Science, Technology and Society

Our Science, Technology and Society list publishes books that examine the social, political and economic implications of developments in science and technology.

Path-breaking book series include Dis-positions: Troubling Methods and Theory in STS and Contemporary Issues in Science Communication.

Science, Technology and Society

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In the south of Ghana, so-called funeral banners are ubiquitous in public space. These large-scale posters printed on PVC give the faces of deceased community members a continued place among the living as well as a distinctly ‘modern’ feel and aesthetic. By looking at the materiality and contexts of these image-objects, that are used as advertisements and props in multiple ways during funerals and beyond, this chapter unpacks the functions that funeral banners have for the living. It traces their social lives and the ways in which material and visual qualities of funeral banners help to produce morally good kinds of death or respond to bad death appropriately. Ethnographic data from contemporary Ghana is brought in dialogue with the enduring influences of colonial history and shifting power relations. These continue to shape the ways in which the dead can remain integral parts of communities. Funeral banners may indexically help to recreate the dead in a social process of making death, and they may help to turn bad kinds of death into better, possibly good kinds. While serving to attract visitors to funerals, they also offer semi-permanent sites in which the dead may come to acquire ancestor status.

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This concluding chapter connects the preceding chapters across four overarching themes. ‘Relational death’ emphasizes the inevitable socio-ecological relationalities involved in dying, death and deathcare. We draw attention to the relationalities among more-than-human bodies, their purposes and meanings, and their caretakers. ‘More-than-human bodies’ expands the scope of death studies to include nonhuman and non-organismic entities, while also situating the human corpse within ecological and material relations. ‘Purposes and meaning’ considers alternative possibilities by which the dead become meaningful or valuable to the living. We discuss emerging disposition technologies’ symbolic promises of continuation of the self beyond death. Death and the dead mean different things to other beings. Thus, we highlight death as a collective affair that becomes necessary for the continuation of lives, where meaning is not localized in the deaths of individuals but understood as integral to life beyond the bounded subject. ‘Norms and care’ elaborates on complex relationalities of community, care and labour that bind the living and the dead. We highlight the potentiality of materials to confirm and challenge notions of a good death as well as the inequalities that permeate the complex relationalities and communities of the living, dying and dead.

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This chapter seeks to illustrate how claims made about the Baltic Sea’s ecological conditions contribute to an environmental imaginary of a dying Baltic Sea. Adopting an onto-epistemological approach to environmental imaginary, this chapter explores cultural and scientific representations of the Baltic Sea and how they congeal into normative assumptions related to what this sea is, ought to be, and how to keep it that way. The chapter explores how the Baltic Sea gets framed as a stable, ‘natural’ categorization and how challenges to this categorization get framed as ‘unnatural’ and undesirable. The chapter exposes how a dying Baltic Sea predominantly rests upon selective attention to particular attributes of its water. Thus, a dying Baltic Sea is one Baltic Sea among many, and a dying Baltic Sea could die from changes to any of these other attributes. The chapter ends by discussing whom a living or dying Baltic Sea benefits and arguing for a political and artistic intervention into people’s onto-epistemological relationships with marine environments as an alternative to the simplistic binary in which marine pollution results from only human interference in ‘natural’ processes.

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No one and nothing die alone. This volume highlights the socio-ecological relationalities involved in dying and death, revealing complex interconnections among human and more-than-human creatures, environments, geographies, temporalities, narratives and scales of being. This volume brings together an international and interdisciplinary group of scholars who shed light on matters and meanings that have remained at the margins of contemporary death studies and deathcare cultures. Organized around three themes (ontologies and epistemologies, care and remembrance, and troubling agencies), this volume presents original work that pushes the boundaries of death studies beyond the scope human death, inviting the reader to explore death and dying in ways that challenge a nature/culture binary.

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This chapter articulates the metaphorical entailments of two emerging strands of Western vernacular spirituality, the dead who become ‘trees’ and the dead who become ‘mushrooms’. Trees feature heavily across the spectrum of natural deathcare services, as symbols of generational legacy, or as a promise of a green afterlife. More recently, fungi have been incorporated into products designed to enhance natural burial, including burial suits, coffins and pods. We critically examine the emergence of arboreal and mycelium afterlives drawing on interviews conducted between 2018 and 2021 with death technologists in Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, as well as analysis of their promotional materials and pitches at industry conferences, and analysis of the popular reception on news and social media. Both trees and mushrooms act as powerful ecological symbols, but offer up distinct configurations of the material and symbolic boundaries between human/nonhuman, corpse/nature, self/other. How is the human personhood or personal identity of the dead preserved, transformed or severed in the form of trees or fungi? What is the relationship between these trees or fungi and the community of the living? And what kind of afterlives are generated by the transformation of human life and decay into these life forms?

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Contemporary deathcare is being shaped by technologies and practices that draw attention to the environmental impacts of human deathcare at large scales. These concerns have elicited a moral dialectic involving the respectful disposition of individual human remains and emerging interests in collective responsibility for environmentally sustainable disposition. This chapter examines how this moral dialectic has challenged moral proscriptions against the ‘commingling’ of human remains, and how these normative proscriptions have pushed back against these challenges. The chapter concludes by suggesting that public deathcare policy may function as a site for reconciling moral tensions between the personal/individual meanings of the human corpse and the universal/planetary meanings of the human corpse.

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The presence of industrial pollutants in soil is recognized as an urgent environmental concern for its damaging effects on the ecosystem. While heavy metals can cause imbalance, decline and death in the communities of microorganisms living in soil, specific microbes are also able to tolerate the contaminants and transform them into harmless compounds. Microbial responses to heavy metals, such as resistance or death, emerge as instrumental in bioremediation, a field exploring the potential for the employment, manipulation and exploitation of soil microbial communities to address anthropogenic pollution. The ‘remedial microbe’ materializes as a commodity to augment, feed and dispose of safely through microbiopolitical management practices; its death appears critical to the success of the intervention. In reconsidering death and dying beyond a functional narrative of exploitation, the chapter unsettles anthropocentric understandings of individuated death, to begin appreciating the death of communities where dead organisms are recognized in their multitude and invisibility.

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Death studies typically focus on the death of humans, overlooking the wider factors involved in social and natural processes around death.

This edited volume provides an alternative focus for death studies by looking beyond human death, to reveal the complex interconnections among human and more than human creatures, entities and environments.

Bringing together a diverse range of international scholars, the book sheds light on topics which have previously remained at the margins of contemporary death studies and death care cultures.

Organised around three themes – Knowledge and Mediation, Care and Remembrance, and Agency and Power – this book pushes the boundaries of death studies to explore death and dying from beyond the perspective of a nature/culture binary.

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The COVID-19 pandemic forced cemetery managers and local governments to draw up plans for ‘mass casualty’ events, including communal burial, a mode that has long existed for the indigent but is rarely acknowledged. Media coverage of mass burials brought existing ‘pauper grave’ sites to the fore and precipitated a conversation on the ‘proper’ interment of bodies. This chapter examines the history of collective burial and addresses how images of coffins, cooling trucks and overfull cemeteries have come to define moments of societal crisis. It is argued that the trench grave has become a stand-in for civic rupture and institutional failure, leading to the question: what makes the prospect of communal burial so appalling? Fears of collective burial are culturally bound with European funerary rites but, in countries like Japan, collective burial societies have gained in popularity. Moreover, ‘death disruptors’ in the United States and elsewhere have advocated for new, norm-challenging modes of co-interment. This chapter ends by analysing these technologies and their public reception. This contributes to a broader media ecology for the circulation of images of death, and an emergent ‘death positivity’ movement that challenges long-held customs in cemeteries and funeral industries.

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We introduce the context of the edited volume, describing its interdisciplinary focus, its immediate connection to death and dying, and how this volume came to be. We position the volume in the field of death studies, pointing out how the volume underscores the relationality of death by articulating new forms of deathly concern that situate death, and human relationships to it in more-than-human terms. The volume brings these marginal matters into focus, centring discussion of the death of nonhuman others, the relational materiality of the human corpse, new narratives about the work of death caretakers, and newly emerging practices and technologies. By shedding light on deaths and dyings that exist in unlooked-for places, the volume challenges death studies’ focus on human death, as well as the norms that govern standard approaches to studying human death. Finally, we discuss the book’s structure, including how the work included in this edited volume showcase a range of theoretical and methodological approaches to the study of death and dying from cutting-edge research in death studies, feminist and queer studies, new materialism and waste studies, plant and animal studies, and non-Western or indigenous studies.

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