Our man in Madrid: representing DIMECCE at the IMISCOE Annual Conference

by Alistair Hunter

Due to being on paternity leave, I was not able to join the other DIMECCE colleagues on their visit to Ankara for the WOCMES congress (see previous blog post). Instead, two weeks later, I represented the DIMECCE project at the 11th IMISCOE annual conference in Madrid on 27th-29th August 2014.

This was the fourth time I had attended the IMISCOE annual conference, and I was very much looking forward to meeting old friends and hopefully making some new ones. IMISCOE stands for ‘International Migration, Integration and Social Cohesion in Europe’, and is the largest network of scholars working on migration topics in Europe. Over 300 people presented their research at this year’s conference, which was held at the Universidad Pontificia Comillas, located very centrally in Madrid, just 20 minutes’ walk from the city centre.

My mission in Madrid was to present the results of our DIMECCE research on one rather sensitive – let’s say morbid – topic. Quite simply, where to be buried.

Earlier in the project I had managed to convince my DIMECCE colleagues to allow this question to be included in our interview guide. I know they did not always enjoy asking this question, so let me go on record to say how grateful I am for their forbearance! Having said that, I think my colleagues were also sometimes surprised by the positive reactions from interviewees when we raised this topic – ‘amazing question! whose idea was that?’ or ‘don’t worry to ask me – that is a part of life you know’.

As you probably guessed by now, funerals, burials, cemeteries – and other social phenomena related to death and dying – are a particular interest of mine! Indeed, questions of death and dying in contexts of migration have fascinated me since my PhD fieldwork in 2008/09, particularly how individuals and communities organise to commemorate those who have passed away far from their country of origin. The choice of where to carry out funerary rituals – be it burial, cremation, scattering of ashes or some other practice – is already a far from straightforward question for those of us who are to a greater or lesser extent ‘sedentary’ (i.e. not cross-border migrants). The options for how and where to carry out these rituals become even more complex in contexts of transnational migration. Such choices are also infused with questions of belonging and identity. Indeed, one may read the choice to be buried in the country of residence as an ultimate indicator of belonging and integration in the adopted ‘homeland’. Equally, the choice to be repatriated so as to allow funeral rites to be performed in the place of origin indicates enduring bonds with the land of one’s birth.

Such considerations were at the heart of the question we asked our DIMECCE interviewees, more specifically those who had been born in the Middle East: Where would you prefer to be buried? Here in Europe, or in your place of origin?

Not content with troubling my DIMECCE colleagues by making them ask such questions, I then proceeded to see if there were likeminded scholars out there who shared my research interests and fancied meeting to discuss them. Thus, with the close cooperation and support of an anthropologist colleague, Eva Soom Ammann at the University of Bern, I organised a double panel entitled Migrant End-of-Life Care and Rituals at the IMISCOE Conference in Madrid.

The first striking aspect of this year’s IMISCOE conference was the venue. As mentioned, the conference took place in the Universidad Pontificia Comillas in Madrid. In other words a Pontifical university with close ties to the Catholic Church. Unsurprisingly, therefore, Christianity was a constant visible presence at this conference – for example, crosses were prominently displayed in all the lecture rooms where the research papers were given. To give another example, during one lunch break I decided to tour the university buildings – turning off the main corridor from the university entrance I found myself – to my surprise – in a very large church!

Conference venue, Madrid

The conference venue, Universidad Pontificia Comillas – Madrid (photos by Alistair Hunter)

Given the topic of our panel, this religious ambiance was very appropriate. The paper which I presented, based on data from the DIMECCE project, featured in the second of two panels on the theme of death and dying in migration contexts: Migrant End-of- Life Rituals. This panel included two other papers in addition to mine: one by Nadja Milewski and Danny Otto at Rostock University, who presented quantitative data from a recent German survey ‘Generations and Gender’, showing the importance of a religious funeral among Turkish-origin communities in Germany. Interestingly, 2nd generation German-Turks gave as much importance to a religious funeral as their 1st generation parents, although other aspects of religiosity, such as mosque attendance, were less important for 2nd generation respondents. The other paper, by Osman Balkan of the University of Pennsylvania, also focused on the Turkish population in Germany. Osman’s paper offered fascinating qualitative insights into the politics of burial through interviews with Turkish funeral directors in Berlin: his paper was especially illuminating for linking discourse about funeral practices to discourse about the integration of German-Turks in society.

My own paper examined the significance of religious rituals, family location and place attachment in decisions about preferred burial location for Middle Eastern Christians in Britain. I presented DIMECCE data from the UK case, revealing that religious considerations are the most important justification for choice of burial location. Earlier research in France found that greater religiosity leads to preference for burial in the home country. However, among DIMECCE interviewees I noted that religious considerations are more likely to lead to a sense of indifference as regards burial location, with no strong preferences either for Britain or for Middle Eastern homelands. Without doubt further work is required to fully understand this indifference. However, it is likely that it is related to distinctive theological understandings in various Middle Eastern churches regarding the nature of the soul and the body after death.

In summary, Eva and I were very happy with the quality of the interventions and discussions which characterised our Madrid panels. The topic of death and dying in contexts of migration is relatively unexplored in academic scholarship, and we are both looking forward to developing a collaborative publication – perhaps a journal special issue or an edited book – from the set of papers which we were privileged to hear in Madrid.

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