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Mediator deathwork

Walter, T. (2005) Mediator deathwork. Death Studies, 29 (5). pp. 383-412. ISSN 1091-7683

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To link to this item DOI: 10.1080/07481180590932508


The most discussed and analyzed form of deathwork is the dyadic therapist ↔ client relationship, but this far from exhausts the various types of professional work involving the dead. Mediator deathwork is where the professional gleans or constructs information about the dead, edits and polishes it, and publicly presents the edited version in a public rite; this entails a triadic flow of information: the dead → the mediator → public rite. Examples include pathologists, coroners, American funeral directors, funeral celebrants, obituary writers, spiritualist mediums, and museum curators. Other types include barrier deathwork (in which the professional insulates the living from the dead—the dead | the living— as in British funeral directing), and intercessory deathwork in which priests send prayers the other way, from the living to, or on behalf of, the dead: mourner → priest → the dead. The article focuses on mediator deathwork because, though it is the most widespread form of deathwork, it is the least discussed and analyzed. By deathwork, I mean specialized work following a death. In modern western societies, and perhaps particularly in the United States, the dyadic relationship between therapist (or counselor) and client has gained paradigmatic status when it comes to thinking about deathwork. Counselors, therapists, and psychiatrists working within this dyadic relationship are frequently brought in to train a wide range of deathworkers—from clergy, to police, to coroners, to funeral directors. Further, the therapist–client relationship, like the associated doctor–patient relationship, has received a considerable amount of theorizing. In this article, however, I argue that most deathwork professions do not operate primarily within a dyadic professional–client relationship. I outline the contours of their particular professional relationship, a triadic relationship in which they act as mediators between the dead and the living, and I begin to theorize this relationship. In addition to this triadic “mediator deathwork”, I also identify a number of other kinds of deathwork: barrier deathwork, intercessory deathwork, and witness deathwork. Overall, a wide range of deathwssork specialists look very different when we take what they do seriously, rather than assume they practise a lesser form of therapy. This article aims to make a theoretical contribution. I draw primarily on the literature on a range of deathwork but also on ethnographic data collected by myself during various research and training projects. These include observation of eight inquests and five spiritualist church meetings, and taped interviews with six bereavement counselors about their clients' experience of inquests and mediums; the counselors work with parents who have lost a child. (In this article, unattributed quotes come from these counselors.) These data were all collected in England in 2000. In addition, I have visited funeral parlors in the United Kingdom and the United States and elsewhere in Europe, Asia, and Australia; and for 18 years I have assisted religious and secular agencies in training those who lead funerals, enabling me to observe and theorize the work of funeral celebrancy. This article thus takes some steps further the theoretical perspectives articulated earlier in Walter (1990 Walter , T. . ( 1990 ). Funerals: And how to improve them . London : Hodder . [Google Scholar] 1996 Walter , T. ( 1996 ). A new model of grief, bereavement and biography . Mortality , 1 , 7 – 25 . [CSA] [Taylor & Francis Online], [Google Scholar] ). In this article, deathwork refers to those occupations that deal with specific dead people and/or mourners; it therefore excludes those who work with dying people and academic thanatology. Substantive examples given in the text are from England, unless stated otherwise. I begin by considering together a number of forms of deathwork—pathology, inquests, mediumship, obituaries, and funeral celebrancy—which are normally seen as very different kinds of work, in order to show that they have a surprising amount in common. From this, I develop a sociological ideal type of mediator deathwork. (By ideal type, sociologists refer not to a desirable but to a pure type of social relationship; actual relationships usually show characteristics of one or more types, which may be illuminated through consideration of the pure forms.) It then becomes possible, by comparison, to identify other ideal types—barrier deathwork, intercessory deathwork, counseling deathwork, and witness deathwork. Once the various types have been outlined, I then explore mediator deathwork in more detail, since it is the most widespread, yet the least analyzed, of the five types.

Item Type:Article
Divisions:Arts, Humanities and Social Science
ID Code:6577
Publisher:Taylor & Francis

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