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Visitors to the website for the documentary-in-progress My Star, My Dust are greeted with a question: “How are funeral practices changing, and what does this say about the beliefs and values of the living?”

Shannon Lee Dawdy (M.A. ’02, Ph.D. ’03), who received her Ph.D. in anthropology and history and who is now a professor of anthropology and social sciences at the University of Chicago, began to consider the question following a series of personal experiences.

“I lost four loved ones within the space of five years,” Dawdy says. “In going through that experience, I learned a lot about what is called the death care industry in the United States—the industry that cares for the body and family after a death.”

Meeting the Makers

Dawdy took note of the many options—some very creative—that were available to those who found themselves in the position of needing to decide what to do with the body of a recently deceased loved one. She became especially interested in changes that had to with cremation practices.

We’re interested in trying to get the viewer to think about their own death and have a personal relationship to the film, to produce certain kinds of emotions as they’re watching and to contemplate their own or a loved one’s death.”

“Historically, Americans embalmed bodies at an extraordinarily high rate—the highest in the world—and it was the standard funeral practice,” she says. “That is now changing. Cremation was slowly taking over from the ’50s and ’60s onward, but it has grown exponentially. With cremation, the two traditional ways are to either put the ashes in an urn or to scatter them. Scattering is probably the most common option, but a growing number of artists and entrepreneurs are offering the ability to provide families with keepsakes of the cremated remains, and some of the items are quite interesting.”

With her collaborator, the filmmaker Daniel Zox, Dawdy has traveled around the country to meet the artists and entrepreneurs who make objects out of human remains. Examples range from glass pendants to bird baths to—for those who can afford it—synthetic diamonds.
“Many Americans I have talked to are articulating a sort of spiritualism and idea about what happens to us after we die that’s not religious,” she says. “Some think we continue on in another form—I think that may be part of why they are interested in the process of creating another form with the remains.”

The project echoes some of Dawdy’s earlier work. “Post-Katrina, I wrote about an indigent cemetery in New Orleans that wasn’t slated for historical preservation or protection by FEMA. What was special about this cemetery is that people would leave all kinds of objects on the graves, such as toys, lawn furniture, and handmade items. I was interested in the relationship between the living and the dead. In my book Patina, that became not so much the question as the answer. Why do people like old things? In part because we connect to one another through our relationship with the dead, and our connection with the dead is often through objects—objects that are made, touched, or left by past generations.”

Breaking the Rules

My Star, My Dust is Dawdy’s first attempt at filmmaking.

“I realized the work I wanted to do was highly visual and that there were things I wanted to do that you couldn’t quite communicate in words,” Dawdy says. “There is a long respected genre of ethnographic film. We struggled for a while about whether we fit that category—I think we‘re creating a hybrid between an arthouse documentary and an ethnographic film. I want the people I talk to to speak for themselves, but we have creative input in how we edit and juxtapose images. We’re interested in trying to get the viewer to think about their own death and have a personal relationship to the film, to produce certain kinds of emotions as they’re watching and to contemplate their own or a loved one’s death.”

Photo of Shannon Lee Dawdy

Dawdy’s broader work combines archival, ethnographic, and archaeological methods with a regional focus on the coastal communities of the U.S., Caribbean, and Mexico, including extensive research in New Orleans.

Dawdy partly attributes her willingness to take unconventional approaches—such as making an experimental documentary—to her interdisciplinary academic background.

“My Ph.D. from Michigan was in anthropology and history, and I had archaeological fieldwork in my background. I went back and forth between these three disciplines not because interdisciplinary work was ‘hip,’ but because I was always attentive to which methods and sources would best help answer the questions I had. The evolution of the filmmaking project is the same thing—it was a solution to the problem of what the best method was for the question I had, and what the best method was to communicate it. My one wish for anthropology would be for anthropologists to stop focusing on the sub-disciplinary divisions. I think the obsession over policing the borders between the sub-disciplines is damaging intellectually. People spend more time worrying about whether they or someone else is a real archaeologist or a real ethnographer or a real linguist rather than just applying the method that works for the question they are interested in.”

In 2010, Dawdy won the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship—often referred to as a “genius grant”—for her work.

“In terms of my professional life, it gave me license to do whatever I wanted. The MacArthur committee is good at recognizing rule-breakers, and so in some ways it’s retroactively rewarding you for having broken the rules in the first place and also giving you license to go break some more. And that was pretty much the case for me.”

My Star, My Dust is still in production. Stills, a demo, and more can be viewed on the film’s website.

Photographs: top, Daniel Zox; Dawdy, John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation