Jean M. Langford

Salus Mundi Resident Scholar


Critical Spirits: Southeast Asian Memories and Disciplines of Death

When Jean Langford interviewed Seattle’s Southeast Asian refugees to identify their concerns about the management of death in the US, she found their stories “peopled by the lost spirits of loved ones, the dangerous spirits of those who died by violence, the angry spirits of ancestors, and the adjudicating spirits of the land.” The same spirits that protected the refugees during wartime objected to violations of the dead and dying in US hospitals and funeral homes.

In Critical Spirits: Southeast Asian Memories and Disciplines of Death, Langford explores how the refugees’ resistance to contemporary practices in U.S. medical and mortuary institutions relates not only to cultural differences but also to wartime memories that link violence and medicine. “During war, when hospitals were partisan and prisoners had no rights, spirits were trusted protectors,” says Langford. Medical inadequacy, desecration of burial sites, and hauntings by those who died violent deaths recur as themes in refugees’ wartime memories.

“Refugees often experience modern disciplines of death as procedures in which their lives are devalued, their ancestors violated, and their spiritual practices disallowed,” Langford says. The refugees in her study, who identify as Lao Loum, Hmong, Kmhmu, and Khmer, were disturbed by many common end-of-life practices in the US such as telling terminally ill loved ones they are dying. The shock of this “truth-telling” may drive the spirit out, weaken the body, and hasten death, many refugees explained.

Disclosure of terminal prognoses, “do not resuscitate” orders, advance health directives, and other bioethical conventions are intended to increase patient autonomy in a context of sophisticated medical technologies that prolong life. However, the refugees’ wartime and diaspora worlds are characterized more by community loyalties to the living and the dead than the generic scenarios of advanced directives. In other words, one person’s “death with dignity” is another person’s nightmare: the inability to fulfill a commitment to the dead.

Circulating narratives of restless, angry, and disoriented spirits aren’t “just quaint little cultural stories or beliefs,” Langford contends. “They are also political commentaries expressing protest, dissatisfaction, discomfort, and political marginality. We need to pay attention to them.”

Affiliation at time of award:
Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Minnesota

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