Review of The New Death: Mortality and Death Care in the Twenty‐First Century By Shannon Lee Dawdy and Tamara Kneese (Eds.), Santa Fe, NM: SAR Press. 2022. 352 pp.

Reviewed Book

The New Death: Mortality and Death Care in the Twenty‐First Century By Shannon Lee Dawdy and Tamara Kneese (Eds.), Santa Fe, NM: SAR Press. 2022. 352 pp.

Cover of The New Death (2022)

Sofia Pinedo-Padoch

Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology

Death is not what it used to be. Taken together, the chapters in the edited collection, The New Death, make a convincing case that attitudes towards mortality and the way that people care for the dead are changing radically. Most of the contributions reflect on changing attitudes and practices around death in the United States, with the remaining pieces discussing practices in urban East Asia, Britain, and Southern Africa.

The collection is split into two sections, with a short “interlude.” The first section, on “Mortality,” features ethnographic and historical articles about changing attitudes towards mortality. Tamara Kneese writes about the life insurance industry in the United States, tracing how techniques of measuring and encouraging “responsible” living and dying have changed over time. An industry that once relied on medical exams and actuarial tables now relies on single algorithms, fed by constantly produced personal data. Kneese makes a strong case for treating algorithms—crucial in shaping our daily, social media-saturated lives—as an analytic focus in social science. Though Kneese is not an ethnographer, her chapter suggests an exciting prospect: an ethnography of algorithms.

Another intriguing point in Kneese’s chapter is the historical connection she draws between life insurance and slave insurance, that is, financial compensation to slave owners for slaves who were injured, killed, or lost. Kneese writes that, “Work and productivity became intrinsically tied to the monetary value of human beings” (93). My own work on how the estates of New Yorkers are constructed by state bureaucrats revealed a similar logic. The more assets a deceased New Yorker had, the larger their legacy before the law. The value of a life, then, was directly connected to the value of one’s assets. Similarly, the value of a life according to an insurance policy is based on the potential of future productivity. In my research, this value was calculated retrospectively, while the life insurance industry calculates the number prospectively—but both measure life in terms of profit.

In the same section, Abou Farman and Jenny Huberman discuss the efforts of wealthy white men in the tech industry to achieve immortality. Like others in the collection, Farman considers how people today, in an increasingly secular world, deal with “the end.” When the old ways of thinking about mortality and of taking care of the dead no longer feel relevant, what do people do? What new traditions do they create; what new attitudes do they develop? And what, despite changing circumstances, remains the same?

People today not only face their own mortality but also the potential extinction of the human species, and the prospect of an unlivable Earth. That is, people navigate their own mortality and what Abou Farman calls “terminality.” Could human life circumvent terminality by merging with technology? Should we move to the moon? Farman directs our attention to how very white, wealthy, and male these existential efforts are. Rather than being about the survival of the human race—which these days is a real concern—these conversations are actually about the white man’s fear of going extinct. Other authors in the collection also dwell on how practices related to the “New Death” may perpetuate and worsen social inequality. Huberman uses the tech entrepreneur Peter Thiel’s rumored vampirism to discuss growing inequality and political turmoil in the United States in light of the Trump presidency.

A highlight of the “Mortality” section is Matthew Engelke’s vivid ethnography of secular humanist funerals in Britain. Engelke takes the premise of classic anthropological work on funerary rites—that funerary rituals signal a “symbolic triumph over death” through a process of “repair and reinvigoration”—and asks what happens when the people performing these rituals believe there is no afterlife—when they are adamantly secular. This is, largely, a temporal problem: if there is nothing after life, if there is no eternal, religious time, then how does one achieve continuity, repair, and reinvigoration? Engelke’s characters—funeral celebrants, mourners, and the deceased alike—are vibrant and their stories memorable. I found myself becoming fond of Addison Albridge, a deceased Briton pictured at his funeral in a straw hat, “with a slight open-mouthed smile” (133). Through stories such as Addison’s, Engelke identifies different temporalities—like the slowness of the hearse (no more than 20 miles per hour), the nostalgia, history, and memory evoked in secular humanist funerals, and a celebrant’s references to “eternity.”

The ethnographic interlude includes two short articles by young anthropologists. The first, by Lashaya Howe, reports on her fieldwork with Black funeral directors in Chicago. The funeral business in the United States has long been segregated, with Black communities served by Black family-owned funeral business. Like the subjects of other chapters in the volume, the young Black men and women who take over their family’s funeral home businesses need to find ways to adapt to a community no longer interested in traditional funerals and often threatened by gentrification of historically Black neighborhoods.

The second chapter of the interlude, by Stephanie Schiaveneto, is a visceral account of late pregnancy loss and infant death, drawing on the author’s own experiences, as well as her fieldwork with CuddleCot, a company that manufactures refrigerated bassinets for deceased infants. Reflecting on her fieldwork with Cuddlecot, Schiaveneto makes the insightful point that the loss of baby is not just the loss of a separate physical entity—which companies like CuddleCot preserve through temperature regulation—but a loss that is physically and mentally imprinted on the mother. This complicates the question that Schiaveneto poses and others in the collection wrangle with: “What is left after death?” (171). I found this chapter, because of its subject matter, quite painful to read, but Schiaveneto, with her professional background and exceptional honesty, presents something quite new. (Finally, I wonder whether this chapter might benefit from a “trigger warning.”)

The volume’s section on “Death Care,” brings together articles about the novel ways that people care for the dead. A highlight is Shannon Dawdy’s article “The Embalmer’s Magic.” With insight and humor, Dawdy traces the origins of embalming in the United States to early 20th century “Egyptomania.” She also discusses the recent practice of “extreme embalming” in New Orleans, in which corpses are embalmed in lifelike poses. Dawdy argues that embalming practices in the United States provide comfort to loved ones of the deceased. The embalmer’s magic—like temperature regulation in the CuddleCot—is about creating more time for communion with the dead. The decline in religious influence over funeral practices today does not mean that these rituals are any less supernatural.

Margaret Schwartz and Philip Olsen both offer fascinating discussions about the context in which old and emerging death care practices are gendered. Schwartz offers a “taxonomy of touch,” exploring how the hand mediates relations between the living and the dead. “Instrumental” touch, the kind practiced by morticians and doctors, is perceived as cold, unloving, and gendered as male. “Caring” touch, by family members, is warm, loving, and female. But touch is actually not that simple: a mortician’s touch can be caring, and a family member’s touch can be routine and instrumental. Olson focuses on the home funeral movement in the United States, characterized by its practitioners as a “return to roots” that denaturalizes industrial death care. Taking care of a loved one’s corpse at home is framed as a return to natural, authentic practices, characterized in the home funeral movement as feminine. Olsen offers a similar critique to Schwartz, arguing that home funerals do not offer a more “authentic” appreciation of death, but simply signal a change in the way the transition between life and death is being imagined and performed. Institutional death care, like the “touch” of a mortician or doctor, can also be full of care and emotion.

The final two chapters bring us to East Asia, and present two exceptional death care practitioners. Huwy-Min Lucia Liu tells the life story of a famous body cosmetician—the equivalent of an embalmer—in Mainland China, through his own words. Ruth Toulson writes about a female entrepreneur in Singapore who has introduced a radical new funerary ritual called “Showers of Love,” in which family bathes and dresses the embalmed corpse of their loved one. Toulson’s work is particularly interesting, especially her thoughts on the “cultural particularity of grief” in Singapore, and the way long documented cultural values, like death pollution, are negotiated through changing values and practices.

This book would be of interest to anyone interested in the study of death, temporality, and material culture. The volume would also be appropriate for any advanced undergraduate or graduate course on death and dying offered in an anthropology, death studies, or other interdisciplinary department. Certain chapters, such as Shannon Dawdy and Matthew Engelke’s, may be more approachable for undergraduates, due to their clear and captivating prose.