I was excited to attend the 2014, and my first, Death, Dying and Bereavement Symposium. Convened by SAHN blogger Erica Borgstrom (University of Cambridge), Julie Ellis (University of Sheffield) and Kate Woodthorpe (Centre for Death and Society, University of Bath) the symposium is a meeting of the British Sociological Association (BSA) Social Aspects of Death, Dying and Bereavement Study Group. I hoped by attending I would meet other death scholars, immerse myself in current thanatology issues and leave reignited about the possibilities of my research. I was not disappointed.
With a focus on inequality and social difference the scope of presentations was exciting and broad; we considered death in North America and Africa, in prisons and in hospitals and explored the extent of inequalities derived from sexuality, ethnicity and diagnosis. There were presentations on organ donation, military deaths and photographic memorialisation of stigmatised groups. Together with an intimate audience the day encouraged discussion and created a positive group atmosphere. Delegates arrived from across the UK, Germany and Canada and represented charitable organisations and academia, with scholars from a diverse range of fields including anthropology, sociology, psychology, and art history.
The day started with a presentation by Elizabeth Rolls (University of Gloucestershire) on the specific challenges faced by those bereaved in a military death. As well as discussing the cultural differences of these deaths compared to civilian ones, Dr Rolls addressed the practical consequences to forces families and the often obligatory transition to civilian home life. Marian Peacock (Lancaster University) gave an impassioned talk on death in prison where, as a consequence of neo-liberalism, there has been a growth in the prison population and the proportion of prisoners who require palliative care. Such care in prisons tests assumed notions of a good death and sets ideas of comfort and dignity against those of discipline and reform. The morning session concluded with a presentation by Erica Lawson (University of Western Ontario) on the role of bereaved black mothers in maternal politics and how they articulate their grief into a tool through which to bring about social change.
After a productive and friendly networking lunch Jessie Cooper (University of Liverpool) started the afternoon session by inviting us to consider the role of ethnicity in UK organ donation. Dr Cooper showed how decision-making between ‘problematic’ minority ethnic families and healthcare professionals was hampered by inaccurate amalgamations of ethnicity and religion and was resolved by technological and religious brokering. Emily Moran (University of Cambridge) explored the inequalities in care provision according to cancer or non-cancer diagnosis using empirical data from the CAPE (Community Care Pathways at the End of Life) Study and presented evidence to suggest that patients with a non-cancer diagnosis were less likely to receive adequate advance care planning.
Next we reflected on the impact of sexuality and gender on end of life care in a presentation by Kathryn Almack (University of Nottingham). Dr Almack showed how stigma was still a feature in the older LGBT community as individuals’ health deteriorated and relationships and identities had to be redrawn to accommodate increasing care needs. Ruth Evans (University of Reading) presented on the methodological complexities of doing death research in a different cultural context. Her experience of conducting a study in Senegal encouraged much audience discussion about how we could all be more reflexive to address the impact of our own cultural background on the research process. Finally, Lauren Summersgill (University of London) concluded the day with a paper exploring the role of photography to memorialise the dead. Focusing on two photographs of AIDs and police-death victims respectively, Summersgill argued that the photographers’ work was an act of care to the deceased. Her paper sparked a lively debate, and was a brilliant way to end the day.
Details of the BSA DDB group can be found here: http://www.britsoc.co.uk/specialisms/DDB.aspx
Sarah Hoare is a PhD student at the University of Cambridge studying end of life care issues and hospital admissions.