Bioethics Blogs

How did we get here? A review of Yasmin Gunaratnam’s “Death and the Migrant: Bodies, Borders and Care” by Branwyn Poleykett

Death and the Migrant: Bodies, Borders and Care

by Yasmin Gunaratnam

Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013, 208 pages


David Tasma, a Polish Jew and survivor of the Warsaw ghetto, died in 1949 in the care of a British nurse, Cicely Saunders. The £500 he bequeathed to Saunders contributed to the founding of the St Christopher’s Hospice in Sydenham, an institution dedicated to accompanying the dying and palliating what Saunders described as the “total pain” experienced by people at the end of life. The knot of Saunders and Tasma’s relationship, its opacity and sensuality, and the complex exchange of gifts, debt and obligations between them, lies at the heart of Yasmin Gunaratnam’s analysis of diasporic dying in Death and the Migrant.

Gunaratnam draws on hospice ethnography, encounters with patients, narrative interviews with care staff, archival research, and her experiences teaching palliative care to investigate the ‘overlapping estrangements of migration, disease and dying’ (p. 8). Through elegant, elliptical, partly autobiographical analysis, she explores the vulnerabilities of migrants, how they can be ‘de-worlded by loss’ (p. 6), and how these losses, a withering of relations and winnowed down world of connection, can shape their experiences of growing old, falling ill, and dying. Migrants dying in the UK have often made extraordinary sacrifices for their ‘ordinary’ deaths among strangers. Gunaratnam’s research participants reflected to her on the experiences of estrangement and racism that attenuated their wellbeing, experiences that under some circumstances can position them as ‘difficult’ patients, seen by hospice staff and palliative social workers as hostile and obstructive.

Gunaratnam describes her aims for the book as twofold: to investigate the philosophical implications of transnational dying and to produce better care, and her analysis braids together these two objectives moving seamlessly between these different registers.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.