Archaeology of death, grief and remembering

It’s not an exaggeration to say that 2021 and  2022, have been the most difficult period of my life. In addition to all the general crap from the pandemic, I have lost four people who meant a lot to me. Earlier in 2021, Great Grandma Ann passed away at the age of 99. She was my great grandmother in law, but I’d always felt a connection to her since we first met eight years ago. She was a remarkable women with a fascinating life story, not mine to share here. But I admired her, and found her easy to talk to, which is a rare thing for me. Her passing was sad, but she was ready to go. I just wish we’d been able to travel and see her one last time. In September 2021 my dad died, at the age of 69. He wasn’t ready, and neither were we. My dad’s story was that of a working class lad from the north east. He lived and died where he was born, a life that to many might seem unnoteworthy but the epitome of life of his class and generation, the last years of the shipyards, with many funny stories as well as those of hardship. Stories like his are the real stories of the north east. A few years ago I considered trying to do an oral history interview with him, but he laughed and thought the idea was hilarious. He never understood much about what I did as an academic, but he was so proud of my success, and told all his mates I was a professor (he obviously had more faith in me than I did, as I actually did get promoted in March). 

In January my dad’s brother, uncle Rob, died from covid. The last time I talked to him was at dad’s funeral. They were best friends as well as brothers. Just a few days after his funeral, I found out a close friend of mine died from breast cancer. She was only 36, and left behind two lovely children, similar ages to my own. This year I turned 40. I know that death becomes more common as we get older, but this is the first time in my life I have experienced death of people very close to me. Aside from Grandma Ann, they were all too soon. I wish they’d had more time. Grief is a strange emotion that is impossible to really understand until you experience it. 

This isn’t a blog where I typically just talk about personal stuff. I don’t post about things unless there is some reflection of relevance to archaeology, but of course everything in our personal lives has some sort of impact on how we view the world as archaeologists, and how we interpret the lives of people in the past. In this case, I have been thinking a lot about the archaeology of death and burial, and the idea of experiential research and reflexivity. The process of choosing a headstone memorial for my dad was a strange one. It’s strange for anyone I guess, but I couldn’t help myself thinking about the links with archaeology, and how the way the dead are represented really is a reflection of those left behind, rather than those that died. I had a random conversation with the stonemason about the type of stone, which is called granite in the catalogue but in fact is another type of dark fine grained igneous rock, but they use the word granite as most people know what that is. It felt so similar to musings as a geoarchaeologist about the types of stone that were used to mark prehistoric tombs. My dad always insisted he didn't want flowers (waste of money he said, they just die!), and yet it felt wrong to not put a few flowers on and make it look nice, and gives a reason to visit frequently and keep it tidy (we've now switched to some nice looking fake flowers, I hope my dad would see this as a compromise). 

A colleague of mine recently published a fascinating study on a Neolithic tomb burial at Hazleton North UK, with some really interesting patterns in genetic relatedness, and I have spent a lot of time wondering about the people buried there, why particular individuals were included and others not. I don’t think I will look at tombs in the same way again. They are about memory, wanting to preserve the memory of those that meant something to you, having a place to go and evoke memories. This is something that I thought I understood before, but it was an example of understanding something in the abstract. I understand better now why people get so emotional about the dead, and why having a memorial helps focus thoughts, creating a place for remembering, and why that is important. On the one hand Neolithic burial practices seem very strange and different, but essentially they are not so different to what we do today. At Catalhoyuk, Turkey, the dead were buried under the floors of houses, skulls were curated and redeposited, not so different to the practice of keeping cremated ashes at home. And what is Hazleton chambered tomb if not a large stone memorial, similar to the headstones that are common today?