An Anthropologist Reflects:
The idea of death and how we live with it

A Dead-end? In the first of three guest contributions, social anthropologist Eveliina Kuitunen writes on the problem of “otherness”. Can we really know anything about any death but our own?

In 1972, Johannes Fabian criticised a parochialising of mortality and claimed anthropologists “ceased to answer for humanity” by only writing of “how others die” and ignoring singular death. Such a complaint assumes there is such a thing, and seems to suggest that writing of a death of someone who is not the other is possible. Fabian and Robben posit that as death is the termination of individual behaviour, there cannot be an anthropology of it, but only of the life-centred behaviours towards it and its effects on survivors (Robben 2004). But this, again, presupposes death to be something other than an assemblage of beliefs, emotions and rationalisations of the living.

For Heidegger, the extreme alterity of death is linked to its individuation, as it is “the only thing that belongs to us alone wholly”. (Heidegger 1927) To this a social scientist might object, as does Sartre: “to what extent is death the only experience belonging to oneself alone, when it dispossesses me from myself?” Furthermore, to what extent is my death mine, when the valorisation or qualification of death – dying “for” something, dying well or in vain, or redemption – must be the project of other actors once I have left the stage?

Posted: 18th September 2019

Categories: Reflections