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Anthropology of Death

Anthropology of Death

Henry Abramovitch

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Abstract:

The anthropology of death examines the diversity and commonalties in how human societies respond to the demise of its members. Anthropologists have documented the enormous cultural variation in the methods for disposing of the corpse, the expected behavior of the bereaved, and the ongoing relations between the living and their dead. Most cultures conceptualize death as a transition, or rite of passage, in which the fate of the corpse is linked to the ritual status of the mourners. The social impact of the death is related directly to the social status of the deceased and the type of death. The sudden, violent death of an important leader may paralyze a society, while the lingering death of a marginal stranger may pass unnoticed. Death rituals provide an opportunity to reassert core cultural values at a time of potential demoralization, and as such have important economic, political, and ideological aspects. Contemporary Western attitudes toward death, seen from a cross-cultural perspective, appear decidedly ‘deviant.’ Future research will focus on rituals and institutions, as well as on the impact of new technologies (medical, computer, space, etc.) on the changing conception of death.

All human cultures struggle to deal with the inevitability and mystery of death. The anthropology of death explores how human societies around the world respond to death. It is concerned with both the conceptual and organizational aspects, that is, what people believe about death and the afterlife, as well as what they actually do when faced with the crisis of death. Two main methodological approaches used are the ethnographic and the comparative. The ethnographic approach examines how single cultures cope with the demise of members, while the comparative approach tries to make sense of the enormous cultural variation in issues such as the disposing of the corpse, the expected behavior of the bereaved, and the ongoing relations between the living and their dead (see AnthropologyEthnographyEthnology).

Although elaborate death rituals are probably a defining aspect of human culture, comparative studies have revealed few, if any, universal practices. Even the widespread practice of crying at a funeral is actively discouraged, for example, among the Balinese. Eating the dead (endo-cannibalism) is an exotic and controversial form of disposing of the human body that was once widespread in the Amazon and Melanesia. Nevertheless, anthropologists have uncovered a number of key metaphors, which help to make sense of the enormous diversity of mortuary rituals. The anthropology of death takes as its task to understand the phrase: ‘All humans die,’ yet in every culture, each dies in their own way (see Death and Dying, Sociology ofAncestors, Anthropology of).

1 Centrality of the Death Ritual

In most traditional cultures, death rituals stand at the center of social life. Many societies use expensive and elaborate mortuary ritual as a way of demonstrating status and power, so that the expense incurred is often an enormous financial burden. The atmosphere is not always sad or somber, but may even take on a festive atmosphere so that one may speak of ‘celebrations of death’ (Huntingdon and Metcalfe 1991).

The impact of the death is related directly to the social status of the deceased. Death is likely to be seen as particularly disruptive when it strikes persons who are most relevant for the functional and moral activities of the social order: ‘At the death of a chief, or man of high standing a true panic sweeps over the group’ (Hertz 1960, p. 76). The elaborate funeral rituals and pyramids of Ancient Egypt are outstanding examples of this ethos. Likewise, the death of a spouse often leads to a long period of taboos and restricted activity. ‘On the contrary, the death of a stranger, slave or child will go almost unnoticed; it will arouse no emotion, occasion no ritual’ (Hertz 1960, p. 76). In regions of high mortality, the death of an infant who is not yet considered a ‘social person’ may have no formal ritual or mourning. Bereaved parents often experience their loss privately, without ceremony, in what has been called ‘death without weeping’ (Scheper-Hughes 1992). In Northeast Brazil, the death of an infant or young child is often considered a blessing, in which the angel baby attains happiness in heaven. A mother’s tears were actively discouraged since they would wet the angel’s wings and impede the spirit-child’s flight to a better place. The mothers expressed no grief but rather felt that the baby was looking after her from heaven. Scheper-Hughes’ work challenges much of the received wisdom concerning the nature of grief, where such mothers would be considered as suffering pathological grief and in need of urgent intervention.

The simple funerals of some huntergatherers, such as the Baka Pygmies of the Central African rain forest, are notable exceptions to the widespread pattern of elaborate and complex mortuary rituals. They have no idea of an afterlife, saying “When you are gone, bang! you are gone.” (Bloch and Parry 1982; see Hunting and Gathering Societies in Anthropology).

 

2.1 Fieldwork dilemmas

Death is an intensely emotional and often taboo subject, so that studying death raises special dilemmas and emotional challenges for the fieldworker. (Palgi and Abramovitch 1984; see Fieldwork in Social and Cultural Anthropology).  In many Western cultures, death and mourning is a time of heightened privacy. The entry into the mourner’s space at such times is considered intrusive and inappropriate. Yet the ethnographic imperative demands researching even such acute grief. How fieldworkers manage their own culture’s attitude toward death may be considered a case of  “ethnographic countertransference”. One explicit and early example was described by was described by an early American-Jewish fieldworker (Hortense Powdermaker) working in a matrilineal society in New Ireland. She described her own extreme distress when she began taking field notes at her first funeral. She imagined how intrusive such an ethnographic presence would be in her own house of mourning. She, however, discovered to her great surprise that these non-literate people felt no such intrusions, but rather that her writing added prestige to the ritual. They demanded her presence at every subsequent funeral, even long after she had constructed a complete account of funeral process (Palgi & Abramovitch 1984).

Many ethnographers have discussed the emotional strain of participating closely in the grief of others (Woodthorpe 2007).  Perhaps the most moving account is by Rosaldo (1993, in Robbin 2004) who connects how his overwhelming grief at the accidental death of his wife, (also an eminent anthropologist) helped him understand more deeply headhunter’s rage of the Ilongot in the Philiphines. Rosaldo criticized the discipline’s focus on death ritual, with its formality and routine, in a way that marginalizes the intense and raw feelings that often accompany actual grief. Similarly, Fabian (1973, in Robbin 2004) argued that anthropologists avoid the intimate encounter with death by focusing on “how others die”.

2.2 Death as an Event vs. Death as a Process

In the West, despite recent legal and medical controversies (see Euthanasia) death is considered as occurring at a specific identifiable moment, symbolized by the ‘time of death’ on the death certificate. This ‘punctual view of death’ (Bloch 1988) in which a person is thus either alive or dead is not shared by many cultures. Physiological demise and social death do not necessarily coincide. Instead, death is seen as part of a long, complex, and even dangerous process, with no sharp boundary between life and death. Cultures express the degree of alive/dead using different metaphors. The Merina of Madagascar, for example, use the image of wet/dry to indicate degrees of alive/dead. A newborn infant is very wet and thus very alive; in contrast, a shriveled elderly person, almost totally dry, is mostly dead. The process of drying, and hence dying, will be only completed long after biological death when the bones are dug up and placed in communal tombs (Bloch and Parry 1982). Among Sa’dan Toraja of Indonesia, a dying person has the ability to ‘see everything’ but is not considered dead until the first sacrifice of mortuary rites has taken (Tsintjilonis 2007).

3 Theoretical Approaches and Key Metaphors

‘Few areas of contemporary anthropological inquiry are still so dominated by fin de siècle thinking as is the study of death and mortuary ritual’ (Palgi and Abramovitch 1984, p. 387). The three traditional paradigms are: French sociological school (Durkheim, Hertz), early British functionalists (Malinowski, Radcliffe-Brown) and ‘rite of passage’ approach (Van Gennep) (see AnthropologyStructuralismFunctionalism in Anthropology;LiminalityPersonhood, Anthropology ofRitual;).

3.1 Hertz’s Analysis of First and Second Funerals

The single most influential text in the anthropology of death was written by a brilliant disciple of Durkheim, Robert Hertz, who was killed on the battlefield of Verdun in World War I. Many of the central ideas in the anthropology of death: That death is widely perceived as a process and not as an instantaneous event, that death is the starting point of a ceremonial process whereby a dead person becomes an ancestor, and that death is akin to an initiation into a social afterlife and hence resembles a kind of rebirth, all derive from his seminal monograph (Hertz 1907). His study focused on the widespread custom of second funeral, or more correctly, secondary treatment of the remains. One of the main ideological reasons for a double ceremony, often separated by years, has to do with the dual nature of the person as composed of both body and spirit (or soul). Dead bodies or corpses are usually associated with ritual pollution and sorrow. The first funeral, in a literal and symbolic sense seeks to get rid of these polluting and sorrowful aspects. The second funeral is focused on the initiation of dead people’s spirits into the realm of the ancestors, where they will continue to serve as a cultural resource, watching over and guiding the living. This structuralist perspective highlighted parallels between the decomposition of the corpse and the fate of the soul.

A dramatic new, non-sacred form of the disposal of the dead is a plasticination process, in which the corpse’s water  is replaced by a resin that hardens not only blood vessels, but also human tissue.  As a result of this technology, bodies, body parts, even a fetus can be placed on display in human-like positions that have been viewed by millions, worldwide. These dead bodies undergo no ritual, nor are they objects of mourning but rather objects. Walter (2004) explains the paradox in terms of Hertz’s analysis of secondary burial in which the corpse moves from “wet” objects of mourning  to “dry” objects of  curiosity and education, after it has been treated by plasticination. The technology raises the key question for future research,  “When does a corpse cease to be a corpse?”

3.2 Death Rituals and Core Values

In many societies, the occurrence of a death disrupts social life severely, so that ‘it is stricken in the very principle of its life in the faith it has in itself’ (Hertz 1960, p. 78). A functionalist perspective stressed how mortuary rites served to resolve the disruptive tendencies that operate at times of social crisis. Malinowski demonstrated how ceremonies counteract the centrifugal forces of fear, dismay, and demoralization associated with death, and provide a powerful means of reintegration of the group’s shaken morale (Palgi and Abramovitch 1984). These rituals must provide an answer to the meaning of life for the community at a time when it is most threatened. As a result, the study of such death rituals provide a unique opportunity for studying the core values of any culture. The functionalist perspective emphasized the problem of death for society, and especially the issues of inheritance, redistribution of rights, and statuses, as well as the reintegration of mourners into day-to-day life.

3.3 Death as a Journey or Rite of Passage

Most cultures conceptualize death as a transition, or rite of passage. In many cultures, this transition is seen as a journey to an ultimate destination that may culminate in rebirth, ancestral abode, reunion with nature or Divinity, or indeed total oblivion. Death rituals, like all rites of passage, have a three-part structure, first delineated by Van Gennep: Separation, liminality, and reincorporation (Huntingdon and Metcalfe 1991). The spirits of dead people must be separated from their social roles as members in the community of the living and enter an undefined ‘in-between’ state, finally being reincorporated into a new status as the end of the ‘journey.’ Often, the fate of the soul is modeled on the fate of the body. Just as the soul of the deceased is formless and repulsive, as in Borneo when the dead are left to ferment in large jars, so the soul of the deceased is seen as homeless and the object of dread. Only when the bones alone are left can the ritual journey be completed (Huntingdon and Metcalfe 1991). Likewise, the ritual status of the mourners is in turn linked to the fate of the corpse in its process of decay, and the soul in its progress on its journey. Some cultures do have a specific tie-breaking ritual, which symbolizes both the end of mourning for the bereaved, and the end of the journey for the soul or spirit of the deceased. The living are often required to nurture the deceased at each stage along the journey through the afterlife and this conception helps to explain why the dead take up so many economic, emotional, and spiritual resources.

3.4 The Danger of the Unincorporated Dead

From this rite of passage perspective, it is possible to understand why the unincorporated dead, trapped permanently in the liminal realm, are often considered as dangerous. These wandering spirits, for whom no rites were performed, may act as hungry ghosts. They yearn to be reincorporated into the world of the living. Since they cannot be, they behave like hostile strangers consequently must find sustenance at the expense of the living. Many cultures use elaborate strategies to confuse the spirit of the deceased so that it will not return to the realm of the living. Illness, misfortune, and associated healing rituals are often attempts to incorporate these lost souls (see Health: Anthropological AspectsShamanismSpirit Possession, Anthropology ofMagic, Anthropology ofWitchcraft). The ‘tomb of the Unknown Soldier’ in modern states, provides a resting-place for unincorporated spirits of the war dead (see Collective Memory, Anthropology of).

3.5 Parallels to Other Life Cycle Rituals

Anthropologists have also noticed how death rituals often parallel other life cycle rituals, notably births and weddings. Conceptually, death is often seen as a rebirth into another world, while birth is viewed as the literal rebirth of a deceased ancestor (see Birth, Anthropology of). Likewise, for weddings, just as a bride may leave her family, so too the soul of the deceased departs for another world. In rural Greece, for example, the same lyrics are sung at both weddings and funerals (Danforth 1982).

3.6 Emotional Response of the Mourners

The comparative study of how mourners respond to loss and bereavement has attracted considerable attention (Parkes et al. 1997). Almost all cultures allow, or even encourage, the expression of crying, as well as fear and anger by mourners. Women tend to cry and self-mutilate, while men express anger, or direct aggression away from themselves. Yet most societies have developed mechanisms and institutions to control the anger of the bereaved, especially via the use of ritual experts (Rosenblatt et al. 1976). In many cultures, there is no cultural category of a ‘natural death’; rather, each death is akin to murder in that a culturally sanctioned cause of death must be uncovered. Almost all societies concern themselves with the spirits of the dead, which probably give expression both to the ‘unfinished business’ between the living and the dead, and the fact that death does not end a relationship. The more complicated the relationship and unfinished business in which the dead are dispossessed in favor of the living, the greater will be the dread and concern about ghosts (see Psychological Anthropology).

3.7 Good Death vs. Bad Death

Recent interest has focused on cultures’ conception of what constitutes a ‘good death’ or a ‘bad death.’ A good death represents a cultural ideal that enacts a symbolic victory over death, and the regeneration of life (Bloch and Parry 1982). A bad death does the opposite, leaving survivors despairing, helpless in the face of meaninglessness, evil, or nothingness. Unpredictability, violence, or intentional harm are widespread attributes of a bad death. Archetypal examples of bad death include suicide, homicide, and death in traffic accident. A good death is the mirror image of a bad death: An expected, painless death of an elderly individual with a multitude of descendants in attendance. Jewish Talmud compares a good death to the ease of plucking a hair from a bowl of milk and a bad death to the interminable agony of pulling wool from off a thorn bush. But a good death has culture-specific aspects, such as the setting, timing, physical posture, thoughts and actions at the final moment, and other ‘near death experiences,’ as well as a preferred cause and manner of death (Abramovitch 1999). An Indian Hindu ideally should die in the open air, as an act of self-sacrifice, abandoning life to the sound of the chanting of the names of God, for his thoughts at that moment may determine his subsequent fate and rebirth. A reluctance to die at the appropriate time may lead to the death of a young relative in his place (Parry 1994).

Controversies over the beginning and end of life

Controversies at the beginning and the end of life over abortion, organ donation, brain death may be analyzed in anthropological terms (Kaufman & Morgan 2005). The disagreement may be understood as revolving around conflicts concerning the nature of the “social person”. Each society has different criteria for when an infant becomes a fully human, social person. For example, among Kaliai people of  West New Brittain, the key distinction is the child’s ability to discuss dreams. Children who are unable to do so, will not have death ritual should they die; dream tellers will (Counts & Counts 2004). Opponents of abortion identify conception itself as signaling the onset of the social person giving the fetus inalienable rights to life and protection. Supporters of abortion, in contrast, regard the fetus as part of the woman’s body, that only becomes social person at birth. Similarly, proponents of brain death and organ transplants, identify social person largely with cognitive function; when that is lost the person is gone forever and the organs may be harvested. In contrast, in Japan, which long resisted organ transplantation, rejected brain death criteria for death since a traditionally they believe that a person’s life spirit is diffused throughout the body. The first Japanese surgeon to attempt a transplant, using brain death criteria, was charged with murder. In a different context, Japanese women will often make special ritual offerings to fetal spirits following an abortion.

Changes in Mortuary Ritual

Mortuary rituals have long been considered one of the most stable aspects of a culture. Recent research has challenged this view. Change may occur rapidly altering the tradition of millennia.  One dramatic case concerns South Korea (Park 2010). Until 1980’s, death and funerals took place at home, in private ceremony in the family garden (mandang), followed by burial in an auspicious site that was consulted in times of misfortune. Cremation was a social taboo that was identified with the Japanese occupiers. In the last decades, traditional burial has almost disappeared. Funerals are held in hospital or private funeral halls, followed by public cremation with the ashes lodged in columbarium or scattered beneath trees in a memorial park. The severe shortage of land for cemeteries, change in design of housing, government policy all played a role in the change, as it did in the rapid introduction of wall burial in Israel.

3.8 Future Directions

The anthropology of death traditionally focused narrowly on the death of single individuals in small-scale societies. Future research, in contrast, will need to investigate how local cultural traditions interact with the wider collective and global context. The study of mass death, in the form of epidemics, natural disasters, or political violence, provides one stimulating area of investigation (Robben 2004). (see Genocide: Anthropological AspectsHolocaust, TheCollective Memory, Anthropology ofTerrorismDisasters, Sociology of). The diverse impact of new technologies may provide another intriguing area for understanding how conceptions of death are changing. Web pages on the Internet provide for new forms of commemorating the dead. Organ donation allows a ‘bad death’ to be transformed into a ‘good death’ as a posthumous act of self-sacrifice, literally dying so that others may live. Cloning awakens in some the ‘myth of eternal life’; while artificial life support has created a new state in which persons are neither alive nor dead.

Death will always remain a mystery; nevertheless, the cross-cultural investigation of death will continue to provide unexpected insights into how humans cope with that mystery.

 

Bibliography

Abramovitch, H. (1999). Good death’ and ‘bad death.’. In R. Malkinson, S. Rubin, & E. Witztum (Eds.), Traumatic and Non-traumatic Loss and Bereavement. New York: Psychosocial Press.

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Bloch, M. (1988). Death and the concept of person. In S. Cederroth, C. Corlin, & J. Lindstrom (Eds.), On the Meaning of Death: Essays on Mortuary Rituals and Eschatological Beliefs. Uppsala, Sweden: Uppsala Studies in Cultural Anthropology, 8. Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis.

Bloch, M., & Parry, J. (Eds.), (1982). Death and the Regeneration of Life. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Counts, D.A & Counts, D. (2004). The good, the bad, and the unresolved death in Kaliai. Social Science & Medicine 58, 887-897.

Danforth, L. (1982). The Death Rituals of Rural Greece. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

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Kaufman, S. R. & Morgan, L. M. (2005). The  anthropology of beginnings and ends of life.  Annual Review of Anthropology 34, 317-41.

Palgi, P., & Abramovitch, H. (1984). Death: A cross-cultural perspective. Annual Review of Anthropology, 13, 385417.

Park, C-W. (2010). Cultural blending in Korean death rites: New interpretive approaches. London & New York: Continuum.

Park, C-W. (2010). Funerary transformations in contemporary South Korea, Mortality.

Parkes, C., Laungani, P., & Young, B. (Eds.), (1997). Death and Bereavement Across Cultures. London: Routledge.

Parry, J. (1994). Death in Benares. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Robben, C.G.M. Antonius (ed.) (2004). Death, mourning and burial: A cross-cultural reader. Oxford: Blackwell.

Robben, A.C.G.M. (2004). State terror in the netherworld: Disappearance and reburial in Argentina. In Robben, A.C.G.M. (ed.)  (2004). Death, mourning and burial: A cross-cultural reader. Oxford: Blackwell pp. 134-148.

Rosenblatt, P., Walsh, R., & Jackson, A. (1976). Grief and Mourning in Cross Cultural Perspective. New Haven, CT: Human Relations Area Files Press.

Rosaldo, R. (2004 [1989]). Grief and a headhunter’s rage. In Robben, C.G.M. Antonius (ed.) (2004). Death, mourning and burial: A cross cultural reader. Oxford: Blackwell pp. 167-178.

Scheper-Hughes, N. (1992). Death Without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Tsinntjilonis, D. (2007). The death-bearing senses in Tana Toraja. Ethos 72:173-194.

Walter, T (2004) Plastination: A new way to dispose of the dead. The Journal of Royal Anthropological Institute, 10 (3), 603-27.

Woodthorpe, K. (2007). My life after death: Connecting the field, the findings and the feelings. Anthropology Matters Journal 9(1), 1-11.

Reference list

Abramovitch, H. (1999). Good death’ and ‘bad death.’. In R. Malkinson, S. Rubin, & E. Witztum (Eds.), Traumatic and Non-traumatic Loss and Bereavement. New York: Psychosocial Press.

Ariès, P. (1974). L’Homme devant la Mort. Paris: Editions du Seuil [Republished, trans. Weaver H 1982 The Hour of Our Death. Knopf, New York].

Bloch, M., & Parry, J. (Eds.), (1982). Death and the Regeneration of Life. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Counts, D.A & Counts, D. (2004). The good, the bad, and the unresolved death in Kaliai. Social Science & Medicine 58, 887-897.

Danforth, L. (1982). The Death Rituals of Rural Greece. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Hertz R 1907 Contributions à une étude sur la representation collective de la mort. Année Sociologique. 10: 48137 [Republished, trans. R Needham, C Needham 1960 Death and the Right Hand. New York: Free Press.] reprinted in Robben (2004)

Huntingdon, R., & Metcalf, P. (1991). Celebrations of Death: The Anthropology of Mortuary Ritual. (2nd edn.). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Palgi, P., & Abramovitch, H. (1984). Death: A cross-cultural perspective. Annual Review of Anthropology, 13, 385417.

Parkes, C., Laungani, P., & Young, B. (Eds.), (1997). Death and Bereavement Across Cultures. London: Routledge.

Park, C-W. (2010). Cultural blending in Korean death rites: New interpretive approaches. London & New York: Continuum.

Parry, J. (1994). Death in Benares. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Robben, C.G.M. Antonius (ed.) (2004). Death, mourning and burial: A cross-cultural reader. Oxford: Blackwell.

Rosenblatt, P., Walsh, R., & Jackson, A. (1976). Grief and Mourning in Cross Cultural Perspective. New Haven, CT: Human Relations Area Files Press.

Scheper-Hughes, N. (1992). Death Without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil. Los Angeles: University of California Press.