New American Ways of Death: Anxiety, Mourning, and Commemoration in American Culture
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The experiences of grief and mourning in response to loss are fundamentally transformative to the self-identity of the mourner, necessitating an array of ritualized behaviors at the communal and individual levels. These rituals of mourning both create a space in which this transformation may take place and provide the structure that can direct that transformation. My focus is on historical and emerging forms of vernacular commemoration, by which I refer to material forms that are created by, acted upon, or in other ways utilized by a person experiencing grief in the service of regaining a sense of stability in the aftermath of loss. The re-integration of the bereaved, through mourning, back into society in new relation with the departed is often assisted by these vernacular memorial forms. My analysis focuses on three specific forms of commemoration: spirit photographs, ghost bikes, and memorial tattoos. These are vernacular forms of expression in the sense that they have emerged from and cater to individual needs and desires that are not satisfied by the more official and uniform materials and processes of mourning, such as the funeral service and subsequent visits to a gravesite or contemplation of an ash-filled urn. The power of these memorial forms rests in the adaptive and restorative abilities of memory to retain the lost relationship and to pull it forward and reconstitute it in a changed state as enduring and continuing into the future. When faced with the sudden death of a loved one, the traditional rituals that surround modern death may seem too rigid and homogenized to satisfy the wide array of emotions demanding attention in the bereaved. This is where the vernacular rituals and new forms of commemoration discussed in this dissertation spring up and make themselves known. Highly individual, yet often publicly and politically motivated, these new American ways of interpreting death and performing mourning represent the changing needs of contemporary mourners. As death has become increasingly hidden away and discussion of it rendered taboo, the need for personal and direct interaction with the processes of grief and mourning have become more and more important.