This paper examines the significance of space in the experience, stories and memories of loss and grief. While for many religions the earth is an important element in rituals around birth, death and burial, in increasingly secular and multi-cultural societies, church and public cemeteries are no longer the dominant sacred sites, nor is religion the only way of defining ‘spirituality’. The paper describes shifts in religious and secular practices in dealing with loss and grief, presents case studies of traditional and contemporary frameworks in which ritual, storytelling and space are important elements of meaning making processes, and invites further examination of the ways in which artmaking restores a sense of control and meaning after the experience of loss.

In pre-modern culture (epitomised by medieval European practices, but historically present in much of the non-westernised world) life and death were integrated, part of a continuum, with the living ever aware of the frailty of life, living with high infant mortality and (nowadays preventable) infection and contagious illnesses. Families prepared and buried their dead, and could ritually intercede on behalf of their welfare through prayer, and with burial in proximity to the relics of saints in the interior of churches. There was widespread experience and acceptance of the corruption and decomposition of the corpse.

Remains from graves within the church were disinterred once the soft tissues had decomposed, and the bones stored in ossuaries or charnels elsewhere, to make room for new burials. (In present day Greece for example, many rural communities observe the obligation of disinterring and ritually washing the skeletal remains with water and wine, then reinterring the bones.)

Representations of the inevitability of death, corruption and judgement appeared on gravestones and memorials. The grotesque materiality of the body was accepted as lived experience. Following rejection of the concept of purgatory during the Reformation, there developed a belief that the living could no longer intercede on behalf of their dead. The early Renaissance began to marginalise grotesque representations, and the ‘ideal’ body was one in which corruption was absent.

Progressively, according to Philippe Aries (1981), the corpse was displaced by the ‘successive masks’ of the shroud, the coffin, and finally the ‘theatrical monument’. The dead were ‘in repose’, and the emerging scientific age shifted the everyday experiences of mortality from the family and the home, to the professions and the hospice.

The midwife no longer performed her other traditional role of undertaker, ‘laying out’ the deceased at home, in preparation for prayers and burial. Aries suggests that increasingly modernist communities have abdicated ownership and control of death which has been ‘domesticated once and for all by the advance of technology’.

Jenny Hockey (2001: 194) notes that ‘who possesses the body’ has been central to the rising dominance of professionalism in death rituals. If death occurs in a hospice or hospital, funeral directors and coroners exert considerable influence over access to the body, and how and when it is accessed. Many families feel alienated and disenfranchised by not being able to stay with their deceased, while equally, others are happy to accept the role of professionals in expertly staging death ritual on their behalf. Medicalization of death creates significant difficulties in observing traditions and obligations for certain diasporic communities in Western cultures.

Hindu preference is for the corpse to be laid out on the floor. The family normally wash the body, and non-members of the faith should not touch it, unless they wear gloves. Buddhists require to intercede for the person’s soul, in the first eight hours, by chanting the name of Buddha, to encourage the deceased’s mindful thoughts, for the best realm of rebirth. Abrahamic religions require the dead to be comforted with a candle light vigil immediately after death, rather than left alone in a refrigerator. Such spatial accommodation is rarely available in industrial medical complexes.

At autopsy, pathologists routinely retain tissue samples for the purpose of completing pathology examination, research or education. The time for chemical fixation of some organs, typically the brain, may mean that the organs may not be re-united with the body prior to burial or cremation. For Jews and Muslims, the physical integrity of the body requires that any amputated limbs, shed blood (including bloody clothing) be retained for burial with the body; and that embalming, which displaces the blood, is prohibited. ‘Unconsented organ retention’ is another practice that fails to understand that in most cultures, the inherent dignity of the body is measured in terms of its physical integrity, with the routine dis-location of body parts, or in the case of still born or neonatal deaths, the withholding until recent decades of permission to hold or even see the baby, exacerbating potential disenfranchised grief.

The Melbourne Chevra Kadisha (the Jewish Burial Service) was instrumental in having the Victorian State Government set up Section 29 of the Coronial Services Act, to allow a process to appeal the need for autopsy.

For some, Earth is a central element in the cycle of life and death. The Christian burial service is well known, but for the Muslim and Jewish traditions, the body must literally be returned to the earth. The Muslims with shroud burial, and the Jews, at least in Australia (in Israel, shrouds alone are used) plain timber unlined coffins with knot-holed bottoms allow the body to rejoin the earth, fulfilling the ‘unto dust’ requitement of the scriptures.

Until 20 years ago, Australian health regulations required Muslim burial only in coffins. The Victorian Muslim community was the first in Australia to have the regulation changes, to allow earth burial, according to Islamic law. For Jews and Muslims, only when the body is in earth can the soul obtain divine forgiveness. And so the act of cremation – for example mass incineration in the Holocaust – is offensive and abhorrent.

For others, fire and water (and air) are central. Although a Cremation Act was introduced into Victoria in 1903, it was not until 1927 that a purpose built crematorium was constructed at Fawkner Crematorium and Memorial Park, although open air cremations took place earlier, in the grounds of the Necropolis at Springvale (but years earlier, on Brighton Beach).

Hindu custom requires that the family wash and dress the body, place flowers and food in the coffin or bier, and that the eldest son perform a fire ceremony, and light the fire while the family are in attendance. Traditionally, in some Hindu communities, the skull may be split during cremation to release the soul. After cremation, the ashes are taken to the Ganges, or the nearest sea.

For a Buddhist, the soul’s spatial impermanence may last for 49 days during which time the family pray and make offerings weekly. During this time the spirit is yet to be reborn, which could be in the lower realms of hell, hungry ghost or animal worlds, rather than as human. Food offerings are made in the temple on an annual memorial day, to sustain any wandering souls.

Glennys Howarth (2000: 128) points out that our culture casts death as the enemy and that ‘the definingly modernist desire to exercise control over mortality has been fundamental to its separation from life.’ The difficulty of this ‘separation of death from life’ argues Howarth, is that it ignores the fact that the death of a significant person results in a loss of self – a self that is inextricably bound up with the deceased. Her view is that fundamental crisis ofbereavement isn’t a crisis of loss of the other as much as loss of self. If the deceased is ‘let go’ completely, then part of the self is also jettisoned. The grieving are changed. Their future narrative can only reflect and somehow incorporate that experience. ‘Getting on with it’, means in many cases denial of the centrality of experience to one’s identity; but also denial of opportunities for sharing of the story of loss; as well as denial of permission for the individual to acknowledge and experience ‘bereavement’, characterized by pain, grief and mourning. Nietzsche’s doctrine (e.g. 2003: 1993) that to remember and embrace the painful past is to triumph over it, or at least to strive for the equilibrium not to wish it otherwise, is a practice more difficult than it sounds to achieve.

O’Toole and Sullivan (2003: 54) report a member of a ‘parents’ bereavement support group’ reflecting:

‘a thing that I love about [the Group], is I can still be [Timmy]’s Mum…I don’t have to have moved on…it’s the one place I can still be a sook because I am still [Timmy]’s Mum’.

Howarth suggests that to regain ontological security (Giddens 1991), the individual must construct a biographical narrative which restores not only a sense of meaning, but a continuity – a new biography that includes a place for the dead person, and the events that led to the present, in the ongoing trajectory of the individual’s own changing self-narrative. But by creating this metaphorical space for the dead in our present and future, she argues, we are not forging new links with the dead, nor producing a ‘new model of grief’, but uncovering a layer of communication which has until now been viewed as deviant or pathological and thus hidden, and amplifying ‘the whispered communication across the boundary between the living and the dead that has hitherto been muffled by the noisy dominant discourse and prescriptive professional rituals of modernity’ (op.cit.: 136). To ‘get over it’ or ‘get on with one’s life’ demonstrates the influence of Western culture’s classical narrative expectations. ‘Well formed’ stories have beginnings, middles and ends. Whether exposition-complication-resolution event chains (E-C-R, or the three act structure), or the familiar Todorovian (1971) model in which the initial equilibrium is disrupted by some force, transformed into disequilibrium, and eventually retransformed into a final equilibrium; the characteristics of classic narrative share the need for agency, moving the narrative in a linear, forward trajectory, with closure or resolution.

A survivor, told to ‘get on with it’, who expects that she will ‘get over it’ and ‘get back to normal’, but without having the opportunity to talk about the experience and rebuild the presence of her dead into her new self-narrative, may doubt her ‘normality’. Classical narrative expectations ignore that the essential element is that of change – and the bereft, the survivors are changed. The narrative equilibrium at the end is not the same as the one at the beginning – and the expectation that at the end, that we should feel as we were back at the beginning, misses the fact that death is a natural, mostly ordinary and inevitable but irreversible part of life.

While for most westerners, there is a sharp distinction between the living and dead, writes Allan Kellehear (2004: 4), since when people die they either go to another realm, or disintegrate, they are not here. Our emphasis seems to be mainly on remembrance. For Buddhist and Shinto in Japan, their dead DO exist in another world but not sharply divided from the world of the living. Here Kellehear describes prescribed physical areas of access to the dead – but not like western memorials. The Kami-danna in Shinto, or Butsu-dan in Buddhism, are shrines where, in a recognized and publicly endorsed manner the living and the dead communicate with one another.

Kellehear also writes about the basic concept of spirituality – that human beings have a desire to transcend hardship and suffering. In other words people need to seek and find meaning beyond their current suffering that allows them to make sense of that situation. This transcendencemay be achieved by searching for meaning in situations; moral or biographical contexts; and/or in one’s inherited or chosen religious beliefs and ideas (2000: 150).

‘Spiritual needs are complex needs,’ he writes. ‘Some of these may indeed be really social needs. Others are psychological needs overlaid or underpinned by religious desire. Some other forms of human desire are openly about a need to connect with the sacred the supernatural or divine’ (ibid.: 154).

Unlike the socially sanctioned public Japanese Buddhist/Shinto mourning rites, it seems only in extraordinary periods (of what Turner (1977) terms ‘communitas’ – the temporary suspension of ordinary social codes, like the usual prohibition of public displays of grief), that Westerners are able to create temporary public mourning spaces, placing flowers and cards in what become temporary ‘sacred’ places.

Even in the absence of the body, on a significant site not the ‘final resting place’, memorials are erected in places which are seen as ‘full of spiritual energy’. For many survivors, the importance of making sense of the physical site of a sudden death cannot be overestimated. Nor also, the significance of a site which is associated with the lost relationship or past life narratives.

For the dying, the significance of restricted space, both social, and physical, is also an issue. In Seven Dying Australians (Kellehear and Ritchie 2003) Fadia, a seventeen year old girl dying of cancer, reflects on her periods of self-imposed shutting out family and friends, and her realization of the need to make the most of the time left, by going out and having fun: ‘Knowing what I know now, I would say to others “don’t be scared of death. Don’t go and lock yourself in your little room, under your little bedcovers, and just sit there and cry and cry and cry. Don’t do that because you’re wasting time, and you’re not only hurting yourself, you’re hurting the people around you…That’s why never ever ever stop doing what you love. Just be yourself. Be normal. Don’t shut them out, but bring them in – your loved ones, your friends…because the quicker you do, the better it is for you, because then you can enjoy the life that you have left”’ (21).

Marion, an eighty-seven year old resident in a nursing home, notes that ‘my world closed in gradually. In the last few years that I was home, I could still walk, but the distances gradually shrank. First I had to give up the park. Then I had to give up going to the end of the road. And by two years before I came into the nursing home I could only go out to my letterbox… Since coming to the nursing home my life has changed completely…All I have is a wardrobe and a chest of drawers…and a little thing on wheels on which I keep the things I really need…I’m here for life. I’m here till I die, which I hope won’t be long in coming.’ (35)

As Kellehear (2000 op. cit.) noted, of the three sources of spiritual meaning, formalReligious needs are only one. Situational needs – making sense of the immediacy of the situation, through a sense of purpose, hope, connectedness, and social mutuality; as well as Moral and Biographical needs – which seek reconciliation, closure, forgiveness, and moral and social analysis; may be answered in the construction of expressive self-narratives of continuity.

The bereaved need to regain a sense of control of their lives – to gradually move through the liminal period of shock and emerging acceptance of the situation; from allowing others to assist them, to working with them and finally, to doing things for themselves. Symbolic links to the dead are important, and concrete activities create a feeling of coping. Active participation, the hand-made, hands-on involvement in the preparation, conveyance, burial and especially the memorialising processes, assists the spiritual dimension of situational acceptance.

We can then begin to glimpse, and even begin to accept, that an irrevocable change has occurred. The participation of mourners in the acts of telling stories, observing silence, active community participation, accesses a moral-biographical spiritual dimension – connectedness is enabled. Personal and ideographic rituals – including the creation of public artwork – help to restore a sense of control and meaning, act as an expression of hope, legitimise and permit emotional and physical expressions of grief, and can enable an ongoing sense of connection, generate social support and regain control. In conclusion, consider the spiritual and symbolic dimensions of the following:

On The Edge Oil on Canvas, 2001

Through imagining and re-presenting the abyss of suicide, Kylie Houldcroft created a series of paintings through which ‘I touched upon social and psychological aspects of death and suicide which triggered my own symptoms of grief, depression and P.T.S.D. The suicide of my brothers inevitably raised more imponderables than it did answers. Although painful, painting expunged long suppressed images and thoughts. For the first time, deep-seated grief had a concrete form. Unformed memories and dark recesses of the mind became tangible representations, however no convenient closures or answers were resolved.’

Kember, L., Lean on Me: Cancer Through A Carer’s EyesL.Kember Publications, Beechboro, 2003

Through tracing the journey from toxic childhood sandpit to the mesothelioma ward Lorraine Kember told the story of her husband Brian’s pleural mesothelioma and death, in 2001.

‘The two years of suffering I endured in anticipation of Brian’s death had, in a sense, prepared me for it. I had already suffered many of the stages of grief and overcome them. I no longer had anger. I was in acceptance of his death…There is no measure for such grief. I will always be proud of the strength and courage I found, despite this, which enabled me to ease Brian’s journey. The knowledge that I was making a difference held me up even in my darkest hours.’

Luise Cimador confronted incest, and the site of betrayal and loss of innocence, through joining self help groups, and creating a photographic installation.

Red Bedspread digital print, 2005

‘What was important to me was not only to narrate my story, but to advocate “breaking the silence” of abuse through artistic means…I began to look at the long term effects of my abuse – psychosexual dysfunction, relationship problems, depression, anxiety, suidicality (sic), dissociation, drug and alcohol use, and eating disorders…The ultimate purpose of this lengthy project (was) to provide possible paths through creating images of my own pain, solitude and metamorphosis in order to show others who have experienced sexual abuse that there are possibilities in their own lives to express themselves artistically, which can elicit a profound sense of self-awareness and a coherent sense of being in the world.’ – October 30, 2005



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