When a human being dies, two things occur: a social being disappears, and a cadaver emerges. Both of these cause a form of crisis that is experienced by humans across time and cultures. The responses to this shared experience, however, are incredibly diverse, and framed within a cultural structure. This talk will discuss the importance of mortuary ritual as a strategic way to act in the face of crisis. It will place the practical treatment of the dead body at the center —as a materialization of death, but also as a locus around which humans can make sense of death, perform it, and achieve a sense of control over it. Through a discussion of the complex relationships between the self and the body, the liminal character of the cadaver, the ritual process, and the human need for the world to “make sense,” I will explore examples of mortuary ritual from prehistory and our contemporary world in order to ultimately create a sense of deeper understanding of the human condition in the face of death.
Liv Nilsson Stutz is a professor of archaeology at Linnaeus University in Växjö, Sweden, specializing in the archaeology of death. She is trained in both archaeology and biological anthropology. Drawing on practice theory, ritual theory, and body theory in combination with the taphonomic approach to graves in archaeological contexts called archaeothanatology, she has developed an interdisciplinary approach to reconstructing and understanding the ritualization of the dead body in prehistory. In this work her focus is on how rituals allow survivors to handle the crisis of death and make sense of it. She has published widely on the archaeology of death (e.g. as co-editor of the Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Death and Burial, 2013) and on archaeological method and theory. She has also published extensively on the repatriation debate and is currently leading the research project Ethical Entanglements. The Care for Human Remains in Museums and Research.