Death semiotics

Natural wood coffin

Natural wood coffin

Yesterday I experienced the incredible power of semiotics. Semiotics is the study of signs/symbols and their socially constructed meaning. I first came across semiotics reading Chris Weedon’s “Feminist practice and poststructuralist theory”. An easy to understand, funky, short history from semiotics to poststructuralism can be found here and here with an article called “Poststructuralism explained with hipster beards”.

Next Monday I am co-facilitating the launch of the partnership between the Adelaide Cemeteries Authority (ACA)(my employer) and the Conservation Council SA (CCSA). CCSA supporters want to die as they lived with sustainability values and ACA offer natural burials in the only 2 public natural burial grounds in SA – a match made in heaven!

I have created a mobile display for the launch which includes a natural wood coffin, a natural burial shroud surrounded by native plants, a banner and some handouts. Yesterday the coffin was delivered to the venue, The Joinery. I just expected it to be delivered and kept in a corner until we need it for the display on Monday.

Well people saw it moving through the building and it triggered a strong emotional response. Even my co-facilitator, Kath, said she felt funny holding it while she carried it. Staff told her it made them uncomfortable seeing a coffin at their workplace. One indigenous staff member advised that in her culture it is taboo to do “something like that”. I am not sure what “something like that” actually means at this stage but assume its around having death so obvious in everyday life?

Natural burial shroud

Natural burial shroud

The idea was that our display would stay in the foyer for several weeks to promote the partnership around natural burials. But after the response from staff, the feeling now is that it will be too confronting for people walking into the building and the first thing they see is the coffin. I must say no one has even seen the mannequin in the natural burial shroud yet which will look something like this photo. What sort of response will the combination of the coffin and the shroud illicit?

Kath and I reflected on this initial pre-event feedback. This was her first involvement in creating a public space to talk about death. Her experience had been very different to my experiences of hosting community engagement activities such as Death Cafes, Dying To Know Day events and running the “10 Things To Know Before You Go” workshop. We realised the difference was that I invite people into the safe and welcoming spaces I create whereas people were feeling ambushed by coming face to face with a coffin in their workplace without any warning.

Death has been removed from our everyday. Not only physical death but even the signs and symbols we have associated with death are removed.

I find it interesting that just a coffin with no dead body in sight can illicit such a strong reaction from people. In the language of semiotics and Sassure, a coffin is the signifier and death is signified. A coffin is a box made of wood. We use boxes made from wood for all sorts of things like transporting fruit and veggies. There is nothing inherent about a box made from wood that means death. For instance some Men’s Sheds are now making coffins that are designed to be used as book shelves until needed for burial. People see a coffin and think death. It is clear from the reaction yesterday that when people think death this triggers uncomfortable emotions and feelings. It is an indication of our death-phobic society and culture.

We have outsourced death from our everyday. Death is now hidden away. We don’t want to be reminded of our mortality and when we are unexpectedly forced into thinking about our death we are shocked and our unexamined fear of death is triggered.

Synchronistically I came across an interesting research paper yesterday:

Vess, M., & Arndt, J. (2008). The nature of death and the death of nature: The impact of mortality salience on environmental concern. Journal of Research in Personality, 42(5), 1376-1380.


“According to terror management theory, individuals are motivated to distinguish themselves from the rest of nature because doing so facilitates the denial of human mortality. However, based on an integration of terror management and contingencies of self-worth perspectives, the present research hypothesized that existential insecurities about death may differentially influence environmental concern depending on whether or not an individual derives self-esteem from environmental action. Results demonstrated that heightened mortality awareness led to less concern for the environment among those not deriving self-esteem from an environmental domain, but fostered environmental concern among those who do acquire self-esteem from environmental action.”

Ego vs Eco

Ego vs Eco

The research found that by increasing death awareness of people who are environmentally concerned increased their environmental action activities i.e. connected them even more to nature as part of an ecosystem. Conversely increasing death awareness of people who are not environmentally concerned decreased their environmental action activities i.e. made them feel even more separated from nature and use nature as a resource.

So what did I learn yesterday? I learned that people in my world have an unexamined habit of mind where they are afraid of death. Therefore to engage people around death topics for social and culture change, avoid ambushing them unexpectedly with the topic of death or even our cultural symbols of death because it will trigger their fear of death and engagement will be impossible. The community activities I run seem to work because I invite people into safe and welcoming space rather than ambush them. They voluntarily come into the space ready to talk about and learn about and discuss death. Huge difference in approaches!

I also learned from the research that people who are environmentally concerned are more likely to be interested in death awareness and death education activities and that this will create a feedback loop that further encourages them to care for the environment. As a social ecologist I am interested in re-imagining our urban death options so people with environmental concerns can die as they have lived. So am feeling my starting point is to engage with people who are integrating sustainability ideals and behaviours into their everyday. This research is very meaningful for my work. It links the two most important directions in my life and my values – living and dying sustainably. What a serendiptious find!

See my previous blog for the serendipitous story about how I came across this important.article.



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