Funerary Customs, Non-Western

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Funerary Customs, Non-Western

It is often taken as a truism that sex and death are everywhere connected. The ethnographic record does not bear this out. In all the amazing variety of funerary customs worldwide, there are some that emphasize themes of sexuality and renewed fecundity and others that do not. As an example of the latter, the practice among the hunting and gathering San of the Kalahari Desert in Botswana is, or was, to simply abandon a campsite immediately after someone died. Male or female, the corpse was simply left where it lay. Before it had time to decompose it was usually consumed by predators. It is difficult in this ritual—if ritual it may be called—to detect any trace of gender differentiation.

At the other extreme there are complex, extended rites in which sex is associated with death in ways that are difficult for a Westerner to grasp. A missionary working among the Bestsileo of Madagascar in the early twentieth century was shocked to find that the funerals he witnessed were little more than orgies, climaxing in the moment of horror when, he was told, a man might copulate with his own mother. It should be noted that his informants did not say that men actually did copulate with their mothers; rather, they wanted to emphasize the riotous nature of sexuality on these occasions, such that everyday social roles were pushed aside. Among the neighboring Bara people, the sexes are segregated during the days of a funeral. In one house women wail over the corpse, while in another the kinsmen formally receive the condolences of visitors. At night, however, men and women interact in ways normally considered scandalous. They join in energetic and provocative dances, with couples dropping out frequently to go off together into the savannah. Bara say that these rites generate faha, or vitality, without which it would be impossible to contain the ravages of death or to reproduce new lives. Months or years later a second festival, requiring lavish supplies of food and rum to entertain guests from far and wide, culminates in the rehousing of the dry bones of the deceased among those of his or her ancestors. At this event the proper relationship between the living and the dead is restored, and consequently there is no call for unusual sexual activity.

By contrast, Chinese funerals do not emphasize revitalization through the union of male and female but, rather, the removal of pollution by their separation. A heavily patriarchal ideology associates the decomposition of corpses with a female yin element, which must be shed in order to release the yang element symbolized by ancestral bones. These bones are stored in temples celebrating the continuity of patrilineal descent groups. The role of women in absorbing pollution is revealed in many ritual details, such as sweeping their unbound hair along the coffin. Their reward for this service is that they are consigned in the afterlife to a lake of blood until released by offerings made by their sons. It has been argued that this understanding of death, made explicit in written texts, coexists with a subversive alternative that reflects women's experiences with their own bodies and with the biological processes of birth and death, but there has so far been little research on this issue.

Another configuration of male and female in funerary rites emphasizes the relationships between groups rather than genders. Among the Bororo of Brazil, for example, it is not possible for a man to be buried without the assistance of his wife's kinsmen. Villages are laid out in a circle comprising several descent groups. Marriage within groups is prohibited, and people look for their spouses among the groups on the opposite side of the central dancing ground. Clearly, no group can reproduce itself without the cooperation of their marriage partners, and every major ritual expresses a mutual interdependence that goes far beyond biology. For instance, a child's name comes not from his father but from his mother's brother. Again, no one can impersonate the spirits that belong to his or her own group in the most solemn rites; instead, he or she must find a friend across the village, and there is no greater honor than to be asked to perform this function. In these circumstances it is easy to see why death rites are every bit as much an intergroup affair as is marriage. Moreover, gender becomes ritually contextualized. When a group acts as wife takers, they all take on a male aspect, regardless of gender. But on the next occasion they may be wife givers, and then they just as readily adopt, en masse, a female role.

Marriage alliances do not everywhere produce such harmony, however. On the island of Dobu, off the eastern tip of New Guinea, deaths are attributed to witchcraft. Each small village lives in fear of magical attack by evildoers in nearby villages, but it is into just these villages that men marry. Couples must move back and forth between the villages of husband and wife in alternate years, and each is received with deep distrust by their in-laws. If either dies the other will immediately be accused of sorcery. Only the close kin of the deceased are allowed at the funeral, and after suffering isolation and privation; the surviving spouse is sent home, never to return.

These examples give some idea of the variety of ways in which sex and gender figure in mortuary rites and show that no generalization about them is universally valid. They are chosen from the vast archive assembled by a century of ethnographic research, particularly on religions that stood apart from the handful of world religions. But even when peoples share formal doctrines concerning the significance of death, their funerary customs may vary widely. This finding serves to demonstrate that such rites are usually more concerned with relations among the living than the fate of the dead.


Crocker, Christopher. 1985. Vital Souls: Bororo Cosmology, Natural Symbolism, and Shamanism. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Fortune, R. 1932. Sorcerers of Dobu: The Social Anthropology of the Dobu Islanders of Western Pacific. London: Routledge.

Metcalf, Peter, and Richard Huntington. 1991. Celebrations of Death: The Anthropology of Mortuary Ritual. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Watson, James, and Evelyn Rawski, eds. 1988. Death Ritual in Late Imperial and Modern China. Berkeley: University of California Press.

                                             Peter Metcalf