Death, Materiality and Mediation

An Ethnography of Remembrance in Ireland

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Barbara Graham
  • New York, NY: 
    Berghahn Books
    , November
     174 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Death is both universal and particular. We are all confronted with it, whether it is our own death or the death of loved ones. The ways in which we deal with death, however, differ throughout temporal and spatial contexts. This begs the question of how people engage with death and the dead in their lives, and the ways in which they express this engagement materially and/or ritually. It is of no surprise that anthropologists have long studied these engagements. The book Death, Materiality and Mediation by anthropologist Barbara Graham is a valuable addition to this field of scholarship.

The book is an interesting theoretical exploration of something that is familiar to all of us: how to engage with, have relations with, and mediate the dead into our lives? The book is even more familiar as many of the materialities and mediations described are similar to what we, at least in Western countries, do and experience. It therefore offers an interesting new perspective on a theme that might at first seem common, but that – as Graham indicates – is simultaneously very much contextual.

Graham holds a PhD in anthropology, and her research focused on the materiality of death in Ireland. She examined relations with the dead through an analysis of how people remember through objects, stories, and places. Most of the insights presented in the book stem from this research (part of the data was gathered in 2006-2007; a second fieldwork period was in 2012-2013).

The book is published in the series “Material Mediations” (edited by Birgit Meyer and Maruška Svašek). This series aims to stimulate debates on mediation processes in a global and transnational world. According to the editors of the series, mediation is fundamentally material: it happens in relationships between objects and people. The book by Graham falls neatly within the goals and interests of the series by placing at its center materialized mediation between people and objects, and between the living and the dead.

The book follows a rather classical build-up. In the preface, Graham introduces her fieldwork site and her theoretical aims. Many theoretical debates are briefly mentioned, but it remains a bit unclear what is innovative about this particular study. In the introduction, Graham elaborates on the theoretical framework, introducing materiality as a way to investigate mediation and relations. Graham couples this with theoretical debates (mostly from anthropology, but other social sciences’ and humanities’ disciplines, as well) on materialities (which she stretches to include the body, embodied emotions and senses, and narratives), the value of things/objects, memory, death and liminality, and contestation, amongst others. In addition, Graham turns to questions of gender, class, and age.

If this sounds dense, it is because the book is indeed so. The amount of theories reviewed at times feels overwhelming. Because of this, it is occasionally challenging to understand how it all combines into one narrative. Moreover, for readers unknowledgeable to the fields described above, the theories as they are presented might pose more questions than they give answers. However, for those scholars who are interested in the subject and already have a fair bit of knowledge on some of its theoretical debates, the book is a good challenge. It is a creative (although at times not entirely successful) attempt to bring multiple insights together.

The chapter that follows is an explication of Graham’s research methods. She describes her fieldwork site as being “close to home,” using this to reflect on insider and outsider perspectives (classical themes in anthropological writings).

In the following five chapters, theoretical ideas and ethnographic details are related to six different themes: narratives about the dead, embodied senses and emotions, objects of the dead, collective remembrance rituals, and graveyards. The book ends with a concluding chapter, in which the main focus is on the crossing of boundaries: between people and objects, the living and the dead, the sacred and the secular, the public and the private, and the individual and institutions. In all these chapters, materiality takes center stage. This materiality is mostly described from a functional perspective. According to Graham, the dead are materialized to structure and at times control relations, to negotiate separation and reunion, and to give the living a sense and a way to hold on to memories.

One of the more engaging and insightful arguments Graham puts forth is how and why people make the immaterial and intangible material. By doing this, relationships between the living and the dead, as well as the identities of the dead are constantly reconfigured and restated. The dead remain in a liminal stage as long as their legacies and relationships remain material. This materiality can both be permanent (e.g., family heirlooms that are being transferred through generations) or fleeting (e.g., flowers put on graves).

The subtitle of the book reads An ethnography of remembrance in Ireland. Reading a book written by an anthropologist which promises to be an “ethnography,” one expects rich ethnographic data to be presented. The appendix to the book testifies to the many people Graham interviewed, the many rituals, ceremonies and gatherings she joined, and the many  material objects she observed (and, probably, experienced). Based on this, it can be assumed that she has gathered many rich details of the lives of her informants. Unfortunately, the book does not seem to do justice to this. Ethnographic details are given here and there, and quotes and emotions of people are displayed. This is, however, done with little attention to detail, and the people and events lack the “embodiment” that could be expected of an anthropological work. As a result, the ethnography presented is mostly reduced to snippets to support theoretical ideas.

In conclusion, the book is a good read for those who are more knowledgeable and interested in the fields of the anthropology of materiality, and (the anthropology of) death. It gives a good overview of the main debates in these areas, with literature that is both new and older. However, those readers who expected more ethnographic grounding (possibly misled by the subtitle of the book) could perhaps remain unsatisfied.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mariske Westendorp is an Anthropologist and Religious Studies Scholar.

Date of Review: 
November 20, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Barbara Graham is an anthropologist with a special research interest in Ireland. She has extensive research experience in the field of material culture studies, death, emotions, aging and care.



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