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Conference explores how death can be the beginning - not the end

A three day international and interdisciplinary conference took place between 16-18 April which explored themes around death and dying and how our departure from this life may not be as set in stone as may be assumed.

Entitled 'When is Death?', the conference addressed the assumption often made that death is something that is certain and absolute and a one-way journey away from the world of the living, raising questions about how we can view death as a beginning rather than an ending.

The conference explored how we can contextualise death as an event, as a state, or as a movement somewhere else, and how placing death in time exposes it as something that is uncertain in a whole range of ways, including how a person can die differently according to different chronologies.

Funded by the Wellcome Trust, the event was organised by Drs Shane McCorristine and Sarah Tarlow from the School of Archaeology and Ancient History. Keynote speakers included: Professor Douglas Davies, Professor Thomas W. Laqueur, Dr John Robb, Associate Professor Sarah Ferber, Jonathan Ree, Dr Julie-Marie Strange.

Dr McCorristine’s paper explored the specific case of William Corder, who killed his lover Maria Marten in the notorious “Red Barn” murder of 1827. His body was dissected for public view, anatomised before an audience of surgeons and medical students and turned into a tourist attraction that arguably expanded his life-span beyond his death.

Dr McCorristine said: "The range and quality of papers presented at the conference was outstanding and our participants came away from the event with a deeper understanding of death as the most "certain uncertain". We discussed questions such as, does human rights law apply to persons in a persistent vegetative state?; why do we care for the dead if they can't feel anything?; do we have a right to a grave in perpetuity?; and, how common was it for surgeons to break the Hippocratic Oath by dissecting (clinically living) hanged people in the 18th and 19th centuries?

"It was also heartening to see this theme of death's uncertainty play to the University of Leicester's interdisciplinary strengths as it attracted not only the Criminal Bodies team at the School of Archaeology and Ancient History but also Dr Mary Ann Lund (School of English) and Professor Liz Wicks (School of Law)."

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