Julie Rugg 2018

University of York

Consolation, individuation and consumption: towards a theory of cyclicality in English funerary practice

This paper suggests a new meta-narrative for understanding change in Westernised funerary practice over time, shifting away from the conception of dichotomised swings between periods when death was somehow hidden or problematic, and times during which death was regarded as ‘tame’, accepted and largely unproblematic. Instead, this it is proposed that funerary practice runs rather in a cyclical pattern, as innovation, gradually absorbed as a mass option, provokes new innovation. This pattern not seated within the desire for the lesser-status members of society to emulate the elite or garner ‘respectability’. Rather, it reflects a more essentialist search for consolation that is undermined by the threat to individuation by industrial-level scales of operation and professionalization. Within this framework, consumption is posited as a facilitator and the bereaved make active choices – depending on their unequal resources – amongst a range of products and services to secure consolation. The example of England will be used to evidence cycles of change, and draws material from a range of sources. In particular, the paper will use this overarching framework to offer an interpretation of the change in use from churchyard to cemetery and from cemetery to crematorium, and the recent development of natural burial. At the heart of the paper is the core contention that the literal scale of mortality – the size of the community and the number of dead that community has to deal with – is a more significant determinant of change in funerary practice than chronological periodisation.


The Cemetery Research Group runs two events a year: in May and in November. Follow the links and send in an abstract