Monday November 6, 2023 | VICTORIA, BC [Updated 8:30 pm]
by Mary P Brooke | Island Social Trends [photography was a bit blurry due to low light]
The human desire to stay connected with ancestors is seen across many cultures.
That phenomenon was explored for a few hours on the afternoon of Saturday November 4 during a pop-up exhibit in the upper lobby of the Royal BC Museum. Attendance was free (donations to local food banks were also accepted).
The ‘Loving Ancestors and Restless Ghosts’ exhibit was delivered as a series of booths by Camosun College anthropology students with a pop-up exhibit and presentation. “Why and how do the living continue to interact with the dead,” was the subtitle on the brochure.
Organized for public viewing:
The presentation got bumped upstairs by a double booking; the Victoria Chamber of Commerce was holding a vendor marketplace in the main floor exhibit area on the same afternoon. But a welcome booth in the main floor lobby along with a well-designed brochure effectively redirected visitors up the escalator to the mezzanine near the IMAX Theatre which may have given some additional exposure from passerbys.
Several hundred people mingled about through the exhibits over the two-hour exhibit period.
Over two months of preparation:
Anthropology instructor Nicole Kilburn gave a little pep talk to her students who then dispersed at 1 pm to host their booths.
Kilburn has given the course at Camosun since 2018. She explained to Island Social Trends that her Anthropology of Death students learn far more by having to develop a public presentation and to deal with answering questions from the wide range of interests and knowledge levels of a general public audience.
It means the students really have to know their stuff so they can respond in real time. They prepared for about two-and-a-half months for a two-hour event.
Wide range of topics:
Creative stuff! Booths covered topics like evolution of Halloween (and the days after called All Saints Day on Nov 1, and All Souls Day on Nov 2), ancient burial cultures, good death vs bad death, death agency (who represents the dying person), dying with dignity, spiritualism and mediums, and even how the women’s suffragette movement of the mid-1800s was an opportunity for women to use their intuitive skills for empowerment in the community and society around them.
All the students were keen about their topics, engaging with the public for short and longer discussions. The students listened well at their booths, so as to answer questions effectively.
Each booth set the mood with black as the theme colour (both dress for the presenters and table coverings and booth backdrops). Battery-operated flickering candles also helped set the mood.
Death literacy and grief management is not commonly addressed in North American culture. It was the overall view of the student exhibitors that an intentional disconnect in this society leaves people in some ways at a loss to process death and grief.
But all cultures over time have developed rituals of some kind or another to deal with the passing of loved ones. What we seem to do in North American culture is hold a funeral or wake or celebration of life within a relatively short period of time after the person has passed, and then it’s back to regular life.
As well, dying is experienced in our society most often through a medical lens, with people dying in hospital or hospice when they could be home with loved ones.
One discussion ventured into the pros and cons of medically-assisted dying… does it interrupt the intended life cycle?
Integral part of life:
The exhibit invited everyone to consider death not as a morbid topic but as an integral aspect of life. As people get older, they hope they will be remembered by their family, the course instructor explained. Many cultures have found ways to exercise this generational connection.
Anthropology of Death:
The Anthropology of Death course is held in late October or early November each year at Camosun College. Many of the students are taking the course as an elective without being in the full anthropology program. Most of the students had a prominent or more lingering question or impact from their lives before taking the course.
One student said both her parents were atheists, and as such hadn’t passed along any beliefs about death and afterlife.
Kilburn points out the natural seasonal changes (past the harvest, leaves falling from trees, longer nights) that have impacted human cultures to think about death and rebirth. Meanwhile, for the Celts this is a new year… moving from the end into new beginnings. Kilburn has imbued the students in this class with the idea at the ‘veil’ between worlds is thinnest on Halloween (about halfway between the autumnal equinox and winter solstice). Halloween ‘spookiness’ was a way for the Celts to ward off spirits that might try to get through into the consciousness of the living.
This year, the exhibit also loosely tied in with the current Royal BC Museum exhibit called ANGKOR: THE LOST EMPIRE OF CAMBODIA (on until January 14, 2024).
Anthropology courses at Camosun:
Anthropology is an exciting discipline that offers insight into who we are as a species and how we came to be, says the Camosun Anthrology Department, where courses are offered in four sub-fields: cultural, biological, linguistic, and archaeological.
Two years of anthropology courses are offered at Camosun, with transfer available to universities for further study for a four-year degree.
===== ABOUT ISLAND SOCIAL TRENDS:
Island Social Trends is an insight news publication, looking at topics that impact our lives in ways within and beyond the regular news cycle. News is available free to read at IslandSocialTrends.ca supported by advertisers and subscribers. Editor: Mary P Brooke.