Research Statement

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Studying how people maintain relationships with their dead provides an understanding of how many now make sense of their confrontation with death. My work examines ritual meaning-making in the face of death in contemporary societies, where set beliefs and practices concerning death and afterlife are no longer widely shared and self-evident due to secularisation, individualisation and migration. People are challenged to negotiate and appropriate their ritual repertoires, causing both tremendous ritual creativity and a fear of ritual failure. I apprehend an urgent need to map the field of ritualised continuing bonds: to identify the moments they take, the places they use, the spaces they create and the role of objects that link the dead and the living. Moreover, in strict scholarly terms, the need to develop appropriate and accommodating methodology to do so.

Muslims ritualising death in the Netherlands. Death rites in a small town context.
My doctoral thesis focused on ritual repertoires developed and used by Muslims in a specific migration context: the small town context of Venlo, the Netherlands. The study primarily focuses on particular death practices prescribed by Islam – that accompany people in the dying process, in the period up to the funeral, during the burial and throughout the mourning and commemoration. – and as performed by a diversity of Muslims. When Muslims migrate, their rites are also on the move: the transfer and transformation, invention and re-invention of ritual take shape in relation to new social, economic and religious contexts.
When performing an apparently universal ritual order a dynamic, variegated practice unfolds, shaped by the different ethnic, social, cultural and religious backgrounds of Muslims that call Venlo their home. The differences lead to conflicts that can be understood as ‘diagnostic events’ that raise issues that are of the utmost significance for the people involved but under other circumstances remain unsaid. They offer clues to what Muslims from various backgrounds consider their cardinal practices and beliefs. They also make us curious about how a variety of backgrounds will be accommodated in a common practice – how far can prescribed rules be bent?
Based on qualitative research among a carefully build network of diverse Muslim communities, families, individuals and key figures in Venlo. I conducted semi-structured interviews, informal conversations and (participant) observations. Combined with literature and database research.
Negotiating ritual in the face of death and the key concepts ritual practice, ritual context (migration) and ritual content (meaning and narrative) were worked out in a number of publications and international conference presentations (DDD, EASR, IMISCOE, IAHR 2011-2016). A number of articles were published in peer-reviewed journals like Yearbook for liturgical and Ritual Studies on reimagining Islamic death ritual (2011), an exploration of common praxis of Islamic ritual for professionals in death care in Omega. Journal of Death and Dying (2012), on the emergence of Islamic ritual experts – a new ritual role – in a migration context in Mortality (2013). In an edited volume on Changing European Death Ways a chapter was presented on ‘lived eschatology’ or the ritual practice of afterlife beliefs (2013). In the same year my full dissertation was published by Lit Verlag in their series Death Studies.
Being interested in the diversity within the Muslim world I also published on West African Sufi Islam in their context of origin (Senegal) and in Europe and on Surinamese-Javanese Muslims in the Netherlands.
Research findings were also shared with professionals in the field of health, spiritual and funeral care through publications in specific journals serving these fields in the Netherlands. Just recently I co-authored a book on Dutch funerary culture titled Dood [Death] (2017) aiming at a general audience and death workers.  The book covers chapters on modern death, the funeral process, cemeteries, public death and mourning, the Dutch undertaking business, life after death with a concluding chapter on what is ‘typical Dutch’.

New research: Insightful photography 2016
The concept of continuing bonds was first introduced by Klass, Silverman and Nickman (1996) as a new model of grief. Although it was picked up by others in the multi-disciplinary field of death studies, its approach is still rather confined by a grief and bereavement discourse. It is this confinement that needs to be broken down in order to use the full potential of the continuing bonds concept. This focus on grief has resulted in an interview-oriented approach where the emphasis is generally on what the bereaved have to say about the relationship they maintain with a deceased loved one. Even when material aspects – like graves, linking objects to the deceased including photographs – are considered, just how they are ritualised is often marginalised in research. This is partly due to the neglect of a keystone in fieldwork research on ritual where, next to interviews, observations are a necessary tool in data collection. My aim is to develop a refined observation tool for the study of ritual in death in general and of continuing bonds in particular.
Studying how people maintain relationships with their dead provides an understanding of how many now make sense of their confrontation with death. My work examines ritual meaning-making in the face of death in contemporary societies, where set beliefs and practices concerning death and afterlife are no longer widely shared and self-evident due to secularisation, individualisation and migration. People are challenged to negotiate and appropriate their ritual repertoires, causing both tremendous ritual creativity and a fear of ritual failure. I apprehend an urgent need to map the field of ritualised continuing bonds: to identify the moments they take, the places they use, the spaces they create and the role of objects that link the dead and the living. Moreover, in strict scholarly terms, the need to develop appropriate and accommodating methodology to do so.
A ritual approach of continuing bonds demands a shift in perspective and a change of subject to pose with theoretical and methodological challenges forcing us to take material objects, their links and their agency, symbols and spaces much more seriously. I want to introduce insightful photography (the practice of ‘shooting death’) as an observation method and a research tool. This project would lead to research initiated photo essays – sets or series of photographs that work together as a narrative that can be enormously valuable when used for reflective purposes throughout the research cycle.
The insightful aspect of photography not only refers to the end product (the photo essay), but also to the process: preparation, the actual shooting and to its presentation. The preparatory phase – making a photographic brief – will really tune the scholar to the subject of research, will define all aspects and break them down into observable ritual elements. During the shoot the researcher becomes a practicing participant observer. In a direct personal sense, through the viewer of your camera, you need to recognise, organise and select. You have to anticipate, have a strong focus and frame it. The way photo essays are presented is an important aspect of how it is interpreted by an audience: selection anchors meaning and coherence. It sharpens our perceptions of the reality observed and the representation of it.

Ongoing research is being developed and is presented in the form of field notes and photo stories on a website (www.claudiavenhorst.nl). I presented preliminary results during a panel sessions titled ‘Shooting Death – Using insightful photography in the study of death ritual’ at the 2016 EASR conference and during an invited talk at Universität Zürich: ‘Materialising continuing bonds between bereaved and deceased – Negotiating Muslim funerary rites on Dutch cemeteries’. I have a manuscript in progress to be submitted to Mortality in early 2017.

Miscellaneous
Over the past years I have developed a broad interest in death studies and its implications for contemporary societies in Europe and beyond. I was in the position to do fieldwork in Armenia around the centennial of the Armenian genocide in 2015 and 2016 and studied how public and private memorialisation relate: a case study of the recent canonisation of 1.5 million victims of the Armenian genocide through which deceased relatives have now become ‘martyrs’. A manuscript is in preparation.

I am currently participating in a pilot project What can we learn from the feminization of funeral care in the Netherlands? This research is built around and instilled with the concept of ‘feminization’. It addresses the consequences of labelling something ‘feminine’ – in this case the work of funeral arrangers. This case study shows how a predominantly commercial service industry is more and more transformed towards being a care provider; with women workers being the personification of this transformation. This study of socio-cultural aspects of the relations between gender, work & health will be performed by the Centre for Thanatology and Nijmegen School of Management. The case study develops knowledge for the hardly ever combined research fields of Death Studies and Service Innovation Management.

Ongoing research is being developed and is presented in the form of field notes and photo stories on a website (www.claudiavenhorst.nl). I presented preliminary results during a panel sessions titled ‘Shooting Death – Using insightful photography in the study of death ritual’ at the 2016 EASR conference and during an invited talk at Universität Zürich: ‘Materialising continuing bonds between bereaved and deceased – Negotiating Muslim funerary rites on Dutch cemeteries’.