Canadian Journal of Sociology Online November - December 2000

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Elizabeth Hallam, Jenny Hockey and Glennys Howarth.
Beyond The Body: Death and Social Identity.

London: Routledge, 1999, 232 pages. $Cdn 38.50 $US 22.95 Paper (0415182921)
$US 64.95 Cloth

Joy Damousi.
The Labour of Loss: Mourning, Memory and Wartime Bereavement in Australia.

Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1999, 212 pages, $Cdn 33.99 Paper (052166974X) $Cdn 96.25 Cloth (0521660041)

Like material in a tapestry, these two recent books, even though written by authors living in different parts of the world (the United Kingdom and Australia) and on similar but different topics, share many interwoven and connected threads. Both texts are concerned, more or less, with the body, its social significance, whether living or dead, and grief as the result of loss, of the self and other. Both texts are well written and interesting, and contribute significantly to the sociology of death and dying and the burgeoning field (especially in the United Kingdom) of death studies.

In this review I intend to pursue the metaphor of the tapestry as I too try to weave the books’ content together.

The questions posed by the authors of both books include how do individuals construct notions of the body and the ways it is discussed and by whom, and how do people react to the absence of bodies, as is the case when soldiers are killed ‘overseas’ and buried away from home, when their bodies are sacrificed as in war. Further, the authors of Beyond The Body provide compelling arguments to suggest that more sociological theoretical paradigms need to be constructed which address issues of what constitutes the presentation of self as alive or dead. They state, quoting Bronfen and Goodwin,(0) “Just as the theoretical lines drawn between binary oppositions have been coming under fire, so the actual – living and breathing - boundary between life and death has become a matter or urgent debate, for both ends of the life cycle” (p.13)

The authors of both books discuss the body as a social metaphor of self-identity and as a barometer of attitudes towards the social and historical presence of the non-embodied individual. In Labour of Loss, Damousi, a social historian, discusses the conflicting role of limbless bodies, individuals who are wounded in, and live with, the aftermath of war. She also discusses how grief can be used as a political tool for social change.

The rationale which she provides to document the ways in which grieving family members, and those wounded in the wars were able to put their grief to work, is a compelling testament to the power of political social change in the face of calamity. She notes, “During the postwar years, mothers, fathers, widows and limbless soldiers channelled their grief through protest, as a way of redefining notions of sacrifice. They organized pubic meetings, formed associations, distributed newsletters, and lobbied politicians, demanding a privileged recognition of their grief and a revered place in public memory” (p.161).

Compelling in The Labour of Loss are the stories of how families dealt with their grief without the benefits of rituals such as funerals, wakes and visits to gravesites. Because husbands, sons, lovers, relatives and friends had died in the wars, in the ‘service’ of their country, many families were in a constant state of anticipatory grief that these men might die, therefore this brought mourners together in intimate ways and created a sense of shared community.

Hallam, Hockey and Howarth examine the body in crisis as a “problematic site for social identity as it deteriorates and dies” (p.13). These authors also place theoretical emphasis on some of the ways in which the biologically deceased retain an influential social presence in the lives of others; in so doing they recognize that even though dead brings about the death of an individual body, it does not end the social relationships which the person had with others.

In her book, Damousi provides anecdotal evidence from personal accounts (obtained from archival written and visual materials, as well as letters written to and from Australian soldiers and their loved ones during the first and second world wars) to display how these actualities operate in everyday social practices, especially as regards the influence which the deceased still has on the living.

Amongst the material which Damousi presents to illustrate her main points are documents from various governmental agencies of the time. They are fascinating historical records of the difficulties faced by war widows and their children as they tried to gain access to government assistance (usually in the form of welfare payments) after the deaths of their husbands. Apparent then, was the notion that war widows did not fit into “emerging postwar understandings of femininity — that of the single modern girl” (p.71). The war widow was neither sexualised object nor married woman, therefore she challenged cultural perceptions of what it was to be feminine.

The authors of Beyond the Body write from many perspectives: historical and social anthropology, the sociology of health and the sociology of deviance. Their intention in producing this book, the culmination of a series of conferences on Death, Dying and Disposal held annually in the United Kingdom, was to “engage in dialogues with some of the theoretical approaches to the body and mortality” (p. ix).

In their efforts to develop social theories of the body, they present interesting dichotomies of what it might mean to be located within a living or dead body, and how self identity is maintained and made manifest within these seemingly conflicting realities. Beyond The Body provides compelling arguments for a shift in theoretical understandings of the ways in which death is constructed within the media, medicine, the coroner’s court, and the church.

In chapter seven of Beyond the Body, Hallam, Hockey and Howarth provide a fascinating discussion of the differences between social constructions of the living body as a source of well being, and a critical key to personhood, in contrast to the dead body, which they argue is seen as a source of pollution, decay and dysfunction. They note “Aspects of the living body can therefore be seen to have dangerous potential. The dead body, however has fulfilled this potential and although bereaved people continue to be emotionally attached to the body of their loved one, there remains, nevertheless, a cultural perception of the corpse as a source of disease and contamination” (p.125). In this scenario the dead body culturally represents a loss of self and individuality.

Later in this particular chapter the authors pursue the work of the funeral director in recreating and restoring the body so that it provides a visual representation of the “living person, which corresponds to a remembered image of the embodied self of the deceased” (p.126). Much of the data for this section of the book comes from Howarth’s previous publication Last Rites: The Work of the Modern Funeral Director (1996).(1) It is a fascinating, modern day account of the work of undertakers in the United Kingdom. It offers insights about the professional practises of the death care industry, which are similar to those suggested by Jessica Mitford in her seminal work The American Way of Death written in 1963.(2)

The discussion of the social trend away from funerals to cremation reiterates some of the issues, which I discuss in my own book Social Perspectives on Death and Dying (2000) (3) where I look at the funeral industry from a Canadian perspective. With an increase in cremation rates in both Europe and North America Howarth suggests that a symbolic reason for this preference is due to the fact that it is seen as a ‘cleaner’ way to dispose of the dead, and avoids the risk of future contamination.

In The Labour of Loss, Damousi examines the ways in which Australian family members dealt with the grief that resulted from the deaths during and immediately after the two world wars. In this book, bodies are often described as sacrificial ones and the social identities of mourners are focussed upon. The emphasis in this text is on some of the ways in which the biologically deceased retain an influential social presence in the lives of others. As well, it recognizes that the “psychological layering of wartime loss in Australia remains unchartered territory” (p.4).

Both books provide insight into the many layers of meaning which are ascribed to studies in death and dying, Labour of Loss because it provides an extremely thorough, well documented historical account of the grief experiences of Australians’ and their ability to transform grief into political social action aimed at ending further violence. As well, as Damousi points out very well, different selves were constructed through the experiences of war as new identities such as “war widow, father or mother of a deceased soldier, allowed the bereaved to begin imagining an alternative life without the dead, which was a necessary part of their journey towards healing and closure” (p.163).

I found The Labour of Loss easier to read and the case studies based on newspaper articles, magazines, government and personal correspondence added meaning and depth to the book. The personal documents such as letters and diaries added a human dimension to the narratives and presented an interesting overview of historical attitudes towards women and those injured during the war years, as well as economic imperatives to rebuild a country without fully recognizing the services provided by the war dead.

Beyond The Body would be more useful in upper level courses where students already have a grasp of theoretical constructs, The Labour of Loss would be an interesting additional to lower level (and upper) courses where a historical understanding of grief is presented.

I would highly recommend both of these books. They are a welcome addition to the sociological study of death and dying.


0 Bronfen, E. and Goodwin, S.W. (1993) ‘Introduction’, in Bronfen E. and Goodwin, S.W. Death and Representation, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, pp.3-25

1 Howarth, Glennys. (1996) Last Rites: The Work of the Modern Funeral Director, New York: Baywood Publishing Company.

2 Mitford, Jessica. (1963) The American Way of Death, London: Hutchinson

3 Auger, Jeanette A. (2000) Social Perspectives On Death and Dying, Nova Scotia: Fernwood Publishing

Jeanette A. Auger, Ph.D
Associate Professor of Sociology
Acadia University
November 2000
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