Dead sexy, or why oldest taboo may have been buried (at least for now)

Bath conference considers 'dying in the digital age'. Matthew Reisz offers his condolences

June 14, 2012

A researcher has presented a paper exploring whether we have overcome the old taboos and made death "sexy".

Mika Kioussis, who is studying at the London Consortium for a PhD on "creativity on the deathbed", was speaking at the annual conference of the University of Bath's Centre for Death and Society, held on 9 June.

The idea came to her, she explained, while attending an event titled Death: Southbank Centre's Festival for the Living earlier this year. After a panel discussion where a man described the loss of his daughter, "a woman in the audience questioned how we discuss bereavement in a society where death and dying are not, for lack of a better word, 'sexy'.

"Her comment gave me pause. I thought: 'Here we are with nearly 3,000 eager people gathered on London's South Bank to talk about death and dying, participating in hundreds of events on the subject and witnessing hundreds of creative projects that engage with [it]...I think, just maybe, death is having a sexy moment in Britain.'"

Yet was it legitimate, asked Ms Kioussis, to apply "media terms like 'sexy'" to "a subject at once so dauntingly universal and intimately felt"?

Today, she argued, social media mean that "like porn, we can access images of death and dying on demand, endlessly, whenever the appetite strikes will find a mind-blowingly diverse selection [of images], from the everyman to the artist, from high art to tawdry neo-realist and downright depressing".

All this might indicate that we have begun to "transcend the taboo that surrounds talking of death, if not for good, at least for now...similarly to the way in which we can now speak freely about sex and endlessly chronicle our fixation with it".

The positive interpretation of all this, continued Ms Kioussis, is that artistic representations can help us "view the image of death as spectators" and "process the concept of our annihilation".

She said she could cite films that had enriched her "understanding of what it might be like to have a terminal illness or to be on your deathbed".

Yet her experience of working as a digital artist in residence at a network of London hospices, which fed into an MA in literature and medicine at King's College London, had left her far more pessimistic, with very few patients able to call upon any mediated images of death and dying to assist them in the face of the real experience.

This year's conference, on the theme of "dying in the digital age", also featured papers on everything from bequeathing online assets to "salvation on the Web in modern Ireland" and "becoming the 'third man' at your own funeral".

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