Missing but assumed dead: public participation and the complexity of mourning practices

Maggie Sweeney

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaper


Writing in 2006, Erika Doss argued that “contemporary mourning practices are visibly public and participatory” (p.306). As noted by a number of scholars, this movement towards a more participatory culture following sudden and traumatic deaths is a routine trait of civil society and the contemporary mediated public sphere (Eyre, 2007; Santino, 2004). Such practices are most often manifested in the form of spontaneous shrines at the sites of human tragedy, with the placing and adornment of everyday artefacts such as ribbons, toys and floral tributes being a commonplace feature. In that respect, such “performative commemorations” are “no longer emergent” categories sitting on the fringes of the hegemonic sphere of mourning. Rather, their universal appeal suggests that they have now entered the realms of the “legitimate public sphere” (Doss, 2002). However, whilst the enactment of such practices, and the visibility of particular symbols, have “clearly become a contemporary mourning ritual or tradition associated with untimely death”, their application and adoption also extends outwards to include the missing and the assumed dead. With reference to the disappearance of Madeleine McCann (2007) and April Jones (2012), this paper will examine the complexities that arise when publics are ‘invited’ to mourn those who are missing but assumed dead. Robert Pogue Harrison (2003) reminds us that a central tenet of Western civilisation is that we have an “obligation to the corpse”. However, it is apparent that the normative symbolic practices associated with our ‘obligation’ become infinitely more problematic and complex when there is no corpse to mourn
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 14 Jun 2017
Event3rd International Conference on Missing Children and Adults - University of Abertay, Dundee, United Kingdom
Duration: 14 Jun 201716 Jun 2017
https://www.abertay.ac.uk/events/3rd-international-conference-on-missing-children-and-adults/ (Conference website)


Conference3rd International Conference on Missing Children and Adults
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
Internet address


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