8.5 The Elements of Process: secondary disposal activity

Process scope of section

The scope of the secondary disposal activity stage covers the period of time following the point at which the remains of the corpse are placed in the primary grave (including at that point any immediate associated event, such as post-funeral feasting or other rites), up to and including the ritual of revisiting the remains either to disinter and remove them to a final resting place, or to carry out other secondary rites without necessary disturbing the remains. As with previous sections, there will be references to preceding and succeeding stages where the information is relevant.

Elements centring on the corpse, the soul, ancestors, kin and community


Hertz's view was that the secondary disposal activity was preceded by an intermediary period when the person who had died was neither alive nor finally dead (Hertz 1960b). The end of the period was marked by a 'great feast' during which the remains of the dead were recovered, ritually processed and moved to a new location. The time may be protracted to collect surplus for the feast, but could be the minimal time that was needed for the bones to become dry and free of decaying flesh. In his view, the fate of the body was the model for the soul. The corpse was initially formless and repulsive, just as the soul is homeless and the object of dread, living on the fringe of human habitation and needing observances to divert its hostility. The feast terminated this state, and marked the arrival of the soul at the land of the ancestors. Normal relations were then established again among the survivors.

It is less useful in this sub-section to separate the participants as in 8.3-4, since the ritual activity is more interwoven. There is a sense of convergence for the participants, as should be the case since the purpose of the stage is to re-integrate in new forms and relationships what had been separated or disturbed by the death. One or two examples in each sub-section illustrate practice. Broader commentary on the more conceptual elements will be covered in the last two sub-sections of 8.5.

Complex and sometimes protracted rites

Generally the emphasis shifts in this stage from corpse, soul, kin and community and rather more towards the soul, the ancestors and the community, although in some societies the kin group and the corpse may still retain a position of significance in the activity. This last point is demonstrated by the Merina of Madagascar (Bloch 1971) where the defleshed bodies are recovered from the tomb, wrapped, and then returned to the tomb or moved to another. Burial in the tomb becomes a criterion of ancestor membership, and in the case of the Merina secondary burial is the responsibility of the kin and not of the community.

For the Dayak (Hertz 1960b ) the corpse is in grave peril until the secondary rite takes place, the soul staying near the body until then before entering the land of the dead. The destruction of the body (much as with the Merina and Berawan) enables reconstruction of the soul in the new world. The secondary rites may be held at regular intervals so that several Dayak families may share the expense of a single funeral, or so that several deaths may be celebrated at one time. The important feature of the process is that it is collective. The bones (sometimes token) are brought back from temporary sepulture to the village, they are washed, laid out on a bier, and rich ornaments are displayed to ensure an opulent life in the next world. The dead are welcomed in their transformed shape, before their departure to the next world. There is dancing and sometimes a reliquary cult, especially for the head. These rites remove any source of ill-will from the soul to the living, who also take various actions to release themselves from the soul of the dead: food offerings, ritual bathing, and donning fresh clothes, arms and ornaments. Some of the rites directed at the soul can elevate the dead to the status of tutelary god. The general purpose is to separate the deceased finally from the living, and to ensure their entry to the community of sacred ancestors. The society of the dead recreates the society of the living, and reincarnation of the soul in a new body sometimes forms part of the belief. However, Hertz notes that the outward form of secondary burial practice can also regress markedly. The primary grave may just be opened, looked at, trampled over and then a mound built on top. A constant feature, on the other hand, is the feast which releases the community from the obligation to mourn.

Secondary disposal rites without reburial

For normal deaths in more modern times there is a simpler process among the Lamalera. Following burial on the day of death a period of restriction is observed. All closely connected relatives attend a guarding rite on the third night, but only the immediate family attend that on the sixth. Mourning is over after this. The soul goes to the islands.

The Lugbara's secondary disposal activity seemingly also does not touch the bones (Middleton 1982). It too appears to focus on the soul. The world of their dead is underground, and the ancestors of a particular lineage live beneath its compounds and come to the surface at shrines made for them. The soul has no reincarnation, and as it grows more senior the ghost moves into the surrounding fields and then into the bush. External shrines are built further away and are visited by the more senior tribesman. Eventually the ghost merges with the divinity and has no particular location. This may be an example of what Bloch and Parry call 'systems in which the mortuary rituals dissolve the fundamental units of society into an undifferentiated universe', as opposed to 'those which shore up those units and give them a permanent and transcendental value' (which latter on evidence to date appears to be the case for the majority of societies)(Bloch and Parry 1982, Introduction). This means for the Lugbara a need to handle the dead carefully with appropriate rites and sacrifice, since the dead are on the central reaches of a continuum between the living and the divine. Behind the process is the same essential idea of transition of the soul, but a transition more protracted and indefinite in this case.

In Classical Athens (Garland 1985) the 'thirtieth day' rites concluded mourning. It is uncertain when this period of thirty days began, possibly after the funeral but maybe after one or other of two subsequent rites. After the funeral the dead person was believed to attend the funeral feast as host, the bereaved wearing garlands and delivering eulogies on the dead. This feast must be distinguished from the banquets prepared at the tomb on the 3rd and 9th days after the funeral, but which excluded the living. Little is known of the ceremonial content of the thirtieth day rites, and there were varying periods of mourning across the Greek world. The intervening 3rd and 9th day rites took place in the critical period for the soul and its safety, between setting out on its journey and arriving safely. In Classical Roman times (Toynbee 1971) there was also a 9th day feast after the funeral, eaten at the grave. A libation to the Manes (the spirits of the dead) was poured upon the actual burial to signal the end of the period of mourning.

Adaptation in modern cultures to secondary disposal

There are some modern societies where the roots of ancient secondary rites intertwine with those of Christian ritual. The Laymi of Bolivia (Harris 1982) use All Saints (1st November) as a collective ritual to help souls ascend to heaven. There is no disturbance of the human remains but ladders are piled with offerings over those graves in the churchyard which are up to two years old. There are prayers, singing, dancing and feasting. This event comes at a point in the year with two significances: it is November, the Inca month dedicated to the dead (the pre-Columbian Laymi had practices associated with the Incas), and it is the start of the agricultural cycle (the Laymi hold that humans must serve the land by work and by worship of telluric spirits). The souls of the dead remain in the land of the living during the rains and are both a boon, through their powers of fertility, and a danger, as they may spread disease. At the Carnival four months later the souls of the dead are despatched to their own land, and the end of the rains and the crops is celebrated. Generally the dead belong in a category of beings identified with the wild, and their land is across the sea. It is an inverted world of place, time, and seasons, and the dead cultivate red chilli pepper - red being associated with death and mortuary ritual throughout the Andes.

In the Portuguese Alto Minho (de Pina-Cabral 1986, 214-38) secondary disposal is understated. At the end of the 19th century, secondary disposal was still strongly attended as a parish ceremony. Where it happens nowadays, secondary burial takes place after three or four years. The grave is opened, the bones are collected, cleaned, and put in an ossuary if there is one, or packed in plastic bags and buried at the sides of the grave. If these ceremonies disappeared, the head of household would lose influence and authority.

Tokenism in secondary disposal rites

Some reference has already been made to tokenism in secondary rites. Before the arrival of Christianity, the Melpa of the New Guinea Highlands (Strathern 1982) would select the defleshed skull and certain bones from the primary grave, and put them in a head-house. A close parallel example is that of the Lamalera of Indonesia (Barnes 1996) who in the 1890s would retrieve the skull from the grave when the flesh had decayed and take it with great veneration to the family boat house. It was set next to the skulls of the ancestors. There are other purposes underlying this rite which are covered in 8.6 as more relevant there.

Elaborate secondary disposal rites - and minimalist rites

The occasion of a prominent person's death may be used to display wealth and prestige at both primary and secondary disposal stages, the purposes of which have already been discussed. The Scythian king's secondary disposal took place at the end of a year at the large burial mound set up at the close of the primary disposal (Herodotus IV, 71-73). This must have been an impressive sight, and with the sacrifices was designed to place a considerable obligation on the powers of the dead to make appropriate return to the new king and his peoples.

Some African hunter-gatherer societies (Woodburn 1982) offer a minimalist approach to secondary rites and seem to have none at all. Their attitude to death ritual extends to making no distinctions between good and bad deaths in terms of disposal processes used: all deaths are viewed without suspicion as natural. This simple approach could be the product of the 'immediate return' economy of the nomadic hunter-gatherer with few assets, little permanence, and a 'gain and use' nature not demanding elaborate rites and beliefs when a death occurs in order to sustain certain elements that are absent from it. 'Delayed return' economies (like the settled farming communities) place more emphasis on asset control and management, heredity, leadership status, social structures, and transmission of possessions (Woodburn 1982). The rituals associated with mortuary processes may need to assist them in numerous readjustments occasioned by an individual's death. This can explain the simple rites in such economies for the very young or the very old, who leave minimal adjustment to be made when they die. It would also be supported by examples such as that among the Kedang (Barnes 1974) who in former times had the practice of not giving secondary disposal rites to the temporarily buried bones until bridewealth was settled.

Time, space and place in this stage

Elapsed time may vary considerably between the primary and secondary disposal rites, from a few days to months or even years. The reasons vary considerably, from the Classical Greek and Roman rituals which were governed by law, to it being the time needed for the bones to become dry, or to collect surplus for the feast, or to allow several families to conduct the ritual on a single occasion (possibly sharing the expense). The underlying concept is that the elapsed time is whatever is judged sufficient for the soul to reach a state ready to join the ancestor souls (or whatever the culture calls the soul group).

Timing of particular events seems important only in the Classical cultures mentioned, where particular days were designated for secondary rites after the funeral had been held, or in some modern cultures, where particular Christian festivals are the occasion for secondary ritual. Otherwise times of day, month or year seem immaterial for the holding of secondary rites.

On space and place, the two main foci in secondary disposal activity appear to be the place where the souls go following the primary disposal rituals and the secondary tomb itself. In the former case, the most usual location for the soul to join its fellows is underground, more usually as a vague concept but occasionally in a specific location, such as under the compound of the community. However, even here the concept of distance may be introduced, as in some cultures the souls are believed to move further away from the land of the living as time passes following secondary disposal. This gradual distancing may evolve into the disappearance of the soul altogether, when it might be believed to disintegrate and become absorbed in life forces and cosmic energy. These forces themselves support regeneration, so even in this more abstract scheme of belief the same end is achieved: the souls of the dead decompose into the fundamentals that support life and the living.

In other cultures the soul finds its destiny with fellow souls of the dead above ground, either in the house, the tomb or in some usually distant place which is quite often across water. Souls from different deaths may journey through quite different terrains to reach their destinations. There is also an interesting concept in some cultures of the souls of ancestors simultaneously being in the tombs and in their own land. Given that these beliefs concerning dimensions of time and space are by definition supernatural, then they are not subject to normal physical laws. Souls of those suffering bad deaths may in some cultures never set out on the journey to the ancestor community, but inhabit places on earth as a threat to the living (the zones of risk in 8.4). On the other hand, funeral ritual activity may sometimes be designed to assist these souls to find their way. Celebrating the arrival of the soul where it is due is one of the main purposes of the secondary rites.

Section 8.4 referred to liminality, directional space, and locational space. Some of these concepts reappear in secondary ritual, especially in the focus of the tomb which emerges in some cultures as the spiritual heart of an ancestor cult. In this the ritual of placing some or all of the bones in their final place of rest unites the soul finally with the community of ancestors. The use of the tomb to symbolise power and status has been referred to, as has the liminal and other symbolisms of tomb entrances. Within a tomb, sometimes the space is used to keep the secondary disposals physically separate on the basis of sex, kin or lineage group (just as in some cultures the houses of the living may be divided into male and female halves, or the community itself lives in kin groups). The social structure of the living may thus sometimes be reflected in placement within the tomb.

The use of directional space has already been referred to in orientation of tombs or of the remains, although in secondary disposal it may be less important to orient the body than it was in the primary stage, since the soul has completed its journey and the guidance is no longer needed, but this is neither proved nor disproved by the evidence. Use of directional space in the form of processions to the final deposition is common, but some rituals associated with the primary disposal processions seem not to be as dominant in the secondary, notably prophylactic activity. The soul and the survivors are presumed to have passed through the most dangerous times, and the corpse is no longer a threat. The positives are more to the fore at this stage, and celebration is the mood as the communities of both living and dead each unite in their new order. The survivors in particular can return to the normal intercourse of life.

Tombs for secondary disposal may be placed nearby or far from the community. At one extreme, the Tokopian house is half tomb, with mats covering the graves of the ancestors (Bloch and Parry 1982). At the other extreme, the tomb of the Scythian king was at the northernmost edge of his territory. In between these, the tomb may be just outside the house, at the edge of the settlement, or within a few kilometres of it in the surrounding area. Customs vary, as indeed they do with the receptacles and structures serving as the place of final containment for the remains. Hertz (1960b) mentions small wooden houses, coffins, tree trunks, rock crevices or caves as containers in reference to the Dayak. In the detailed accounts of other societies referred to above, the disposal may be in pits, under earth mounds, in jars or pots, formal sepulchres, stone chambers, stone pyramids, cairns, organised cemeteries, set out on open ground, on platforms, in catacombs, cists, boat-shaped graves, within walls, under hut floors, and within post-holes... there appears no container or enclosing location that is incapable of use for burial. Of note is the fact that there are particular symbolic values which may be attached to the containers, many already mentioned earlier. The leading values seem to be protection, fertility, regeneration, and power, and it may be no coincidence that such values are those strongly supporting kin, the community and social order.

The inter-relationship of elements and the purposes of secondary disposal activity

As remarked above, the elements of separation and jeopardy do not appear to be in strong evidence in secondary disposal. This is because activity focuses on convergence, and states of the corpse and the soul are non-threatening. Mourning rituals are replaced by celebrations of unification (of bones and soul with those of their ancestors), and the risks of pollution of the living or their environs have retreated or been nullified. Generally conditions of jeopardy have been reduced by time and in space.

The symbols of journeying and transition survive in processions and gifts which may still be part of this stage of disposal. The symbolism of reversal is maintained where the land of the dead is believed to be physically located underground: there time and seasons may also be reversed for the occupying souls. There seem few if any examples of reversal in the ritual, unlike in primary disposal where it usually focused on countering the effects of bad deaths.

The elements of sexuality and fertility seem to have different profiles in this stage. Where ancestor cults exist, the society may use its transactions with the ancestor spirit community to obtain continuing strength to survive and flourish, and thereby ensure its fertility. The element of sexuality seems more muted and sometimes non-existent in the examples encountered. In the primary disposal process it appears to have been more in evidence, and seems to have been employed as a barrier to the power of death which is so self-evident at that point. Sexuality may serve fertility, and will in due course have a regenerative effect. In the secondary rites the power of death may seem less immediate and therefore does not invite this response so strongly. Bloch and Parry (1982) have already been quoted on their view that secondary disposal activity may place more emphasis on fertility than sexuality.

Secondary disposal brings to a close the liminal period in the rite of passage that is death. Liminality is an interstructural state (Turner 1967), in which society is passing from old relationships to a new order, and secondary disposal consummates the transition. Secondary disposal ritual is designed to celebrate the soul's arrival in the land of the ancestors, wherever located and, through a series of rites of aggregation and incorporation, it also unites the society of ancestors and the living community anew. This is what van Gennep (1960, chapter 8) refers to as rejoining a broken chain. It finally releases the living from the uncertain state of transition that obtains while the soul makes its journey, and while the separation of the dead from the living proceeds. In some societies it may also confirm the role of kin or lineage groups through particular ritual and symbolism. Where there are ancestor cults, secondary disposal rites may support transactions with the ancestral spirits for the benefit of the community as a whole. In general, the rites at this stage turn towards the community interest, the processes are less threatened and threatening, and the outcome looked for is more positive. They end with a sense of completion which is in contrast to those of primary disposal.


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