We are excited to announce that Dr. Candi Cann, assistant professor in the BIC, has a new book published through University Press of Kentucky. Virtual Afterlives: Grieving the Dead in the Twenty-First Century is an exploration of death and remembrance and how grieving in today’s culture is increasingly becoming a virtual experience. We recently interviewed Dr. Cann to learn more about her new book and to discover where she sees her research going in the future.
How did you become interested in the topic of memorialization and bereavement?
I first became interested in this subject because of our deep universal need to create narrative constructions out of lives after death. My doctoral work centered on martyrs and examined how martyrs are manufactured in an intentional way to give meaning to death and also as a confirmation of political agendas—of the church or the state. As I wrote on this subject, I also began to notice emerging bereavement practices creating a movement of Do-It-Yourself memorialization, such as tattoos, car decals, and Internet websites.
Why do you think these new bereavement practices are emerging in our current culture?
My book essentially contends that these contemporary mourning practices have emerged because of a number of reasons. First, we are no longer comfortable with death or dead bodies. Death no longer occurs in homes, but mostly in hospitals, and when people die, they are quickly cremated or embalmed. So we never really confront the reality of death. Second, grief, itself, is taboo, and people are not given enough time to grieve. In addition, the DSM 5 classifies grief as mental depression if it lasts longer than two weeks. That means that people who are rightfully mourning the death of a child have nowhere to talk about their grief, are not allowed the time off from work to mourn, and then are classified as mentally ill when they are actually going through a pretty traumatic experience. This can make bereavement a really difficult experience, and this is why I see this trend of DIY memorials emerging. People get tattoos, car decals, and form grieving sites online because they really have nowhere else to conduct the process of mourning.
Does your work offer any suggestions for how we might grieve in more healthy ways?
We need to give space and time for bereavement. Rituals that allow us to have contact with the corpse and that allow us to mourn at regular intervals allow for grief to be a part of everyday life. Until we can value both the place of the dead, and the need to mourn in our society, we will continue to see the expansion of virtual bereavement and DIY mourning rituals.
Where do you see your research going in the future?
I plan to continue my research on bereavement, with future projects including an exploration of mourning on Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. Mourning epithets are getting shorter and more exclamatory, in addition to visual rhetoric intended to identify the griever through a picture. I am also writing a new book on the intersection of traumatic death and religious remembrance, examining the ways in which traumatic death is mourned or ignored and what that says about religious spirituality.
What would you like your work to accomplish?
My hope is to help open a space for conversation about death and to allow people to embrace death in their everyday lives so that we can more fully live. The more we recognize death as a part of life, the more we can embrace life itself. Jesus gave his life for us so that we might more fully live, but if we forget about the gift that death brings to us, we will never live at all.