Robert Hertz was born to a Jewish family near Paris on June 22, 1881. As an anthropologist and politically active socialist, Hertz provided a new way of interpreting funerary ritual and sought to relate sociology to the practical flourishing of community life. At age nineteen he joined the Année Sociologique group that included leading sociologists of the day such as Durkheim, Mauss, Hubert, and Halbwachs. Their approach stressed broad theories rather than the accumulation of voluminous cultural facts as in Frazerian anthropology. While volunteering for active service in World War I, he was killed in action on April 13, 1915.
The contemporary anthropologist Robert Parkin has highlighted Hertz's scholarly contributions to the symbolic significance of "right" and "left" classifications, to sin and expiation and to myth and death. Hertz's last and best-known essay— "Contribution à une étude sur la representation collective de la mort "—was published in 1907 but largely forgotten in the English-speaking world until Rodney and Claudia Needham's English edition was published in 1960.
Echoing Durkheim's view of society as a moral community whose values are expressed as "collective representations," Hertz speaks of "society" and "collective representations" abstractly to explain how enduring values were related to concrete individuals. He demonstrated these links by analyzing death and funeral rites. Two paradoxical streams flow through his argument, one social and the other more psychological. Sociologically, he interprets society as perceiving itself to be immortal, transcending the lives of any individual members and conferring upon the dead a new status as ancestors. In this sense, members of society never die but change their relative relationships as they move from being living members of society to its dead "members."
The psychological stream concerns the relationship between the living and the dead and the experience of grief. Both social and psychological streams, however, relate symbolically to the state of the corpse. Indeed, Hertz was an early exponent of what would later be called "embodiment," interpreting the human body as a vehicle enshrining and expressing social values. Accordingly, he made a special study of "double-burial," distinguishing between "wet" and "dry" phases of ritual. The wet phase, often linked to temporary earth burial or containing the dead in pots, related to the rotting corpse and sociologically was the period when the identity of the dead was increasingly removed from his or her former living identity. Psychologically, this was a period when the living experienced the pain of early separation and might have felt a sense of revulsion to the deceased. The dry phase of the ritual dealt with the bones and incorporated the dead into their new identity in the afterlife. At this time, a new sense of "reverent courage" might replace revulsion among the surviving kin. His reference to "internal partings" was an early form of attachment theory, just as his stress on transition and incorporation presages his friend van Gennep's idea of rites of passage. Hertz's influence increased significantly in the growing literature on death studies from approximately the 1980s.
See also: Anthropology; Durkheim, Émile; Grief and Mourning in Cross-Cultural Perspective; Immortality, Symbolic; Rites of Passage
Gennep, Arnold van. The Rites of Passage, translated by Monika B. Vizedome and Gabrielle L. Caffe. London: Routledge & Paul, 1960.
Hertz, Robert. "A Contribution to the Study of the Collective Representation of Death." In Rodney Needham and Claudia Needham eds., Death and the Right Hand. New York: Free Press, 1960.
Parkin, Robert. The Dark Side of Humanity: The Work of Robert Hertz and Its Legacy. Netherlands: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1996.
DOUGLAS J. DAVIES
See Grief: Disenfranchised.