranging the body either in a sitting or sleeping position, and other elements of the photograph could include flowers, wreaths, personal possessions of the deceased, and even family members. Later, photographs of the corpse placed in a coffin also became prevalent. These photographs captured, not only the dead body, but also the last moments that the family would have with their loved one before they were buried and hidden away in the ground. Preserved in a photograph, one could look at the body of the deceased and not only reminisce about the person that was no longer among them, but also recollect the range of emotions that the death had brought about in the beholder (Hallam, 2001, pg.145).

Though it still occurs in parts of the world, the practice of post-mortem photography fizzled out of popularity around the beginning of the 20th century, and was replaced by more socially appropriate photos, of the living. These included pictures of the funeral service and the mourners, evoking the grief that these occasions held, or simply images of the deceased when they were alive. Healthy, often happy pictures of the deceased were incorporated both in memorials and in domestic living spaces, thus obscuring the ‘painful phases of dying and death’ (pg.146-147).

In the 20th century, through the growing interconnectedness of the world, the use of the camera by ordinary people spread to other parts of the sphere rather than remaining limited to the West. I imagine this would have had a pronounced impact on material forms of memory-making in death across a variety of cultures. The photographic image today is cheap and quick to produce, light, easily transportable, palpable. Along with these attributes that add to its advantage, its unparalleled abilities to capture the human form, capture a time in all its actuality, and its potential of preservation make it the obvious choice for an instrument of remembrance.

Through my own experience of India, I have seen that people from a diversity of backgrounds; in terms of religion, ethnicity, class and caste, engage in the use of photographs as commemorations of their departed loved ones. Of course, because camera equipment and development of photographs have monetary value, the extent to which a well-to-do household can indulge in the use of photographs is substantially more than what a poor family could afford to do. Nevertheless, even in financially deprived households, one can often find that they own at least one photograph of a family member, or more.

People from all sorts of cultural backgrounds now use the photograph as an agent of remembrance. They may have varying beliefs about the nature of life and death, and in their funeral customs they may bury, cremate, or ‘lay out the dead’ (BBC Religions, online, 2009) to be devoured by vultures like Zoroastrians do. But since the photographic image is of a technological constitution (rather than attached to, for instance, a religious faith), everybody that has access to it is able to make use of it. The styles in which photographs are taken and then used in social and private spaces do differ from place to place, but photography as a form has now become quite a widespread form of expressing reminiscence.

Whether a photograph is truly able to evoke memory is a matter of debate. Barthes strongly denies its role as an instigator of memories, and even says that a photograph ‘actually blocks memory, quickly becomes a counter-memory’ (1981, pg.91). My understanding of this is that photographs could potentially overpower memories of the past that were not photographed. Though I agree with this notion, I don’t believe that a photograph ‘blocks’ memory in any way. In fact, it can only strengthen the memories of events and people that have been photographed. Not only that, but going back to Hallam, ‘the memory functions of a photograph might also reach out to associated actions, sensations and emotions that are not directly visible within the image’ (2001, pg.145)

In the preceding paragraphs, I have discussed the role of photography particularly as an expression in remembrance of deaths of a relatively private nature. With the rise of networks of communication in the 21st century, print, but more particularly electronic media have used photographic images extensively as a form of information. The growing use of the television and the Internet gives people from all over the world access to similar information, and this often includes images of death, destruction, grief, and mourning taking place across the globe. People are now affected not only by deaths of people that they personally know or relate to, but through the media they are also witness to events like the falling of the twin towers on 9/11 and the wars in the Gulf that have led thousands to die. The photographic image thus plays a part in not only sustaining personal remembrance but also in being the carrier of news of death to a global audience, and turning these deaths into social phenomenon (Mirzoeff 2005). But is it possible for an audience of such scale to react to these distressing events like they would the death of a loved one?

I wouldn’t deny that photographic coverage of events involving destruction and suffering creates a certain degree of awareness of issues, but in the way that news is transmitted an image is quite likely to be drained of its intensity and ability to make an impact (Sontag 2002, pg.10). Television screens are usually overloaded with images, not allowing the viewer to patiently examine the contents of a photograph like one would do if it were held in one’s hand. Images are also frequently repeated, which, one would assume to be a good thing for now the viewer gets more time to scrutinize the picture. However, in the style that photos are repeatedly broadcast, an event that first becomes more real on account of the photograph, with ‘repeated exposure it also becomes less real’ (pg.10). News channels, in their attempt to grab the attention of the viewer, fall into the trap of repeating cycles of images, and in this shift from the Image as a form of information to the Image as an attention-grabber, it is ‘leached out of content’ (pg.10). There is the added serious matter of manipulation and censorship of media, which implies that the television audience can only see what the government and/or television network wants it to see (Mirzoeff, 2005, pg. 74-77). This is particularly relevant during times of war, related to which Mirzoeff says, ‘As an image becomes information, it loses the associations of remembrance and becomes nothing more than a tool of war’ (pg.76). Although I believe that an image could simultaneously be a form of information and a channel of remembrance, I agree with Mirzoeff that a photograph can easily be used as a tool of war; of propaganda. This is particularly evident in the fact that Iraqi civilians during the recent Gulf war refused to watch the US television station, Iraqi Media Network (pg.76). Also, mainstream media is almost always sanitized of death, even when it comes to news related to an event as blatantly gory as war (pg.80). I don’t think images of dead bodies are essential to evoke the notion of death; I have faith in the strength of our imagination, but simultaneously, the more that actual death is hidden from television screens, the more distanced we are to the reality of something like war.

I feel that the Internet, on the other hand, serves a purpose unlike that of television. As a vessel for showcasing visual and material culture, the Internet is steadily gathering leverage through its freedom and infinity of virtual space.  On this platform, not only can we find and compare other sources for information that we view on the television, but we also have access to a treasure chest of material that could potentially broaden our understanding of both our own, as well as others’ relationship with death. German couple Walter Schels’ and Beate Lakotta’s stunning black and white portraits and bios of terminally ill people before and after death, is one such work that gained popularity on the internet in 2008. Having contributed towards something other than conventional, Western, socially accepted forms of remembrance, their photographs enable one to explore faces of ‘flat Death’ (Barthes, 1981, pg. 92) in all their actuality and rawness.


Death has always been in the picture. The fact that we are born and alive inevitably means that sooner or later, we shall die. It isn’t surprising then that, despite the fact that the dead no longer exist among us, our relationships with death continue to permeate through society, aided and affected by visual and material culture.  Among the Sora tribe, webs of intricate bonds are perpetuated with beings of two forms of existence through vivid correspondences with the dead. In the Christian tradition, both of the past and the present, parts of the dead body as relics and mementoes, and people’s attachment to the grave of a loved one, speaks of how vital the role of palpable objects is in remembrance. I strongly feel that the photographic image, both in its two-dimensional tactile form and its virtual, untouchable disposition on a television or computer screen, has revolutionized the way that the deceased are kept alive amongst people all over the world. Not only that, but through vessels of the television and Internet, the photograph brings into our lives events, practices and beliefs surrounding death across the world that we could not perceive first-hand.

Thus, from the omnipresent dead in the Sora to the embodied life of the grave amongst Christians, to the way the media-connected world looks back at personalities like Princess Diana or Michael Jackson; all these forms of remembrance are deeply intertwined with visual and material practices that preserve the existence of the deceased in social reality and facilitate the exploration and growth of our relationship with death.


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