Funeral Rites: An Overview

views updated


Death is not only a biological occurrence leaving the corpse as a residue that must be administered to; it is also, and more importantly, a sociocultural fundamental because of the beliefs and representations it gives rise to and the attitudes and rituals it brings about. It is of course understood that rites are the immediate extension of beliefs, and that funeral rites, in particular, are the conscious cultural forms of one of the most ancient, universal, and unconscious impulses: the need to overcome the distress of death and dying.

This article will take the word rite in its anthropological sense; that is, in a larger sense, quite apart from liturgical or theological concerns. A rite, then, is a ceremony in which behaviors, gestures and postures, words or songs uttered, and objects handled, manufactured, destroyed, or consumed are supposed to possess virtues or powers or to produce specific effects. Centered on the mortal remains or its substitute, then on whatever survives of thosematerial traces or souvenir relicsfuneral rites may reveal three finalities. First, it is believed that they preside over the future of the departed, over both the metamorphosis of the corpse and the destiny of the person, whenever death is defined as transition, passage, or deliverance. Second, they attend to the surviving close kin, mourners who must be consoled and reassured. Finally, they participate in the revitalization of the group that has been disturbed by the death of one of its own. Very often in traditional societies, in Africa and more often in Asia (notably in China), the funeral rites are presented as a theater of renewal, with acted parts, mimes, dancers, musicians, and even clowns.

Funeral rites are so important that the presence of the participants becomes a strict obligation, particularly in traditional societies. In traditional Africa, funeral rites are the most resistant to the pressure of acculturation. A function of the rite essential to the social group is easily seen; after all, numerous psychiatrists affirm that many problems derive from the guilt arising when one hurries over obsequies or comes out of mourning too soon.

Chief Moments in Funeral Rites

Funeral rites may comprise numerous ceremonies. The Toraja of Sulawesi (Celebes) see four fundamental stages. During the first, the deceased is said to be ill: Washed, dressed, and adorned, he may be nurtured for as long as a year. Then comes the first festivity, lasting from five to seven days, with sacrifices, lamentations, songs, and dances; this marks the difficult passage from life to death and ends with a provisional interment inside the house. During the following intermediary period, these festivities increase. Finally the ultimate ceremony is performed, requiring several months of preparation during which winding-sheets, cenotaphs, and, most notably, an effigy (the famous tau-tau ) are employed, not without ostentation; it concludes with the burial and the installation of the deceased in the beyond.

The succession of funerary acts sometimes takes on a bureaucratic tone, particularly in Chinese Daoism, where the main part of the rite is devoted to drawing up documents and contracts with the gods. Especially noteworthy are the consultation of cosmic forces in order to determine propitious days and places for the rites; the gongde, or acquisition of merits for the deceased; the pudu, or offerings for wandering souls; and the ritual for liberating the soul.

Nevertheless, to determine the chief moments of funerals, anthropologists use the formulation, however incorrect, of the double funeral, which implies rites of separation followed by intervals varying from a few weeks to several years, followed by rites of integration that put an end to the mourning.

Separation rites

In most traditional societies, the passage from decay to mineralization dictates the two chief moments in the funerary ritual. The first funeral, or separation rite, is for the purpose of "killing the dead," as the Mossi of Burkina Faso sayin other words, killing what remains alive in the dead person by breaking the emotional bonds that unite him to the community. While the corpse decays, simultaneously corrupt and corrupting, it is terribly vulnerable and dangerous. Two attitudes, contradictory yet complementary, orient the conduct of the living toward the dead: solicitude and rejection, shown in a symbolic or realistic manner according to points of view that vary with each ethnic group.

Solicitude begins immediately after death, tinged with commiseration and fear: The dead person is given food, gongs are sounded to scare away evil spirits, the corpse is washed and purified, and its evolutions are watched, especially if the body lies in state for a long time (from three to twelve days among the Miao of Southeast Asia). It is dressed, its natural orifices are stopped, and, most important, the wake is organized. This can be the occasion for big reunions and a large-scale ritual. For the Maori of New Zealand it is an intensely dramatic ceremony, the key moment of the funeral rite, accompanied by songs, cries, lamentations, elegies, and more or less generous meals, depending on the fortune of the deceased. To multiple meals the Inca of Peru added games of dice with very complex symbolism. The outcome of the game was supposed to orient the soul of the deceased so as to help him attain heaven. The dead person participated by influencing the manner in which the dice fell, thereby revealing whether he was well or ill disposed toward the player. The deceased's possessions were divided according to the results.

When respectful solicitude has soothed the dead, rejection asserts itself. Once the last homages are rendered, the deceased is invited to rejoin his ancestors or to prepare for his afterlife (metamorphoses, reincarnation, sojourn with God, etc.). To overcome his hesitation, a number of methods are used: One may tie him down securely or mutilate him (poke his eyes out, break his legs); lose him by returning suddenly from the cemetery by a detour; or arrange to deposit him at the foot of a mountain or on the far side of a river he cannot cross. In compensation, sometimes an effigy remains at home as a substitute for him, or he may be promised an annual invitation. Because the decaying of the corpse constitutes a risk that its double will prowl in the village, the relatives submit to the constraints of mourning, which puts them outside the social circuit. The specific purpose of these interdictions is to separate all those contaminated by the corpse's decay. Curiously enough, in India the Toda have a single term, kedr, which simultaneously designates the corpse, the state of mourning, and the interval between the first and second funerals. A statement made by a dying Maori chief to his son likewise clarifies the problem: "For three years your person must be sacred and you must remain separated from your tribe for all this time my hands will be gathering the earth and my mouth will be constantly eating worms then when my head falls on my body, awake me from my sleep, show my face the light of day, and you shall be noa [free]" (Hertz, 1970, p. 33). Therefore, when mineralization, whether natural or artifically accelerated, sets in, it is a sign that the deceased has fulfilled his posthumous destiny. He has passed the initiatory tests imposed on him; he has rejoined the ancestors or the gods; or perhaps he is ready for metempsychosis or reincarnation.

Rites of integration and the cessation of mourning

In almost all traditional societies, double funerals are held. After a delay varying from a few weeks to ten years, according to the ethnic group and the resources at the family's disposal, a final ceremony takes place that confirms the deceased in his new destiny and confers on his remains a definitive status. Like the integration of the dead person, this ritual consecrates the reintegration of the mourners into the group: Order is reestablished and interdictions are lifted. As a rule, the bones are exhumed and then treated in different ways according to local traditions: Washed, dried, sometimes covered with ocher, they are preserved as visible relics, placed in containers, buried again, or even pulverized and mixed with ritual beverages. In sub-Saharan Africa, the latter custom is quite prevalent, especially among Bantu-speaking peoples. Among the Bamileke of Cameroon, the inheritance of skulls according to rigorous rules symbolically secures the collective memory and the continuity of the clam. In Madagascar the Famadihana (which has been wrongly translated as "turning over the corpses") gives way to costly festivities: When a family decides to celebrate the cult of its dead, they proceed from opening the tombs and changing the winding-sheets to rewrapping and reburial with great ceremony, before an audience in a state of great jollity. For two days songs, dances, music, processions, and festivities punctuate the ritual manipulations.

In Borneo, the Olo Nyadju give themselves up to analogous states on the occasion of Tiwah. Along with some degree of fasting, the majority of Indonesian ethnic groups do the same thing. This bone cult, which is generally referred to as an ancestor cult, flourishes among the American Indians, in China, and elsewhere, and still has its equivalent in Europe. There is hardly any difference between the old Chinese who carefully brushes his ancestor's bones and the skeleton washer of Neapolitan cemeteries who, two years after the burial, when the corpse has dried out, washes the bones in front of the families before putting them in a marble urn. In the French provinces, the custom of the anniversary meal and mass is clearly a response to the same fantasies of reestablishing order.

Indeed, the ritual of secondary obsequies ending in definitive burial has a twofold justification in the imagination. First of all, the transfer of the bones to another place completes the purification process. It is as if the earth has been corrupted by the decaying body, necessitating the removal of the purified bones to an unsullied location. Second, although the provisional inhumation is always individual, the final burial is very often collective. Such is the custom of the Goajiro Indians in Venezuala: Three years after death, the bones are sorted and dried, then exposed during a funeral wake. They are then transferred into a large urn, where the remains of all the dead from the matriclan or the matrilineage are gathered together. Thus, communal reunion of the sublimated remains follows the isolation of impure decay.

On the other hand, Western ossuaries, by virtue of their anonymous character, have hardly any impact on an individualistic society. At the very most, as "display cases" they provide the "exposition of the bones" as an aid to meditation. "Let us come to the charnelhouse, Christians; let us see the skeletons of our brothers," says a Breton song. In any case, if inhumation in a common ditch is judged shocking and infamous by us, the collective ossuary does not scandalize anyone. In fact, it can be seen as a solution to the problem of cemetery space and an orientation for a new cult of the dead. The possibility has even been raised of reintegrating the sacred into cemeteries in the form of an "ossuary-necrology" that would reassemble the community of the dead and make the living sensitive to the bonds uniting them to the past.

With the second funeral, therefore, the fate of the deceased has been settled. To borrow the vivid language of the Mossi of Burkina Faso, the ritual of integration "makes the dead live again." From then on, grief no longer has reason to exist. The marginal period has permitted the mourning work to be finished. But, in any case, is not ritualization, like elegance, a way of charming anguish? At this stage, interdictions are always relaxed. After undergoing purifying baths and multiple reparation sacrifices, the mourners are reintegrated into the group. Thanks to the symbolic support of the bone, life on every level henceforth reasserts all its rightsboth the life of the metamorphosed deceased and the life of the group from which he emerged. Once the decaying flesh and the signs of death have disappeared, the imperishable vestige is left with its charge of symbols. Funeral rites thus have the capacity "to reduce any object at all to significance, let it pass over to the other side of the gulf" (Maertens, 1979, p. 236). This can be clearly seen in the following set of processes: decay? mineralization; excluded mourners? reintegrated mourners; oversignificant corpse? hypersignificant remains.

In Vietnam, ritual constitutes what is called the "transfer of life": While the body is buried in a tomb defined according to the rules of geomancy, the soul, set on a tablet that itself is enclosed in a box covered with a red and gold case, becomes the protective ancestor that one venerates and prays to at the family altar.

A qualifying remark must be inserted: The conditions of death (place, moment, means) orient the meaning of the rite. The evil dead person, for example, can be deprived of a funeral, or may have the right to only a truncated or clandestine funeral; he will never become an ancestor or know happiness. Status, age, and sex also play a determining role in the elaboration of ceremonies.

Some Key Rites

Only a few fundamental rites concerning the good death will be considered, because of their quasi-universality and the depth of the fantasies that they express.

Attendance at death, certification of death, and interrogation

If to die far away from home or to die a violent death is usually equivalent to a bad death in traditional societies, it is not only because uncertainty is alarming but also, and more importantly, because the dying cannot be helped. Mothering, making secure, and taking charge of the dying person, who is consoled, caressed, and helped to die for the same reason he was helped to be born, is a universal constant. This attitude has a religious aspect. To take only one example, the importance to elderly and very sick people of the Christian last sacraments is known, including the purifying aspersion that evokes baptism and redemption through the passion and the resurrection, as well as the profession of faith and, when possible, the Eucharist. As for the anointing of the sick, recall that this new ritual, although it abandons the expiatory aspect and gives only a circumstantial role to the effacement of sin, nevertheless insists on help by grace.

It is important to make sure that the deceased is really dead. Besides interpreting tangible signs such as the stopping of the breath and the heart, one can call on the diviner, the priest, or the doctor. There are also other ways of making sure: Right after the death of a Chinese, one of his close kin climbs the roof of the house to "call back his soul"; if it does not return, there is no doubt about his death. While for the Toraja of Sulawesi the deceased is not dead but only ill (as noted), among the Tibetans and the Miao (Hmong) the deceased must be informed that he is really dead because he does not know that he is: "The illness fell on the rocks and the rocks could not bear it. Then it slid into the grass, but the grass could not carry it. And that is why, O Dead One, the illness has come to you. The earth could not bear the illness, so the illness reached your soul. That is why you have found death" (Georges, 1982, p. 183). Then, with great kindness and consideration, they explain to him what he needs for the great journey: bamboos to communicate with the survivors or the gods, the "wooden house" (coffin), the hemp shoes, alcohol, food, and the cock that will show him the way. The announcement of the death also obeys precise rules. Women's lamentations punctuated by cries, drums, and bells, as well as symbolic formulas and the sending of messengers, are the most frequent practices.

In traditional societies, another notable belief is that the corpse is simultaneously alive and dead. It no longer has a voice, but in its fashion it speaks. No one hesitates to question it in order to learn why it died or, sometimes, its desires concerning the transmission of its possessions; only little children and fools escape this rite, because "they don't know what they say." Among the Diola of Senegal, the dead person, tied to a bier, is supported by four men, and people take turns asking it questions. If the corpse moves forward when questioned, the response is positive; if it moves backward, it is negative; if it wavers in the same place, it is indicating hesitation. Among the Somba of Benin, "no" is expressed by a rocking from left to right, and "yes" by a rocking from back to front. For the Senufo of the Ivory Coast, leaning to the left indicates the deceased's agreement, and leaning to the right, his disagreement. It sometimes happens that the dead person bears down on one of those present in order to demand that questions be put to him (the Diola) or requires that the carriers be changed in order to pursue the rite (the Lobi of Burkina Faso). Substitute objects sometimes replace the corpse at the time of the interrogation, on condition that they participate in its vital forces. An assegai with the hair of the deceased is an adequate substitute for the Boni of Guyana, while a tree trunk containing his nails and body hairs suffices for the Bete of the Ivory Coast. If the death was willed by God or the ancestors, a frequent occurrence among the gba of Benin and the Orokaiva of New Guinea, the group feels reassured. But if it resulted from a crime, witchcraft, or violation of a taboo, the fault must be immediately atoned for and the guilty punished. In its way, by its voiceless word the corpse plays an important role in social regulation.

Laying out the dead: purification and mothering rituals

The funeral rite proper begins with the laying out of the corpse, which, in its essential aspect, is equivalent to an authentic purification, a symbolic prelude to rebirth. A holy task among the Jews and especially in Islam, it is a matter of divine obligation, thus of ʿibādāt, involving a relationship with God and not just a social function. Laying out the corpse is universal and rigorously codified in ancient societies. In the West Indies, especially in the Antilles and in Haiti, this ritual is reminiscent of that of the midwife. Death, like birth, demands a certain ceremonial that is no less than the "transitory reintegration in the indistinct," to borrow Mircea Eliade's expression. By placing, for example, a vat of water underneath the couch where the corpse is lying, one symbolically reestablishes the sources of life (amniotic fluid). One is again assured that the soul, which has just left the body, will not disappear into nothingness, and that the deceased, thus purified, will be reborn in another world.

Among the Agni-Bora of the Ivory Coast, there is a similarity between the grooming of the newborn baby and the grooming of the deceased: Holding the naked body on their knees, old women wash it with three successive rinses, perfume it, and dress it. For the baby, the rite is always accompanied by singing; the washing is done from the head to the feet with the right hand. In the case of the deceased, however, the rite is executed in silence with the left hand, and proceeds from the feet to the head. This is because birth is an arrival, and rebirth a departure. In the European countryside the laying out is still the work of the "woman who helps" (the midwife), who is also the "woman who does the dead." The laying out of the dead is again an act of mothering.

Among the Miao, the deceased is rubbed with a warm towel without being undressed; then is dressed in new clothing finished off with a richly decorated kimono. The head is wrapped in a turban, andan important detailthe feet are shod in felt or leather shoes with curled tips, like those sold by the Chinese. Sometimes the duty of one of the relatives is to make these shoes. The dead must depart with good shoes for the trip about to be undertaken. A harquebusier comes up to the deceased and forewarns deferentially: "Now we are going to fire a few shots that will accompany and protect you for the whole length of your trip. Don't be afraid."

Display of the deceased: the corpse detained

Aside from punitive exhibition (desecration of the corpse) in the case of a bad death, when a devalued dead person is deprived of a funeral, the display of the corpse reflects the noblest intentions (valorization of the corpse).

In traditional societies, where death is a public affair involving the whole community, display of the corpse is almost a general rule. It is stretched out on a mat, on a funeral bed, or in a coffin, placed in the mortuary in a special case or in the open air, or suspended at the top of a tree or on a scaffold in the middle of the village square. Sometimes it even presides over its own funeral. The presentation varies according to places and beliefs, but most often it is done in state, with all the symbols that recall the deceased's social function. In Senegal, the dead Diola appears much as if he were alive, but with his most beautiful clothes, his bow and arrows if he was a good hunter, his farming implements and sheaves of rice if he was a good farmer. The horns of cows he sacrificed during his life and heads of cattle are exhibited to emphasize his wealth. The ostentatious display of belongings is frequent. Sometimes the dead person is displayed in the midst of his herd, as among the Karamojong of Uganda and certain Indians of North America. The length of time for displaying the dead and his goods may vary according to his wealth: Among the Dayak of Borneo, it ranges from one to six years. Another custom, peculiar to the Sioux, is to suspend the head and tail of the dead person's horse on the same scaffold on which he is exposed. Display of the dead seems to serve a double function: to show the dead that he is being rendered the homage due him by offering him to view in his best light, and to show him as a model of the role he played in the group. The dead person is glorified as having accomplished his mission, and the aura with which he is endowed is reflected on the collectivity, which thus reaffirms the identity and cohesion it so needs upon losing one of its members.

In southern Sulawesi, the Toraja still use the effigy, or tau-tau, especially for the deceased of high rank. This figure, made of breadfruit wood according to strict rules, must resemble the deceased as much as possible (same sex, height, face), though often with improvements. Dressed in the dead person's clothing and adorned with jewels, necklaces, and bracelets, it is the object of numerous rites whereby it is in turn animated and made to die, wept over and consecrated. At the end of a very long ceremony, the corpse, swathed in its winding-sheets, is raised on a platform below which is placed the tau-tau. Both then preside over the buffalo sacrifices and receive their part of the offerings. Finally, when the corpse goes back to the sepulcher for the last time, its representative is permanently exhibited as near as possible to the tomb. For the Toraja, the effigy becomes more than a ritual object associated with death; it is, if not the deceased, at least its visible double.

In the West today, the embalmed corpse lies in state in funeral homes. It is still a matter of rendering homage to one no longer alive, and of facilitating the mourning work by conserving a better image of the departed: The mortician's work spares the dead person the stigma of death for a time and gives the impression that the deceased is sleeping in peace. The essential thing is that the dead person should be present, recognizable to his or her family (to a certain extent, a disfigured corpse is tantamount to an absent one). The certainty of the person's death can be borne more easily than the uncertainty surrounding his or her absence and silence.

In this respect, wakes have a soothing value, supposedly for the departed and certainly for the survivors. The sacred and the profane are mixed. In Spain, rosaries and responses are recited. People speak of the deceased, because to speak of the deceased is to be with the deceased again. And if sometimes the conversation turns to funny stories, this does not imply a lack of respect for the dead but a pleasant relationship with the deceased. At one extreme, these wakes are almost feast days. Perhaps this is because in some villages, like the Aragonese village of Leciñena, the immediate neighbors cook the celebrated tortas, a kind of brioche made only on feast days (the Feast of the Virgin, a marriage) and for a death wake.

When there are mourners, especially female ones, display of the dead facilitates the sincere and organized expression of emotions through praise of the departed, invitations to return among the living (visits, possession, reincarnation), reproaches or invectives concerning his cruelty in leaving his close kin, and advice for his posthumous destiny. This is how the rhapsodist addresses the deceased Miao after the ritual offering of the cock: "Take it and eat. Henceforth you will have the cock's soul with you. Follow it. Hurry and look for the silk suit you wore at birth. You will find it hidden under the earth [an allusion to the placenta of the newborn, which is always carefully buried near the house in which he was born]. Now leave" (Georges, 1982, p. 187). Again dressed in his silk garment and guided by the cock, the soul of the dead person then sets out on the long journey the singer is chanting about. Finally, before the final farewells, the dead person may be transported into the village and the fields, visiting for the last time the places where he lived, and communing with himself before the altars where he made sacrifices.

Food given to the dead and in homage to the dead

This article will mention only briefly the offering of victuals to the dead, whether during the funeral or at the moment of burial. To help the deceased on the long journey, the Aztec burned food with the deceasedusually a fat little dog with a tawny coatto help him or her cross the rivers on the infernal route. This rite, common to almost all cultures, corresponds to a widespread belief: The offerings are the indispensable viaticum that permits the dead to survive the transitory journey into the world of the ancestors. The sacrifices offered simultaneously play the same role, albeit symbolically.

Better yet is the common meal that accompanies funerals almost everywhere. A practical necessity justifies it: Those who have come to honor the dead and console the close kin must be fed. The importance of the feast is often such that it takes on the dimensions of a potlatch: In numerous ethnic groups, brief rites are initiated at the time of death, and the funeral services are deferred until sufficient reserves of rice, palm wine, and cattle have been set out. In the view of traditional mythologies, it is a communal event in which the dead person participates: A seat, plate, or part of the food (often the best) is reserved for the deceased, or a descendant represents the deceased, or the table is set in the presence of the corpsediverse customs showing an intention to intensify the relationship with the deceased and to persuade the group that he or she is not completely dead. In Western societies, the funeral meal is a means of appeasing grief by reinforcing the bonds that unite the living in the absence of the dead. The meal following the death is like a birth for the talkative and hungry community of the living, which has been wounded, split up, and interrupted by the death.

But all these reasons are valid only on an obvious level. On the symbolic level, the funeral meal is a way of retaining the dead person, and on these grounds, it is a substitute for the cannibalistic meal. In Haiti, the funeral meal is appropriately termed a mangé-mort, just as in Quebec, where the expression manger le mort is still in use. In fact, the manducation of the corpse is connected to a universal fantasy that psychoanalysts neatly term "the exquisite corpse" (an expression borrowed from surrealist poetry). Obeying the pleasure principle, the fantasy mechanism of the exquisite corpse responds to the trauma of loss through the desire for incorporation of the lost object. Amorous fusion with the other is then achieved in an exaltation that, in the real world, would perhaps be secret. The dead person is fixed and assimilated in their best features; one who devours the deceased makes the deceased one's own in spite of all taboos. In this connection, there is a strange Mexican custom that does not even disguise the necrophagic intention. On the Day of the Dead, an extraordinary commercial activity mobilizes the whole population: Superb confections are sold that represent the skulls and skeletons of the dead, ravishing or burlesque in appearance, with first names engraved in order to help the customers make their choices.

Controlling Decay

Decay is the justification for all funeral rites. Everything is brought into play in order to tame it (display of the corpse), hide it (winding-sheets, the sarcophagus), forbid it absolutely (embalming and mummification, incineration, cannibalistic ingestion), retard it (corporal attentions), or accelerate it (towers of silence; see below). A profound need underlies all these approaches to decay: to stabilize the deceased in an indestructible mediuma stage marking the reconciliation of the community with his death. These remainsmummy, relic, ashes, or bonesall civilizations, without exception, persist in preserving.

Tamed or accelerated decay

Conditions of exposure may eventually accelerate the mineralization of the corpse. Sunlight and even moonlight, as well as a smoky fire, are believed to contribute, but the body is sometimes also offered to birds of prey and other carnivores, or to ants. In the Tibetan tradition, corpses were torn apart by the ragyapa s ("dismemberers") and thrown to the dogs, so that the bones would be stripped much faster. But the most spectacular example is given by the towers of silence built in the seventeenth century, particularly in Iran by the Zoroastrians. According to the sacred texts of the Zand, the corpse is the essence of impurity. It is therefore out of the question to pollute "the things belonging to the good creation" by carrying out the final burial of a decomposing body. Hence the custom of exposing the body in a remote location known to be frequented by carnivorous animals. Vultures, in particular, are the purifiers that disencumber the dead person of rotting flesh, the medium of demonic infection. From this came the practice, which spread little by little, of building towers of rock especially designed to isolate corpses and avoid their contaminating presence during the purification process. The interior of the "tower of silence," or dakhma, consists of a platform inclined toward a central pit. Cells (pāvi s) hollowed out in three concentric circles receive the corpsesmen in the outer zone, women in the middle zone, and children toward the central pit. In this case, in which the custom of second obsequies no longer takes the symbolic form of the commemorative meal, the dried bones are thrown down twice a year into the depths of the pit. There, under the combined effect of the sun and the lime that is spread there, the bones are transformed into dust. The pit branches into four canals for the evacuation of rainwater, which is received and purified in four subterreanean pits where carbon and sand clarify it. Formerly, the remains were removed periodically, to be kept in an ossuary: Cleansed of all impurities, they testified that the soul was ready for the final ceremonies.

Decomposition accepted but hidden

Obviously, the cemetery is a place where remains are preserved and concealed. The feminine and maternal valence of the earth responds to a universal fantasy: "Naked I came out of the maternal womb; naked I shall return there" (Jb. 1:21). In African cosmogonic thought, burial in Mother Earth, the source of fertility and dwelling place of the ancestors, takes on a quasi-metaphysical significance. The same symbolism serves for other forms of interment, such as the deposit of the corpse in grottos or in funeral jars that evoke the uterine cavity. The earth is indeed the place par excellence for transformations. Not only does one plow seeds into it at the time of sowing, but it is also a mediator in all rites of passage: The corpse is entrusted to it at the time of the funeral, as are neophytes' nail clippings, hair, and other fleshly remains from initiation rites and the placenta and umbilical cord at birth. Burial can also, in a sense, transform the land. Thus the Hebrews did not begin to bury their dead until as a people they became sedentary; burial is always connected to the ownership of land, that is, to the appropriation of a "promised land," without doubt, a way of salvation.

One could go on forever describing the infinite variety of types of cemeteries (mass burial sites or scattered individual crypts, as in Madagascar; at the heart of the village or far-flung) and types of tombs (simple ditches to elaborate mausoleums to modern, efficient columbaria for cremated bodies). In many systems of burial the distinction between social classes is still, as it were, heavily felt.

The corpse's position in the tomb is no less variable: seated; stretched out on its back or side; in the fetal position; even on its stomach, as was once the case in Western cultures for adulterous women; or standing, in the manner of some military men or heroes of the American West. The orientation of the body can also be important. For some emigrant groups, it is toward the country of birth. For populations that traditionally ascribe birth to sunrise and death to sunset, the deceased must have the head to the east in order to be in position for rebirth. On the other hand, medieval Christians who wanted to be buried facing the direction from which salvation came placed the head toward the west so that the deceased could face Jerusalem. Similarly, Muslims are buried on their right side, turned toward Mecca.

The necropolis does not exist in India or Nepal because ashes are thrown into the sacred rivers, nor is it commonly of importance in sub-Saharan Africa. But where it does exist, the cemetery is still a symbol charged with emotion, sometimes arousing fear and melancholy, sometimes calm and reflection. In this regard one must praise Islamic wisdom, by which the very texture and functions of the cemetery maintain a state of relative osmosis between the living and the dead. The cemetery (maqbarah ) is often designated by the more euphemistic term rawah ("garden"). Certainly, its ground has often been consecrated to that use by a pious tradition, but it is not closed. The dead rest there on the bare ground in a simple winding-sheet, thus returning to the elements. In both senses of the term, it is open to nature. But it is open to society, too. The belief prevails that bonds exist with the bodies of the deceased before the Last Judgment and that for the living to visit the tombs is a praiseworthy act and, what is more, a deed that will be considered in their favor then. The cemetery is also a traditional place to go for a walk: Women often meet there on Fridays.

Prohibited decay

Setting aside the still rare phenomenon of cryogenation (in which the deceased wait in liquid nitrogen until the time when people will know how to restore them to life), there are three common forms of prohibited decay.

Cannibalism, decay, and mineralization

Robert Hertz (1970) has emphasized the particular function of cannibalism that spares the dead person the horror of a slow and ignoble decomposition and brings the bones almost immediately to their final state. This is obviously true for endocannibalism, when it is practiced on revered dead persons. There is no doubt that the purpose of cannibalism is to prohibit rotting. On the one hand, consumption of the flesh occurs as soon as possible after death, and, because the flesh is usually cooked, putrefaction does not begin in the course of consumption. On the other hand, inquiries among populations with a tradition of cannibalism clearly reveal the finality of the act: "In this way, we knew where he [the dead] was and his flesh would not rot," said the Australian Turrbals (Hertz, 1970, p. 24, n. 1). This is also the view expressed by the Merina, according to a historical Malagasy document of the last century: "Our kinsman is dead; what shall we do with his body, for he was a man we loved?" Some answered, "Since he is dead, let us not bury him but let us eat him, because it would be sad to see him rotting in the ground." (ibid., p. 28).

Cannibalism promotes mineralization, but intentions toward the corpse in this regard differ according to whether endocannibalism or exocannibalism is involved.

Endocannibalism refers us back to the traditional scheme of the double funeral: On the first occasion, the dead person is buried in the earth or, similarly, in the belly, where human digestion prepares its accelerated passage to mineralization; on the second occasion, the remaining bones are handled with respect and receive the final obsequies. The destruction resulting from the manducation is only a mutation of forms that symbolically achieve a kind of conservation: incorporation. In a sense, ingestion could be interpreted as embalming transferred to the oral register. As for exocannibalism, however, the situation is different, at least concerning the treatment of the remains. The cannibal feast undoubtedly implies incorporation and, by its reference to myths of origin, it can take the form of a veritable primitive mass in which the bread and wine are really flesh and blood. But whereas the vital force animating the enemy's corpse is assimilated, his bones and uneaten parts may be abandoned or held up to ridicule. The Ocaina Indians of the Peruvian Amazon suspend the enemy's penis from a necklace worn by the victor's spouse; the mummified hands are used as spoons, the bones as flutes, and the painted and exposed skull serves as a ritual bell.

The cremated corpse

According to many mythologies, the purifying fire is above all liberating. In Bali, as long as the fire has not reduced the corpse to ashes, the dead person is impure; he continues to wait, his spirit not yet separated from his body. According to many beliefs, fire is the promise of regeneration and rebirth. Through fire, a superior level of existence can be attained. According to Greek mythology, Herakles stretched himself out on the pyre of Mount Oeta, while Zeus announced to the other gods that Herakles was about to become their equal: The fire would relieve him of his human part, immortalize him, and make him divine. The same theme is found in the Upaniads, the classic texts of Hinduism. It is therefore not the impurity of the corpse that is implicated in the cremation ritual, but the impurity of the body and the human condition. Ashes are the proof of that impurity; if the body were perfect, it would burn without ashes.

The destiny of the remains varies. In Japan, the bones are traditionally divided between two containers, one of which is buried at the place of cremation and the other in the natal village of the deceased. In Thailand, part of the remains are collected in an urn kept at home, while the remainder is buried at the foot of the pyre, kept in a reliquary monument, or even thrown into a river. In India, custom formerly demanded that the ashes be deposited in a tomb. Later a rule was imposed that still persists today: Because fire is the son of the waters, funeral rites should summon first one and then the other. Also, the ashes and noncalcinated bones are sprinkled with water, and cow's milk and coconut milk as well, before being thrown into the Ganges, the sacred river that flows from Śiva's hair. The same procedure is followed in Nepal and in Thailand, where other sacred rivers conduct the deceased downstream toward his celestial residence. In Bali, the remains are thrown into the sea after having been meticulously sorted by the relatives, washed in sacred water, arranged on white linen, and inserted into a dried coconut adorned with flowers. Finally, there is the particular case of the Yanoama Indians of Venezuela, who crush the remaining bones after the incineration of their warriors, in order to consume them mixed with game dishes or beverages in the course of a communal meal.

Cremation can be assimilated to all other modes of provisional burial, and people who burn their dead conform in many respects to the classic scheme of the double funeral, but with different means and a shortened duration. The first funeral, corresponding to the ritual of the exclusion of the dead, soothes the corpse and leads it to a purification that can be accomplished only by the process of decay. Those who cremate the dead find the equivalent of the first funeral in the rites that accompany the handling of the body during the generally short period between death and combustion on the pyre. The second obsequies, which concern the charred and purified remains, correspond to the rites of integration of the dead in his status in the beyond, while mourning is lifted for the survivors.

Preservation of bodies

Egyptian embalming practices are famous. The long, difficult techniques only make sense, however, in the framework of the osirification ritual that makes the dead person a god through assimilation with Osiris. Before, during, and after the technical manipulations, an extremely complicated ceremony took place, which undoubtedly explains the long duration of the treatment and the great number of participants. Invocations, readings, and prayers punctuated each act of the embalmers, whose very gestures were strictly regulated. Afterlife was not possible unless the liturgy was observed in its minutest details. "You will not cease living; you will not cease to be young, for always and forever," cried the priest at the end of the embalming. Then the last ceremony could be performed: the opening of the mouth. In the purification tent or at the entrance to the tomb, the gestures of the officiating priest were accompanied by aspersions, offerings, and sacrifices, fumigations with incense, and magico-religious formulas. With the end of his adz the priest touched the dead person's face in order to reintroduce the vital energy.

In addition, mummies discovered in South America and the testimony of Spanish chroniclers affirm that the Inca, for example, embalmed their dead. The technical success of their mummies seems not to have been as spectacular as that of the Egyptian mummies, especially if one remembers that the Inca empire occurred relatively close to the current time (at the end of the Middle Ages). The body was treated with different ingredients (honey, resin, and herbs) and painted with roucou (a vegetable dye); the viscera, preliminarily removed, were prepared and kept separate in a receptacle. The dry climate and the burial methods (a hole in a rocky wall, or a funeral jar) were favorable for preservation. Like the pharaohs, the sovereigns were the objects of particular care. An illustrated story from the sixteenth century, whose author, Huaman Poma, was of Inca origin, recounts the royal funeral ritual: The embalmed Inca, adorned with his emblems, lay in state for a month; at his sides were placed women and servants, likewise embalmed, to serve him in the other world. Although the techniques were rudimentary, there is good reason to assume that a very precise ritual was used to increase efficacy. Thus, the funeral offerings deposited next to the body appeased the maleficent spirits that caused decomposition. Indeed, because the life principle (the aya ) remained in all parts of the corpse, rotting involved the destruction of the individual. On the other hand, if the body was preserved, the spirit of the dead could be reincarnated in a descendant. This belief in a second birth appears to explain the fetal position of corpses found in tombs and funeral jars.

Whatever the modalities, one can agree with Robert Hertz that it is legitimate "to consider mummification as a particular case derived from provisional interment" (Hertz, 1970, p. 20). If the interval separating death from final burial corresponds to the duration necessary for mineralization or desiccation, then a symmetry exists between the Egyptian rite and that of certain archaic ethnic groups. It is only when the embalming is concluded "that the body, having become imperishable, will be conducted to the tomb, that the soul will leave for the country of Ialou, and that the mourning of the survivors will come to an end." The waiting period, that is, the time necessary to achieve mineralization, can be reduced only by a manipulative intervention; it has not changed meaning at all, even if in this case the corpse is the equivalent of the body in its apparent totality (a mummy) or in part (a trophy head), rather than the residue of bones and ashes.


This article has, as it were, painted a composite picture of funeral rites, in which it can be seen that they border on the stricto sensu sphere of the sacred. It may in fact be argued that, thanks to ritesthose of former times especially, and to a lesser degree those of todayeverything is brought into play in order to put death (even if accepted) at a distance, and eventually to make fun of it or tame it by permitting the community, when it feels concerned, to pull itself together. This is why funeral rites can shift the drama of dying from the plane of the real to that of the imaginary (by displacements and metonymy, symbols and metaphors), and it is in this that their efficacy resides. To reorganize the society disturbed by death and to console the survivors even while the deceased is being served and his or her destiny orientedthese are the two fundamental aims of funeral customs. In all regions, then, such rites are simultaneously defined first as liturgical drama with its places and scenes, its actors and their scripts, and also as individual or collective therapies (one might recall Nasser's moving funeral). In this respect, traditional cultures have inexhaustible resources of rich symbolism that the modern world has forgotten.

Indeed, modern life, especially in an urban milieu, entails multiple mutations that are probably irreversible on the level of ritual, and perhaps disquieting for the psychic equilibrium of one's contemporaries. Many practices are simplified or omitted: The wake is impossible at the hospital or in tiny apartments; condolences and corteges are practically eliminated. Consider, for example, today's laying out of the dead: For the impurity of former times, the pretext of hygiene is substituted; for respect for the corpse as subject, obsession with or horror of the corpse as object; for family deference, the anonymity of an indifferent wage. In the same way, the signs of mourning have fallen into disusesociety has passed from "mourning clothes in twenty-four hours" to twenty-four hours of mourning!and it is unseemly to show one's sorrow. People care less and less about the deceased, who sink into the anonymity of the forgotten; fewer and fewer masses are said for the repose of their souls, while the scattering of ashes eliminates the only possible physical support for a cult of the dead. If, at least on the imaginary plane, rites once primarily concerned the deceased, today they primarily concern the survivors. Thus, to take only one example, the new Roman Catholic ritual of anointing the sick tends to deritualize and desacralize death itself as an essential mutation. It is truly the disappearance of death, considered as a passage, that is witnessed by others.

Without a doubt, humankind today is condemning itself to a dangerous cultural void concerning rites and their symbols. One may well ask if funerals, expedited in the "strictest intimacy," do not dangerously deprive people of a ritual that would help them to live.

See Also

Ancestors; Ashes; Bones; Cannibalism; Dakhma; Death; Fire; Rites of Passage; Tombs.


Ariès, Philippe. Western Attitudes toward Death: From the Middle Ages to the Present. Translated by Patricia Ranum. Baltimore, 1974.

Ariès, Philippe. Essais sur l'histoire de la mort en Occident. Paris, 1975.

Gennep, Arnold van. Rites of Passage. Translated by Monika B. Vizedom and Gabrielle L. Caffee. Chicago, 1960. See chapter 8.

Gennep, Arnold van. "Du berceau à la tombe." In Manuel de folklore français contemporain, edited by Arnold van Gennep, vol. 1, pp. 111373. Paris, 1976.

Georges, Elaine. Voyages de la mort. Paris, 1982.

Guiart, Jean, ed. Les hommes et la mort: Rituels funéraires à travers le monde. Paris, 1979.

Hertz, Robert. "Contribution à une étude sur la représentation collective de la mort." In Sociologie religieuse et folklore, edited by Robert Hertz. Paris, 1970.

Maertens, Jean-Thierry. Le masque et le miroir. Paris, 1978.

Maertens, Jean-Thierry. Le jeu du mort. Paris, 1979.

Thomas, Louis-Vincent. Anthropologie de la mort. Paris, 1975.

Thomas, Louis-Vincent. Le cadavre. Brussels, 1980.

Thomas, Louis-Vincent. La mort africaine. Paris, 1982.

Thomas, Louis-Vincent. Rites du mort: Pour la paix des vivants. Paris, 1985.

Urbain, Jean-Didier. La société de conservation. Paris, 1978.

Walter, Jean-Jacques. Psychanalyse des rites. Paris, 1977.

New Sources

Cressy, David. Birth, Marriage, and Death: Ritual, Religion, and the Life-Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England. Oxford and New York, 1997.

Holloway, Karla F. C. Passed On: African American Mourning Stories: A Memorial Collection. Durham, N.C., 2002.

Merridale, Catherine. Night of Stone: Death and Memory in Twentieth Century Russia. New York, 2001.

Metcalf, Peter and Richard Huntington. Celebrations of Death: The Anthropology of Mortuary Ritual. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1991.

Louis-Vincent Thomas (1987)

Translated from French by Kristine Anderson
Revised Bibliography