the body in death

May 25, 2008

Week 12: Death

Discuss the different modes of treatment of death in films. Give Examples.


Integral to understanding death on screen is an understanding of the body itself. From here, we can see how certain screen texts either allign with, or break away from ‘traditional’ treatments of the body. By ‘traditional’ i am referring to the current social theory that Hallan speak of in “The Body in Death” (2001). Once this is understood, it becomes clear how bodies are used in film to encourage this ‘traditional’ reading or reject it. This is done through the representation of death, because as Hallan argue, the body in crisis, shows the limitations of contemporary social theory in regards to the body. (Hallan, 2001, p. 63)


‘The Body in Death’, states that current social theory draws a distinction between the body and self. This is the idea of the container-body, or embodied agency. According to this theory, the physical body contains and dictates the self and therefore the self can only be defined with regard to its agent body. The body is a key component of people’s social presence as appearance is prioritised over character. The body-as-container presents the body as unified, with body and spirit contained within. Impermeable and autonomous.

The container-body allows, historical events, consumer culture, medicine, fashion and the media to act as ‘authoritive’ figures which allow the body to reconstruct itself endlessly. Thus, the body becomes objectified by institutional forces which govern style and reinforce the idea that physical representation is reflective of inner self. (Hallan et.a, 2000 p. 67-8 )

Screen examples that represent the body-as-container create a subjectivity for the viewer based upon appearance and existence in the physical world as the only, or most valued form of existence. Michelle’s story on Extreme Makeover is a prime example as she anticipates her physical makeover will also reinvent her social being, or ‘self’.

This becomes difficult upon consideration of the dead, dying or departed body. (Hallan et,al, 2001 p. 63)


According to Hallan this idea of the unified container-body becomes simplistic when, in current society the notion of social-death exists. (Hallan, 2001, p. 64)

“With the emphasis on young, healthy, sexually attractive bodies, comes the assumption that those with imperfect bodies have a lesser social presence.” – (Hockey and James, 1993 seen in Hallen,, p. 66)

Following this theory, ‘social death’ is also possible. Aging, unfit, or disabled bodies are at risk of alienation in a society which sees the physical body as a manifestation of the self. As Hallan have argued, this is somewhat of a paradox, as it relies on the fact that the body and self can be seperated. Thus, if embodied individuals can undergo social death before physical death, then the theory of the container-body is limited. (Hallan 2001, p 63)

This idea of ‘social death’ is critical when interpreting the ways in which screen texts handle contemporary theory of the container-body. As we have seen in the above example, tv shows such as Extreme Makeover, How to look Good Naked, and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy‘ abide by the unanimous body/self idea. By aligning with this theory, they reinforce the idea that in death, the body and self die together.

Forms of representation which break away from the theories of the container-body force us to ‘reconsider concepts such as agency, embodiment and self identity as currently understood’. (Hallan, 2001, p 67) This is aptly presented in the screen examples Six Feet Under (Alan Ball, 2000-2002) and Serial Experiments Lain (Ryutaro Nakamura, 1998 )


The dead even become embodied when a disembodied spirit materializes as a ‘ghost’, ‘spirit’ or ‘haunting’ (Hallan, 2001. p 74)

Centered around the Fisher family, who run a funeral home (Fisher and Sons. funeral home), this series mixes death with humour and sadness. The result being a complex portrayal of the ‘death industry’.

Each episode begins with a death (for examples click here). This body then becomes the businesses next client and shapes the proceeding episode. This formula underpins the shows attutude to death. Death is represented as the beginning of something new: in this sense the beginning of a new episode, or of a new event in the Fisher household. The show demonstrates that death does not necessarrily mean ‘the end’, as the social presence of these bodies is what shapes their lives, business and inturn the entire series. Perhaps one of the shows advertisements sums this up; When death is your business, what is your life?” ( accessed 19/5/08)

With regard to the container-body and contemporary wetsern philospohy of the body, i would argue that Six Feet Under disregard the theory by representing it alongside its limitations. That is to say, that although the show adheres to the ideas behind the Western death ritual ( which neglects any illusion to life after death) it also negates this theory by the continued representation of the post-mortem body on screen. This paradoxic engagement with the body in death is akin to the theories in the Hallan reading which identify a contradiction between the ideas of the container-body and the existence of social-death.

Dead people in Six Feet Under are commonly portrayed as ghosts or hallucinations to living people. Most importantly, they are portrayed as embodied, with a continuing social presence that engages with and affects the living. This idea of the embodied deceased directly contests the body-as-agent, which does not consider embodiment after death. In this way, Six Feet Under follows Csordas’ definition of embodiment as ‘an indeterminate methodological field defined by perceptual experience and mode of presence and engagement in the world’. (Csordas seen in Hallan, 2001, p. 66) Thus, the ghostly figures and visions of the dead in Six Feet Under fall under the catagory of embodiment as a mode of presence which can exist outside of the body.

One of the most continually referenced ghosts in Six Feet Under is that of the late Nathanel Fisher, father and husband of the Fisher family. (right) Through communication with his ghost, his children and widow continue a relationship with him post-mortem. Nathaniel, who dies in the first episode of series one remains throughout the entire series and although the viewer knows he is dead, his character is as vocal and important as the living characters. In this way, death in Six Feet Under is not portrayed in a fantastical, mystical sense but more as different mode of being.

This clip from Season 4 highlights the impact of Nathaniel’s social presence on David. What is evident here, is that the deceased person still has social merit after death, as shown by David’s physical reaction after seeing his father.


A similar mode of representation is seen in Serial Experiments Lain as the consciousness of Chisa Yomada still haunts and communicates with people. As seen in Layer 01 “Weird”, although Chisa ‘gives up her body’ she can still use the world of the Wired to communicate with people. In this way she exists according to Csordas definition of embodiment mentioned above. Clearly, this contests the idea of the container-body and encourages the possibility of embodiment in another form, a cyber, intangible form.

The representation of death in Lain is also different from that in Six Feet Under. Most notably seen in its depiction of the technological world. Technology in Lain dictates a large communications network in which the deceased can contact the living and hybrid-humans (those who exist within the cyber-world and the physcial-world. e.g. Lain) can exist. Thus, the representation of death is broadened to the point that death does not mean death of consciousness, as all forms of being (dead, living and hybrid) are interconnected – contrar to the position of the container-body. This broad theme of interconnectedness and multpiple personalities rejects the contemporary theories that image the body as ‘the finite container of self defined through its separation from other bodies’ (Hallan, 2001, 69). I think the relationships, in Lain, between ‘real’ people and those who are ‘nobody’ or have ‘no body’ is the most obvious rejection of this theory. (Hallan, 2001, p. 66)

Although this rejection can also be seen in Six Feet Under, the prominence of technology in Lain is one of its distinguishing factors. Lain deals with the potential of technology to alter notions of identity. It also makes a broader statement about the body as a product of our history, unable to be separated from the technological world which has forced humans to adjust (hence the birth of the hybrid-human) This inevitably complicates the idea of identity in death. Through Chisa, Lain shows us that identity can exist after death, and through Lain we are shown that identity can exist in many forms. Thus, in Lain, the Wired communications network ‘locates the body within historically specific discourses and practices and it is through these that the inner self and outer body are formulated and connected’ (Hallan, 2001, p. 66)

As has been shown with the screen examples of Six Feet Under and Lain, the representation of death on screen can challenge contemporary notions of the body-as-container. Current social theory, which seperates embodiment and life from disembodiment and death therefore becomes simplistic and limiting. (Hallan, 2001, p. 75)

Both Six Feet Under and Lain have re-worked the definition of embodiment as understood in contemporary society. This is a the type of embodiment manifested in shows such as Extreme Makeover, which emphasize the individual. Furthermore, both series portray ideas of multiple identities, and the inter-subjectivity of identity as represented by the continued social presence of the deceased and their ‘real’ relationships with the living. In the end, i think they succeed in exploring the idea of the body without boundary, forcing the viewer to assess two important things. Firstly, that individual consciousness is not subjective and can therefore exist through another body – and furthermore the endless possibilities of technology and the emergence of other ‘realms’ of existence.



Elizabeth Hallan, Jenny Hockey and Glennys Howarth (2001), ‘The Body in Death’, Contested Bodies Eds. Ruth Holliday and John Hassard. London and New York: Routledge: 63-77.

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May 25, 2008

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