We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Otherwise, we'll assume you're OK to continue.

Durham University Centre for Death and Life Studies



Continuing Projects

A project of the Department of Anthropology at Durham University, the 'Invisible Dead' is co-investigated by Prof. Douglas Davies, Director of the Centre for Death and Life Studies, and Advisory Board member Prof. Charlotte Roberts. Initiated in 2013 and continuing through 2014, through examining archaeological data from Britain and the Levant, the project continued to provide new understandings of the emergence of religious belief and self-awareness, as well as charting changing concepts of what it means to be human. Explored are issues of the temporal, social and economic contexts of changing relationships between human soci-religious beliefs and concepts of the body and the afterlife. Do burials represented in the archaeological record of Britain and the Levant constitute the 'mainstream' or are they the result of highly specific selection processes? 

For further information about this on-going project, please visit the website here.


First International Death Online Research Symposium

April 9th - 10th, 2014

Hosted by the Death Online Research Network and the Centre for Death and Life Studies Durham University, UK
As digital media have become an integral part of our everyday life, so have also death and our afterlife become inextricably interwoven with technology. Marking the formation of an international research network within the field, the first Death Online Research Symposium focused on current research into the digital mediation of dying, death, mourning and personal legacy, in order to explore and discuss how online connectivity is changing how, when and where we engage with death.
Keynote speakers at the symposium were Professor Tony Walters (Director of the Centre for Death and Society, University of Bath) and Professor Douglas Davies (Director of the Centre for Death and Life Studies, Durham University).
The symposium included presentations of research within the following areas: memorial sites online; explorations of new ways of grieving though social media; the use of digital technologies in graveyards, woodland burial grounds and crematoria; the deaths of fictional and gaming characters; the discussion of problems related to the digital afterlife and the inheritance of digital property; and other perspectives on the impact digital technology has had on everyday practices in the context of death and mourning in the 21st century.
You can find more information on the conference website here, with the symposium programme found here.
Seeing beyond in facing death: Spirituality from sick body to salvation – Contents, care and relationships in different cultures

September 25-27, 2014 - Padova (Pauda) Italy

“Seeing beyond” was an international multi-disciplinary conference which explored the cultural processes of dying and death representations, analyzing the different ways culture impacts care for the dying. Over the past few decades, scholarship in the End-of-Life field has increased dramatically. “Seeing beyond” sought to develop dialogue amongst the different perspectives that explore and analyze the interrelations and interactions between death, as well as the different cultural viewpoints of spirituality.

“Seeing beyond” saw submissions that produced conversations engaging in medical, psychological, philosophical, religious, sociological, historical, ethnographic, normative, literary, anthropological, artistic and political terms that elaborated a relationship between death, spirituality, care-cure and culture.

Since the scientific research in this field is widely developed, “Seeing beyond” presented a state of the art study and responses to the question about the meaning of death and how to deal with it, focusing on the spiritual dimension and how it intervenes in care practices. Because Western society is now increasingly multiethnic and multireligious, “Seeing beyond” assumed different Weltanschauungen within which the spiritual dimension is considered crucial; showing the anthropologically vital and complex intertwining between medical-psychological and philosophical-spiritual approaches toward death.


Encountering Corpses Today
December 18th, 2014

Hosted by the Centre for Death and Life studies, Durham UniversityUK

Funded by the ESRC, as part of the ESRC Research Seminar Series programme

Examining changes in the ways we confront corpses in the 21st century, this multidisciplinary exploration of death and disposal featured discussions led by academics and practitioners, encouraging a dialogue between theory and practice.

The seminar featured presentations on:

Care for families and loved ones, from Bobby Hopkin-Hoggarth of Co-operative Funeral Care,

The ritual cleansing of the deceased: how Muslims ritualise death in a migration context, from Claudia Venhorst, Dept. Comparative Religion, Radbout University, Holland, and,

An Accidental Vocation, from Jenny Uzzell, Dept. Theology and Religious Studies, Durham.

The seminar was the beginning of an on-going series, and was introduced by the Centre's Director, Prof Douglas Davies, Dept. Theology and Religious Studies, Durham.


High and Uplifted: The Poetry of Woodbine Willie and the Philosophy of Albert Schweitzer.
Friday 21st November, 7-8pm, Williams Library, St.Chad's College.

A joint venture between the Centre for Death & Life Studies, and St. Chad’s College.

As a contribution towards the nation’s WWI commemorations, ‘High and Lifted Up’ was a conversation between the poetry and experiences of Father Geoffrey ‘Woodbine Willie’ Studdert Kennedy, one of the best-loved Chaplains of World War I, and the philosophy of Albert Schweitzer: a German theologian, organist, philosopher, physician and medical missionary in Africa, awarded the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize for his work on his philosophy of ‘Reverence for Life’.

The evening featured readings from the work of both figures, and discussion was led by the Director of the Centre for Death and Life Studies, Prof Douglas Davies, and St. Chad’s College Chaplain, Dr Ashley Wilson.


Cremation in Scotland

The Cremation in Scotland Project is now drawing to its close and a major book on the material is currently being preapred for publication. Members of the project team have given numerous papers in UK, France, and Romania over the last year, they also made a significant contribution to the DDD10 Conference at Nijmegen.Funded by the Leverhulme Trust this three year project (2008-2011) is strongly interdisciplinary. Led by Professor Davies and Prof. Hilary Grainger (University of the Arts, London) the research team includes the Revd Dr Peter Jupp and Mr. Stephen White as Research Fellows and Mr Gordon Raeburn who is working for his doctorate. Together the team has been exploring the social and religious history of Scotland as the medium within which cremation emerged. Prof. Grainger has a special interest in the architectural history of Scotland's crematoria, Mr White in legal aspects of cremation and burial, Mr Raeburn in the theology of death in Scotland at and after the Reformation, Dr Jupp in the historical dynamics of the process of funerary change, and Prof Davies in its ritual and symbolic aspects and in the interdisciplinary nature of the project itself.

Research leave

In summer term 2011 Prof. Davies was given research leave held as a Visiting Research Fellow at the Collegium Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of Helsinki. There he continued work on the joint volume with Dr Hannah Rumbe on woodland burial and contemporary funeral rites in the UK, to be published by Continuum in 2012. He took part in a variety of research seminars and also showed the film Earth to Earth: Woodland Burial and The Church of England to the Scandinavian Thanatological Association, Helsinki University's Department of Anthropology, and to a local Helsinki circle of interested parties. He was able to meet leading figures in Finland's palliative care world. In November 2011 Prof davies will return to give a plenary lecture at a conference hosted by the Collegium as part of its ongoing programme on death studies.


Prof. Davies was an invited Research Fellow at the Collegium, Helsinki University's Institute for Advanced Studies, from April-June 2011 giving papers at the Collegium, at Helsinki's Department of Anthropology, and at the Scandinavian Thanatological Association's Annual Conference.


A further output of the Centre is Identity and Religion: Hope, Reciprocity, and Otherness. Published by Oxford University Press (2011). This study is one outcome of an AHRC Network Award on Emotions held at the Department by Prof. Davies. It offers an extensive interdisciplinary and interplaying study of the themes evident in its title and subtitle. It exemplifies the 'Life' aspect of the title of our Centre for Death and life Studies. It is also hoped that a further book on emotions and religious dynamics, a collection of papers derived from the Emotions' Network Award, will be published later in 2012. 


While in Finland Dr Davies made use of the film 'Woodland Burial and the Church of England'. Made by Sarah Thomas, following an idea of Dr Hannah Rumble, this innovative film was funded both by The Centre for Death and Life Studies and Durham University's Wolfson Research Institute. It builds upon the collaborative Doctoral Award won by the department from the AHRC-ESRC's Religion and Society Programme, held by Hannah Rumble. The film is increasingly popular. In 2011, for example, Woodland Burial' has been shown both within and beyond the academic world, e.g. at the 10th international Conference on Death, Dying and Disposal (DDD10) at Nijmegen, Holland; in Italy at Turin's Cinemambiente Environmental Film Festival; the London Funeral Exhibition; and at the 2011 Cambridge Film Festival. Other requests continue to flow in. When shown at the 2011 Association of Natural Burial Grounds Conference it was described as the first "considered, none sensationalist coverage of what we do".



Woodland Burial

Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and Economic and Social Research Council's Religion and Society programme this Collaborative Doctoral Award focused on developments in woodland burial in general with a special focus of The Arbory Trust and its Barton Glebe site near Cambridgeshire. The Project ran for three years from October 2007 -2010 with Ms Hannah Rumble, B.A., M.A (Distinction) as the primary researcher. She successfully completed her doctoral examination in December 2010. Her thesis is accessible

Part of this research, along with furether research and analysis will be published in 2012 in a joint volume with Prof. Douglas Davies dealing with woodland burial and other aspects of contemporary funeral rites in Britain. 


During late 2010 the Centre commissioned a film on its woodland burial project. Funded both by the Centre and Durham University's Wolfson Research Institute this film Earth to Earth: Natural Burial and The Church of England was made by a former Durham University graduate Sarah Thomas, now an ethnographic film-maker. This has been shown at a variety of public events, including the 2011 Open Day at Barton Glebe Woodland Burial site, with many of the people appearing in the film being present at the day. It has alos been selected for inclusion in a variety of film festivals including, for example, Turin and Cambridge, and has been shown at academic seminars in Helsinki and Nijmegen, as well as at training days for clergy at St George's House Windsor Castle and Cuddesdon Theological College. 



Conference: Death, Dying and Disposal (DDD9 and DDD10)

The ninth meeting of the Death Dying and Disposal Conference (DDD9) was hosted by the Centre at Durham September 9th - 12th 2009 with approximetaly 200 delegates, forty percent of them from outside the UK. The Book of Abstracts edited by Douglas J. Davies and James Jirtle is published as Volume 14 Supplement to the journal Mortality September 2009. A book of selected papers on the topic of Emotions, Death and Identity is to be published in 2011.

The Tenth DDD Conference was held in September 9th-11th 2011 at The Centre for Thanatology Radbout University Nijmegen. It included the showing of the film Earth to Earth: Natural Burial and The Church of England . Both of these spoke to the film which was given a second showing by popular request. Members of the Centre's Cremation in Scotland team (see below) also made a significant contribution to this conference by presenting a panel on this Leverhulme funded project.



Death and British Funerals

Funded by the ecumenical, Churches Group for Funerals, Profs Douglas Davies and Prof. Tony Walter (of Bath University's Centre for Death and Society CDAS) completed and presented to that Group in summer 2008 a preliminary report on contemporary aspects of death and funerary rites in England and Wales.