In Haunt

- By Emily Oldfield

A thought-provoking day-long event delving into the ethics of dealing with corpses, confronting death and considering the implications of technology on the process took place at Manchester Metropolitan University’s No 70 Oxford Street on the 10th November: Encountering Corpses IV – featuring digital autopsy tables, facial reconstruction and many more fascinating prospects.

Encountering Corpses exhibition space

Encountering Corpses is a project led by Professor Craig Young and supported by Research in Arts and Humanities (RAH!) at Manchester Metropolitan University, with 2018 marking its fourth instance.  It is also a key part of HAUNT Manchester; with Encountering Corpses research regularly informing the site and network.

This year saw the series take a new theme of ‘Post-Human Corpse, Death and Digital Technology’, happening as part of the ESRC Festival of Social Science 2018. The day of talks and interactive experiences (9.30am-5pm) saw attendees arrive from across the globe, with keynote speaker Professor Erin Edwards (Miami University), author of The Modernist Corpse, flying in from the States to be present – indicating a series with widespread implications.

 Encountering Corpses after all is informed by an eclectic range of academic research and social interest, including (but not at all limited to) medical science, human geography, nursing studies, art, literature and film.

Questions such as ‘how is technology affecting how we deal with dead bodies and what future does this hold?’ were already in the open as attendees registered at 9.30am, with a programme including an introduction from Professor Craig Young himself, keynote speeches from Dr John Troyer and Professor Erin Edwards and a panel discussion on some of latest technologies shaping death interaction.

The ground floor of No 70 Oxford Street had also been transformed into a functioning exhibition space for the day. Here attendees could interact with exhibits including a joint collaboration between Liverpool John Moores University’s Face Lab and MA Art in Science (also LJMU): Death Futures? This included Face Lab’s video showreel of archaeological projects exploring the anatomical construction of ancient bodies with vivid 3D depictions.

Jessica Irwin’s To Donate or not to Donate, That is The Question comic 

Many of the exhibits invited further thought and even asked questions of how attendees would have control over their dead bodies in the future, with Jessica Irwin’s ‘To Donate or Not to Donate, That is the Question!’ attracting interest with its colourful selection, whilst Vittorio Manetti’s  mixed  media replica of a human arm open on a table titled ‘Dissecting the Future’ raised considerations of biological interaction. A sculpture-focused display ‘Fata Morgana’ from Gabriella York-Salmon explored another advancing area in medical research: transgenic organ development.

Other highlights of the exhibition space included Hi Fidelity Simulation (HFS) – a teaching and learning technique using computerised mannequins – and The Anatomage Table, which allowed users to virtually dissect whole human body scans.

Encountering Corpses exhibits

After browsing the exhibits, attendees headed downstairs to the lecture theatre space, with an introduction from Professor Craig Young of Manchester Metropolitan University at 9.45am.

“The project was developed to explore the politics and ethics of encounters with death - in real life a and in contemporary media,” Craig emphasized in his opening address. He went on to detail how dead bodies have “agency” and “mobility” in their own right and how an event like Encountering Corpses is important in communicating this.

A keynote speech from Dr John Troyer (Centre for Death and Society, University of Bath) followed with the title of ‘Why nothing we do online will exist after we die and that’s okay’, highlighting the issues around digital technology and death.  Points raised included “death will always be new” and “death is always there as a constant to be discovered”, within a fascinating address exploring how online media creates new questions for how we encounter mortality.

Professor Craig Young Encountering Corpses

From 11am onwards, attendees could then watch a panel of presentations and research from figures working in the field. Kathryn Smith, Professor Caroline Wilkinson and Mark Roughley provided further detail on the innovative Face Lab project at Liverpool John Moores University, as well as considering the theme of ‘Ethical challenges and cognitive bias in depicting the dead’. How do we use digital technology to represent people? What is the best way to go about this and what are the implications? Many questions were raised and discussed.

‘The use of virtual dissection tables for teaching anatomy and physiology’ was a further thought-provoking section of the panel, delivered by Dr Gethin Evans from Manchester Metropolitan University’s School of Healthcare Science. This was followed by a discussion about the pioneering  EndoLSim© high-fidelity simulation technology and what this could mean for palliative care, from Dr David Garbutt and Michaela Barnard of Salford University.

Multiple themes and implications were raised by the panels, underlining the importance of engaging with ultimately what is the most human of experiences – death.

Dr Matt Foley

The afternoon session then saw a highly-anticipated keynote speech from Professor Erin Edwards of Miami University, who was introduced by Dr Matthew Foley, Lecturer in English at Manchester Metropolitan University. Exploring the theme of ‘Corpse-Powered: The Teeming Energies of Decomposition’, Erin provided a highly engaging consideration of the chemical potential of corpses and what ethical questions the concept of posthumous vitality potentially raises.

Professor Erin Edwards

Erin also spoke exclusively to HAUNT Manchester, ahead of her keynote address:

“I think an event like Encountering Corpses is incredibly meaningful,” She reflected. “I was working on a project on corpses as part of my graduate work at Berkley over a decade ago – there has been such an emergence of Death Studies in the meantime. When my book – The Modernist Corpse – came out, it was brilliant that there was a community of people wanting to talk about this, the issues raised, the implications.

“To be at what is, in effect, a symposium on corpses, is really cool. This encounter with death is just beginning and so important. In the US, there still seems to be an alienation from death in many places – especially in terms of commercial processing of bodies after death, funerals, and how expensive that can be. However, I think that there will be a sea-change in how death is both discussed and dealt with, more consideration of the natural process – perhaps analogous to the Natural Birth Movement. Natural Birth for example was treated as a medical crisis for a long time, but over time people came to discuss it more and have more of a physical connection with it.

“There is after all a lot that death crystallises about life. Beauty, poignancy, meaningfulness.”

The afternoon concluded with dynamic discussion, including much interest in the announced theme for the next series of Encountering Corpses – ‘Pet Death’. With many crucial and stimulating points of thought raised throughout the day, Encountering Corpses underlined its status as one of the most forward-thinking events series’ considering the body in the dying process, death and its aftermath.

Encountering Corpses IV was delivered as part of the 16th annual ESRC Festival of Social Science, which took place from the 3-10 November 2018, with over 300 free events as part of the festival, across the country.

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