Death at the Margins of the State

Dr Laura Griffin and LLS lecturer Marc Trabsky

Last week, La Trobe Law School lecturers, and Associate Members of the Centre of Health Law & Society, Dr Laura Griffin and Marc Trabsky, travelled to the University of Bath in the United Kingdom to present papers at the Centre of Death & Society annual conference. The theme of this year’s conference was ‘Death at the Margins of the State’. Laura’s paper, titled ‘The Modern State and Death Before Birth: Institutionalising Grief for Pregnancy Loss’ explored recent legal changes (or proposed changes) in the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom, with regards to pregnancy loss. In areas such as criminal law and registration law, greater recognition has been advocated for stillbirth or miscarriage. While many have welcomed these changes as challenging taboos of pregnancy loss, feminist scholars have expressed concerns that such laws seem to confirm the grievability of the unborn – a longstanding strategy of the anti-abortion agenda. While recent scholarship has critiqued the role of the state in framing some lives as less grievable or recognisable in the face of state violence or war, the context of pregnancy loss suggests a need for new ways of theorising grievability and the state. Laura’s paper considered the moral authority of the grieving mother who calls upon the state to recognise the ‘dead’ unborn, as well as the ways in which practices of mourning and memorialisation move from private to public as the state echoes the mother’s call by confirming her loss as a grievable one.

Marc’s paper, titled ‘The Dead Records Office’, examined the importance of thinking institutionally for writing a social history of the dead from the nineteenth to twenty-first centuries. This means paying attention to a plurality of institutional practices, considering how social, cultural and familial spheres intersect with bureaucratic, administrative and procedural systems, and accounting for how institutions, whether medical, political, financial or legal, are productive in forming and cultivating different relations with the dead. How did different state officials form relationships with the dead in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries? What was at stake in the different ways in which these relationships were cultivated? And what does this all mean for how various officials, whether they may be registrars, coroners, pathologists, public servants or judges continue to form lawful relationships with the dead today? Marc’s paper conceptualised paperwork as an essential component of the performance of state office. Techniques of filing play an important role in transforming the speech acts of registrars, coroners, pathologists, public servants and judges into institutional narratives, formal records, and technocratic reports. Files position the dead as neither things nor persons, but cases, records and names in an expanding bureaucratic archive.

‘Death at the Margins of the State’ provided a valuable forum for meeting international scholars in this unique, interdisciplinary field of study, as well as forging closer links between the University of Bath and La Trobe University. These relationships will be further developed with the upcoming visit of Dr John Troyer, Director of the Centre of Death & Society, to the Centre of Health Law & Society at La Trobe Law School in August this year.


La Trobe