Panel 3

Investigating concepts of the dead body

In our modern societies death is usually associated with the decay of the body and, ultimately, the complete disappearance of the lifeless shell. However, our perception may not concur with concepts of earlier cultures.

In Ancient Egypt, for instance, mummification was practiced to stop the decay process. The mortal shell was by no means considered lifeless, because the souls of the deceased regularly returned to the dead body in order to revive it. During the Middle Ages a corpse could officiate as both a defendant and witness in a trial. This is exemplified by the Cadaver Synod of 879 AD, for which Pope Formosus was exhumed to be accused posthumously. In addition to such culture-specific ideas of the dead body, there are also perceptions that may be considered as possible universalities, for instance the fact that in many cultures the corpse is depicted as a sleeping person These examples show that a dead body can reflect various conceptions: it could be understood as a vessel, as a person who can actively interact with the living or as a sleeping person.

The panel aims to discuss the following questions:

  • How are dead bodies depicted, especially in written sources?
  • Which functions are ascribed to them?
  • Which philological and cognitive approaches can be used to investigate concepts of the dead body?
  • To what extent can we identify universal concepts?


Panel organisers:

Rebekka Pabst and Oxana Polozhentseva