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Flashcards in L9: DEATH Deck (11):

- What I will argue
- Quote
- Durkheim

- In this essay I will argue that death is pre-eminently social
- Death in many cultures is seen as a productive force, and I will discuss how religion informs this transcendence over the biological.
- Throughout the world, across different cultures, ‘people transcend the biological reality of death by transforming lifeless, stiff, cold corpses into sentient ancestors, willful ghosts, possessing spirits, pure souls, all of whom defy the biological constraints that impinge on human social life’ (Astuti 2007: 227).
- However, will also see that death can be dangerous in some cultures as it can threaten existing order in certain societies, and therefore needs to be managed.

• anthropologist who saw religion as eminently social, and a way in which society transcends itself. He believes that religion is not only an expression of society, but also a way in which it rejuvenates and strengthens itself.

•Religion is often seen as a very private and individual thing, however, (theorist) shows that belief is actually dependent on historically specific modes and styles on how rituals, practice, materiality etc are entangled with the social.



• As Geertz said, humans are meaning seeking and want answers for death, and thus religious ideologies, with their capacity to transcend biological death, provide answers to many of the questions provoked by death.

• In thinking about death and religion, there is much focus on situations where some essence is seen to exist after biological death (e.g. soul, vitality, life force etc), that needs to be managed or harnessed for the well-being of a social group or society as a whole can be taken as a religious dimension of death.




♣ A concern with societal order, for death is a problem in terms of reproduction of society and societal roles and, therefore, needs to be managed.
♣ The expression and management of grief is based on models derived from religious ideologies

e.g. Chua - soul encounters. Funerals. Knot feeling.
♣ Here we can see this expression of belief and mourning comes from the larger cultural context which has a particular style of believing, and this management of grief is derived from religious ideologies.


♣ Averting death through recourse to specialists. (moments of illnesses etc, go to religious specialists/priests. Looking for some immediate resource to change the situation)

♣ Dealing with the dead, in terms of their consequent actions on humans (spirit possession and exorcism but also using the dead a resource as in occult). (immediate dangers/problems in everyday life)



• I will look at two particular aspects of death, with ethnographic examples:

(1) the linkages between death and (regeneration of) life

(2) the presence of fertility symbols in funerary practices.

Their thinking is influenced by, and combines, previous works and perspectives, notably Robert Hertz (1905)


PARA 5: HERTZ (1905)

• He was a student of Durkheim, and was perhaps influences by Durkheims views on suicide as having a very social and non-individual aspect to it.

• Hertz = Death, and the emotions it espouses, may be regarded as individual and private, but are actually social.

• He highlighted that through funerary and mourning rites, that the problem of death is that persons are both biological and social, but it is the latter that society reclaims through funerary practices.

• So a person is both biological and social, but when a person dies, there is a destruction of that social aspect that society has given that person, and this is a threat to social order. This therefore needs to be managed by society so that this can this social aspect can be reclaimed, and this is done in many cultures through funerary rites.



‘The Afterlife of Asabano corpses: relationships with the deceased in Papua New Guinea’ (Lohmann 2005).

Before contact with the West, they treated human remains very differently depending on the type of relationship planned to had with the deceased. For example, when an important man died, the body was placed on a high platform in a tree, and after a month or two, the bones were collected and carried in a feather-covered net bag to the sacred house, in which only men were allowed. Men carried these bones for success in hunting, and buried bones for good harvest. Bones of women and ordinary men would be left as they could not help the living. And bones of enemies were spiritually destroyed by being case into rivers or eaten. These practices served a mean to alter, enhance, or terminate relations with the deceased who are biologically but not, socially dead.

These practices were halted following conversion to Christianity in the 1970’s, in which relations with the deceased are attenuated and no longer involve bone relics. The various and changing fates of Asabano corpses correspond to the types of relationship the deceased that survivors wish to maintain or extinguish. Contacting the deceased can be done through dream and trance encounters, or through ritual, including the manipulation of their relics, Corpse treatment is a statement about the kind of relationship they desire with the deceased. Active positive relationships involved exchange of gifts and curating ancestral bones. Whereas there are also negative relationships, which expressed revenge feuding and warfare. They Asabano seek to maximize positive exchanges with them, and in this way the deceased remain part of society.

We can here see that biological death does not end relationships, positive or negative, in either traditional Asabano or Christian doctrines. For these Asabano afterlife believers, the relationship with the dead is neither one sided or imaginary, but is integrative with ontologically real beings, and can assume physical form, either in their former human shape or birds. Thus, biological death is just an impediment to ongoing relationships that can be overcome through special efforts to maintain contact. The Asabano case upholds Hertz’ basic point that mortuary ritual (a way of managing the social order) is used to maintain social integrity in the face of biological death, that biological death can be used as an opportunity to end relations through ritually denying the deceased future agency, and that the condition of the remains is often used to symbolize the condition of the deceased soul.


PARA 7: Hertz – Disaggregation & Reinstallation

• He explains that there are two phases to a mourning ritual:

1. Disaggregation: period in which mourners are separated from society, and the soul is seen as dangerous. Period in which to disaggregate the dead person from society

2. Reinstallation: End of mourning period reintegrates mourners into society and integrates/reallocates the dead into the collectivity of ancestors/suitable other.
• This dual period is mirrored in the beliefs about the fate of the soul and in the ritual conditions of the mourners.

• This links to Van Genneps rites of passage – in which the passenger is the deceased person who has taken one form to the other and has thus transitioned. It is also a rite of passage for mourners, whose relation to a deceased in one form has ended, and is going to begin in a new way.




When a Jew Dies – Samuel C. Heilman (2001)


Heilman describes the many phases of death: the movement between life and death, the transitional period when the dead have not yet been laid to rest (annuity), the preparation of the body – a transitional ritual of purification (tahara), the Jewish funeral (Leveiya), the early seven-day period of mourning (shivah), the 12 months during which Kaddish, a memorial prayer, is recited, and finally Yahrzeit, a yearly commemoration of death and bereavement.

- Annuit- person has died but soul not at rest yet. (The moment of death transforms)
- Nifar = person who dies. "Realised from life". Impurity - in need of ritual refinement and purification. Death is dangerous - need management.
- Onenim - 7 reletives. The bereaved - separate from society.
- Tahara = purification for burial. Responsibility of Cehvra Kaddish. Belief that death is not final, and is being prepared for its promised resurrection.
- Leveiya - funeral. Dead go one way and the rest being a return to the company of the living. To create order in the face of chaos and breach




Bloch and Parry further discuss death in terms of fertility and renewal. They explain that What ‘seems to be revitalized during funerary practices is that resource which is culturally conceived to be essential to the reproduction of social order’ (Bloch and Parry: 7). When talking about fertility, they are not talking about it in terms of biological reproduction, but also fertility in terms of what it is that the society thinks or conceives to be the most important for overall wellbeing and rejuvenation of that society. This could be natural, to do with animals, or agricultural.

• Lohmann (2005) looks at Brutti (1997:90-96) who describes a former human sacrificial practice among the Asabano’s neighbours and allies, the Oksapmin, in which the distribution and burial of body parts at sacred sites marked with Cordyline plants was explicitly linked to fertility in agriculture for those areas.

In addition to this, they also dicuss life as a limited good. This is the idea that there is not an infinite supply of this good, and that an individual has to die in orderfor that society to be rejuvenated.

Malinoskis description of the Trobriand islanders: He describes that each sub-clan is given a finite stock of souls. Concept behind that is that when someone dies, the soul of that member of that sub-clan goes to the island of Tuma (island of the dead) where it settles down with the rest of the kin and lives there for another life. When it has to return again to the life of the living it returns again to the womb of a women who belongs to the sUb-clan that the soul also belongs to. In that way it’s the same set of souls that keeps being recirculated again and again within the same sub-clan. In that sense there is no extra life, but its that limited good that is being recycled over and over again.



♣ They explain that good deaths are those that take place at the right place and the right time, and they replicate a prototype to which all such deaths conform, and thus can be seen as a general pattern necessary for the reproduction of life.
♣ Whereas bad deaths mark the absence of control and are marked as not resulting in regeneration. ‘Bad’ deaths frequently perceived as dangerous and needing management. For example, when a body cannot be found so they cannot perfrom burial rites. Death remains uncertain no matter how much you try to manage it.
♣ WE can see that rituals provide the means for, or have effect on, how grief is channelled and managed. The various ethnographic examples in this essay illustrate this.
♣ How grief should be displayed and for how long is often prescribed by religions and closely linked to conceptions about the nature of this world, of death and the hereafter.




♣ Death is social. Death can be, and often is, transformed into a productive force.
♣ That said, death is dangerous. It threatens the existing order, can give rise to questioning existing tenets and, therefore, needs to be managed.
♣ The management and extraction of productive forces from death is done through various rituals, practices and material forms. Draws upon particular, more or less coherent, belief systems.