8.2 Process in Mortuary Ritual: change, transition and re-establishment

The broad concepts at work

Disposal of the dead is a rite of passage and at its heart is change, transition and re-establishment for the entities involved. The mortuary ritual has three foci, the soul and the dead, the body and the burial, and the kin group and wider society. The body has to be disposed of. The soul of the dead has to be set on a journey to a destination with a positive end. The kin group must adapt to the loss, and the wider society to which the dead person belonged must also accommodate the loss: in short, the social order becomes modified to a greater or lesser extent. It is rare that none of these elements incorporating change and transition will exist at all, although very minimalist approaches do occur.

Hertz's arguments (1960b) for a structure to mortuary ritual have been schematically represented by Huntington and Metcalf (1979). They relate the foci of the Soul and the Dead [A], the Living and the Mourners [B], and the Corpse and the Burial [C] into three dualities AB, AC, BC in their diagram (Figure 8.2-1) to show the entities whose relationships are being transformed in mortuary ritual, and how they are linked in the transformation.

A number of concepts permeate the disposal process and help us to understand the meaning of action. The first is liminality, a state at the point of transition or passage between two other distinct states. Van Gennep (1960) writes that 'the symbolic and spatial area of transition may be found in more or less pronounced form in all the ceremonies which accompany the passage from one social and magico-religious position to another'. Death is a rite of passage, and liminality is present at points of transformation for the different entities involved. Liminality itself also presupposes concepts of separation and rejoining: one state is left behind and a new one eventually joined. Mortuary ritual contains features of liminality for all participants.

The Soul and the Dead: The Living and the Mourners: The Corpse and the Burial
Figure 8.2-1: Hertz's ideas depicted by Huntington and Metcalf (1979)

Another concept present in mortuary ritual is jeopardy. The participants may at certain points be at risk or even in danger. This is primarily because death is perceived as introducing disturbance and loss of control into a number of different contexts. The hazards are more prevalent in the liminal stages of the transitional process when uncertainty is at its highest. Jeopardy may be more or less emphasised in mortuary rites of different cultures, and may spring from physical and non-physical sources (for example from the corpse and the freed soul respectively). The state of jeopardy needs action to reduce its impact, to avoid it or to remove it. Some actions involve measures to counter the perceived pollution of the living by the dead, others are prophylactic and directed at the threats deriving from the condition of the soul which may put the soul itself or the living or both in jeopardy.

Then the quality of the death encountered - whether 'good' or 'bad' - is a concept which may strongly influence the mortuary ritual. Concepts of good or bad death may differ in different cultures, but in essence seemingly not by very much. Fox (1973), in a study of the Roti of Eastern Indonesia, found that a good death was to die in the house and home, and that a bad death is sudden, violent and inauspicious. This generalisation works for many cultures in works cited here. With bad death, the victims are usually excluded from the normal mortuary ritual. Examples vary, but deaths by suicide, in childbirth, by certain kinds of accident, by a wild animal, by drowning, by murder and by lightning may be thought bad. Underlying such deaths are two inauspicious conditions: the deaths happen before natural life has run its course; and they are mostly unsought.

Good deaths are also defined by their context, and besides those where the full lifespan has been enjoyed, there are also those where life was cut short for communal good, as in war. Classical peoples took this favourable view of death in war, as do many present-day cultures. Alongside the good and bad death there is another category, where death is regarded as simply unfortunate, as with (particularly young) unmarried persons of marriageable age in Classical Greece (Garland 1985); or as of little account, as in the case of the socially inactive. The latter might include the enfeebled old who have not contributed to the community for some time, or the very young who have not begun to make their contribution - or may not have formally joined the community through an initial rite of passage (Hertz 1960b).

Another broad concept at work is the influence of the soul from when it leaves the body to join its final resting place (perhaps as a spirit among those of other ancestors). It is commonly believed that, after transition, a soul continues to exist for a significant period, sometimes for ever, and can influence the conditions of the living. This may happen in the company of other ancestor souls, and it may be in the immediate locality of the kin group or wider community, alternatives depending on local culture.

The transition and change commonly involves the concept of a journey for the soul. Hertz (1960b) notes one belief that the soul stays temporarily on earth and eventually enters the land of the dead on completion of a secondary mortuary rite. Other cultures believe the soul enters the land of the dead immediately on death, but does not join the other souls until the secondary rite is complete. However, the journey is one that does not necessarily depend on time or space, and cultures differ. It is the concept of transference that is important. For the Bolivian Laymi (Harris 1982), the land of the dead is across the sea and involves inversion of place (it is in the underworld), and time (day and night) and the seasons. Among the Lamalera of Indonesia (Barnes 1996) the soul was believed to travel to one of the great sea monsters that populate the sea, and then to lead the fish back to the living, making it possible to capture them easily. Van Gennep (1960) also noted the prevalence of water journeys and island-like afterworlds as the destiny of souls. Many more examples could be quoted of different destinations (the Berawan: Metcalf 1982, the Roti: Fox 1973). Their essence is that there is a very common belief that the soul of the dead person will make a journey, whether long or short, in time or in space; whether the eventual destiny is favourable for the soul or not, from that location the soul can have future influence on the living survivors, often for all time. There are other cultures which exclude or minimise this possibility, but they seem in the minority.

Concepts of sexuality and fertility tend to dominate mortuary symbolism, according to Huntington and Metcalf (1979). This may be less so where the legitimation of power in the society is not based on 'canalization of the fertility of predecessors' but on an extra-human source of power, in which case 'there is no need to transform the corpse into a source of continuing fertility' (de Pina-Cabral 1986, quoting Bloch 1982 in reference to the way in which Christianity has influenced the disposal processes in the Alto Minho in Portugal). Huntington and Metcalf reason that the life values of sexuality and fertility are in evidence because 'continuity of the living is a more palpable reality than the continuity of the dead'. At a superficial level there are two simple facts: mortuary ritual usually brings kin and the community together in ways which result in encouraged or chance sexual activity; and for many peoples the disposal of the dead is associated with beliefs in the ability of their ancestor kinfolk to help the living to continue to thrive. There are more subtle facets of these concepts, however, which centre on the roles of men and women in mortuary ritual, and on aspects of mortuary symbolism. These are referred to later.

Indeed symbolism itself is another pervading concept. Turner (1967 suggests that symbols have three properties. They condense meaning, since many things and actions can be represented in a single formation or symbol. They unify disparate significata, the significata (interpreting Turner as meaning important elements of evidence) being interconnected through sharing analogous qualities or fact/thought association. Thirdly, symbols may polarise meaning into the sensory and the ideological: the sensory pole relates to the outward form of the symbol, which arouses desires or feelings, and the ideological pole relates to components of moral and social order. For example, van Gennep (1960) noted how frequently in mortuary ritual themes of regeneration and growth were expressed in symbols of agricultural and human fertility. Symbols in mortuary ritual therefore may relate to concepts already referred to, such as liminality, fertility, sexuality and journeying. But symbolism may also be expressed in reversals, and through other concepts such as centrism, wherein this world is the axis of other worlds such as a heaven and an underworld (Eliade 1961). Searches for symbolism and its meaning are nonetheless risky enterprises where the evidence is of one type unsupported by others.

Finally, the concept of returning appears in different modes in mortuary ritual. On the most broad canvas, the myth of cyclic time (Eliade 1961), in which the world is periodically recreated, is expressed in the birth-death-resurrection myth. The concepts of fertility which may be interwoven with mortuary ritual could suggest that death is part of this regenerative cycle. This, taken with the activity of the soul and the ancestors, and with the continuing transactions that generations of the surviving living might have with the departed, may suggest that the whole forms part of the wider canvas to which Eliade refers. The dead, through the soul or spirit world (or an otherworld), and the living, through their mortuary and other cyclic rituals, may continually intercommunicate in cyclic activity of different kinds for mutual benefit.

The broad stages of process

The general thesis of van Gennep (1960) is that all rituals involving passage from one state, place, social position or age to another share a tripartite structure. This is defined by the necessary function of separation from one status and reincorporation into the new one, with a marginal or liminal period in between. There are similarities in these stages in a wide range of rituals (for example those concerning birth, puberty, marriage and death), and they are made necessary by the fact that society and its concepts of structure and status outlast the individuals that comprize it. Morris (1992) reproduces a diagram (8.2-2) showing this tripartite structure of a rite of passage from Leach (1976):

Abnormal condition: Initial normal: Final normal
Figure 8.2-2: Tripartite structure of the rite of passage from Leach (1976)

But with death the ties cannot be cut in one day. The process of the mortuary rite for those surviving is a psychological one of realisation, expressed by the concept of a soul only gradually severing its contact with the world (Hertz 1960b). A balance which has been disturbed has to be restored. This takes time for society, and a process of disintegration and synthesis has to take place to achieve it.

The rites of separation from a previous world are divided by van Gennep into pre-liminal rites, liminal rites (executed during the transitional stage), and post-liminal rites. The first stage comprises symbolic behaviour signifying detachment or separation of the individual or group from an earlier fixed point in the structure or from cultural conditions. The second stage denotes an ambiguous transitional or liminal position (for Hertz, the 'intermediary period'). The third stage is consummation of the rite of passage through reincorporation or aggregation. Van Gennep found that in funerals, rites of separation were relatively few in number and simple, but transition rites had a duration and complexity sometimes so great 'that they must be granted a sort of autonomy'. The rites incorporating the deceased into the world of the dead are (he also found) most extensively elaborated and given most importance.

The activities covered by pre-liminal, liminal and post-liminal mortuary rites are sequenced in this section into four broad stages: dying, death and primary disposal, secondary disposal and post-disposal activity. It may be useful to distinguish between the stages of activity and the process of ritual, since process may extend across stage boundaries. For example, mourning in its various ritual expressions may be carried on through several stages, while prophylactic rites may be confined to an early stage where risk or danger is at its highest. Sections 8.3-6 therefore take the human activity stages as the framework for describing processes of both the activity and the rites attached.

The broad purposes of mortuary ritual

The purposes focus on the body, the soul of the dead, ancestors, kin and society. These foci are given different emphases depending on the culture, and hence not all the detail covered below may apply under any one focus. For the body, the purpose is to dispose of it in ways that are positive for the soul of the deceased, the material remains, the kin and society. The processes are designed to release the soul from the body, to make positive use of the material remains, to reserve them in whole or part to further future purposes of kin and society, or to engineer their destruction or acknowledge their absence in such a way as not to prejudice other entities in the process.

For the soul of the dead, the purpose is to release the soul and to send it to the destiny within the culture's belief. The ritual is directed at separation of the soul from the body, at reducing the negative influences that a soul may have in transition, at furthering the journey itself and discouraging return, at focusing the soul on positive inclinations towards survivors, and at ensuring that it may join other ancestor souls in a fit state to be a positive influence for the future. For some souls, normally those of victims of bad death, the purpose may be to isolate them in a state from which they may do no future harm to the surviving living, or to detoxify them so that they reach the same favourable state and location as the souls of others.

For the ancestor souls, the purposes of aspects of the ritual are to ensure that they are joined by the new soul in a fit state as just described, but also to reaffirm in various ways the dependencies or interdependencies that the culture may believe exist in their mutual relationships. These relationships may be reaffirmed at intervals at non-mortuary rituals, most often at cyclic annual events for the whole community.

Kin, especially the very next-of-kin, must accommodate to the loss of a member, and mourning rituals are in part aimed at this. However, sometimes kin have to adapt to a new alignment of relationships (or potential relationships) which the death may have created within the kin group. These relationships may vary from a simple shift of dependencies, to major socio-economic and status shifts (like succession) within the family group, and mortuary ritual may facilitate this. Then death in some cultures is regarded as a pollutant of the kin group or of its dwelling, either through its occurrence in the house or through the activity of handling the body (which falls usually to kin). Part of the ritual may be directed at diminishing or removing the polluting effect. Finally, at a certain stage in mortuary ritual the kin group or specific members signal that they are 'rejoining' society and a normal state of social intercourse. Usually this is by means of a meal or larger ceremony involving the community as a whole. It is not unusual for this ritual to have other purposes at the conclusion of the disposal process, and also to be directed at the society of ancestors which, by then, the new soul may have joined.

For the society, mortuary rituals serve a number of purposes, some already mentioned. A wider community may share in the ritual by coming together to provide a unity, and a sense that while individuals die, society goes on. The occasions may stress continuity of the community by various means, for example by encouraging mixing of the sexes in a spirit which can cross the boundary (if one exists) between mortuary and fertility rituals. In some cases (Bloch and Parry 1982) death is used to legitimate the authority of society: society is made emotionally and intellectually unassailable by transformation of death into fertility. Death becomes a transcendent and eternal force, and the ritual processes may support this idea. In the case of the deaths (even on rare occasions the enforced deaths) of significant members of society such as leaders, the ritual may extend to confirming new high-level relationships between societal strata and stress continuity through the ritual processes of adjustment to change. In this respect, the use of tombs by society may express the social order, although again societies exist where the tomb has no such part.

These broad purposes are served to different degrees at different stages of the mortuary process. The next sections take the stages of process in sequence.


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