The performance of the hour of death

Komaromy, Carol (2002). The performance of the hour of death. In: Hockley, Jo and Clark, David eds. Palliative care for older people in care homes. Facing Death. Milton Keynes, UK: Open University Press, pp. 138–150.



When it occurs at the end of a long life, death is often constructed as a natural and timely event. In care homes for older people the lack of medical intervention at the time of death serves to emphasize the seeming approprateness of death as natural and 'homely'. This chapter considers how death and bereavement are managed in these settings, where death is a controlled and timely product of homes in which older people accept the natural ending of their lives (Komaromy and Hockey, 2001). Goffman's (1959, 1961) work on institutions and the presentation of self helps to explain how 'performance' at the time of death enables professionals to produce 'good' deaths in this context.
The construction of death in this way can be partly explained by the way that death is culturally shaped by care home practices. Yet there is an inherent tension in homes that are both private ('domestic') and public ('institutional') settings, and care homes as public places vary considerably in the extent to which they are open to the wider community. Indeed, many care homes occupy a private space in the community, in which older people are ghettoized (Komaromy and Chant, 1999) and in which people live in a state of what Sudnow would call 'social' death (Sudnow 1967). My observations here are based on data from an ethnographic study of the management of death and dying in care homes for older people (Sidell et al. 1997); see box 8.1 for details of this project.

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