Images of Afterlife – Interdisciplinary conference (October 22–24, 2014)

On October 22-24, 2014 at the University of Turku the research project Mind and the Other organized an interdisciplinary conference called Images of Afterflife. As the leader of the project, Professor Marja-Liisa Honkasalo, noted in her opening words, images, beliefs and representations of the afterlife are rich and manifold: they reflect cultural norms, values, fears and hopes. Although the modern western society has been defined as secular, there appears to be more and more choices available for those interested in religious and spiritual movements in our present day world. Researchers speak about post-secular culture, in which legitimized religious representations of afterlife now co-exist with other alternative beliefs that originate from various cultural sources. The aim of the Images of Afterlife conference was to bring together scholars from various disciplines and offer them an opportunity to discuss these beliefs that have existed in different historical and cultural contexts and the change and continuity in them.

Around 80 participants attended the event representing a wide array of nationalities as well as academic disciplines, enabling fruitful interdisciplinary discussions on the conference theme. Many interesting papers (54 in all), as well as four keynote lectures and fascinating ideas were presented in the conference. It is impossible to summarize all the interesting strands of the discussion, but below are some points that were found to be particularly relevant to the theme of the Mind and Other project: interaction with agents in multiple realities.

The first keynote lecture was given by Professor Tony Walter (Death Studies) from the University of Bath. In his lecture he spoke of how people in the western world have, to an increasing degree, started to view their deceased loved as angels. This is especially so if the deceased person has been a baby, a child, a youth or a grand/parental figure. According to Tony Walter one explanation for this is that grieving survivors in cases like this may live an additional 50 years, placing them in a totally different position than those mourners who have lost a spouse at the age of 80. Angels are beings that enable the phenomenon of continuing bonds because they possess agency and have wings with which to fly from the otherworld to this world.

The second keynote by Professor Altti Kuusamo (Art History) from the University of Turku focused on how the otherwise invisible angel was made visible in seventeenth-century art. As Kuusamo showed, angels that originally related to and even intermingled with the figure of Fortuna, depictions of Amor and messengers of victory in Ancient Roman sculpture, were often portrayed as men, acquiring the role of active agents by the seventeenth century. Since the Middle Ages everyone was supposed to have a guardian angel, but even before this time some good persons could actually become angels after death. Another role of angels was to civilize children, which is an interesting notion considering the liminal status of angels as beings that are ‘betwixt and between’ (Turner) the material and the spiritual. This has interesting implications for other liminal figures in history; the dead that return have, for instance, in many cultures been considered agents that were partially responsible for the social order. The deceased could return if social norms had been broken, inappropriate actions were taken, or forbidden (and often liminal) territories had been entered (Koski; Kanerva).

Whereas the liminal figure in the past was concerned especially with issues of a collective nature, Tony Walter suggested in his keynote lecture that in the modern world the emphasis is on the wish of the survivors to maintain continuing bonds with the deceased loved ones. The fact that the dead have always been among us was illustrated by several historically, archaeologically and anthropologically oriented papers discussing the issue in different cultural and historical contexts. In many cases the bond between the dead and the living exists because the living want it to be so; they need memories, rituals and objects as they mourn, remember and continue to live on after their loved ones have passed on.

This seems to be ever more so in the modern world, whereas in traditional cultures and in the past it has been widely accepted that the dead and ancestors can sometimes return also against the wishes of the living or despite them, as was shown in many of the papers presented in the parallel sessions. Depending on the cultural norms and beliefs, disfigured or disabled people, or those who committed suicide, have been either expected to return or thought to be incapable of doing this for various reasons. There has been an expectation that ancestors live on and continue to be present in various otherworldly spaces, including places in the vicinity of the dwelling places of the living, such as in mountains and various other parts of nature. They may also become guardian spirits of the living. Existence of the dead is not always made materially or visibly known, but can be experienced by other senses, or the presence is manifested through other material means that relate to our memories.

Sometimes the presence of the dead has been experienced as unpleasant. To prevent the dead from returning, swords and knifes have been positioned on the throats of the deceased and stones have been piled up on the corpses to hinder them from leaving the graves, laments have been uttered to show the deceased the way to the otherworld and charms have been incanted, corpses have been burned, pierced with spears and buried in specific places or outside human habitation. The role of the corpse appears to be central here; in many cultures the corpse has not been considered harmful or benevolent merely on the basis of it becoming reanimated, but the dead body as such was seen as dangerous. Sometimes body parts have been used also for magical practices, including healing.

In other contexts the existence of the corpse is essential to the successful continuation of the mourning process. This was a central point in Professor Laura Huttunen’s (anthropology, University of Tampere) emotionally loaded keynote lecture in which she discussed the grief and memories of the Bosniacs whose sons, brothers, fathers and husbands were murdered as a result of the ethnic cleansing process in Bosnia in the 1990s. The mourning relatives can find no peace, even twenty years after the disappearance of the men, because the corpses are missing and proper burial rituals cannot be performed. The bonds between the disappeared and the living remain disturbed due to the ambiguous status of the disappeared person – is he dead or alive, and where is the body buried?

Many conference papers took up the issue of how, in many cultures, the living expect the deceased to be aware of what is going on around them; they may obey human laws, but they may likewise be insulted and deceived, or contacted through spiritualistic means to enable the living to know how they are feeling and what they think. Throughout the history of humankind people have interacted with the otherworld and its agents, actively or passively. The conference papers strengthened the hypothesis of the Mind and the Other project that in the course of history images of afterlife and beliefs concerning posthumous existence have varied. What appears to be a shared aspect, however, is the conception that the deceased have minds that are capable of desiring, having beliefs, pretending, and interacting with the living.

Tony Walter pointed out that speaking of the deceased as angels is not necessarily always a manifestation of a belief, but could be a manner of speaking of the dead; a discourse of its own. Although mourners may create vernacular beliefs in this manner, a researcher naturally searches for parallels in other cultural and historical settings, alternative discourses, including artistic ones. Is there, for instance, a connection between how the invisible is represented and made visible in art and how liminal figures are used in everyday discourse to share and express emotionally loaded thoughts? The papers that discussed artistic representations illustrated how the abstract, invisible, nonverbal and scary is aesthetisized, defamiliarized, expressed in symbolic terms or through bodily gestures, and intended to be perceived by senses other than vision. Sometimes the invisible is not made visible but audible; for instance in Michelangelo Frammartino’s film Le Quattro Volte the soul is represented as a blow of wind. This notion is also fascinating because the roots of this manner of representation reach far out in history; the ‘soul’ as breath (and manifested also often as wind) has been a common belief in many cultures.

Professor Jussi Kotkavirta (Philosophy, University of Jyväskylä) spoke on the last conference day about the incapacity to experience being dead. According to him, if we try to do this we automatically switch to the second or third person perspective. From a psychoanalytical point of view this is a human defense mechanism; we cannot think of ourselves as dead, of having no identity. Kotkavirta’s claim is very interesting in the light of the human tendency to see the dead as agents who can feel, think, remember and have a mind, as suggested by various papers.

My warmest thanks to all the participants in the conference for interesting discussions and sharing your thoughts and ideas with us!

The program of the conference and book of abstracts can be downloaded at http://imagesofafterlife.wordpress.com/program/

Written by Kirsi Kanerva

Literature

Kanerva, Kirsi. 2011. The Role of the Dead in Medieval Iceland: A Case Study of Eyrbyggja saga. Collegium Medievale 24: 23–49.

Kanerva, Kirsi. Forthcoming. Restless Dead or Peaceful Cadavers. Preparations for Death in Medieval Iceland. Preparing for Death [in Medieval Europe], ed. Anu Lahtinen & Mia Korpiola.

Koski, Kaarina. 2011. Kuoleman voimat. Kirkonväki suomalaisessa uskomusperinteessä. [The Powers of Death. Church-väki in Finnish Folk Belief Tradition]. SKS Toimituksia, 1313. Helsinki: Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura.

Turner, Victor W. 1985 [1964]. Betwixt and between. The Liminal Period in Rites de Passage. Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion. An Anthropological Study of the Supernatural, ed. Arthur C. Lehmann & James E. Myers. Palo Alto (CA): Mayfield, 46–55.

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