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Archaeology meets palliative care

Author: Daniel Ward, Head of Publishing, Help the Hospices
28 March 2014
  • Plastered Skull, Jericho
    Plastered skull, Jericho
  • Plastered Skulls, Tell Aswad
    Plastered skulls, Tell Aswad
  • Dr Karina Croucher with her poster at the Palliative Care Congress 2014

Palliative care and archaeology are being brought together in a new research project which aims to facilitate conversations around death and dying. ehospice caught up with the project lead, archaeologist Dr Karina Croucher, at the recent Palliative Care Congress to discuss her fascinating work.

The disciplines of palliative care and archaeology have rarely had the means or incentive to engage, says Dr Karina Croucher in the literature about her project into archaeological research and contemporary attitudes to death and dying. She plans to change that and is calling on the palliative care sector to work with her to help overcome the “taboo status of death”.

As soon as we start discussing the project, I am immediately drawn in by Dr Croucher's description of how past civilisations used to recreate the face of the dead by applying plaster to their skulls. Previously, she explains, this was thought to be a sign of status and hierarchy, but it could actually be evidence of continuing bonds and a wish to keep the dead physically and emotionally close.

It is compelling case studies such as this – challenging culturally-constructed notions of acceptable mourning behaviour and providing new insights into grief and mourning – which Dr Croucher believes can be used to prompt discussions about death and mortality.

"I have been thinking about how to make the archaeological material around death more relevant and contemporary," she tells me.

She continues: "Conversations about death and dying can be problematic, and remain a huge taboo for many people, despite the palliative care literature telling us that we need to be open and accept death as a natural part of life.

"Interesting but removed case studies could help with that process, using fascinating materials that are part of our common shared ancestry to get people thinking about death differently."

She goes on to tell me of her plans for a web resource of materials and case studies, as well as workshops where people discuss archaeological materials found in graves to get them thinking about objects they associate with loved ones.

The project, which is still in the exploratory stages, received positive feedback from delegates at the Palliative Care Congress – even winning a poster prize – and Dr Croucher has been invited to go and talk about her work at several organisations who believe their staff would benefit from a totally different approach.

She would welcome further feedback to help inform the future direction of the research. For more information and to give feedback, visit www.bradford.ac.uk/dyinginthepast or email Dr Croucher at k.croucher@bradford.ac.uk 

She has also had an abstract of the project published in the BMJ Supportive and Palliative Care Palliative Care Congress supplement.

See more articles in Research

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