Dust to Dust: Notes on rituals for the dead

The human body at death: it looks like us, but it is not us. So what are we to do with it? How do we meet the needs of the dead and our own? Barbara Nichol talks with anthropologists and historians about the role that ritual plays in our attempts to cope with the conundrum of the corpse.
How do you remake the world when a loved one dies? Barbara Nichol talks with anthropologists and historians about the role ritual plays in our attempts to cope with death. (Pixabay)

Death: in a split second our cousin, our friend, an acquaintance has changed from one thing into another. It was a living creature. Suddenly it is a startling and bewildering and disquieting object: a corpse. What is it? What are we to do with it? **This episode originally aired October 26, 2016.

Barbara Nichol looks at four sets of death rituals: ritual practices in Singapore, in Indonesia, in the south Amazon and in the West, to try to find themes and links. But every pattern turns out to have exceptions. Every statement comes with footnotes. And rituals change, sometimes slowly; sometimes at a surprising speed.

Gambling, slaughtering buffalo, ancestors who come back as boars to provide meat for their descendants, burial upside down, professional mourners who wail through a microphone, cannibalism and babies wrapped in leaves in the trees — they're all part of this story.

Anthropologist Beth A. Conklin of Vanderbilt University describes cannibalism at the Wari funeral, and their horror of how we treat our dead 0:51
The white-lipped peccary. When the Wari of the South Amazon return from the afterlife they come in this form. (Chrumps/Wikipedia)

How do we dispose of bodies? Let us count the ways.

Burial alone: Bodies have been buried face up and face down, vertically so that they can remain watchful -- that's the guess. Bodies have been buried vertically on their heads (as punishment perhaps). Bodies have been buried with their heads facing places of religious significance, buried at a cross roads out of town (criminals and suicides mostly) or in the church yard. Bodies have been buried in a crouched position and with their arms crossed across their chests. With tombstones sometimes, and in unmarked graves. Or dumped with others bodies into huge holes in the ground. Then there's burial as sea, if you can call that burial.

Other methods? Cremation of course, and scattering, disposal by dissolving the body into liquid. Sky burial, where in the bodies are left for the birds, or placed in towers, again for wildlife to carry away. Bodies defleshed and then exposed. Bodies eaten by other members of the community. Bodies placed in coffins hung from cliffs, tucked into holes carved in trees, freeze dried. Now we have the beheading of bodies to be frozen and saved for when the time comes that their fatal malady can be cured. Or the whole body can be frozen, with the same plan in mind. Now there's green burial and compost burial and there's always something new.

Let us count the ways? We cannot count the ways.

– Barbara Nichol

Guests in this episode:

  • Tony Walter is Honorary Professor of Death Studies at the University of Bath, UK. Among his books is The Revival of Death and The Mourning for Diana. 
  • Gary Laderman is Goodrich C. White Professor of American Religious History and Cultures and Chairperson of the Department of Religion at Emory University. He is the author of Sacred Matters: Celebrity Worship, Sexual Ecstasies, the Living Dead, and Other Signs of Religious Life in the United States (The New Press, 2009). He is also the author of two books on death in America: The Sacred Remains: American Attitudes Toward Death, 1799-1883 (Yale University Press, 1996) and Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth-Century America (Oxford University Press, 2003). Laderman also helped create and direct the online magazine Religion Dispatches, and currently is Editor of the online Sacred Matters: Religious Currents in Culture.
  • Ruth Toulson is a Professor of Anthropology at Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore. She has published widely on death ritual and the emotions, and her book, Transforming Grief: Life and Death in a Chinese Funeral Parlor will be publshed next year. 
  • Herbert Northcott is a professor of sociology at the University of Alberta. He is co-author of Dying and Death in Canada and Aging and Society
  • Beth A Conklin is the Chair of the Department of Anthropology at Vanderbilt University. She is a cultural anthropologist, medical anthropologist, and specialist in the study of indigenous/native peoples of lowland South America. She has worked for more than thirty years with people called the Wari, who live in the rainforest of western Brazil. Her book, Consuming Grief: Compassionate Cannibalism in an Amazonian Society, is a detailed reconstruction of their traditional funeral practices and the meanings and motives behind them, based on Wari'elders' testimonies about their experiences, and my long-term field research in contemporary Wari communities.
  • Thomas Laqueur is Helen Fawcett Distinguished Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley. He writes and teaches about the history of sexuality and the body, the history of human rights and humanitarianism, modern European cultural history more generally, and, in collaboration with a medical colleague, about the history of death and dying. He was awarded the 2016 Cundill Prize in Historical Literature, for his book The Work Of The Dead: A Cultural History Of Mortal Remains.

**This episode was produced by Barbara Nichol and Greg Kelly.


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