An Extra Place at the Table

Publication designed by MOTH
Publication contributors: 

'Dining with the dead’
Dr Elsa Richardson

Experience Design at the End of Life
Clare Hearn


'Dining with the dead’
Dr Elsa Richardson

Writing in the 1960s, the structuralist anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss famously observed that ‘the cooking of any society is a kind of language which […] which says something about how that society feels about its relation to nation and culture’, and the history of spiritualism reveals that this observation could be easily extended into the afterlife.

Victorian Britain was full of hungry ghosts. Ghosts that left bite marks in apples, nibbled spears of buttered asparagus, wolfed game pie, sipped wine and relished cream cakes. From the middle of the nineteenth century spirits were called to tea by followers of spiritualism, a popular movement that was grounded in the conviction that it was possible to communicate with the souls of the dead. Originating in upstate New York, by the 1850s the so-called ‘spirit rapping craze’ had made its way across the Atlantic. Respectable dining rooms around the country played host to seances, during which furniture levitated, musical instruments played untouched, entranced women spoke with the tongues of famous dead men and clairvoyants described journeys to far-off realms. Spiritualism was, as the publisher James Burns insisted, a profoundly ‘domestic institution’ grounded in the morality of the home and the purity of the wives and daughters who presided over it. More complexly, though spiritualism allowed for an understanding of Victorian home as a sequestered space, removed from the amorality and bustle of the public world, the affective links established by the spirit circle also produced the domestic as a radically unbound site, open to otherworldly intervention and transformation.

In the enchanted domestic spaces produced by spiritualism, dining practices became essential to the practice of faith. Where in traditional Christian service, the consumption of food was controlled by the male clergy and confined to the taking of holy communion, in spiritualism food took on a more expansive and varied role. For one, it served an evangelical function: the lure of homemade cake and endless pots of tea promised by spiritualist associations drew many new believers to the cause, while domestic seances were usually accompanied by a spread of tempting sandwiches and savouries. Spiritualist accounts of the afterlife, what they described as the ‘Summerland’, often included descriptions of food and drink, and many of the questions put to visiting spirits concerned the issue of consumption. From reports given by spirits, the movement developed a remarkably detailed picture of what this ‘Summerland’ looked like: more than just a heaven of fluffy clouds and eternal love, the spiritualist afterlife was a whole other world, replete with alternative systems of governance, revised sexual relations and its own music, literature and art. This richly imagined world also necessitated a reconfiguration of the everyday and the domestic, a re-examination of quotidian habits: do we eat and drink in the afterlife? And if so what?

From the beginning, spiritualists blurred the line between séance and dinner. Sometimes a medium would request food from the spirits and with the lights dimmed, fruits would appear to cascade from the ceiling, as one hostess recorded in 1875 ‘flowers and ferns came down in great variety, followed by eight pears and seven apples. Tea being on the table, some partook of that and some of the fruit’. Food here becomes a means of crossing from the spiritual into the material, as the historian Marlene Tromp has observed ‘one of the most dazzling things the spirit could do was eat. If the spirit could chew, swallow and show evidence of teeth, it could prove both its presence and materiality beyond a doubt’. Beyond the corporeality of mastication and digestion, these otherworldly dining experiences were also social occasions. As with eating between the living, dining in the séance provided opportunities for connection, conversation and familiarity. What emerged from the spiritualist table was a disruptive version of middle-class dining, where etiquette gave way to ghostly intervention. A space in which the most female of duties – the preparation, serving and consumption of food – took on enchanted, erotic and sometimes subversive resonances.

Writing in his History of Spiritualism Arthur Conan Doyle described the need for a new religion, the collective longing that had brought about the advent of the spiritualist movement, in decidedly culinary terms: ‘The clergy’ he complained ‘are so limited in their ideas and so bound by a system which should be an obsolete one. It is like serving up last week’s dinner instead of having a new one. We want fresh spiritual food, not a hash of old food’. It is not surprising that Doyle would look to dining as a metaphor here, as food played a prominent and remarkably varied role within the spiritualist movement. Far more so than in traditional religious denominations, food was integral to the practice of spiritualism: the experience of shared dining helped to establish it as a domestic pursuit and to cement the role of women in the movement, while the materiality of food – the fruit that drops from dining room ceiling, the apple returned with unexplained bite marks – served as evidence of the close connection between this world and the next. Writing in the 1960s, the structuralist anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss famously observed that ‘the cooking of any society is a kind of language which […] which says something about how that society feels about its relation to nation and culture’, and the history of spiritualism reveals that this observation could be easily extended into the afterlife.

Experience Design at the End of Life
Clare Hearn

Food is often one of the core aspects of the ceremonial, of ritual events. Commensality, the sharing of meals, symbolizes and denotes social bonds and divisions, drawing boundaries between those who still eat together and those who do not.

In April, I spent a day delivering an undergraduate workshop on experience design to support the Death over Dinner Event element of Moth’s An Extra Place at the Table: Food and Funeral Feasting project.

The workshop manifest as a series of explorations, conceptual and practical, into theories and methods drawn from multiple disciplines. It was designed to both illuminate the nature of a new era of critical discourse about event experiences, their design, their meaning and their impact, and to consider how this can be utilized in the design of contexts for potentially deeply existential dialogue and thought.

Whilst this critical era of events scholarship is new, the study of events is not; they have been the object of scrutiny in a number of other disciplines for many years, most notably perhaps, social anthropology, in which the analysis of the events around death has long provided rich commentary on the meaning, structure and value within societies.

In recent years, events scholars have been pushing at the boundaries of what has been considered legitimate areas for research, with the result that event studies has become, for some at least, whatever the researcher wants it to be; it has, as Pernecky notes, become a site of ‘neutral territory, erected upon the ideals of epistemological freedom and academic creativity … [embracing] … disciplinary, multi-disciplinary, cross-disciplinary, inter-disciplinary, trans-disciplinary and post-disciplinary modes of inquiry’ (2016:4). From a new event studies perspective, consideration of how one might design experiences in which food and funeral feasting either enable dialogue on mourning, bereavement and end of life choices or which are themselves contexts for funeral feasting, must surely include establishment of an appropriate conceptual framework. However, 21st century event management professional practice has stood accused of having sacrificed awareness, understanding and inclusion of ritualistic elements in favour of artificially manufacturing events (Brown & James 2004).

In part therefore as a personal response, my research (and thus the workshop) explores experience design both practically, using management theory and activities to consider immersivity, inclusivity and co-creation methodologies but also conceptually, discussing the role of ritual, liminality and tradition in the design of funerary experiences, alongside nostalgia, authenticity, habitus, and of course, commensality.

At the time of writing, death research is experiencing a resurgence within international academia and industry. Recent studies have noted the increasing trend in Australia for a ‘deadly individualisation’ pervading the funeral in post-Christian societies, with collective rites replaced by personally tailored experiences focused solely on the individual (Singleton 2014).

The 2019 Global Wellness Trends Report named ‘Dying Well’ as its 8th trend, evidenced by research into the rise in popularity of ‘death doulas’, the ‘green burial wave’ and ‘death acceptance tourism’, all acts conducted in response to what author Beth McGroarty notes as our death denying society, fueled  in part in the US by the Silicon Valley biotech industry aiming to cure death, and a pervasive ‘wellness’ agenda, a ‘21st century secular belief system …fundamentally directed at avoiding death anxiety…[by] convincing oneself that the right regimen of diet and exercise will keep you perpetually young or …perpetually alive’ (Soloman, cited in McGroarty 96: 2019).
The UK Competition and Markets Authority are conducting the second stage of their enquiry into the UK funeral industry, a hitherto unregulated sector, accused of opaque pricing at best and financial exploitation of the vulnerable at worst.

Such concerns are however, not without precedent. In 1963, Mitford’s The American Way of Death, a seminal text for the then nascent death awareness movement, accused the US funeral industry of profiteering by the selling of unnecessary services to the vulnerable bereaved.

In 21st century post-Christian secular societies, where discourse around death has been ‘privatized, secularized and medicalized’ (Simpson 7:2018), perhaps it is the role of experience designers and scholars to explore what new meaningful and performed rituals are needed in order to mark death. Szmigin & Canning suggest, when now bereaved, that we ‘are faced with situations often inherent in the social and/or cultural structure of the ritual that [we] find difficult, or which seem inappropriate or even anomalous to the personality or experience of the deceased or the mourners’ (749:2014). The loss of the accepted ritual experience of previous religious practices, which had served such a significant function in restoring a social fabric rent by loss, leaves us further bereft.
If we accept that funerary experiences provide (admittedly sometimes rejected) sites for collective acceptance of loss, where the dead are ‘reassembled, resurrected and regenerated in ways that are meaningful to those who have been left behind’ (Simpson 5:2018), how might we now need to design for these? As Wilson states, ‘the problem facing all who celebrate rituals in a fast-changing society is how to combine relevance to changing to changing circumstances with the sanctity of tradition’ (cited in Rothenbuhler 46:1998).

Currently, I suggest that the funeral is the only shared, least discussed and thus unplanned event within our experience economy (Pine and Gilmore 1999). It is the site of things which must be done (Mandelbaum 1959). But do we know what these things are? And by whom they should be done?

Anthropologist Arnold Van Gennap’s seminal work, The Rites of Passage, remains instructive. He observes that ‘changes of condition [deaths] do not occur without disturbing the life of society and the individual and it is the function of the rites of passage to reduce their harmful effects’ (13: 1960).
There persists a pervasive reluctance to openly engage with such existentially charged dialogue, despite the efforts of increasing numbers of communal initiatives, including Swiss sociologist Bernard Cretz’s Café Mortels, Jon Underwood‘s subsequent Death Cafés, and Hebb and Macklin’s Death over Dinner phenomenon.

Thus whilst growing numbers of ‘alternative’ funeral services appear, offering more simple, perhaps more ‘rational’ (as opposed to ‘religious’ or ‘superstitious’) experiences, including environmentally conscious options, these are still relatively rarely chosen; perhaps the notion of a ‘bare death’, relatively un-marked and thus un-mourned, still creates fear (Simpson 9:2018).

The notion of commensality, whilst core to the An Extra Place at the Table project, is not an automatic component in an exploration of experience design; however, in the context of the funeral experience, its relationship with ritual is essential. Food is often one of the core aspects of the ceremonial, of ritual events. Commensality, the sharing of meals, symbolizes and denotes social bonds and divisions, drawing boundaries between those who still eat together and those who do not.

For designers then, how might we reconcile the ‘deadly individualism’ of personalised rites of passage with the collective needs of those left behind to restore the integrity of social fabric through feasting and other rituals?

The funeral, an agreed space for mourning, can be deliberately designed to reflect current belief systems, to act as an essential boundaried transitional period, in which we can carefully move the dead into a socially collectively constructed mythologized narrative, enable survivors to experience separation communally, begin to darn the space left by death and start re-integration into society in its new form.
Through framing experience design with such concepts, enabling awareness, understanding and inclusion of ritualistic and other elements, we are far from providing Rojek’s ‘technocratic view of events, focus[ed] on the nuts and bolts in the machine and when and where to oil the parts’ (2013: xii).

We are instead creating and re-creating experiences, and, as Rothenbuhler comments, ‘rituals, like all social conventions, must be at some point be invented…’ (50:1998)

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