8.3 The Elements of Process: activity before death

General introduction

This section and the next three cover mortuary ritual through the four stages of process from dying, through death and the first disposal, and then to the final rite and after. Each section considers for its particular stage which elements of the process appear to centre on the dead person and the soul, and which on the next of kin and the society or community. This structure anticipates that of Section 9 which will relate anthropological evidence to the archaeological evidence, period by period. The elements of process support concepts already referred to, such as change, transition, separation, aggregation, liminality, jeopardy, quality of death (good or bad), influence of the souls, transactions, return, journeying, sexuality, fertility, and symbolism. The concepts are not in place in every stage, since each stage is different. References to some cultures' processes in these stages are not intended to suggest that the detail is definitive or prescriptive, and behind dissimilarities there often appear to exist common purposes or concepts. It is the underlying substance, not the form, which is important.

Process scope

This section covers the stage where the death of a person is known to be inevitable or imminent. It is not, strictly speaking, a part of mortuary ritual since death has not occurred. On the other hand, it is when kin and society (and even the person dying) may acknowledge that separation is anticipated. Activities related to that acknowledgement may take place. In some support of this, Socrates (Plato, Phaedo [117c]) counted dying as the first of his three stages of death (the others being dead and uninterred, and dead and interred).

Elements centring on the person dying and the kin

It is not unusual for those dying to be accompanied in the last stages by their kin. For some cultures these circumstances determine the quality of death for the dying. Among the Lugbara (Middleton 1982) the person must have the right status and be in the right place to undergo transition: this means being in his own hut with his own brothers and sons around, being of alert mind, and with clear speech. These are considered the best conditions for transition to begin. On death, a cry from the successor marks the moment of succession, and signals a clear start to mourning and the mortuary rites. In short, control and order are clearly established where in other circumstances they can prevail less. It is also notable that the noise announcing the death (it may be lamentation and weeping elsewhere as with the Lamalera of Indonesia [Barnes 1996]) is itself symbolic of a change of status, according to Huntington and Metcalf (1979).

For the Classical Greeks (Garland 1985), friends as well as kin would gather at the bedside. The person about to die could, according to literary sources, take some or all of these actions: a ritual bath, committal of any children to another's care, settling of his affairs, prayers and a formal farewell to his family. The symbolism of the bath was the same as that of washing the dead body, to ward off or reduce miasma or pollution. For the Classical Romans (Toynbee 1971) there were similar rituals.

Otherwise the dying may be attended primarily for mutual company or comfort. The process is subdued and the dying are set in a quiet part of the dwelling (as with the Merina of Madagascar, Bloch 1971). Dying alone, away from or not accompanied by kin, is commonly not thought satisfactory or proper for either party.

There are occasional, and hence unusual, cases where the person who is dying is treated as if already dead or is actually killed. Instances range from those who are judged to be near death and are 'buried' in their open graves and supplied with food until they take the food no longer and die (like the Dinka Spearmen), to the Lugbara rain-makers who undergo a social death on taking up the role (Middleton 1982), to the ritual murder and disappearance of priest-kings like those of the Shilluk people of the Upper Nile (Huntington and Metcalf 1979).

Elements centring on the community

The community at large, as opposed to close friends and kin, generally seems to play no formal part in any processes surrounding the stage of dying. The stage seems focused only on the dying person, kin and possibly close friends. In close-knit communities, especially those living physically very closely in longhouses, there may be an awareness of an impending death, but until death occurs there is no formal response or only a muted one of anticipation.

Time, space and place in this stage

The time of dying becomes important for some cultures when it is judged untimely. Examples of such events have been already mentioned. The untimeliness of death for the Kedang (Barnes 1974) is associated with their concept that such deaths removed the potential for the correction of faults that those undergoing good deaths enjoyed. The same concept of unexpected death leaving the body unprepared is mentioned by Bloch and Parry (1982). It appears to be a fairly general concept that bad death generates forms of incompleteness and lack of control for the body, soul and survivors that other modes do not admit.

Nowhere in the (admittedly limited) literature used were there examples of a particular time of day or year being considered good or bad for death, except perhaps in the rather special case of the Shilluk people just mentioned, when no time was right for the priest-king's death. However, dying may be unpropitious at certain events or occasions: death in childbirth has already been mentioned; and one death immediately following another in the same household is also seen as bad, since it may indicate that the spiritual essence or soul of the first corpse has not dispersed and its menace has caused the second death (Huntington and Metcalf 1979). Indeed both examples are of death taking place at points of liminality where jeopardy is high.

The place and space of dying is again linked mainly with concepts of control. Dying at home or within the locality of the community (saving in bad death circumstances) is at the opposite (good) end of the spectrum from dying far away from the community, or in circumstances such that the body is irrecoverable. This may be remedied if part of the body can be returned: Hertz (1960b) refers to rites being performed over token remains, especially parts connected with the soul. Dying away from home may reduce the orderly transfer of authority (Bloch and Parry 1982). Middleton (1982) recounts that the Lugbara believe that when the psychical elements of the person do not disperse properly, or do so at the wrong time or place, then this is a bad death which has the characteristics of being 'outside and unforeseen'.

One root of the belief in the importance of location may be in the symbolism of every inhabited place having a 'centre', a place sacred above all. This centre may be the home (or a focal point in the home), as well as a location in the wider community. The key image is the one of space which is ordered because it is inhabited and organised: beyond this is the unknown and dangerous region populated by demons, ghosts, the dead and foreigners (Eliade 1961). To die in a centre of such order is both more propitious and less risky.

Death in water, by accidental burial or by falling from a height (place and space respectively) are commonly considered bad deaths, but it may be as much the untimely and accidental qualities of the dying that are significant as the medium of air (space), earth (place) and water (place). However, if one adds (bad) death by lightning, the deaths acquire associations which may have another symbolic unpropitious meaning: to die by the agency of one of life's vital elements, earth, air, fire or water, is an inauspicious reversal of the natural order.

The inter-relationship of elements and the purposes of activity before death

In this section it has been hard to keep solely to dying, since reference to the circumstances of the death itself has been unavoidable. The contexts of time, space and place of death in particular draw one into describing how they may influence the nature of the death experienced. These contexts are all circumstances of dying, just as much as is the gathering of kin.

There are several purposes of activity in the stage of dying. Perhaps there are two prime purposes. The first is to recognise that the process of separation is underway: the dying person is near the point of leaving the living kin and society, and may need comfort as well as to carry out parting transactions. The second is to ensure that the soul of the dying person is in a suitable state to leave the body and leaves in a controlled environment. An important secondary purpose is for kin to establish control over various societal transitions and transactions that take place at death by being there to initiate the control processes. One transaction may focus on stating the clear succession in the kin group, so that there is no ambiguity or doubt. The exact point of transition may be the change in pre-death activity to the initiation of mourning and the start of formal mortuary ritual. This point may also by its sometimes noisy nature announce to the absent community that the death has taken place.

The stage also has the purpose (or sometimes the effect) of defining the nature of the death through the manner of dying. Most often the nature is determined by factors of time, place or medium. This definition may profoundly affect the content of subsequent mortuary ritual.


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