Throughout my research work, I have been studying lived religion through a strategical focus on practices and beliefs that concern death and dying. Death challenges people to cope with a highly irrational and disruptive event that seems to naturally produce questions that religion provides answers to. And it is to
death the living must respond; it sets into motion a stream of activities that concerns not only very practical aspects – like what to do with the corpse- but also addresses the need of the bereaved to make sense of it all through embodied ritual practices. I am particularly interested in how death rituals are negotiated to fit their everyday context. In combining the study of lived religion and death I aspire to gain much needed insight into the role and place of religion in modern societies.
The aim of my research is to gain insight in the way religion is lived by ordinary people in everyday contexts to come to a research-informed reflection on religious ideas, practices, and experiences of groups that usually stay under the radar. As religion-as-lived is generally complex, multifaceted and not necessarily coherent, there is a need to make it accessible as an object of study through novel, mixed-method approaches. This also challenges us to rethink fundamental conceptualizations of religion/religiosity. It will teach us new ways to think about religion and how religion works in seemingly secular domains, resulting in better definitions and indicators for both research and the professional domains of death and religion.
Muslims ritualizing 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 Centre for Thanatology, Radboud University Nijmegen
Working death: mapping lived religion of crematorium workers in the Netherlands and beyond 2016 – 2018
People will have to deal with death at some point in their life. They will have to negotiate ways to cope with the loss of a loved one and have to face their own mortality. But how does one deal with death as part of the everyday work practice? Crematorium workers interact with the dead and their remains in a strongly regulated, almost industrial and often commercialized setting. A small pilot study in Dutch funeral homes and crematoria reveals that the professional engagements with the dead and moments of contact with their remains are often highly ritualized. It is apparent that the dead have a special status and are treated in a special way. Death workers are very much invested in their work, which is often connected with a deep-rooted sense of ‘duty of care’. It is a place, par excellence, to investigate how (lived) religion is produced, negotiated and reshaped. An in-depth crematorium ethnography provides us with the opportunity to access a rather hidden but rich realm of meaning-making and to study how the relations between the funeral professionals and the dead they care for are acted out and how do they make sense of death in this particular situation: How are their situational beliefs and practices negotiated and shaped? How do personal and professional accounts relate, do they complement or contest each other? What wider existential framework for life and death is negotiated here? It means a true immersion in meaning-making practices of crematorium workers and their interactions with the dead, and in the (wider) context they appear in: the workplace, the funerary culture and the (historic) relations between death and organized religion. A careful mapping of practices and the negotiation of meaning is addressed through thick descriptions, interviews, insightful photography and situational analysis. An article is in preparation.
Developing a phased mixed-method approach – ongoing
Studying lived religion through death studies eagerly builds on the groundwork that has been done by estimated scholars like Robert Orsi, David Hall, Nancy Ammerman, and Meredith McGuire. There are some tendencies in the current state of the study of lived religion I wish to address in this research. First, there is an over-emphasize on individual and private religious expressions and practices, where my approach means to explicitly incorporate that people are relational, social beings who constantly negotiate their way through life – and death. They construct their (religious) worlds together. Furtherly, with bringing to the surface non-official, unrecognized and invisible elements of religion we see ourselves consequently confronted with a field of study that is profoundly diverse, complex, and not necessarily coherent. This study will explicitly look into the practical coherency that there is and that we can (and should) learn from. Lastly, by privileging research on the experience of nonexperts and to focus on activity that happens outside organized religious events and institutions one risks to exclude
all forms of hegemonic religion. Studying lived religion is not opposing the study of traditional and institutional religion nor is it an alternative to existing approaches, it explicitly means to be complementary. So, when standard notions of religion appear inadequate, there is a definite need to rethink and re-conceptualize what we study and how we study it. A fine-tuned research design and a phased mixed-methods have to break with the one-track interview-based approach that is so common in the study of death in particular where beliefs and meaning-making are involved. The initial research phase I propose has an inductive and exploratory character and focusses on gaining access with
participant observation, using tailor-made observation guides based on Ronald Grimes’ ‘elements of ritual.’ Good field observation should be multisensory attentiveness.
Observations are intensified through insightful photography as a complementary method and a research tool. Resulting in 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 photo essay but also to the work process: preparation, the actual shooting and to its presentation. It tunes the observer to the subject of research as through the viewer of the camera, you need to recognize, organize 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 they are interpreted as selection anchors meaning and coherence. It sharpens perceptions of the reality observed and the representation of it. The guided observations will be encapsulated in ‘thick descriptions’ and ‘thick photo essays’; first interpretations that proceed from the participant’s world and refer to their
construction of meaning and reality. The fundamental assumption is that everything in the situation both constitutes and affects almost everything else in the situation in some way and are conditions of the possibilities of meaning-making and action. Situational analysis is accomplished through mapping
and memoing: situational maps that lay out the major elements in the research setting and provokes analyses of relations among them, social worlds maps that lay out where the collective actors engage in ongoing negotiations, and positional maps, which lay out major positions taken.
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 session titled ‘Shooting Death – Using insightful photography in the study of death ritual’ at the 2016 EASR conference, during an invited talk at Universität Zürich: ‘Materialising continuing bonds between
bereaved and deceased – Negotiating Muslim funerary rites on Dutch cemeteries’ and in my presentation ‘Working death: professionals making sense of death’ at the international Death Dying and Disposal 2017 conference in the panel ‘Lived Religion from the Angle of Death-Related Practices.’
Over the past years, I have developed a broad interest in religious and death studies and its implications for contemporary societies in Europe and beyond.
I was in a position to do fieldwork in Armenia on how public and private memorialization relate and together with Dr. Brenda Mathijssen and prof. Peter Nissen I performed a research project on Lived Religion in Jerusalem focussing on ritual creativity of pilgrims at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Currently, I am co-authoring a book on funerary culture in the Netherlands (Emerald, 2019) and a chapter on Death’s ritual-symbolic performance for a volume of Cultural History of Death (Bloomsbury, 2019), edited by Professor Dr. Douglas Davies (Religious studies and Theology, Durham University).
As an academic, I enjoy sharing my work with public and professional audiences. I have organized masterclasses for funeral professionals on death, religion and migration), and give public lectures and media performances on a regular basis. I have contributed to (Dutch) journals, newspapers and blogs, have worked
on the role of religion in modern society, and have written a book for a broad audience, entitled ‘Dood. Wegwijs in de Nederlandse Uitvaartcultuur’ (Parthenon, 2017), for which we received wide media attention.