The Archaeological Lens

Anthropologist Shannon Lee Dawdy (University of Chiago) and filmmaker Daniel Zox embark on a project whose subject matter concerns rapidly changing death practices in the US, particularly as regards disposition of the body and the creation of memorial objects. The aesthetic challenge is to use the moving picture medium with an archaeological eye as they explore how film might be used as a means to excavate the contemporary – creating visual field notes of material practices.

This experimental documentary asks: How are funeral practices changing and what does this say about the beliefs and values of the living?

In the U.S. today, death practices are changing rapidly, and creatively. The growing popularity of cremation has led to a proliferation of new things to do with ashes – incorporating them into artificial reefs, making them into synthetic diamonds, mixing them into paintings, or blending them into a vinyl record. Some families are opting for green burials of the natural body with a shroud and tree planting in place of a metal casket and marble marker. More unusual choices include embalming the body propped up in a life-like setting (like a kitchen table) for the visitation or removing tattoos to be preserved as mementos.

Americans are experimenting with ways to treat remains that seem to reflect new ideas about who we are, the place of the dead among the living, and that most personal carbon imprint we leave behind – our bodies. The historian Philippe Ariès once said that America was the most death-denying society of the Western world. Is that now changing?

This film is being co-produced by Mellon Collaborative Fellows Shannon Dawdy and Daniel Zox as part of their fellowship project, The Archaelogical Lens.