Accepted paper:

Cremation, sequestration and the committal


Michael Arnold (University of Melbourne)

Paper short abstract:

We present a critical analysis of the architecture and performance of cremation, especially the sequestration and committal of the body. Through participant observation in Australian, UK and US crematoria, we find the finality of death contrasted by the convoluted rituals of cremation.

Paper long abstract:

In this paper we present a critical analysis of the architecture of crematoria and the performance of cremation, with particular reference to the sequestration of the body, and the committal of the body. Informed by participant observation in Australian, UK and US crematoria, we observe that in the performance of the rituals associated with cremation the body passes through numerous stages of sequestration. Through these stages the presence of personhood waxes and wanes, from the "viewing" where the deceased is visible for the last time, to the deployment of media - in particular images and music - to the eulogies and tributes, culminating in the committal. The committal is a ritual that mimics the death itself: it is a moment of finality at which the dead are made separate from the living. This is truly the end. Upon the committal he or she is gone, however, following Curl (2002), we show that the technologies and rituals of cremation often provide for the committal in a very imperfect way. In now common forms of committal the living leave the dead - denying rather than reflecting the experience of the dead leaving the living. In other forms, the catafalque causes the dead to leave the living but the finality implicit in the committal has still not been achieved. The body is not yet cremated, nor have the material remains been finally sequestered. Through attention to the protocols, mechanics and dynamics of cremation, this paper contributes to a materialist understanding of our contemporary relationship with death.

panel P11
Death and technology