Anthropologist Shannon Lee Dawdy set out to interview 100’s of people in the U.S. over 5 years, in order to better understand American death practices. What she found is a phenomenon that is rapidly changing! Out of these numerous conversations, which included a wide range of people and professions, came a book, American Afterlives: Reinventing Death in the 21st Century and a short documentary film, “I Like Dirt.” In this conversation, Shannon and I discuss:
⭐️ How did the perception that the U.S. is a “death denying” culture get traction? Is it even true?
⭐️ How are people relating to the deceased in new ways?
⭐️ Are these changes more prevalent in the U.S. than anywhere else?
⭐️ What national patterns are emerging, despite our complex and diverse society?
⭐️ How and in what ways are public grief becoming more acceptable?
And – here’s a fascinating fact, if you’ve read this far – “Almost as many Americans believe in ghosts as follow organized religion, 45%. It’s actually quite mainstream.” No kidding – I had not thought about THAT before! Thank you, Shannon, for an intriguing look at the Big Picture of what we do in our death practices.
You can purchase the book at this link.
View Transcript Below
[00:00:00] Diane Hullet: I am welcome to the best life, best death podcast. I’m Diane Khalid. And today I’ve got an interesting conversation with Shannon Lee. Dottie. Shannon is the author of American afterlives reinventing death in the 21st century. She’s an anthropologist and a professor at the university of Chicago. She’s been funded by the MacArthur foundation and the national science foundation.
[00:00:33] And you can find out more about her at the university of Chicago’s website or Shannon. Dottie.com. Dotty is D a w D Y. She’s also worked on a film that is in conjunction with the book American afterlives and the film is called. I like dirt. You can find out more about email@example.com. So welcome Shannon.
[00:00:58] I’m so delighted to have [00:01:00] you on the best life, best stuff podcast today. Uh, as I said in the introduction, Shannon is the author of American afterlives reinventing death in the 21st century. So welcome.
[00:01:12] Shannon Lee Dawdy: Thank you. I
[00:01:14] Diane Hullet: guess I came across your book because one of my colleagues, who’s a death doula mentioned it.
[00:01:19] She somehow sent out an email and it just really caught my eye because I think this idea of what is the background of what we’re choosing, um, in body disposition as a culture is, is fascinating to me. It’s kind of the big picture. Look at what we do. Tell us how, how did you get into this? How did this book get it?
[00:01:41] Shannon Lee Dawdy: Well, I mean, it is a personal story and I think actually, if you scratch the surface of most, um, researchers and writers, there’s a, a personal backstory. I, um, I lost a number of people in a pretty short period, relatively speaking, um, between [00:02:00] 2008 and 2013, um, family members and, um, and, uh, close level loved ones and each death was different and was, um, In terms of how it impacted me and how it was handled, um, and how, um, uh, uh, individuals were commemorated.
[00:02:20] But I learned a lot, um, about what was going on, uh, in terms of, um, death practices, both and, uh, and also just getting a grasp of what had become somewhat traditional as well. And after a few years, um, you know, this happened to me after going through hurricane Katrina to, um, my earlier work is based in new Orleans.
[00:02:43] Um, and that was a quite devastating experience, but, um, Researching and understanding that things is a way for me to process. So, um, after I finished my last book, which dealt with Katrina, um, I, uh, I wanted to [00:03:00] work, uh, I wanted to understand what was happening with American death practices, because I noticed there were a lot of changes going on.
[00:03:06] And, um, and there were things that really intrigued me about it that, um, as an archeologist. And when I was ready, I decided to start researching and figuring it out and quickly realized I had stumbled into a phenomenon that was very rapidly changing and that very few people had taken a close look.
[00:03:28] Diane Hullet: Fascinating. Yeah, I love sort of at the end, you come back to the kind of statement you make at the beginning, and you simply say the mortuary practices can be read of symptoms. I’m sorry. I said that funny mortuary practices can be read as symptoms of deeper social currents. And I just think that’s intriguing.
[00:03:47] One of the comments you make, I think in the introduction is you say. Cremation increased dramatically after nine 11, for example. And how fascinating that there are these changes, um, systemically, which [00:04:00] we experience as personal individual grieving. And yet there’s this whole cultural shift I think of right now, you know, with Desmond Tutu’s passing and then he chose acclamation.
[00:04:11] Well, suddenly acclimation is on people’s radar in a way that it was not before. So we have these cultural. Moments where things begin to shift. And as an anthropologist, you’re looking at that from a big level. What kind of generalizations would you make about where we are as a society currently?
[00:04:31] Shannon Lee Dawdy: Well, I would characterize this, um, period in the us as one of rapid experimentation and an opening of possibilities of cross-cultural exchange, borrowing ideas from, um, from immigrants, um, from, um, societies around the world.
[00:04:49] Uh, and, uh, Sort of an, anything goes culture, um, and where it’s going to settle out for awhile, I think is an open [00:05:00] question if it settles out, but I expect it probably will after a generation or so. Um, there’s a, uh, an anthropological idea, um, called heterodoxy, which is going to be opposite of orthodoxy, uh, where, um, Uh, there’s an opening up.
[00:05:17] Um, uh, and there’s not no one way proper way of doing things. And I think this is where we’re at. So cremation and what you do with the cremation remains very open and experimental as explore in the book. A green burial is on a rapid, rapid rise, uh, unexpected to keep going. Um, but yeah, um, uh, hydraulic. Uh, isn’t an option that’s increasing.
[00:05:44] Um, you know, but also, uh, people who really want to, um, have, uh, the body present where they’re embalmed or through DIY and home burial or home funerals rather. [00:06:00] Um, those also are increasing. So it’s not that the body needs to be absent or done away with, but how people are relating to, um, uh, The to see the ceased is what’s
[00:06:12] Diane Hullet: really changing.
[00:06:13] Right? Right. You talk about that. You say we can learn a lot by what we do with corpses. I just thought it was it’s so interesting. You also make a comment early on in the book that the more you’ve kind of looked into the history and practices of American death rituals that, you know, the more you question, these two ideas that have taken over.
[00:06:33] Attraction. So there’s kind of traction around this idea. Number one, that we’re kind of a death denying culture. And number two, that somehow the death positive movement is new. And, and you’re, you kind of, you’re like, I don’t know that either of those are really accurate and they sort of have popular traction.
[00:06:49] What would you say about either of those?
[00:06:52] Shannon Lee Dawdy: Yeah, I mean, I think, uh, um, I was ready to believe both of them. Um, propositions early on, but [00:07:00] through, by talking to, you know, hundreds of people across the U S over five years and looking at what was really going on, I, uh, at least according to me, uh, I realized that, um, There was a lot of death acceptance.
[00:07:16] I mean, I think that our experience with the COVID-19 pandemic kind of shows this, uh, that people are willing to accept, um, uh, a high death rate, um, uh, our violence rates in the U S um, uh, mass shootings, but also, um, murder rate is among the highest in the developed world. Most Americans seem to be okay with that.
[00:07:41] Um, that’s a very simple way to say that, um, death is okay or at least the death of others, the death of other people, which is a very different proposition than our own deaths, um, which is, um, you know, something that anthropologists, I think, um, uh, I [00:08:00] just have on and off, um, attended to, um, but I think it’s, um, uh, one of the ways in which we misunderstand what’s happening on the cultural level in terms of the relationship to death, um, and, um, So, what I found is that, um, really the critiques of what had become the traditional American, um, funeral, right?
[00:08:28] Uh, the embalmed body, the open casket, um, turning things over to professional, um, Uh, funeral director, uh, very, um, that really became formalized in the 1880s and dominant by world war one. And one of the really interesting things about the American death ritual as it was in the 20th century, is that almost regardless of religious or.
[00:08:55] Or, um, ethnic, uh, heritage, uh, at its [00:09:00] peak, uh, around 19 60, 90 5% of Americans, regardless of those other factors, uh, chose this kind of funeral ritual.
[00:09:10] Diane Hullet: That’s really high 95% in the 1960s.
[00:09:14] Shannon Lee Dawdy: Wow. So that’s an extraordinary national pattern, right? Reinforces that there is such a thing as national patterns, even super diverse societies, such as our own.
[00:09:26] Um, and, but the other thing that was true throughout the 20th century is that, uh, Europeans and particularly British writers noticed this death ritual and found it very strange. And they were the ones who started to, um, mix it up with thinking of Evelyn, woah, um, uh, uh, in particular, uh, but also Jessica Mitford, um, a very important figure in the kind of awareness of critique, American deaf culture.
[00:09:59] [00:10:00] Um, and they started to mix it up with other critiques of American culture, such as the kind of, um, Uh, fakeness of Hollywood or the kind of, um, unrealistic optimism, uh, of, uh, uh, American culture. And they were reading the death, ritual, the embalming and open casket, death ritual, uh, as, uh, something that, uh, was fake, that was a denial of death.
[00:10:31] And so they’re the ones who really started that narrative. It wasn’t. From Americans themselves, this was not their reading of what the ritual is about.
[00:10:40] Diane Hullet: So interesting. Right. So they kind of put this label on it that maybe didn’t actually fit the experience of people who were choosing that. And, and as a society, really mostly doing that.
[00:10:51] Shannon Lee Dawdy: Right. I mean, just to put it very simply, what I realized is. When you go to a viewing or visitation with an [00:11:00] open casket and, um, the embalmed body or uninvolved, just have to be involved. You are literally looking death in the face. How has that death denying compared to what happened in the UK? Was it. Um, a very quick, uh, adoption of cremation, where the corpse, um, is whisked away.
[00:11:25] Nobody sees it and you have a very modest, simple ceremony, and you do not dwell on that transition period, uh, between, uh, um, uh, death and, um, Uh, morning and there’s a big, um, uh, self-criticism um, or awareness on the part of, um, English writers of don’t make. So one of their discomforts with [00:12:00] American death rituals is there’s too much fuss, too much emotional showing us.
[00:12:05] And, you know, I think that gradually, this has been incorporated into American culture. A lot of people that I talk to say they don’t want any. I don’t want a Vic to do it seen as a waste it’s seen as vulgar. Um, but I, I, I think that that’s really a discomfort with public mourning, public grief.
[00:12:31] Diane Hullet: Right, right.
[00:12:32] You, you have a great comment to where you, you, you say, well, death denial is perhaps overstated. It’s not wrong to say that Americans suffer from a profound social awkwardness around death, not knowing what to say, not knowing what to do. Um, that sense of like, oh, am I really publicly grieving? And what does that mean?
[00:12:53] So we have, what would you say to people around that?
[00:12:58] Shannon Lee Dawdy: Yeah, I think that, I mean, I think that, [00:13:00] uh, we’re moving, um, gradually, um, interestingly I think social media has, um, and, uh, nine 11 memorials, um, really were, um, very important for, um, making public grief possible again. Um, uh, and, uh, an acceptable, it’s no longer taboo to show, uh, grief for, uh,
[00:13:27] Still touchy is this idea, um, that really comes out of psychoanalysis too. And Freud, um, is to blame for a lot of this, uh, or an uptake or Freud that might’ve been, um, uh, not well considered, which is, um, to think that it’s a kind of illness to grieve. But it’s pathological. And so there’s been a lot of pressure on people to speed up grief and shaming of people [00:14:00] who, um, are grieving, uh, because it’s quote unquote not healthy.
[00:14:05] And, and for a long time, I think all that did was move it underground. And now to circle logical metaphor, it’s coming very much above ground and being shown as natural, where it’s still touchy is the idea that there’s a, uh, a timeline when you should no longer be grieving or a confusion about having a relationship to the dead, um, is necessarily one of grief.
[00:14:36] Like there can be other. Sorts of much more positive relations, um, with, uh, the dead and when of grief. Well, once you get through the initial, um,
[00:14:48] Diane Hullet: Right. Interesting. And that’s, and that’s one that our society doesn’t necessarily some portions of it. Don’t quite know how to embrace, which kind of goes along with, uh, you know, this piece, you, you, [00:15:00] you say, and I thought this was so articulate.
[00:15:02] You need going back to this deaf denying idea, you say, I don’t know that we’re deaf denying, but I think we’re quite grief denying. And so, as you said, it goes underground. And the, how does that move? How does that, um, shift inside? So that there can be this relationship with the dead that has to do with memories and experiences and conversations and awareness that isn’t just grief, but a new stage.
[00:15:29] Shannon Lee Dawdy: Yeah. I mean, I think that, um, one of the things I discovered, uh, when you scratch the surface, there actually a lot of Americans, um, almost as many Americans believe in. Um, seriously then, um, believe it, or follow an organized religion. And I think we tend to be kind of dismissive of that. Um, uh, as, as, as if it’s an insincere belief or fringe belief, but it’s actually quite mainstream, uh, something like 45%.
[00:15:59] Um, I want [00:16:00] to say, um, from the pew charitable trust survey, I believe in ghosts. And so I think that. Again, it’s underground. People might hide their belief that, um, there’s a presence there of somebody who passed, but through the new, um, uh, Ways of relating to the dead through, um, memorials and, um, particularly through objects created with, uh, cremation remains, people are allowed to prolong are finding ways to prolong that relationship, uh, with a dead.
[00:16:33] If you have, um, a, uh, a little, um, glass object on your, um, On your desk that contains remains with the loved one. You can talk to them, you can look at it and you can think about them every time you, you see it. Um, uh, diamonds made out of community remains. Um, similarly people will narrate, um, how [00:17:00] their loved one is with them always and will exist for a very long time in that state.
[00:17:07] 2 billion years, in fact, a diamond. So
[00:17:12] Diane Hullet: I feel most eternal. Yeah. I found that section of the book, fascinating people are having paintings created and glass art objects and tattoos and jewelry. And as you said, that’s kind of, this whole industry has. Brung up around that. Um, which I think is fascinating and it does speak to some different relationship to our grieving and our debt.
[00:17:35] And we don’t want to just go to a gravestone once a year. We want to sort of wear this pendant on our chest to feel our relationship. That seems, that seems new.
[00:17:46] Shannon Lee Dawdy: Yes, that’s definitely new and it’s definitely happening in the U S more than anywhere else. So we’ve swung from being the strange place on the planet that is completely devoted to the involved [00:18:00] body and open casket to the strange place on the planet that is, uh, increasingly devoted to, uh, making, um, objects, very personal objects out of cremated remains of.
[00:18:14] It does exist other places, but not to be, there’s not the range of possibilities here. Uh, and it’s not being taken up, uh, as quickly and thoroughly as it is.
[00:18:26] Diane Hullet: So fascinating. Well, I love in the, in this kind of the ending of your book, you really talk through these different, um, you, you know, you talk through the different, sorry, I’m rustling my book here.
[00:18:38] You talk through the different stages that us society has gone through. And again, we’re making big generalizations because obviously there are pockets of subcultures that, that do their own thing, but these movements that can be charted. And one of the first ones you chart is the. Change in art on grave stones.
[00:18:56] I thought that was so interesting. Just that we can see this, this [00:19:00] difference. And I love you end up by saying that you prefer Archaeology’s long view that cultural change is itself, an expression of the cycle of life. And I think that’s what you’re naming in this book is how these changes and how we care for the dead body and what we do with the dead body.
[00:19:20] Are an expression of changing culture. And, you know, as, as you said, capturing this in a book is so tricky because it’s changing even as you’re writing the book. So I love that you took the time and the scholarly effort and research to study this, because I think it’s a little different than the layer where we just hear what’s happening.
[00:19:43] We hear about acclimation, or we hear about green burial, or we hear about somebody who got a tattoo of a beloved friend who died. But you’re talking about the movement underneath it and behind it. And what that says about our society. What final thing would you want to add for our listeners? And then we’ll we’ll [00:20:00] stop.
[00:20:01] Shannon Lee Dawdy: Um, I guess I did have a, um, there’s a, a small part of me who, um, wanted, um, to offer this book to anybody who’s had a loss or is struggling to figure out what to do. Um, uh, Prospects of their own death of loved ones or one that recently experienced, um, to get comfortable with death. Um, and I think this, this discomfort, you know, I actually, I have a difficult time sometimes responding to, um, common kind of expressions of grief, for example, um, my Dean, uh, regularly sends out, uh, emails about a Meritus.
[00:20:48] In their eighties, nineties, hundreds. And she starts it off by saying, um, I am writing to share the very sad news that, [00:21:00] that.dot dot well, if I don’t pass away, uh, uh, any actually, if I pass away anytime over 70, um, I will, wherever I am be grateful for the life I had. And I think it’s going to take a lot of work for people to understand that death is not an evil and how you know this.
[00:21:26] We got to this point, uh, and I’m part of it as a secular society. I’m turning away from, uh, religions where death was just a transition. Um, and although I’m not religious myself, I do think that this is a much healthier relationship to the planet and to one another, to understand death as a transition, whatever that means to you, it’s a transition.
[00:21:53] It’s not an ending it’s, it is temporarily a tragedy in terms of the loss of a relationship to someone you [00:22:00] love. But life goes on. And comes back and it recycles in many different ways. Um, and you don’t have to believe in, uh, uh, traditional, uh, reincarnation to realize that, um, life itself as this.
[00:22:20] Diane Hullet: Beautiful. Beautiful. So well put life itself as a cycle. And how do we, um, read books like yours or have conversations? Like I try to create that, that just open up that discussion so that it doesn’t feel so heavy and other, you know, I always think about people feel like death is this. Falling off a cliff, other, and as you said, it’s everywhere.
[00:22:42] It’s constant. It’s a cycle. Well, thank you so much, Shannon. I enjoyed our conversation so much and again, her book is American after lives, reinventing death in the 21st century. And, um, I’ll add your website at the end. Thanks so much, Shannon.
[00:22:59] Shannon Lee Dawdy: I really [00:23:00] enjoyed talking.
[00:23:01] Diane Hullet: Thanks for joining me today on the best life, best death podcast, you can find out more about the work I do at best life.
[00:23:08] Best def.com. And you can find out more about Shannon Lee Dadi at her website. Shannon Lee, L E E Dottie, D a w D y.com. Again, she’s the author of American afterlife. Thanks so much. .