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Death, the abject and the right to public space in the city

Authors: Craig Young*,
Topics: Urban Geography, Cultural Geography
Keywords: Abject, death, human remains, public space
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


The dead body is often considered the ultimate abject materiality and is usually separated from the living in urban space. However, recent trends in death, disposal and commemoration – spontaneous or roadside shrines, ashes scattering, and new commemorative practices – represent a desequestration of death, which means that death and human remains are increasingly encountered in public space – particularly other people’sdeath and mourning. These trends are stretching understandings of private vs. public space in the city, where death ‘should be’ located, and who is responsible for it in the everyday. This paper therefore explores some of the complex ways in which these emerging forms of marking death in the landscape are encountered and contested. There is a complex politics surrounding making private grief more visible in public space, the changing of space by unofficial and often unregulated forms of memorialisation, and the blurring of public and private space as 'appropriate' arenas for expressing grief. This paper considers the nature of encounters with the abject in the form of the disposal of, and spontaneous memorialisation of, other people's death, including: UK local authority regulation of roadside/spontaneous shrines; issues surrounding the covert scattering of ashes in public space and leisure spaces; and an auto-ethnography of engagement with a spontaneous shrine on a beach in north Wales. Each case raises questions about the micro-politics of encounter with other people's death and grief in public space, and how this reshapes our relationship with landscape, place and our mourning of humans and non-humans.

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