8.4 The Elements of Process: primary disposal activity

Process scope

Primary disposal activity is defined as the process of mortuary ritual from the point at which death takes place up to and including the initial disposal of the body. In some cultures there is no further mortuary ritual after this, and disposal of the body has only the single stage. In others there may be no secondary disposal process involving the body, but there may be further mortuary rites at a second stage: this will be covered in Section 8.5. Primary disposal activity may extend over a few days or weeks (in rare instances perhaps months), a shorter period being the more common. Secondary disposal activity which follows may take place weeks, months, or in some cultures, years later.

Elements centring on the corpse, the soul and the kin

Examples of common practices

This section starts with two examples illustrating common elements of primary disposal activity. In his study of the Dayak of Borneo, Hertz (1960b) describes what he terms 'provisional burial' whereby in the initial rite the body is put in a sealed coffin with drainage to keep the evil power within the corpse restrained. The process of bone desiccation frees the bones of the mortuary infection, and until the secondary disposal activity (the second ceremony which may take place at any time between 7-8 months and 5-6 years later), the corpse is in grave peril. At the same time the soul stays near the body and does not enter the land of the dead until the second ceremony. Until it is admitted, the soul has to provide for itself, and is regarded by the survivors as malicious, and its state as both pitiful and dangerous. Dissolution of the flesh is linked by the Dayak directly with the temporary stay of the soul on earth. In some groups, Hertz noted that the soul was believed to enter the land of the dead immediately on death, but did not join the main company of the dead until after the second ceremony.

In the second example, the Berawan of Borneo conduct certain rites very rapidly upon the occurrence of death, and the ritual is similar in format whether grand in scale or humble (Metcalf 1982). The corpse is washed, made presentable in various ways, dressed in fine clothes, given food offerings and displayed for one or two days with the family valuables. It is then bound and sealed in a coffin or jar with some small figurines and grave goods (any china or pot being chipped or broken) as simple journey accompaniments. The delay before the funeral may be 4-10 days depending on status (the longer being for higher status, the shortest for low status or bad deaths). In all this activity the spouse of the dead partner will be isolated in ritual observance close by the corpse. White clothes are worn as mourning garments by the kin, and they may cut their hair. The funeral is preceded by a vigil which masquerades as a fete. The community gathers, and amid lively socialising there is flirting among the unmarried young, and chasing games. A feast which all take part in preparing is held before the funeral. The corpse must leave the longhouse for the funeral by its own exit, and it is taken amid much noise to its first resting place which sometimes is by the longhouse, sometimes in a graveyard. Throughout all this the corpse is seen as a death threat to young, old and pregnant women, who are kept at a distance from it.

Separation and jeopardy

This summary account of two groups' primary disposal activities encapsulates two most powerful concepts at work in the primary disposal stage, those of separation and jeopardy. The separations are of the person from the kin and community by the death, the separation of the soul from the body which it inhabited in life, and the physical dissolution of flesh and its separation from the bones. The states of jeopardy vary. There is danger to survivors from a soul that has yet to find its new resting place, and the soul itself is at risk from its freedom from the body. The corpse and the dead person's former possessions may be a potential source of pollution to the survivors. Relatives, and to a lesser degree others in the house, have to observe certain prohibitions.

Both concepts are characteristically present in liminal stages (see Figure 8.2-2) where control is at risk and uncertainty high. Those involved at this stage of the mortuary process are more usually the kin, who may be helped by neighbours with some of the initial activities; it is less usual for the wider community to take much part. Separation is marked in a variety of ways: by mourning rituals which may include lamentation (especially the lament or cry that signifies the start of mourning), the wearing of certain forms of dress or certain colours (especially red, white or black), the cutting of hair which may be offered to the dead person, the growing of hair, the offering of food or simple grave goods (sometimes small replicas) to the dead for the journey of the soul, breaking or damaging grave goods to indicate there is no return for the soul, making noise (especially percussive noise), using devices or tricks to prevent the soul from finding its way back or escaping, tearing clothes, marking the survivors' faces or bodies with dirt, providing the corpse with its own exit from the room or display area on the way to the primary disposal, destruction of the dead's possessions (including killing wives, slaves, or favourite animals), and ultimately by decay or destruction of the corpse.

This might take place in the primary disposal ritual by cremation or some process whereby the bones lose their flesh and became dry. The latter process might be by inhumation and later disinterment, by placing in a receptacle to decompose and the bones recovered later, by excarnation in a tree, on a platform, on open ground, or in an open pit for later recovery, or by necrophagy in much rarer cases. It does appear that preferences for the method used might change both over time in one place, and over space at one time (for example in Attica in Ancient Greece, Morris 1992). The important fact seems to be that the underlying purpose was the same, but different methods of achieving it are used at different times and in different places. Sometimes both modes might be employed on one corpse (as in Classical Roman times: Toynbee 1971).

States of jeopardy may be countered, avoided or averted by rituals, including making noise (especially percussive noise), devices to pacify the soul (obtaining a head in the Berawan: Metcalf 1982), washing the corpse or bathing to reduce or avert pollution (in Classical Greece: Parker 1983), competitions to show vigour as an antidote to death 1982; Homer Iliad 23), destruction of the dead person's possessions or declaring them taboo (as with the Dayak, above), binding of the corpse (as with the Laymi: Bloch and Parry 1982) although binding may also be done for practical reasons of convenience, playing games of chance to underline the random nature of death (as with the Berawan and the Lamyi), marking off or even demolishing the house in which the dead person lived, laying out the corpse in a special house at the edge of the village and fencing the place where fluids shaken from the corpse had fallen (as with the Kedang: Barnes 1974), guarding the body (as with the Berawan), and substitution of the body if unavailable (usually regarded as a bad death) with something else (as with the Lamalera of Indonesia: Barnes 1996).


Many symbols have already been mentioned in the activities of separation and jeopardy aversion recorded above (use of water, dirt, colour, games, tearing and cutting to recapitulate particular instances). Other symbols are used in this stage of mortuary ritual to express the concept of journeying for the body or the soul: the coffin may symbolise a boat or canoe as with the Roti (Fox 1973), the orientation of the grave may be a symbol, with the head of the corpse set in the direction of the land of the dead, and sometimes the dead have a guide of a magical kind like Isis or Hermes. There is further symbolism in the gifts for the journey: besides indicating that there is a journey and that the soul cannot linger, the gift itself may bring with it an obligation to return another gift (Mauss 1970). In the case of sacrifice (of a living creature or of items of value) made at a funeral, the sacrificial destruction implies that there is something to be repaid by those in the afterlife with influence over human affairs.

Turner (1967) draws attention to the symbolism in the changing state of the rotting corpse, which he sees as a metaphor of the social and moral transition. Rotting, fermenting, preserving, dyeing and distilling - all of these techniques have a symmetry. The analogy is to the refining process of the body and the soul in liminal transition periods. There is also the general phenomenon of noise at times of transition, as symbols of changes of status.

There may be symbolism of reversal in the primary disposal stage, when the survivors wish to change a less propitious situation for the better. This may particularly take place with disposals of the victims of bad deaths, the concept being that to reverse or alter a normal ritual or symbolism may help to reverse the evil or mitigate the consequences. For example, with a Kedang bad death (Barnes 1974) the ritual involves reversals or differences to confuse the soul so that it cannot return. Simple general examples of such reversal are: not allowing the body if recovered to enter the house, providing much simpler preparatory disposal rites, carrying the corpse in the funeral procession in reverse orientation, mutilating the corpse, leaving the body of one killed by lightning where it fell as incorruptible, or burying the corpse at a site separate from the normal burial place for the community.

Nonetheless, small shifts in space or time can totally transform symbolic systems as I. Morris (1992) has remarked. The passage from Herodotus III 38 in which the Greeks and the Indian Calliatae express horror at the other's favourable attitudes to cremation and corpse eating respectively is a very good example of this. The activities, although very different in their use of symbols, had the same purpose. Diversity of form associated with a common purpose is a not unusual feature of comparative studies.

Sexuality, fertility, male and female roles

Bloch and Parry (1982) suggest that the concepts of female sexuality and decomposition have been associated implicitly (but not universally) in case studies of disposal process. There appears to be evidence for women being more usually associated with rites of primary disposal, and men more with the secondary rites. The process of mortuary ritual which inverts death so that it encompasses the symbols of regeneration and rebirth (that is, fertility) may seem involved but in Zulu rites (Bloch and Parry 1982) the widow delivers the corpse tied in foetal fashion to the lineage men, the corpse being received through a round hole in the wall of the hut that represents the womb, and placed in a niche. Another example of this uniting is mentioned by Cicero (de Legibus 2.25.63-26.66), who refers to the custom at Athens of the sowing of corn over the grave of the dead person.

Continuing with the theme of male and female roles in the primary stage of mortuary ritual, Huntington and Metcalf (1979) note that for the Bara of Madagascar life is maintained by a balance of order and vitality in which the male and female elements play respective complementary parts. Life is a journey from mother's womb to father's tomb. Dying, tombs, ancestors, father and social order are explicitly associated, and funeral behaviour is aimed at restoring an upset balance. Figure 8.4-1 sets out the oppositions. (Compare also the Melpa of the New Guinea Highlands: Strathern 1982)


Figure 8.4-1: Order/Vitality oppositions among the Bara (Huntington and Metcalf 1979)

The Bara primary disposal rites have male and female houses, the corpse resting in the female house. The women gather, and the body is prepared. In the male house, the men plan the logistics of burial. There is silence and no weeping in the day, but at night there is contrast - noise, revelry, and almost licentiousness. The sexes mix together, and there is exuberance to offset the presence of death. On the third day the body is coffined, there is a procession around and around the female house (separation symbol) and gun shots. The procession makes its way to the burial mountain several miles away, and the activities on the journey include wrestling of men and girls over the coffin, blocking of the processional path by females, and charges by the males carrying the coffin to break the opposing ranks of females (sexual symbolism). There are many other symbolic acts in the process suggestive of separation rites and of the tomb as both a womb and an entrance to the other world.

Bloch and Parry (1982) suggest that fertility may be disassociated from sexuality in some ritual by gender symbolism. Sexuality may be associated with flesh, decomposition and women, while true ancestral fertility is a mystical process symbolised by the tomb and the [maleness of the] bones. The primary disposal activity may therefore have more of the former emphasis, the secondary disposal activity more of the latter.

Elements centring on the community

There have been several references already to elements centring on the community in primary disposal rites. In some cultures, like that of the Bara, the community is intimately involved in the primary ritual ab initio, but in others the community joins in to differing extents (from onlookers to participants) as the ritual becomes more public, for example from the point when the body is carried out from the home. The Ndembu (Turner 1967) hold mourning camps after a death. The Berawan put the corpse on display to the community, who also shared in the task of pacifying the separated soul by organising parties to hunt for a head for it. The activities include in different cultures various form of social activity, from the mildly boisterous to the licentious.

These are all public or publicly undertaken activities, and in many cases they take place whatever the status of the dead person. In some cultures they grow in scale, however, or change in nature to embrace a much wider community when the dead person is of some prominence, as with the disposal ritual of a Scythian king in the 5th century BC (Herodotus IV 71-73) which extends to a procession around the whole kingdom. A parallel to the Scythian king's rites is in the sumptuous ritual for a dead king in Thailand (Huntington and Metcalf 1979 ) which was aimed at refocusing the attention at the centre by a display of wealth and prestige, and at ritual display at a dangerous point of transition, purposes also at work in the Scythian example. Opposites exist at this high level, as with the secretive Shilluk priest-king disposal.

In certain special circumstances and cultures the community itself may symbolically conduct the primary disposal rite. One example is the case of the Athenians (Thucydides 2.34), burying the first dead of the Peloponesian war. This was a time of great threat to the community of Attica, and to the normal solidarity that the community seeks through funeral ritual was added a desire to express state unity in the face of Lacedaimon.

Finally, the community may take particular interest in the disposal of a person who has suffered a good or bad death. From instances quoted earlier from recent cultures, corpses resulting from bad deaths represented more of a threat to the community than those of normal death, since they brought with them more than the usual degree of jeopardy for the soul and the survivors.

Time, space and place in this stage

The elements of time concern the elapsed time between death and the primary disposal, and the importance of timing of particular rites within that period. In the case of elapsed time, there is variation. It seems more common to carry out primary disposal within 1-3 days of death, with the main impetus being to set the soul securely on its journey, to avert or minimise states of jeopardy, to pass the body quickly into a process of transition from corpse to dry bones by inhumation (or the variations that have the same defleshing effect) or cremation, and to begin the rites of incorporation for the living (through the gatherings and feasts) which the secondary rites will complete for both the living and the soul. There may be forced delay beyond the 1-3 days if the body has to be recovered, or if circumstances do not permit otherwise. There may also be deliberate delay (for wealthy Romans see Toynbee 1971; for the Scythian King's procession see Herodotus IV; and for higher status people in the Berawan see Metcalf 1982 ).

On special timing, there appears to be a common process of ritual events but few activities in primary disposal are timed with fine precision. The Roman custom of a relative kissing the person as they finally expired in order to catch the soul is one (Toynbee 1971); their custom of opening the eyes of the corpse on the pyre just before lighting it is another. The Laymi of Bolivia (Harris 1982) bind the dead immediately to prevent the soul escaping. It seems common practice to prepare or lay out the body fairly swiftly after death has occurred (washing, dressing, and physical attention to ensuring closure of the eyes and mouth of the corpse) for prophylactic and perhaps practical reasons.

In special cases, disposal happens at night (the Shilluk priest-king and the Lugbara rain-makers). Funeral processions were confined to night-time at certain times of Greek and Roman history. Otherwise no particular time of day, month or year is favoured for the primary disposal rite.

On space and place, at the start of the funeral procession in some cultures the corpse must leave the house by its own route (usually specially made), and not by a normal exit. This confuses the soul into not being able to return, and avoids death polluting routes used by the living. The house entrance is an important liminal place separating the domestic centre from the foreign outside world (van Gennep 1960), and must not be jeopardised. Indeed, the view of space and place as being divided into zones of greater or less risk is common in cultures undertaking mortuary ritual, as well as the idea of zones that shrink to being narrow boundaries such as the thresholds of houses or temples.

For example, the concepts of 'inside' and 'outside' are particularly strong among the Roti of Indonesia (Fox 1973), who have elaborate beliefs in respect of their spirits. The general concept that areas outside occupation centres (and hence uncontrolled) are places of risk where malevolent spirits may lie in wait is not unusual (Eliade 1961), and mortuary ritual that seeks to minimise their influence or prevent addition to their numbers is common. Attention to purificatory rites within the house, for the corpse and for survivors has the complementary purpose of keeping that space or centre controlled.

Ambiguity implicit in the liminality of place has emerged in an example of cultural practice already partly alluded to: licentious behaviour of Lugbara men and women becomes permissible in liminal places outside the compound as part of their ritual to restore order at the close of mourning. However, the use of liminal places itself appears ambivalent: cross-roads may be used in some cultures to bury victims of bad death, and yet in another (the Lugbara again) shrines to the dead are set up at increasing distances (the further away, the more ancient the shrine) outside the compound. These are for ancestors who live underground to come to the surface, perhaps an attempt to instil elements of control, although there is other symbolism also at work here (see 8.5).

Use of directional space in ritual activity by circling the body as a separation rite has already been referred to (as with the Bara funeral procession, Homer Iliad 23, and Cantonese customs). A different use of space in movement has also been mentioned before in the context of prophylactic symbols: a corpse might be reversed in orientation when being carried in the funeral procession or when placed in the grave if the victim of bad death. Grave orientation to point the head to the land of the dead is another example of the use of directional space in a particular deliberate fashion. The funeral procession itself may be seen as a symbolic use of directional space, and as a physical transition in parallel with the various other transitions that are taking place for all parties.

The use of locational space to symbolise power and status is common in tomb building. In megalithic cultures in Indonesia (Perry 1918) the chiefs were buried in the larger monuments. Similarly, the Scythian king's tomb as described by Herodotus was massive. The dynamics of power and legitimacy are involved in monumentalism all over the world. Visibility of the monument is the important design feature, and it might not matter who was entombed (Huntington and Metcalf 1979). According to them, scale of mortuary ritual is an index of the authority of central government - and yet members of a social elite do not invariably occupy impressive tombs. Wealth is not always the mark of high status in society: for the Berawan 'that person who can fuse the community together in co-ordinated action, that person is an aristocrat' (Huntington and Metcalf 1979, quoting a response to the question of what encompassed 'high rank'). Here status was a product of personal abilities.

There are some cultures like the Merina of Madagascar (Bloch 1971) where the disposal location contributes to maintaining the local territorial and social groups. Placing the dead in the common tomb symbolises the continuity of the group, with high emphasis on the traditional social wisdom of the ancestors. This becomes especially clear in the secondary rites of that culture (see 8.5). The tomb may, however, also symbolise the womb and a place of rebirth. Cases have been cited where the tomb entrance resembles a birth passage, and its structure a womb. The symbolism can become involved and have several strands. The body may be reborn into the land of the ancestors as it passes through the entrance. The ancestors whom it joins may be the source of future fertility for the society, and hence the passage of the body facilitates future rebirth. The symbolism is dual.

Much ritual effort is spent in seeing that the soul stays in a controlled state of both place and direction in this primary disposal. The soul may be believed to stay near the corpse until decay of the body begins, and decomposition takes place in parallel with the soul's transition (Hertz 1960b).

In some communities the primary disposal place may be a temporary location: by or in the house, in or near a wall, in a graveyard just outside the settlement, stored in a container if a reserved cremation, exposed on open ground, on a platform or in a tree - and so on in some variety. The type of container does not appear in most instances to have particular significance, except where it symbolises something (if boat-shaped, the journey; if a rice-wine jar, transition in another form): the purpose of temporary containment is more important, to make the state of the corpse and the soul ready for secondary mortuary ritual to begin.

The inter-relationships of elements and the purposes of primary disposal activity

Again it has been hard to keep strictly to the stage of primary disposal activity without occasionally referring back to dying, and forwards to aspects of the secondary disposal stage. The stage of primary disposal activity is often rich in activity, purpose and symbolism. It may be of the simplest and shortest, as with African hunter-gatherers (Woodburn 1982), or highly elaborate and even protracted as with the rites for the Scythian king depicted in Herodotus.

However, throughout the stage there are associations of elements and interweavings of purpose. The separation element of primary disposal ritual centres on both the physical dissolution of the body and the spiritual release of the soul. The former leads into disposal modes whose ultimate purpose is the same, to reduce the body to dry bone and complete the separation of soul from flesh. The separation process is, however, conducted by survivors in varying states of jeopardy: these vary from the polluting effects of association with the corpse or its environs, to threats to the survivors from the released soul which may be wandering, undirected and possibly hostile. The soul itself suffers from the risk of not ultimately entering the ancestor spirit world. The separation (and sometimes the circumstances of the death) cause these jeopardies, but the mortuary process must be carried through with the threats and risks controlled, hence the numerous rituals directed to that end.

These conditions arise from death taking the dead person and the survivors into a transitional liminal period in which symbolism is pervasive, influencing conditions for the passage to start well and to be trouble free for all participants as it progresses. The symbols move from those which are antidotes to negatives such as pollution and bad deaths, to representations of positive forces like journeying and actions supporting fertility and regeneration. These seem to emerge more strongly as the primary disposal activity progresses, for example in some grave design, some grave good types, and sexual play or licence in conduct at funeral processions or at feasts. These particular activities place stress on the vitality and continuity of the community, and seek to outface death.

Indeed the community as a further element plays a strong part in all that has been described so far. It has a strong interest in the control elements referred to above, since when it comes to matters of community place and space, the environment of normal life must be safeguarded. It is involved in the rites of separation and jeopardy aversion in many societies, and it participates in events like feasts which begin to re-unite the living in the course of primary disposal ritual. At times the community may be the predominant focus where a death creates the need for ritual processes with a community orientation, as when a leader dies, or when war dead are given formal communal burial.

Time, space and place might be thought of as the framework for the whole. The importance of time figures most strongly in earlier stages of the primary rites, when the threats of jeopardy are highest, and action is needed most urgently to establish controls. For most societies it seems customary to complete the primary disposal process within very few days of death (normally 1-3 days) so that the separation process is not delayed. Place and space are interlinked, both with themselves, and with the elements of liminality and journeying in particular. In the case of liminality, parts of the primary disposal process focus strongly on control of places or areas, whether in the house of the dead or in the surrounding land. Unless ritual designed to reduce jeopardy is invoked, place and space hitherto unpolluted and unthreatening may become the reverse, and the threats from places already outside control may increase. This is important for the community at large.

Another link between place, space and the community may occur if the tomb itself is an expression of a social relationship. The tomb may take the form of expressing the power of an individual leader or dynasty of leaders, or may be a territorial statement in support of the community's claims. These are vital purposes of the tomb for some communities.

Finally, directional space may symbolise the journey for the soul, most often by orientation of the grave or the body towards the compass point or other feature where the land of the dead was thought to lie.

The purpose of the primary disposal process might be summarised thus: to bring the soul of the dead, the corpse, the kin, the wider community and its environment in a controlled way to a point at which the transition for all parties is considered to be making secure progress. It must be borne in mind that some societies take the disposal process no further than this. For those that do go on to secondary disposal ritual, the primary ritual and the elapsed time it takes is designed to see that the soul is unambiguously and propitiously set on its way to the intended destination, that the corpse is transformed to the physical state required for the secondary stage, that the kin and society undergo any social adjustment required, that the kin in particular discharge any social obligations, that space and place used by kin or community maintain their integrity, and that the soul and survivors pass the threshold of separation on the way to the threshold of aggregation which is one main purpose of the next stage.


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