8.6 The Elements of Process: post-disposal activity

Process scope of section

Post-disposal activity is that which is carried out at any time after secondary disposal and which focuses on the dead, the community of ancestors, their tombs and resting places. In one form or another it involves revisiting the disposal, either physically or in another symbolic act such as a general festival.

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

The processes may be carried out by individuals, a kin group or the community, and not all societies have these rituals. Where they exist, they may have different emphases and serve different interests, which may be those of any or all of kin, community, individual souls or community of ancestors. No interest may totally exclude any of the others, and hence the divisions below are made only to indicate where the weight of emphasis lies.

Community or society oriented rites

One of the most striking examples of the revisiting of the ancestral tombs which is carried down to these times is that of the Merina of Madagascar (Bloch 1971). This people apparently afforded Bloch scant information about the world of their dead, and for them life values were more prominent. This section has previously referred to the Merina's view that the bodies and souls of the dead have a continuing sacred existence in the tomb which is their ancestral village. The tomb symbolises the continuity of the group, and a ceremony is carried out approximately every thirty years. On these occasions the tomb is opened and the defleshed bodies of the previous dead are carried out and rewrapped. They are paraded around within their new wrappings and then replaced in their tomb or sometimes moved to another. Kin take care of their own predecessors, and the treatment of the bones is believed to affect the soul's condition (Hertz 1960b referring to Malagasy beliefs). This ritual underpins a complex organisation of social and territorial groups.

The annual Carnival held by the Laymi of Bolivia to celebrate the end of the rainy season and the crops has already been mentioned. At this the dead are despatched back to their land across the sea. The Laymi in their Christian role also hold feasts for the dead at All Souls (31 October) and All Saints (1 November). The latter is also used in connection with secondary disposal ritual, as described above.

There might also be community ceremonies of special kinds. One example from the past is the annual embellishment of the tombs of the Persian War dead that took place in Athens, with funeral games, and contests for athletes, musicians, and horsemen. Here 'the city...simply has taken the part of the heir and son of the dead' (Plato in Menexenos 249b).

Ancestor and soul oriented rites

The Lugbara revisit their ancestors by setting up shrines which, over time, they rebuild further and further away from the compound since the ghost is believed itself to move away over time from beneath the compound into the bush and surrounding fields. These shrines are visited by the more senior tribesmen, but eventually the ghost is believed to disappear completely and to have no particular location. (In contrast, some African hunter-gatherer societies exhibit no behaviour suggesting belief in an afterlife for their ancestors or their souls.)

Nothing has yet been said of the Celts in this section, and a little background is necessary. What is known of their disposal processes is scant and unreliable for reasons given earlier. Something may be said about their beliefs, however. They appear to have had deities, whom they did not love, but with whom they made contracts (Ross 1995). The deities seem largely to be associated with nature and natural features like springs, groves, rivers, lakes, valleys and mountains (Green 1986), although some were akin to certain Classical Roman deities, as the Romans found on taking over Celtic territory. The Celts had shrines, religious sites, or cult-sites, some of which might be natural features. It is unclear from the Irish and Welsh literature whether the Celtic otherworld was where the dead went as well as where their gods dwelt (Wait 1985). There is also little notion of how Celts perceived the gods of the dead: named gods of their underworld are rare.

Lucan (Pharsalia I, 449-53), Caesar (de Bello Gallico V, 14, 19) and Diodorus Siculus (V, 28) refer to Celtic belief that souls were immortal. Human souls controlled their bodies in another world after death, and the soul was reborn later to live in another body. It has been suggested (Green 1986) that the burial of items with the dead person which reflected earthly activities and needs may indeed indicate Celtic belief in a tangible afterlife. The Irish sources on the pre-Roman Celts, writing one millennium later than the events themselves, and only useful as background, suggested that their otherworld was a happy one with pleasant conditions.

Relevant to this sub-section is the fact that the Celts celebrated the festival of Samain around November, when the spirits of the dead moved freely among the living at the junction between summer and winter (compare the Laymi custom at All Souls above). This was a liminal period of the year when the barriers between the natural and the supernatural worlds were broken down. Nothing is known of the detail of the celebrations, but some suggest that the Celts were at that time paying some form of attention to the souls of their ancestors. There is evidence from burials that otherworld feasting was a Celtic pre-occupation, some graves containing wine jars, roasting equipment and drinking vessels: Samain might have been the occasion for a feasting of the dead by the living.

Kin oriented rites

For Athenians of the Classical period, visiting the tomb was an important observance (Garland 1985 ). The immediate family was responsible for keeping the tomb-cult. The graveside rites on the 3rd, 9th and 30th days were followed by monthly and annual visits (but what the anniversary was is not known). There were irregular visits too, for example when there were weddings and offerings were brought. Visiting was facilitated by burial in family groups. The visits involved many small acts involving sacrifice, symbols and tokens. The purpose of the visit has to be inferred, but probably is founded on the belief that attention paid to the grave by the living did materially affect the state of the dead in the next world, if it were a gift of love. The belief was that the dead had access to the tomb, and the cultivation of the tomb fitted in with the do ut des philosophy of Greek religion (I make a gift to you so that you return a gift to me in due course). In Classical Roman times there was a cult of the dead which had a double purpose, to ensure survival of the dead in the memory of their descendants and to ensure comfort, refreshment and the perennial renewal of life to their immortal spirits through the attention provided. There were similar symbolic acts, and at least two public festivals centred on the dead and their souls.

Bone symbolism rites

The cult of ancestors, evidenced through the use of skulls, is occasionally encountered. The Melpa have already been mentioned for their practice of selecting the skull and some bones to put in a head house. The Lamalera people of Indonesia (Barnes 1996) in the past placed the skulls of their dead, once defleshed, in the family boat house. On the first day of taking the big boats to sea each year, the shelf on which they rested was taken down and placed on the ground behind the shed. Each skull was then tended, the object being to gain good fishing. There were other reverences paid to them at fixed times, the arrival of Christianity interrupting this rite. The Celts are reported by Classical authors to have had a practice of head hunting to serve a head cult. Although this practice was specifically recorded because it was so unusual (along with human sacrifice and ritual murder), the Celts did seem to have a reverence for heads or skulls, and 'the importance of head-ritual is unequivocal' (Green 1986, 31).

Time, space and place in this stage

The facet of time which seems important at this stage of process is seasonality or annuality, rather than points of time in a process or varying periods of elapsed time (although the Merina in their 30 year rites provide an exception). For most of the cases mentioned there is a particular time of year when the post-disposal activity takes place. For those where the ritual is of a more communal kind, it is the liminal point of the year between the end of summer and the start of winter, or some other point in the year decreed as a public festival. For others, where the rites are conducted more on a kin basis than a community basis, the anniversary tends to be on the date of death. There are others still where time seems more flexible: it may be no coincidence that this is so in the case of the ritual of the Lugbara, which is more focused on the continuing journey of the soul into gradual cosmic absorption.

On space and place, the tomb is still the focus for many of the post-disposal rites since it is there that the soul may be thought to reside or to be contactable, sometimes in kin groups. However, the houses of the living may also be the focus of continuing rituals to the dead, if the secondary disposal process has made use of that location, or if beliefs require such action. In the cases where the annual festivals are communal, the assumption is that the general gathering places were used: these might be religious foci such as churches or shrines. Otherwise locational foci are much reduced in this stage. Use of directional space seems to be constrained, and liminality is similarly not greatly in evidence with the force of previous stages, except in respect of tomb entrances or other physical routes to the dead person or soul used at the post-disposal ritual.

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

It seems from the above that the nature and purpose of post-disposal activity may vary, but not perhaps very widely. There is a significant group of activities which appears to be designed to use the ancestors as a symbol of continuity for kin group or society at large, to celebrate them in memory and in some cases to retain their goodwill or at least avert their displeasure. Sometimes the celebrations are linked with the time of year when fertility in nature appears to be dying as winter approaches, and thus the ritual may be expressing in parallel the beginning of a transitional period in nature.

Paying regular attention to the souls of the dead might not only be good for survivors as a prophylactic rite, but also might improve the well-being of the soul and the ancestor community. The occasions provide opportunity for symbolic acts such as in Classical Greek and Roman examples: mourning, gifts and family feasts. Sometimes this attention is directed at specific aims on the do ut des principle, whereby the attention or gifts are returned by the soul in the form of good luck or other favours to the givers. At this stage the elements of process appear fewer, and the purposes of the activity simpler.


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