Exiled Bodies and Funeral Homes in Aotearoa New Zealand
Within the hidden space of the embalmer's room the most abject of objects comes to rest. Embalming rooms, and the funeral homes that house them, are liminal zones, and the dead and decaying bodies that come to occupy them are, for many outside the funeral service industry, objects and spaces of mystification. Situated within contradictory discourses, the dead body is understood as an object/subject to be revered, whilst at the same time bringing to the living a degree of discomfort and fear. The body's decomposition reminds us that nothing can bring the dead back, thus representing the ultimate human fear - one's inevitable annihilation. It is therefore deemed necessary to remove this destabilising object/subject to a safe and contained space. This thesis opens up and explores such a space: the contemporary funeral home, with particular attention given to the principles and practices of embalming rooms, as these rooms represent possibly the most abject space of the funeral home. In doing so it excavates the historical, social and cultural constructs that have come to underpin contemporary funeral service provision and embalming practices, uncovering the various intrinsic dualisms that operate within the spaces of the funeral home - such as the public/private, contaminated/contained, life/death, inside/outside. The central question of the thesis asks: what can an exploration of the abject spaces and bodies of the funeral home in Aotearoa New Zealand offer to understandings about embodied geographies? For even as many geographers increasingly challenge the marginalisation of certain bodies and the spaces they inhabit, little attention is given to the dead body. Employing primarily the theoretical perspectives of emotional/psycho-geography and feminist geography, the thesis brings a reading of the ways in which death, decaying bodies, and the spaces within which they are separated, marginalised, and othered come to be understood by those within the funeral industry, and thus those who utilise its services. These theoretical approaches also challenge many of the dichotomies that form a major basis for the justification of contemporary funeral practices such as embalming. Through interviews with a variety of key stakeholders in both the traditional and alternative funeral sectors in Aotearoa New Zealand, and close readings of funeral industry texts, it is found that the dead body, embedded within totalising discourses on death, and contained and closeted away in the back rooms of funeral homes, is forced to undergo extensive, invasive practices that sanitise and transform it in order to eradicate any obvious traces that it is now a dead body. In the spaces of the funeral home the material and symbolic manifestations of death are continually regulated, contained, and referred to euphemistically, all the while retaining clear distinctions between what has been constructed as sacred and profane, public and private, clean and unclean. Ultimately, it is the contention of this thesis that the liminal spaces of the funeral home preserve certain knowledges and practices that ensure that the contemporary Westernbased funeral industry retains a monopoly over the bodies of the dead.