This week I want to focus on a recent blogpost by the sociologist Yasmin Gunaratnum, about the values we place on differing deaths.
I was drawn to Yasmin’s piece at a time when, like many others I was trying to make sense of the rape and murder of two young Dalit girls in India. Yasmin’s Twitter activity had led me to a very good piece in The Hindu that analaysed the issue from the perspective of caste. I then read Yasmin’s blog in which – bravely I thought – she analyses the wider social construction and reaction to two other very different circumstances of death, but again with an emphasis on social inequalities.
Her frame of reference is the ‘political economy’ of modern dying – a phrase I had not come across before. Her chosen examples are the largely unreported deaths of more than 300 men in the worst mining diaster in Turkish history occurring around the same time as the headline grabbing death of British teenager Stephen Sutton, whose reaction to his end stage cancer ‘inspired millions’. Yasmin asks ‘how is it that some lives are more disposable – and some deaths more grievable – than others? She points to the stark contrast between the neo-liberal, planned and digitised death and the normalisation of risk, injury and premature death that characterises the experience of the poor in so many settings around the world. She highlights what I have called ‘the contested space’ of modern dying. But goes beyond that to consider not just the dying process but the place of death, dying and bereavement in the social structure.
I hope the perspective Yasmin suggests can be taken forward in ways that will better enable us to understand the one million deaths that occur every week in the world, so few of which enter the realm of public discourse. In a week which is also highlighting another invisible group – informal and home carers – it is right to acknowledge the dying and the loss that is not made visible. Thanks Yasmin for these helpful insights.