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Spectacular Death and the Histrionics of Loss

Michael Templeton


For one summer, I worked at a local cemetery mowing grass. Spring Grove Cemetery encompasses over 700 acres of land. It was chartered in 1845 and remains open to this day. The cemetery is a major destination for walking, biking, sight-seeing, and simply relaxing in the natural surroundings. One of the things I came to notice as an employee was the stark contrast between the older parts of the cemetery and the newer plots. The oldest stones and grave markers contain little information. Some stones do not even have names on them. They simply say “Father” or “Infant,” etc. Older stones that do have writing on them generally state the date of birth, the date of death, and a few lines from the Bible. There are symbols on some of the stones which denote certain professions—doctors, clergy, military men—carry an iconography specific to those vocations and most of this iconography is quite ancient. By contrast, the newer stones are covered with writing. Lines from popular songs, poetry, and sentiments from the bereaved clutter these stones. The newest stones may have etched images from photographs so that an image of the deceased is engraved onto the stone. In the newer parts of the cemetery, one can find grave markers shaped like cartoon characters. Some of the stones have the appearance of modernist sculpture so as to set it apart from older gravestones. The change from stones and graves which leave nothing but a bare stone to graves which are covered with information is not attributable to mere fashion or advances in technology. Rather, this change has everything to do with the ways people understand death itself.

Spring Grove Cemetery itself came into existence due to increasing concern over cholera outbreaks and the unsanitary and unsightly presence of old church cemeteries which left dead bodies to decay into sources of drinking water and were an affront to middle-class ideas of how neighborhoods should appear. The dual pressures of public health and changing attitudes toward the emplacement of the dead coincided throughout the Western world with the emergence of the modern cemetery and Spring Grove Cemetery is emblematic of those pressures. It is now an enormous example of the drive to create a space for the dead which was easily accessible to the city center but outside of the city proper, and it is an example of such a space that serves the additional purpose of being a destination for recreation. It is adjacent to the city but not in it. It is a space reserved for the interment of the dead, but it is a marvel of landscape design and architecture. Lastly, it contains something of an archaeological record of a shift in the way individuals understand death itself.

The cemetery is an example of that type of space defined by Foucault as a heterotopia. It is both real and unreal. It occupies a border region in terms of the actual space which is occupied by real individuals.

Heterotopias are liminal places—the way a mirror offers a real place which is both present and absent:

"The mirror functions as a heterotopia in this respect: it makes this place that I occupy at the moment when I look at myself in the glass at once absolutely real, connected with all the space that surrounds it, and absolutely unreal, since in order to be perceived it has to pass through this virtual point which is over there." [1]

The cemetery offers a similar social function. It is the mirror image of the city in that it is completely deliberate in its spatial design and it is occupied. Yet, the cemetery is designed not to facilitate the movement of bodies but to inter bodies—and it is occupied with the dead. It is the inverse version of the city itself. Like the mirror, the cemetery is a real place, but it operates in a manner that is unreal since it does not function as a place for individuals to exist, only to desist. So, the modern cemetery emerged as a site in which societies could place the dead in a real place that functioned as a kind of unreality with regard to everyday life. There is the place of the dead which one could visit and even enjoy, but the place of the dead could be put out of mind when it came to living life.

Spring Grove was born of this social movement. Founded in 1845, it coincides with the historical period described by Foucault and it bears the cultural traces which Foucault describes as signs of the modern cemetery. These are sacred spaces, but they emerged during a time that was distinctly secular. The modern “cult of the dead” emerges during a time of a paradox:

"This cemetery housed inside the sacred space of the church has taken on a quite different cast in modern civilizations, and curiously, it is in a time when civilization has become ‘atheistic,’ as one says very crudely, that western culture has established what is termed the cult of the dead." [2]

An “atheistic,” or secular, society is also the society that creates an entire city devoted to the preservation of the dead. It is under these conditions—conditions in which a firm belief in the life of the soul is fading and therefore must be performed in an ever more elaborate fashion—that the place in which commemoration of the dead becomes a visible and dramatic presence. In previous times, when the conditions of possibility created the conditions in which individuals firmly believed that God guaranteed the care of the soul, people did not need to commemorate bodies. As faith in the soul decreased, care of the body increased. Again, Foucault:

"Basically it was quite natural that, in a time of real belief in the resurrection of bodies and the immortality of the soul, overriding importance was not accorded to the body’s remains. On the contrary, from the moment when people are no longer sure that they have a soul or that the body will regain life, it is perhaps necessary to give much more attention to the dead body, which is ultimately the only trace of our existence in the world and in language. In any case, it is from the beginning of the nineteenth century that everyone has a right to her or his own little box for her or his own little personal decay, but on the other hand, it is only from that start of the nineteenth century that cemeteries began to be located at the outside border of cities." [3]

We create a city of the dead only when we are no longer certain that God has done this for us. This is not to say that the advent of the cemetery coincided with the complete abandonment of faith in the afterlife. Rather, the rise of the modern cemetery marks a time in which faith in the afterlife is no longer a fundamental fact for the living and must therefore be demarcated in the form of a space that is both sacred and secular so that the living may continue to have access to some kind of symbolic place and sign which stands in for both loss and faith in the afterlife. The modern cemetery is a heterotopia in the sense that it is an “other space” and it is a place in which a paradoxical understanding of death could find some measure of reconciliation.

We see evidence of complete faith in the afterlife in the forms of gravestones which carry little to no information. The facts of the life of the deceased are of no importance because the deceased is no longer in the world and has passed on to another world. To consign the dead to a nearly anonymous place in the world requires absolute faith that the soul of the dead has literally passed on to another world. A parent who has lost a child, for example, does not require a stone with the child’s name engraved upon it in order to remember that child. The stone simply does not perform that function. It marks the site of a burial and nothing more. As Foucault states, it is the move toward a more “atheistic” society which demands monuments to testify to the life of the deceased. What is more, the monuments and the small personal boxes for bodies speak more to the living than to the dead. We do not erect monuments for the dead for the simple fact that they are dead. We erect monuments for ourselves. They are markers to prove to ourselves that the deceased were in fact important to us, and the monuments are to show others that we care. The heterotopia of the cemetery has much more in common with the mirror than the dialectic of the real and the unreal.

As we move into the 20th century, the gravestones become more loquacious. Modern and contemporary stones are engraved with lines of biblical scripture. They bear poetry and song lyrics. The most recent stones bear engraved images from photographs. These are extremely realistic images which look like black and white photographs which have been directly printed onto the stone. In another cemetery in Southern Indiana, the stones are almost all this type. People leave photographs, toys, trinkets of all kinds, along with religious items such as rosary beads and crosses. As we move into contemporary times and the function of religion and faith fades from playing any role in everyday life, the demonstrations of grief and loss, the sheer number of words used to mark loss, and the profusion of images just explodes all over the cemetery. The more removed faith in the afterlife becomes, the more pronounced the declarations of faith in the afterlife.

More words are inscribed to mark the faith of those who still live. More realistic images are rendered to commemorate the lost loved ones. This would indicate more than a loss of faith. It indicates a turn away from loss itself and a nearly obsessive focus on the ego of the bereaved.

The dead are dead. They do not see the image of themselves on the gravestone, and if they have passed on to the divine realms, their image is present in this other world. The presence of the image which is presumed to mark loss in fact marks the increasing presence of the egos of those who remain alive.

The contemporary grave marker is a mirror of the ego on which the bereaved can gaze upon themselves. The heterotopic structure remains, but it has returned on the level of the ego.

A fundamental lack of real belief finds an expression in the iconography and cluttered language of the contemporary headstone. What we see in these histrionic displays is a profound inability to confront the reality of death. One forestalls the reality of death by filling in the loss with a profusion (and confusion) of images, words, and trinkets thus shifting the focus away from loss itself and onto the individual who experiences the loss.

Rather than allow the progression of psychological mechanisms in which an individual experiences loss, suffers the process of mourning, and finds resolution in the acceptance of the loss, we see the cultural expression of a complete fixation on loss itself. This is Freudian melancholia on the scale of public theater, and it manifests itself in forms which resemble graffiti. Freudian mourning and melancholia are distinguished by the thorough process of mourning in which the ego is directed outside of itself and melancholia in which the ego contemplates itself:

"In mourning it is the world which has become poor and empty; in melancholia it is the ego itself." [4]

This would be sufficient except that the contemporary ego is already poor and empty since it has been evacuated of substance by finding a place of meaning exclusively in the exterior drama of the spectacle. This is an inversion of Artaud’s “Theater of Cruelty” in that these demonstrations do not reflect what Artaud envisioned as an expression of “both the upper and lower strata of the mind.” These are theatrical advertisements for loss that express only the most superficial marks of grief. [5] Contemporary life projects the ego into the external world and can only find a ground of being and meaning to the extent that this exterior ego function is reified in the system of exchange which only knows consumer existence.

Consumer existence requires the system of exchange in order for anything to be real. The form of melancholia expressed through the verbose and graffiti strewn headstones we find in the newest parts of the cemetery indicate an ego which cannot comprehend death at all except as an affirmation of itself.

Far from paying homage to the deceased and far from a spiritual declaration of faith in the afterlife, the contemporary headstone is a testament to the flimsy ego of the same individuals whose lives are devoid of any reality because at the level of individual experience. There is no reality which exists outside the realm of merchandise and display. The profusion of words and images is designed to compensate for an ego that has been entirely evacuated of substance.

What we witness in the contemporary graveyard is not melancholia proper since the ego fixation on itself is in fact an ego fixation on a prescribed mode of performance loss. There is no confrontation or meaningful experience of loss since it is denied in the form of a spectacular show of loss.

"The dominant trait of the spectacular-metropolitan ethos is the loss of experience, the most eloquent symptom of which is certainly the formation of that category of “experience”, in the limited sense that one has “experiences” (sexual, athletic, professional, artistic, sentimental, ludic, etc.). In the Bloom [the indeterminate form of contemporary life], everything results from this loss, or is synonymous with it. Within the Spectacle, as with the metropolis, men never experience concrete events, only conventions, rules, an entirely symbolic second nature, entirely constructed." [6]

The loss of experience means the loss of the ability to truly experience death. People experience the forms of loss, grief, and mourning only to the extent that there are prescribed modes of experience which come from elsewhere. That is to say “forms” of loss, grief, and mourning because the actual experience is deferred in favor of the performance of these modes of experience. The loss of experience proper negates the experience of loss.

Death, of course, remains a reality, but in its social forms, the reality of death cannot exist except insofar as it can become a commodified abstraction. Death is the abstract nothing forestalled by the business of creating a form of life. Individuals render the loss of their own loved ones with the histrionic displays engraved onto headstones. They otherwise deny death by buying into economic abstractions which further render death an abstraction. There is a business of death prior to death: “Promoters of life insurance merely intimate that it is reprehensible without first arranging for the system’s adjustment to the economic loss one’s death will incur.” [7] Death can only be grasped from within the abstractions prescribed by the spectacle, and rendered in equally abstract images that have more in common with advertising than individual loss and grief.

Death has always been incomprehensible. The history of religion in human culture is in part an expression of the basic human need to find meaning in something that is unknowable. Faith in the afterlife, when such a faith existed, provided a useful illusion for those who came under its sway—we will find paradise in the afterlife, and our enemies will find eternal torment for their wrongs.

Under present cultural conditions, this theological ground no longer holds, and we see this clearly in maudlin displays of grief which are in fact desperate displays of melancholia. The nature of contemporary consciousness is such that we find no resolution in the face of death therefore we simply deny it. We hide from death because it is invisible and unknowable, yet we perform grief with ever greater histrionic displays so as to affirm our egos in the face of the one thing we know expunges the ego.

Returning to the most basic features of the spectacle, we can find the same mystifications at work that we saw in spectacular pseudo-belief:

"The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images." [8]

Our relationship to each other and to the world around us is mediated by images to the extent that what is known is no longer things in the world but our relationship to images of things in the world. Our understanding of death is now captured in the spectacle as much as any other aspect of life. Death is negated by the image of death and we find a sense of solace in loss through our relationship to these images of death, mourning, and loss.

There is no death, mourning, and loss; there is only the performance and image of death, mourning, and loss. One expresses themselves through engraved images of the lost loved one, not the lost loved one. The contemporary grieving person finds some measure of peace in contemplating the image of the person they lost, and this constitutes a fundamental denial of loss. The only thing that matters is that the grieving person remains alive and anyone who passes the grave of the deceased knows that someone lost someone else. In this way “it is thus the most earthbound aspects of life that have become the most impenetrable and rarefied.” [9]

It is not death that is impenetrable and rarefied, it is the consumer of signs of loss and death.

The spectacle denies the validity of life as it is lived in everyday experience. Nothing so common as loss can be commodified unless images and tangible commodifiable expressions of loss can be made to supersede the lived experience of real loss.

The paradise of the afterlife that served the faithful since time immemorial is of no value. What is valuable, exchangeable, and available to any and all is the commodification of paradise right here on earth.

Thus, it is that “the absolute denial of life, in the shape of a fallacious paradise, is no longer projected into the heavens, but finds its place instead within material life itself.” [10] We find a sense of the afterlife only in images that dramatize the beyond because there can be no way of conceptualizing anything that is not material and commodified. Gravestones are no longer markers of death and loss. They are markers of the ongoing participation of one who has lost, but one whose sole understanding of loss is as a histrionic expression of their own ego within the heaven of spectacular images.

Spectacular life cannot include death. There is simply no place for something so utterly final and real. As we saw above, we never experience concrete events; we only experience the conventions and rules of events. The experience of events has been replaced with the formal specifications of events. We do not experience a rock concert, we experience the prescribed modes of behavior which a rock concert demands. There are formal aspects to concert experiences which are dictated ahead of time by representations of musical events. In the same way, contemporary life excludes the possibility of experiencing death.

One does not live the experience of the death of a loved one. One experiences the formal attributes of loss.

The television news will never show you a person bereft of any and all expression as they are overcome with loss and grief. What we see through the screens are rehearsed performances, histrionic displays. People repeat the same clichés: “they were too young,” “they had their whole life ahead of them,” “our thoughts and prayers are with the family,” etc. In the absence of the possibility of belief, as we saw above, there can be no understanding of anything that resists representation. There is no real death, only images that mediate a collective inability to recognize the reality of death.

The function of religion with respect to death was, in essence, a Hegelian sublation. Death negates life. Religion serves as a mediating force which negates the negation. The simultaneous negation and transformation of the fact of death constitutes a resolution. The dead are negated and elevated to another plane of existence. In effect, the religious mediation of death served the function of Freudian mourning. The finality of death is resolved in the sublation of this finality into a spiritual faith in something that transcends death. This step in the psycho-social confrontation with death depended on a qualitative change in one’s existence. The finality of death serves as the negation of our temporal existence. This negation is itself negated as the soul of the deceased is lifted into another plane of existence. In this, the full dialectic is resolved.

Death under the dominance of the spectacle provides no such resolution. Within the spectacle, death negates life. Rather than confronting this fact, the contemporary subject simply disavowals that which cannot be transformed into life.

There is no finality in consumer culture; only a new version of the commodity which is designed to fill the void that does not exist without consumer culture. The contemporary confrontation with death is manifest in the grave marker which is yet another consumer spectacle. It can be consumed endlessly, therefore there is no death. The gravestone stands in for an absence that is never properly experienced as an absence. The clutter of the stone creates presence. Contemporary understandings of death can find no resolution and subsequent sublation. What we have is a childish disavowal of the reality of death and a psychological return to our own ego. Cluttered and outlandish grave markers do not signify the deceased. They signify the living. These grave markers scream “me, me, me” and “I, I, I.” They are infantile demonstrations of impotence. There is no dialectical resolution since contemporary life does not allow for any qualitative differences as valid differences. We have only quantitative differences. Under a regime of knowledge that can admit nothing but quantity, there is no net gain from death. Therefore, death can only be disavowed with quantities of grief. More display equals more grief. The operative term is “more.”

Even the medical establishment disavows death. Even as science moves to endlessly split hairs on the medical definition of death, the mechanisms of medical science cannot find the precise moment or even conditions that constitute death. For centuries, death was defined as the moment the heart and breathing stopped. This was simple. When a body no longer showed basic vital signs, that body was dead. Beginning in 1959, a new definition of death began to emerge. With the medical classification of what is termed coma depasse, or overcoma, medical science began to take account of a body which was by all objective measures dead but would continue to show basic vital functions with the assistance of medical instruments that assist with breathing and feeding. [11] The living person was effectively dead, but they continued to live at the most basic biological level to the extent that organs continue to function with the help of machinery. Near the end of the Twentieth Century, medicine advanced the notion of brain death as the final determination of death. This meant that “(o)nce the adequate medical tests had been confirmed the death of the entire brain (not only of the neocortex but also of the brain stem), the patient was to be considered dead, even if, thanks to life-support technology, he continued breathing.” [12]

However, the definition of brain death was confirmed because brain death finally leads to the cessation of heart and respiratory functions. Brain death is confirmed with the definition of death that preceded it. This is to say that, “According to a clear logical inconsistency, heart failure—which was just rejected as a valid criterion of death—reappears to prove the exactness of the criterion that is to substitute for it.” [13] The moment of death is brain death, but brain death leads to heart failure which is the moment of death. All of this leads to a zone of indeterminacy wherein death occurs but does not occur at the same time. Agamben draws this problem out to further his theory of the state of exception which lies at the heart of contemporary biopolitics. For our purposes, it is enough to understand that death remains a fundamentally unreal thing, even in the realm of medical science.

Contemporary consumer culture depends on externalizing all real lived experience. Individual experience only takes on validity once it is sutured into the realm of consumable images and the commodities which give these images meaning. My “I” only exists to the extent that it enters the flow of other egos who participate in the systems of exchange. Whereas the individual was once a mystification within capitalism insofar as one’s individuality exists in relation to one’s participation as a working subject of capitalism, we have gone many steps further and one’s individual status as a human can only exist insofar as you have projected yourself into the realm of images and rendered yourself a meaningful participant in spectacular culture. All of this renders individual subjectivity a completely external feature of public consumption and the realm of interior life has no value or even any meaning.

Individual beliefs no longer exist because belief takes place elsewhere, in the realm of the image. Individual egos have no meaning other than as externalized performances of ego-ness. I demonstrate myself, therefore I am. Just as images circulate in a state of pseudo-eternity in image space and image time, in the realm of pseudo-cyclical time as we saw above, so the contemporary ego circulates forever in a consumerist limbo that will not admit death.

Medical determinations of death are left to systems of political power. Since doctors are only in the business of life, they have no obligation to offer a final determination of death that would serve in all cases. Death is a political question. It is not a medical or biological question. Death is not even a theological question, no matter the amount of biblical language you inscribe on a stone. Death is not, and the heterotopia of the cemetery serves the dual function of being a place for the dead, and yet another place to publicly perform yourself. No longer that other space where the city lays its dead adjacent to the city proper where people continue to live, the cemetery is now the other space where we wallow in our emptiness against one of the only things that cannot be commodified: the absolute finality of death.


Michael Templeton is an independent scholar, writer, and musician. He completed his Ph.D. in literary studies at Miami University of Ohio in 2005. He has published scholarly studies and written cultural analysis and creative non-fiction. He is also the blog writer for the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition in Cincinnati, Ohio.



[1] Foucault, Michel. “Of Other Spaces," p. 4

[2] Ibid., p. 5

[3] Ibid., pp. 5-6

[4] Freud, Sigmund. “Mourning and Melancholia,” p. 246

[5] Artaud, Antonin. The Theatre and its Double. p. 82

[6] The Invisible Committee. Theory of the Bloom, pp. 47-48

[7] Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle, p. 115

[8] Ibid. 12

[9] Ibid. 18

[10] Ibid. 18

[11] Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, p. 160

[12] Ibid. p. 162

[13] Ibid. p. 163


Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Tr. Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998.

Artaud, Antonin. The Theatre and its Double. p. 82.

Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. Tr. Donald Nicholson-Smith. New York: Zone Books, 1995.

Foucault, Michel. “Of Other Spaces.” Architecture /Mouvement/ Continuité. October, 1984; (“Des Espace Autres,” March 1967 Translated from the French by Jay Miskowiec).

Freud, Sigmund. “Mourning and Melancholia.” From The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud Vol. XIV. Tr. and General Editor James Strachey. London: The Hogarth Press.

The Invisible Committee. Theory of the Bloom. Tr. Robert Hurley. Creative Commons. 2012.

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