Belongings of the dead

Do we live with the dead as long as we live with their belongings?

Excerpt from the article by Ton Otto and Thomas Fibiger in the book Etnografiske Museer i Norden (Ethnographical Museums of the North). 

The ethnographical exhibition at Moesgaard Museum centers on the lives of the dead in various cultures and societies. Do the dead have a life in Denmark as well?

In Denmark, there are people who communicate with the spirits or perform exorcisms, but the majority of the people stay away from these kinds of activities. However, we are still in touch with the deceased. For example, we hold on to belongings and items for no other reason than the fact that they used to belong to our deceased relatives. And we talk about lineage and heritage while we plan a future for our children when we ourselves are dead.

In the exhibition “The Lives of the Dead”, we invite the visitors to reflect upon life after death in the homes of the Danes. The purpose is to make the visitors contemplate their own lives and think about the afterlife, as well as contribute to the museum’s research into the lives of the dead in Denmark.

In autumn of 2013, we performed a pilot study of Danish homes based on 17 interviews in which we investigated what part the belongings of our deceased relatives play for us: Which objects do we keep, why do we keep them, and what role do they play in the lives of the living? This is not a finished research project, but a project in which we continuously invite our visitors to participate by reflecting on their own relations to the belongings of the dead. Thus, our key question is: Do we live with the dead as long as we live with their belongings? We do not know the answer, but wish to examine it in the exhibition – in collaboration with the visitors.

Karsten, who contributed to the project, cannot remember ever meeting his uncle who died young. When Karsten as a child visited his grandmother, he often went into the uncle’s room, which the grandmother had left untouched as it was. Karsten would look in the closets and the drawers and find the dancing trophies that the uncle had won and the records that he used to listen to. He also found clothes, e.g. the bow ties which were a part of the uncle’s dancing attire. Karsten grew up on a farm. His father dropped out of school in order to work and ride his moped and never listened to music. By exploring the room, Karsten created an image of his uncle and found a sense of community with a person, he did not remember meeting. For a while, the trophies found a place in Karsten’s own room and at his confirmation, he wore his uncle’s tuxedo. Every year on New Year’s Eve, he wears one of his uncle’s bow ties, and the trophies, music and bow ties make it seem as if his uncle is a part of the celebration.

My grandparents are present every day”, one of our other participants says. In her living room, she keeps a wall clock and a sewing box that she inherited from her grandparents. Thus even in Denmark, it seems that the deceased live on in the objects that we keep.

However, we throw many things away or stow them in attics, basements and drawers. Some items are thrown away immediately, while others adorn our homes.  Do the belongings of our deceased lose their meaning when they are discarded? Why is it so difficult to part with things that used to belong to the dead? It is especially the things that may either be thrown away or retain new meaning which are interesting to us. Perhaps the visitors at the museum will discover hidden items at home in their attics or drawers which they will find new use of-

The exhibition is part of a research project, which aims to enhance the knowledge on the subject of life after death. The visitors contribute through own narratives about the things they have kept or thrown away to this research as well as to the exhibition and possibly to the understanding of the part that deceased relatives play in contemporary Denmark.


The article is an excerpt from the book Etnografiske Museer i Norden (Ethnographic Museums in the North) which presents the thoughts and challenges from various ethnographic museums in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Iceland and the Faroe Islands. The book will be published by Aarhus Universitetsforlag / Unipress.

Ton Otto is a professor and head of the Ethnography and Anthropology Department at Moesgaard Museum. He is in charge of the exhibition “The Lives of the Dead”.

Thomas Fibiger is curator at Moesgaard Museum and co-editor of the book.