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It started cleaning out the house of my great grandmother who was a hoarder.

My Mamaw lived
through the Great Depression and World War II, and during these times of scarcity, she saved
everything: used cans of soup, pieces of paper, old scraps of clothes, birthday and anniversary cards
with warm notes attached. Anything that could be useful, really, although useful for my great
grandparents was a subjective term. When she died, she left every nook and cranny filled with bobbles,
bits, and pieces of her life. We couldn’t afford two homes, so the house had to go, with all of the things
in it.

My family and I spent three years working on the house, trying to clean out each room for the
next family. The process was daunting to say the least: one corner of a room on the first floor was filled
completely with newspapers from the past 50 years; another corner had vases and various instruments
used for floral arrangements because she had owned a flower shop before retiring. In one frame I could
see her world within the timeline of her history. There were people and things I didn’t recognize or
know, but through my incessant questioning, I was told things about my family and the past that I hadn’t
known before. Through family photos, I learned that my Papaw Billy, the son of Mamaw Stiles, had a
twin sister named Betty Sue who died in her 40s from an accidental drug overdose. Items and remains
became totems for storytelling and recounting the past lives. I was fascinated by the contents of the
house. For my mother, it was quite a similar experience. She was able to enter rooms she had never
been in before because in her childhood, they were cluttered with things and off-limits, seeing a new
side of her own memory. Although she was a bit sad because she had a personal connection to Mamaw
Stiles, the experience offered learning opportunities for her as well. We were able to learn together and
share the memory of our grandparent and learn about material culture of the 20th century. Commented [DS1]: Typically I would recommend that the
beginning of a metaphor take up no more than 2 paragraphs
My experience of cleaning out Mamaw Stiles’ inspired my study of anthropology and things as it’s more of an intro and most of the essay should be
throughout my undergraduate career, where I was learning the stories and narratives of others and how applying, not setting up, the metaphor.
people make meaning through their material worlds. Her items represented her interests, experiences,
and concerns in life. Playing with her former things and seeing how she kept so many things made me
see that materialism and people’s love of things are not a product of a society glorying material in
narcissistic consumerism. Instead, it made me see love and remembering in things as a product of a
society that celebrates legacy. I believe that my Mamaw Stiles collected these things for so many years
because she had so much love for her family and the past, and she didn’t want our family to go without
anything, even if that meant cluttering her life with objects. The future was precarious and collecting Commented [DS2]:
and keeping provisions acted as ways to calm her anxieties about scary possibilities and the unknown. I
felt as though I were able to step into her personality, even though I didn’t get to know her.

A few years later, when I was in high school, I explored estate sales every weekend with my
friends. My friends and I would play a game to try and guess the life and story of those who lived in the
house. At one sale, I fell for strawberry kitchen plates, but I also nearly fell when I saw the price. When
trying to negotiate and haggle, the seller and I shared a moment where she told me the set was a 25th
anniversary gift from her sister’s husband, the owner of the home. Her sister loved strawberries; there
were strawberries all around the house in various forms and decors. I told her I intended to buy the set
for my family’s farm house. My Uncle took all the dishes I remember using in my childhood. The cabinets
were empty like our family was after my Nana passed. Besides being a moment of transaction, the seller
and I were able to share stories of our families and mutually recognize the value and emotion behind
the handwritten price tag. An economic exchange turned into a social one, showing that narrative
sharing is an aspect of the sale and in the way we remember the past and subtly mediate on death.
Luckily, through my studies at Vassar, I have been able to read literature and write on this topic
extensively. Whenever I have had the chance for open ended research assignments, I have written on
the importance of ritual and symbolism in these estate transactions, and I plan to complete a thesis
analyzing the role of companies and their effects on this mourning ritual. From this research, I
discovered one way of releasing items of bereaved loved ones in the United States, besides direct
inheritance, is through the estate sale. More than being a way to get rid of unwanted goods or pay for
unthinkable funeral costs, I see it as an important ritual. You don’t often think of rituals in the context of
the United States, but I feel it is one of the most important rituals of letting go and remembering. Little Commented [DS3]: Could be interesting to connect the
is written on this topic in anthropological literature, so I decided to conduct research with an estate sale motif or cyclical nature of a ritual with the cyclical process
of death and remembrance. Death happens repeatedly, and
company in my home town this August. I designed the research questions, found and secured the field
ritual practice allows us to make sense of this experience
work placement, and received funding and support from Vassar’s Anthropology Department. I hope to consistently.
continue this research in graduate school and complete a PhD focusing on memory, materialism, and
death studies.

Besides its part in my life and cultural memory, I want to study death because I'm afraid of
death as an American, where it is a topic that is generally avoided and feared. In the US, People try to
extend life through fad diets and attempt to stop aging in its tracks through plastic surgery; they use
expensive creams and serums advertised to lift, suck, hide, and tone any part of the body. They drip with
brands to retain their youth and status. The topic only comes up in rare places, like the traditions of
funerals and the estate sale, where I also feel out of place. But only at these certain moments do we
have opportunities to confront death in its actuality, not in the sensationalized forms we often see in
media. I desire to become more comfortable with that in two ways: with death and goodbyes. I want to
do that through observation and experience, discovering different ways of establishing legacy and
letting go, as a traveler stitching together histories across many cultures. The cultural discourse of death
in my society is nonexistent, until the very last moments when death occurs, and ceases when you
return to work shortly after. I hope to gain the emotional strength to be more comfortable
understanding death within different frameworks within my country and within those I love. For this,
the opportunity to study the interconnectedness of grieving rituals and coping with the trauma of loss is
the personal experience of a lifetime.

As I carry out this development journey, I want to perceive how other cultures see death in the
course of life, how people remember the past or look to a future in tribute, in comparison to the US.
There is power in how people can have so many ways to recognize themselves and their ancestors in
their everyday material worlds and symbols. People are never truly gone – living on in the ways we
make a certain nostalgic dish, or open a banana (from the bottom, like a monkey, not the top!). There is
legacy in the way that you pour a glass of water for someone; they're in the items and pitchers they left
behind, provoking past events, travels, and tastes of those who are no longer physically here but always
alive in the memory. And working with other cultures allows moments of contemplation and
consideration that allow reflecting on my own culture and practices. Through this process of
juxtaposition, I hope to become more comfortable with death and to find new ways to connect with the
past and the pasts of others academically and personally. I want to share the memories and lessons
from those no longer with us with others around the world, learning ways to reckon with a hard but
Commented [DS4]: This is where you really need to drive
inevitable part of life. This Watson project will be challenging for me emotionally and physically but an home WHY it’s many places, WHY the second essay, make it
important once in a lifetime opportunity for growth. a lead in. Why can’t you study death in a PhD? What is it
about the chance to be outside of the library in many
countries over a short period of time? Why YOUR Watson
grant, not just ANYONE ELSE’S Watson grant?
Project Proposal - Describe your plan for the 12 month fellowship year, including a
description of your proposed project and details about how you intend to carry it out. In
addition, you should include information about what it is that prepares you to undertake your
project.*

With an interest in materialism and death, I wish to travel to Japan, India, Mexico, the
Netherlands, Ghana, and Vietnam to understand the various ways people conceptualize death and the
material remains of others in their everyday lives. Do they tokenize them and put them on display? Do
individuals destroy items of the deceased because they are too painful to see and interact with? Or, as
we do in the US, do they sensationalize it through media and ignore it when it actually happens?
Reading and experiencing death are two different things. I hope to explore this idea of death and
materiality across the globe to compose a holistic perspective of ritual and remembrance. To do this, I
will stay with homestays when appropriate and contact various death-related organizations for an
opportunity to study dying and remembering through local practice. I hope to have conversations about
death and see everyday death practices. I feel that the best way to understand is to converse and listen,
having genuine dialogues with diverse peoples that give me genuine perspectives for growth. These
conversations are tough and hard to approach, but I have been trained in field ethnography and the
ethics of anthropology that guide my thinking and interactions when discussing these topics. And I feel I
can create the relationships necessary to foster these deep conversations. To document this process, I
will keep a blog filled with thoughts, essays, videos, podcasts, and other forms of media. I hope the
posts will be collaborative in nature with the friends I meet on my journey.

I wish to start my Watson year in Japan, spending June to Mid-August there. At the forefront of
technological innovation for the past four decades, Japan has developed death rituals that are
integrated with technology. Large cities, like Tokyo and Kyoto, have automated storage facilities for
remains. Instead of burying the relative at family plots far from the city, busy Japanese city-dwellers
store their relatives inside storage units at a holding facility. When members of the family want to visit
to conduct proper rights and rituals, they swipe a card and within 15 seconds, the remains, a family
photo, incense, flowers, and the family name are on display in a temporary viewing room. When the
family can’t visit, a line of robots called Pepper can conduct the proper Buddhist rights to make a
relative an ancestor. How does the fast-paced nature of Japanese society and the use of technology like
Pepper in death rituals influence perceptions and conceptions of death in Japan and ideas of Buddhism?
I hope to work with such a facility like Shinjuku Rurikoin Byakurengedo in Tokyo. As a capstone, staying
through the end of the summer will allow me to observe funerary festivals in Japanese cities. I will stay
with some friends of my parent’s in Tokyo.

Next, I will travel to India from August to early October to learn about their funerary customs
and everyday sacrifices for the dead. Hindu funerals consist of antyesti, which are a serious of rites
completed after someone died. About a day after someone dies, their body is washed, they are wrapped
in a cloth of differing colors dependent on gender and age, and they are cremated near river or water,
where they are thrown in after the ceremony. On the death anniversaries following, there is a ritual
called śrāddha¸ where homage is paid to ancestors through rice balls and other food items. It is meant
as a ritual to give heartfelt thanks to the ancestors who have helped the individual get to where they are
in their life. I plan to spend my time in India in the capital of New Dehli, mainly observing funerals. I
hope to live with a host family to see the more everyday acts of ancestral homage in Hinduism and
India.

In early October to late January, I plan to arrive in Mexico to learn about celebrations of death
and the Mexican joking nature with death. During the two and a half months, I will stay around Oaxaca
and in Mexico City. On November 1 and 2, I will experience Dio de los Muertos, including the iconic
flowers and creation of ofrendas to guide and honor ancestors. One of the main reasons for visiting
Mexico for death and materialism is this celebration, one of largest and renowned holidays for honoring
the dead in the world. I would stay with a host family for part of this stay to see a family construct their
ofrenda and observe how different items are used in relation to the dead. I am also interested in
everyday alters in Mexico to the deceased. A friend related to me that their abuelo had a bottle of coke
placed on his alter because it was his favorite in this life. Living with a family will allow me to study and
learn about this more intimately.

Moving to another continent, I hope to study in the Netherlands and live in Amsterdam from
February to April. I would like to work at Tot Zover, the Dutch museum of death in Amsterdam, as a
visiting researcher. The museum offers exhibits on Dutch funerary practices, emotions related to death
and grieving, and human memory of the deceased. I feel working there will allow me to understand the
interesting system of belief in the Netherlands related to emotions and closure in death. There is also a
phenomenon of lonely deaths in the Netherlands, where people die with no relatives. Social services
take over, and funerals even occur without visitors or a service. Poet Laureates of cities in the
Netherlands and Belgium have begun to write poems for these dead strangers to try and honor them in
some way and make sure they have a legacy in being remembered. Local poets such as Hester Knibbe,
Jos Versteegen, and Menno Wigman to name a few also travel to these funerals to make sure they are
not unattended. I would like to meet with these authors and interview them to see how they write
touching and warm words for someone they don’t even know.

In Ghana, I want to study social prestige and artistic expressions of death in May. In the Akan
region of Ghana, there is a funerary ritual where a family spends approximately a years’ worth of their
income on elaborate coffins for their relatives. Commonly referred to as ‘fantasy coffins,’ these are
created to represent what the person loved in life, what they cherished. Sometimes the coffin is a
symbol to represent their job. Coffins are created to look like boats, books, sewing machines, even packs
of cigarettes. These elaborate coffins recount key parts in the narrative of the person who died for
everyone, representing their experience through materialism. Given the high cost, story-telling ability,
and social impact, I will attend various funerals and offer to work with craftsmen and women who
create these works of art.

Finally, I will end in Vietnam from June to August. Vietnam is renowned in anthropological
literature for post-Communist revivals of folk rituals like burning paper and offerings for their ancestors.
In Vietnam, homes have alters where families burn incense, pray, and give food offerings to their
relatives. They update the deceased on happenings in everyday life of the family and request advice and
good fortune. Sometimes they seek outside help to contact those in the afterlife through shamans and
fortune tellers. I hope to study these folk rituals in a homestay in the capital, Hanoi. I feel that living with
a family and participating in their rituals can be very beautiful and informative. Also, by talking to those
in my village, I can learn about how things used to be under Communist rule and how rituals have
changed over time.
After living in Peru for 13 weeks, I feel prepared to organize my Watson year. Awarded a Vassar
fellowship to learn Spanish, I organized homestays, found a Spanish school, and booked my flights.
While there, I had a short stint in the hospital for salmonella and a parasitic amoeba, but I handled it
with minimal tears and used my traveler’s insurance like I had planned. This summer I also received a
grant to study independently with an estate sale company, where I organized research, sourced the field
site and company, and planned the project budget. In places where I do not have organized homestays, I
have a large web of informants in the form of professors and friends that can help me secure
placements. While I may be afraid of death, I am not afraid to travel or coordinate a year abroad.
Additionally, I have studied anthropology, American death practices, and interviewing techniques doing
folklore research, a background I think is useful for a project of this nature. I hope that my experiences
and intent express my preparedness to take on this project. I hope to reckon with my fears and grow as
a person, scholar, and global citizen.

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