Writing and Teaching Life and Death: A Conversation with Anne Allison

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

In this conversation, Anne Allison, Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University and Society for Cultural Anthropology past president, reflects on the trajectory of her work, her most recent book, Being Dead Otherwise, and the possibilities of teaching about life and death in the classroom. We discuss how shifting death practices in Japan shed light on feminist care politics and consider the similarities between teaching and ethnography.


Dana McLachlin: Can you to tell us a little bit about how your research on death practices started and evolved? What brought you to this topic, and why you think there is so much generative energy and discussion surrounding death today in Japan?

Anne Allison: This new work on death comes after I’ve done several projects involving contemporary, urban Japan. I started working on the nightlife and hostess clubs in the 1980s (1994), and then turned to mass media and pornography but also the household and domestic labor (2000). After that it was the globalization of Japanese toys (2006) and character merchandise followed by the precarity—of labor but also life more generally—after the bursting of Japan’s bubble economy in the 1990s (2013). Throughout, I’ve been interested in materialist concerns about production and reproduction—in how people make life. So now I’m interested in how people make death: considered from a Marxist, materialist approach in terms of not only what makes up the various lineaments and relations of that terrain, but also how these fit into all the other relations of capitalism, including the household and family.

Meanwhile, there has always been a second set of interests driving my work: that of the imagination or fantasy—those ideas, imaginings, stories, desires that keep us going and shape how we perceive things. So I’ve always asked: how are different people positioned; who does a particular practice benefit and whom not; and how does the imagination fit into that?

Most directly, this current project on death came out of my earlier one about precariousness. The bubble economy burst in the early 90s alongside the promise of the 70s and 80s—of Japan becoming an incredible world power with its double-digit economic growth spurt. As the country entered an era of economic decline, the stability that people once thought they would have, through lifelong employment, marriages, and residence—normative as that all was—has been shattered. Of course, some people still can and do attain those kinds of lives today. But what in the 1970s and 80s was considered within the aspirational orbit of many, if not most Japanese (85% of whom identified as middle-class), is simply not true anymore. This ushered in a widespread sense, and experience, of uneasiness (fuan) in both labor and life: what I tracked as precarity. As I encountered over and over again in fieldwork, people said they no longer had a place where they felt comfortable or at home (ibasho ga nai). This didn’t literally mean they were homeless per se. Rather, they were expressing an existential/affective/social state of insecurity and disbelonging. In Precarious Japan (2013), I call this ordinary refugeeism: a concept of “being refugeed” that I was introduced to by activist Amamiya Karin to reference the unstable life and job prospects being faced in the 1990s by young precariat.

Around 2013, when finishing this earlier project on precarity, I started hearing acquaintances and friends speak about having “nowhere to go” (ikiba ga nai) at end of life as well: a type of homelessness in death. In conversations, people would say: I don’t know where I’m going to go, or I can’t really go in the family grave, or I’m tending to the family grave of my parents and ancestors, but you know we’re going to move and we’re not going to be able to do that anymore.

As I began to understand, what had once been the conventional and normative burial practice—being buried according to one’s patrilineal line (and of one’s husband, for married women) in the ancestral grave often attached to a Buddhist temple where the family had been parishioners for generations—was coming undone. Due to a number of factors—economic decline but also high aging demographics alongside a decline in marital and birth rates and a turn to “solo sociality” (one-third of all households are now single including for the elderly)—Japan has entered today what some Japanese scholars call its era of “family-less dead.” This all sounds dire and there are, indeed, sociological strains that are distressing: increased rates of solitarism and loneliness in the population more generally as well as the phenomenon of “lonely death” where, living alone, some people die alone leaving corpses that may go undiscovered for a very long time.

But what I have also encountered, and done ample fieldwork around, is the emergence since about the year 2000 of considerable public interest around devising new, and often surprisingly innovative, alternatives to the family grave model of final resting place. Borrowing on the term “techno-animism” that I came up with in my project on Pokémon and other Japanese character merchandise to reference the liveliness virtual companions can offer their users, I use here “necro-animism” to speak about the sense of energy and possibility I’ve discovered in what is generically called “shūkatsu” or ending activity.

In the face of the worry held by lots of Japanese in not having a final resting place, there is a bursting of initiatives to come up with alternatives to the family-grave model that feels as if it’s giving animation to peoples’ lives and their deaths. I pulled these strands of work I had done previously to think about these new conditions, and practices, emerging around death today in Japan.

“So I’ve always asked: how are different people positioned; who does a particular practice benefit and whom not; and how does the imagination fit into that?”

DM: I really appreciated how the book draws from feminist theories of care, particularly the Care Collective’s idea of “promiscuous care.” You trace a fascinating history of feminist critiques of burial practice in Japan. Can you tell us a little bit about how death care practices are gendered? And why you think these new practices surrounding death offer the possibility for a more promiscuous form of care?

AA: When I started the project, I worried that this work would fall under the rubric of “dark anthropology.” As in, oh, this is so gloomy because there are so many stories of lonely death, people who are living alone in the face of a declining family system and the high aging population. But I came to realize, the old(er) system of family-based mortuary practice was riddled with its own (highly gendered) exclusions as well as hierarchies, biases, and demands. Buried with patrilineal kin, the system operates according to the rule of primogeniture (limited to only first sons) as well as marriage (women must be buried in the graves of their husbands’ families where they are hierarchically subordinated and that excludes divorced women). The expectation as well is that kin should tend to the deceased—by visiting the grave on key anniversaries and holidays and providing daily offerings at the domestic shrine—for thirty-three years before one’s transition to ancestor or god. This is all labor intensive and narrowly reliant on patrilineal kin. Family graves and plots are expensive (as are the annual “gifts” to be made to the Buddhist temple when located in a cemetery there), including maintenance. Often they’re in the countryside, so visiting takes both time and money. Death care constituted by this patrilineal family model has its own limitations and demands.

The promise of promiscuous care and the way that Kathi Weeks talks about it (taking the concept from the Care Collective, and its “Care Manifesto”), is about opening up care beyond its narrow hinging on one social institution (the family with the disproportionate weight born by women and the underclassed) (2020). Promiscuous here does not mean being random or irresponsible. To the contrast. It means allocating care—for elders, children, the dead—to not the mere responsibility of kin but rather a network of provisions, resources, and providers that are more equitable, sustainable, and fair.

Most public and private cemeteries in Japan still require that the deceased have a successor or other identified kin (to tend to the grave and pay annual maintenance fees) in order to be buried there. Such a principle excludes so many people these days. But now, with alternative burial sites, or alternative plans (such as tree burial) within conventional cemeteries—what have started emerging since the late 1990s—entrance is “free” for anyone who can afford the burial fees. In the space Inoue Haruyo established, called Ending Center close to Tokyo, anyone can be buried there without a successor by paying a one-time membership fee. Further, belonging of sorts is promised by being in communion with the beauty of the sakura (cherry) trees and also by getting to know, ahead of time, those one will be eventually lying next to in death: what are called “grave friends.” One woman Inoue-san introduced me to was a married woman who, having saved her own money from a part-time job, had chosen to be buried here instead of in the grave of her husband’s family. “Disconnecting” from the latter gave her a sense of choosing burial in her own style: an incredible liberation that Inoue calls “post-death divorce.”

All of this strikes me as an example of promiscuous care: finding possibilities of/for care beyond the narrow delimitation of patrilineal kin. And at the get-togethers, workshops, and lunches hosted by operations like Ending Center, there was always an energy in the room—excited animation around the activity of preparing for one’s endingness in the company of fellow grave friends. But, to be clear: participation in an operation like Ending Center requires that one has both the financial and psychic wherewithal to do so. While Inoue sees herself as a “midwife” helping members “birth” their ending arrangements, signing up for this requires the self-responsibilization of a neoliberal subject. And not everyone has the money or inclination to do that.

If you don’t have that, and don't have kin, then there's the real risk of being abandoned in/at death: winding up as a disconnected soul (muenbotoke) with the specter this carries in Japan of being a hungry, wandering ghost. Decidedly unsocial and unsavory. As the numbers of lonely dead, unclaimed remains go up in Japan, the question is: who or what is responsible for giving care to the dead? If not the family, and for those unable or unwilling to find commercial alternatives such as Ending Center, who/what should offer care? There are a few civic/community alternatives (a communal plot in San’ya where aging day laborers live, for example) and some innovative programs started at the municipal level (most strikingly in Yokosuka City) emerging in Japan that I discuss in the book. But, this is a pressing matter—and not just in Japan. It’s increasingly a question for all of us. I mean what happens to those people who don’t have the wherewithal or the means or the loved ones to handle their bodies and spirits after they die—do they just go into the potter’s burial ground or into the waste bin? What happens to them and why does it matter?

“I see the germs of a promiscuous care with potentially radical implications for shifting sociality going forward. Framed in the register of death but with an effect/affect for life as well.”

DM: I’m also curious about the the very material and bodily intimate labor surrounding death. You write that this work of cleaning up after (lonely) death is both “valued and reviled” (125), describing “this ordinariness of draining a home extraordinary: an activity of diligence and care” (Allison 2023, 132). What do you think produces this ambivalence surrounding this work? What makes this work both ordinary/extraordinary?

AA: Because, I’m a materialist, I’ve always been interested in questions of labor. When I was younger, I had a bunch of jobs from factory work to KFC [Kentucky Fried Chicken], so work has always been something that I’ve thought a lot about. The materiality of dealing with remains was so striking to me. Who does that labor? Who does the labor if you’re kin? This past summer, when I went back to Japan, I visited the grave of a woman I had known since the mid-1980s. A dear friend: my Japanese mother—I called her. She died at 93 and her son invited me to visit the grave along with his sister—I was the only non-kin to do so. Visiting, we washed the grave. That’s not exactly labor, but that was the first thing we did—this ordinary act of cleaning. So it’s interesting that it’s the labor of taking care of the grave that winds up constituting—or is it just expressing?—care.

I also had an interesting conversation with my closest Japanese friend. She is a little bit younger than I am, is single, has no kids, and has been thinking a lot about where she’s going to wind up. In her case, she could go into the family grave. But as she’s the last in the family and the one now tending to the grave, once she passes there will be no one to do this carework. As she told me: ‘if I go into the grave, the grave is going to be dirty, it’s going to be unkempt, and people are going to see the grave where my ashes are, and they are going think that’s messy.’ I thought, wow, that you would even think about that! So the labor of tending to the remains winds up being intimate, social, and burdensome—all at the same time.

As I share in the book, there’s a ritual called “moving the bones.” Following the funeral, close intimates will accompany the body to the crematorium and, once done (and because they [cremate] at a lower temperature in Japan, there are bigger bone fragments) will line up to move bone fragments from one tray to another. There’s a certain kind of intimacy in being willing and able to be there with the remains that I found incredibly moving. Again, an interesting admixture of the ordinary and extraordinary: touching with one’s hands that conveys deep respect and grievability for the dead.

For clean-up workers, what’s increasingly happening is to outsource the care/labor of sorting through and disposing of the possessions inside homes left behind by the deceased. This was a job once done by kin but today, either because one has no family or doesn’t want to burden them, commercial services are being increasingly relied upon. In doing fieldwork, I read voluminously about these companies, interviewed a number of directors, and also accompanied clean-up crews three times on site. I found it fascinating, because they are mainly blue collar workers who are performing this labor with a diligence and also discretion that struck me as full of care.

And then when someone dies lonely and they don’t have a family member to handle the job, these workers are called in to do “special clean up” and often it is an incredible mess. The last job I went to was a case of someone who died lonely, and he’d been a hoarder—the place was a mess. It was August, incredibly hot, and the air conditioning had been off ever since he’d died, which had been something like six weeks earlier. It was hard! And one of the things that impressed me is that these are manual workers, and they are going in and doing the work with efficiency but also with delicacy and care. According otherwise abandoned dead a modicum of recognition, grievability, humanization.

“How and if new ways of dealing with death in Japan are filtering into new ways of dealing with life as well?”

DM: Even in spaces or processes which might seem individualizing or de-personalizing (such as the incitement to have a death plan for oneself or the automated grace), you suggest there might also be the grounds for generating sociality or new kinds of relations. You end Being Dead Otherwise with the question, “Might this being dead contain the germ of being otherwise in life as well?” (2023, 196). Can you speak a little bit about where you see these germs of “being otherwise”?

AA: I ended the book on a provocative note: wondering how and if new ways of dealing with death in Japan are filtering into new ways of dealing with life as well. I see germs of being otherwise already fomenting in the attitude and actions taken by so many to-be-deceased I met in Japan who are trying out new possibilities for their final resting place. Refusing to accept that, without kin or a family grave, that they will wind up as abandoned souls. As in one woman, long divorced and living all alone on a budget, who regularly attends meet-ups at Ending Center to be with her fellow “grave friends”—those she will be buried next to someday. Her life, as she described it to me, is full of ordinary everydayness, as is the way she envisions her afterlife: nothing grand nor any sense she will become an ancestor, a Buddha, a god. She imagines becoming “nothing at all,” as was her answer to my question about this. And yet, it matters all the same that she not wind up in a waste bin or as a disconnected soul. So, she has made arrangements for/by herself, just as has the middle-aged bachelor I met who has already made plans for his remains to be interred in an automated columbarium that, laughingly he told me, is cozy and nice. And, so too, the couple now living in the United States who just “closed” up his family grave in Japan and moved all the ancestors’ remains into a Buddhist temple where the souls can be taken care of in perpetuity (as is the promise of the service given there called “eternal memorial” – eitaikuyō).

In all these cases, the family grave that needs to be tended by proximate kin is not an option. So, rather than be abandoned in death or abandoning rituals for the dead altogether, each has made alternative arrangements. According a recognition, of sorts, to the deceased, that carries a form of care and sociality quite different from the old(er) model based on the patrilineal family model. In all of this, I see the germs of a promiscuous care with potentially radical implications for shifting sociality going forward. Framed in the register of death but with an effect/affect for life as well.

“We can use the classroom as a sounding board or a place to discover this collectively.”

DM: Zooming out a little bit, I’m wondering how this project has shaped your teaching. I know you taught an undergraduate class on Life and Death, but also more broadly, in the United States we’re in this moment of pandemic-related excess mortality, as well as popular protests against racist state violence, but it doesn’t seem like in the United States we are having larger conversations about how to care for dead or how to mourn in public. So what does it mean to teach in the midst of death? The book frames death as a crux of intergenerational relation and care, but I also think teaching can be that, too. Does this change the way we relate to the classroom?

AA: So when I taught this anthropology class on life and death the first time (five years ago), I only had ten students and found that it took a while for people to feel comfortable talking about death. But, my colleagues too! I had many jokes, including from my husband, about the “downer topic” of my class (well, admittedly, I was also teaching a graduate seminar with a colleague at the same time on “Thinking with the Corpse”). But this past fall when I taught the class again, I felt a shift: thirty students signed up and conversation was lively from the get-go. As you say, much has happened these past few years with Black Lives Matter, COVID, endless acts of police and gun violence, and so many of the kids in class have also experienced death up-close: many have had friends commit suicide and grandparents die—some during COVID. My sense was that the students were almost desperate to have the opportunity and a safe space within which to discuss these matters. So many thanked me afterwards as if, being given the chance to talk about death, helped them to navigate life itself. But, of course, this is what I’ve been saying about what I discovered in Japan around new death practices: an openness towards speaking/thinking/planning/envisioning death that reverberates on life as well.

But how to teach about this in the classroom is tricky. This stuff can also be very upsetting—I mean do I give trigger warnings? Do I say, you know, this is going to be graphic? You have to experiment a lot—I think when I’m teaching about life and death, and maybe this is my teaching more generally as I get older, I think I try to be more thoughtful of students. I try to be more open; I try to have a lot more interaction. In a graduate class on critical ethnographies I regularly teach, what I try to do is to raise it as a question, you know, where are we at with ethnography/the ethnographic/critique? I wouldn’t have done that when I was younger, when—being a woman—I felt I needed to establish/and be seen as an authority. But now I’m like, things are so uncertain, so where do we think we’re all at? You don’t need me to tell you; you all need to figure it out for yourselves. But we can use the classroom as a sounding board or a place to discover this collectively.

For me, there is a balance in teaching. I always prepare as in reading everything, thinking it over, having some type of agenda going into the class. But then one never knows what will arise in the classroom itself, right? Dynamics should be organic, too, so I try to be open to what comes up, then try to be agile. As in—okay, let’s go with this, okay we can do this. And then, you know, there are times when students just seem tired. You ask a question, no one says anything, so then you have to think of something else on the spot. This is all somewhat like ethnography, no? Going in with a plan, having questions and issues one wants to raise, but then being open to the uncertainty and unknown of the ethnographic encounter. Kim Fortun (2009) mentions play as a key trope in doing ethnography—as in moving between those puzzle pieces and the frames within which they may/could/should go.

DM:  I’m curious about your writing process, particularly when writing about these vulnerable and intimate moments at the edge of life and death. Does writing about death demand a different kind of ethnographic approach?

AA: Writing for all of us is such a mixed bag. It can be the absolute best. For me the absolute best is when writing is going well, and the next best is when teaching is going well. In both cases, it’s the surprise of things happening, coming together, and rejiggling in different ways. Such utter joy and profundity can arise as when, writing and struggling with a sentence, then putting something down that just jumps off the page. As if the sentence wrote itself. But it’s never easy for me. I’m a slow writer, and it takes me a long time to get something done—as in this book.

It took me a while; COVID happened; stuff happened in my family; and it simply took time. And the writing process is wonderful, but it is also painful and hard. What I love writing more than anything are the ethnographic stories, and ethnography drives my work. But then, I always ask: okay, so where is that analytical edge going to come from? Do I do it in the process of doing the ethnography? Is the balance okay? Even though I firmly believe the ethnographic is theoretical, as well as political, and ethical, I think it’s also good storytelling.

And then, in the doing, one simply has to stay with it. Listen to what one has written; let it marinate and settle; give it the time. Maybe it’s like what we were saying about the classroom, about ethnography, being open—being willing to see where something is going to go. I think all of us have to kind of cultivate our own process. All of us have the things that we can and do well and the things that are just hard for us. But I think the writing gets better. The process though; not sure it ever gets easier.

I wrote this not just about Japan; as always with ethnography, you want to do something that is ethnographically faithful to your site and the people you spoke with, but it also goes beyond that and speaks to people and situations beyond the site. So the question you asked me about the otherwise, to me it seems like the question a lot of us are asking now: what is the world going to be like? What is the academy going to be like? What is anthropology going to be like? And what are we doing to contribute to that?


Allison, Anne. 1994. Nightwork: Sexuality, Pleasure, and Corporate Masculinity in a Tokyo Hostess Club. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

----. 2000. Permitted and Prohibited Desires: Mothers, Comics, and Censorship in Japan. Berkeley: University of California Press.

----. 2006. Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination. Berkeley: University of California Press.

----. 2013. Precarious Japan. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

----. 2023. Being Dead Otherwise. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

The Care Collective. 2020. The Care Manifesto: The Politics of Interdependence. London: Verso.

Fortun, Kim. 2009. “Figuring out Ethnography.” In Fieldwork is Not What it Used to Be: Learning Anthropology’s Method in a Time of Transition, edited by James D. Faubion and George E. Marcus, 167–183. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.