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Can death in the past help us discuss loss in the present?


Researchers in Bradford and Leicester are exploring how looking into our past can help health professionals think differently about death.

The project is a unique collaboration between archaeology and palliative care professionals and looks to use archaeological narratives to stimulate conversations around death and rituals, with the hope that this can change how comfortable we are about discussing death in the present.

Lead on the project, at the University of Bradford, said: "This is a unique project that will examine a dialogue about death and dying between the clinical and historical disciplines. The aim being to demonstrate tangibly how archaeology can inform our current attitudes to death and dying, and thereby help shape policy and practice; and to explore the value of collaboration between health care professionals and archaeologists."

"The diverse methods of dealing with death and the dead uncovered by archaeologists will bring a different perspective to our current attitudes and therefore contribute towards a necessary re-examination of today's near-taboo status of discussing death, even though an inevitable human experience."

Working with Karina on the project, who was awarded £195,832 from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), is Professor Christina Faull, Professor of Palliative Medicine at LOROS hospice and De Montfort University in Leicester, and Mrs Laura Middleton-Green, Marie Curie Clinical Academic Research Fellow at the University of Bradford.

Laura explains: "Death is rarely discussed in everyday life mostly for fear of the emotions it raises. This has considerable consequences for individuals and families in decision-making in illness and frailty of old age."

"The fundamental hypothesis underpinning this work is that through introducing the topic of death through archaeological examples, discussions of death, dying and bereavement can become more familiar within healthcare and the broader community."

The team hope that through bringing talk of death into the conversational realm, people may be empowered to express choices and concerns with those important to them, and health care professionals will feel more comfortable initiating such discussions with people with advanced illness. Through creating a compendium of insights into death through time, particularly the fundamental resonance of bereavement, loss and commemoration, the project will shape thinking on how contemporary practice and historical perspectives can be mutually informed. It offers an alternative and fascinating approach to understanding how humans and society is shaped by this most fundamental and inevitable moment in our human lives.

The project will test the researcher's approach with both lay audiences and with students and professionals in health, social and spiritual care, including nursing students, spiritual care practitioners, counsellors, and medical students. It will seek to use materials to prompt reflection and examination of participants' own families and cultural approaches to death, commemoration and continuing bonds with those that have died.

The research will begin in April 2016 and will initially be a series of workshops with health care professionals in both Bradford and Leicester. These will run in conjunction with two 'Dying Awareness Week' events. Then towards the end of the project, an exploratory workshop will be held with secondary teachers, to assess the viability of introducing material into schools as part of a 'Death Education', with this the focus of work beyond the current project.

This project builds on an existing programme of research undertaken by Karina and the other researchers, which has developed networks between archaeology and healthcare, and explored the ideas raised here with stakeholders, including palliative nurses, spiritual care practitioners, and academics in health care, receiving overwhelming support for project development.

The project titled 'Continuing bonds: exploring the meaning and legacy of death through past and contemporary practice' will run for 28 months.

Image: Plastered skulls, Tell Aswad, courtesy of Danielle Stordeur, CNRS

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