rescuing the dead

Gudrun Dahl (Gudrun.Dahl@SOCANT.SU.SE)
Mon, 5 Aug 1996 23:20:12 GMT

Tue, 23 Jul 1996 20:55:21 -0400 John Cole wondered about Dead body=

Some unreflected ethnography:
On its way to between Stockholm and Estonia one and a half year ago the ship
Estonia sank with 800 persons. A number of people survived, and many
bereaved people were left in sorrow. Some of them organized themselves into
associations of mutual support, partly with government subsidy. The debate
over how the accident was handled and should continue to be handled goes on
and on, and like the Palme murder, will probably be one of these wounds in
Sweden that will not heal. I simply do not see any solutions to the dilemmas
involved, but it has been rather interesting to follow the debate. In
retrospect, I regret not having jumped on to the issue with systematic
"fieldwork" - but perhaps somebody else did. Otherwise, I guess that if
somebody is interested the massmedia cover of this event would be an
interesting looking glass into Swedish culture. Among the arguments which
come up recurrently are:

- the sea gives and takes: whatever it has taken should not be taken back:
the sea is a dignified grave for generations of sailors and fishermen
- (Government:) The ship is too costly to take up, anyhow it is too late, it
should be covered with sand and concrete to make up a secure
grave protected by later grave-plunderers and treasure-hunters (Such
consideration is not, it should be noted, offered to the dead people of old
1700-century shipwrecks...)
- concrete is an undignified substance
- it would have been cheaper to save the bodies than to cover the ship
- we want our beloved in a place where we can mourn them
- no we want our beloved to rest in the sea
- no workers can be found that would like to do such an unpleasant job: the
workers need some ethical consideration
- workers willing can be found
- maybe it was neglect of security or even a wish to cover up smuggling that
was behind the disaster. The ship should not be covered because that would
stop scrutinizing the evidence.
- Swedish economy is in a fix anyhow, hospitals are closed down etc. - there
are more important things to spend money on...
- it is the memories of people we mourn, not their bodies
- the government treat the mourning relatives arrogantly...and so on, and so=
Apart from the issues involved of how we look at life and death, the rights
of mourners, the duties of the Government, the weighing of different
demands, I think events like these raise a professional problem, which were
even more strongly put forth by the events of 1989-1991 in Eastern Europe.
If we want to be anthropologists taking part in the public debate,
understanding the reactions to unexpected events or sudden change, you must
be prepared to recognize the significant events quickly and to devote
interest to them while they are still hot, not easily done when time and
patient listening are your main tools of research. Is it only when one has
already decided to be in the "fieldwork mode of existence" that one is able
to jump on to things, to do one=B4s "carpe diem"? Maybe this is something=
somebody would like to react to?
Gudrun Dahl, Stockholm