It could be the smell and crackle of bacon cooking or the melting of grandma’s flaky pastry on the tongue, or some other vivid memory that makes our hearts ache. Food has always been an emotive issue. And now one academic is using it to initiate difficult conversations about death, dying and bereavement.
‘Lots of people struggle to talk about death, and that can make planning ahead or grieving a loss much harder to cope with,’ says Alexandra Mascolo, an Edinburgh-based interdisciplinary researcher and author of Personalising Death. ‘In 2018, the World Health Organisation recognised Prolonged Grief Disorder as a mental health issue. We need to find ways to make it easier to open up about our fears and our loss.’
Alex began to explore death following a spate of sudden deaths in her extended family, recognising that in Britain we all too often put on a brave face and carry on. But it hasn’t always been that way. In Victorian times death was still a frequent and expected visitor, taking young and old. It was highly visible and shared within the community; often there would be a local woman known for dressing the deceased. Wearing black for protracted periods was common, with many women, like Queen Victoria herself, wearing it for the rest of their lives. Women made their own shrouds, while neighbours closed curtains and covered mirrors. The Victorians even began photographing their loved ones in death. But then suddenly it became a taboo to be skirted around.
According to Alex, who is based across Edinburgh’s art college and university, the shift began after the mass deaths resulting from the First and Second World Wars, medical advancements and a move to a more secular culture.
‘Death became a much more private affair. So many had died in the two world wars, with the slain interred abroad, unseen,’ she explains. ‘Around the same time, the traditional funeral industry mushroomed, responding to a demand to alleviate the family from the trauma of death. Land grew ever more scarce and expensive, leading to a growth in cremation, which became the new norm from the Sixties on.
‘The downside of the new system was that people stopped talking about death, and that’s not healthy,’ she says. ‘We should be able to commemorate our loved ones openly and verbally, without guilt.’
Her book Personalising Death focuses specifically on women working towards a more death-literate Scotland, including an end-of-life midwife, a hospice worker, a medium and a natural shroud maker.
‘I wanted to provide information to those coping with death, dying and bereavement. It is not a resource per se, but more a launchpad to discussing the issue,’ adds Alex. ‘There are a growing number of individuals offering a different sort of service at this critical moment, as a supplement or sometimes an alternative to the traditional ways of preparing for death or saying goodbye. It’s about finding ways to make it easier to talk about how you feel.’
Over recent years, opportunities to talk about death have become more common. There is a Death Café movement, an international project to run events on a local level. There have been grief supper clubs, even book and film clubs. Aware of this shift, Affertons plans to host community events where people can come and feel comfortable talking to one another about their loss. In our increasingly secular society, it’s about perpetual remembrance. The rituals of death have changed but we still need a way to remember our loved ones and to celebrate their lives. Reminiscing is a way to the keep their memory alive and help us process their absence.
You can contact Alex via her website www.alexmascolo.com