15th October 2021

Research by Sibylle Erle

Death is an abstract concept. I have always been interested in Death; not because I am morbid but because I want to live a better life. Having co-organized Academic and Creative Responses to Death and Dying (since 2017) with Peter Green at BGU, I realised that I needed to move on as well as back into my own discipline. I wanted to contemporize my interest in Death, which is rooted in the Romantic period where it connects to my research on Mary Wollstonecraft, Joanna Baillie and Mary Shelley.

This is how it happened.

In conversation with Dr Makrina Agaoglou, from the Institute of Mathematical Sciences (ICMAT) in Madrid, I realised how Mathematics could inform and teach non-mathematicians about how mathematical modelling can give some inside information on what is happening and if and how outcomes can be predicted. Sophie Ungerer a London-based architect and designer working at the University of Brighton, on the other hand, showed me how COVID-19 has affected the way we move in our minds and through our cities, including the spaces designated for preoccupation with death, such as graveyards, (makeshift) morgues or memorials. In my head I quickly moved from “What is the maths behind the current pandemic?” to “How should we inhabit public spaces – as well as the intimate space between us”.

Our project seeks to explore the perceptions of death in the context of COVID-19 and how they were affected by the pandemic. COVID-19 has been represented by mathematical graphs describing a global phenomenum, that are abstract and not always easily processed by the public; the data, moreover, is counterpointed by a plethora of individual stories about loss, mental health and lockdowns. Yet, though the threat of death is omni-present and has shaped our societies and lives irreversibly, many still have not experienced death first-hand. Death is well-documented in the public eye, but all too often the dying had to die alone to ensure the safety of their loved ones and related communities. This disconnect - between the public and the private - has to do with how we process ‘the facts‘. Through our project we want to take stock of how the current situation is poised; it is not about knowing or not knowing, it is rather to do with accepting or rejecting ‘the facts‘. Using interdisciplinary collaboration, we aim to explore the perceptions of death: from the abstract, for the general public, the parameters that affect the spreading of the virus and thus define social distancing, to how empirical experience of death may be represented in text and space.

Our project is funded by AlumNode (a collaboration between the Heidelberg Laureate Forum Foundation (HLFF) and the German Scholars Organization (GSO), funded by the Klaus Tschira Stiftung (KTS).

Facts rarely produce empathy; and this is where the TEXT (Literature) comes in.

For any information contact Sibylle Erle, FRSA, FHEA, who is Reader in English Literature and lead of RKEU Literature and Literacies. She teaches on the English programmes as well as on MA Children’s Literature and Literacies.

Our first event on 2 November brings together Speakers from different disciplines who will explore ‘Death’ from different angles: we will have short presentations, a round table and a creative workshop; This will be lead by artist Marina White Raven, who I have been working with since the first Lockdown on a story titled, 'What did you do during lockdown?' - Find out more about that story here.

What remains? Each point or number on those graphs holds its own story. Is it personal stories that will compete with the trends in the formation of the collective memory of the time we are now living through? How do we perceive, construct as well as represent Death in our daily lives?

For details: https://www.icmat.es/congresos/2021/PDM-NST/index.php

To register: https://predictiondeathmemory.eventbrite.co.uk