Accepted Paper:

Domesticating Deathcare  

Author:

Philip Olson (Virginia Tech)

Paper short abstract:

The dead human body has been subject to the same broad social, scientific, and technological trends that account for the medicalization of the live body. This paper draws attention to non-coincidental similarities between the burgeoning home death care movement and the natural childbirth movement.

Paper long abstract:

This article examines the women-led natural deathcare movement in the early 21st century U.S., drawing attention to the movement's non-coincidental epistemological and gender-political similarities to the natural childbirth movement. Within the deathcare industry, the dead human body has been subject to the same broad social, scientific, and technological trends that account for the medicalization of the live body. Asserting technoscientific sovereignty over the dead body, funeral professionals enact a form of postmortem necropolitics. The inconspicuousness of similarities between the medicalization of childbirth and the "funeralization" of deathcare are due to physicians and morticians' deliberate efforts to displace midwives' authority over birthing, dying, and dead bodies, and to carve out distinct professional jurisdicitions for themselves. Yet similarities between the countercultural natural childbirth and natural deathcare movements make visible a common cultural provocation. Just as "lay" or direct-entry midwives challenged the epistemic politics that empower obstetric medicine, so too self-titled "death midwives" and "home funeral guides" are now challenging the epistemological politics that divide laypersons from professional experts within U.S. deathcare culture, while literally retooling U.S. death care and seeking to empower both themselves and families who wish to care for their own dead. And as their childbirth counterparts did before them, natural deathcare advocates are now beginning to struggle with questions of gender identity, professionalization, and economic viability.

Panel T125
Technologies at the Frontiers of Death