8.7 Changing Emphases in the Elements of Mortuary Ritual and Links with other Aspects of Societal Behaviour

Changing emphases in the elements of mortuary ritual

This sub-section briefly examines the shifting emphases on the different elements of mortuary ritual referred to in the four main stages of activity. Table 8.7-1 shows the level of emphasis as high (H), medium (M) or low (L) for an element in each stage. Emphasis may be defined as frequency or intensity of occurrence, or level of importance as perceived by participants.

The elements have been separated into three groups. Group 1 contains some of the more prominent foci of ritual, Group 2 the 'framework' elements of time, place and space, and Group 3 the physical and spiritual human elements. The ideas on what should be grouped together and on the levels of emphasis are based on the material covered earlier in section 8. The purpose of the exercise is not precision, but rather to show what general patterns develop over the disposal process as a whole in the three groups. Although somewhat simplistic, the exercise serves to test generalisations made by Hertz and van Gennep about death as a rite of passage. Where aspects overlap with other social systems, these will be covered in the next sub-section.

Group 1 has been deliberately ordered so that two broad patterns of rising and declining emphases are seen to separate the members of the group into two sets, the first of which broadly grows in emphasis as the disposal process advances through the four stages, and the second which broadly declines. In particular the elements of order, aggregation and returning rise steadily in emphasis, fertility sharing that pattern until post-disposal activity, and symbolism and journeying seeming to start low, rise and then fall away again: but this is in fact to complement the pattern of the elements that start low and consistently rise. The journey's close restores order, for example. The second set broadly decreases in emphasis with disorder, separation, ritual focused on death type, and jeopardy starting high, and declining to low emphasis in disposal process stages at the end. There is an interesting balance: sexuality and transition as elements in this group appear to describe the same curve through low-high-low as did journeying and symbolism in the first set.

In Group 2, there seems to emerge a more ambivalent picture. The elements of time, place and space share a similar pattern up to and including primary disposal, each (excepting point of time) gaining in emphasis from low to medium or high. From this point space seems to decline in emphasis in ritual activity, but place and point of time rise, elapsed time rising then declining in importance.

Group 3 shows a number of different movements. The more marked fluctuations occur with the corpse, which declines in emphasis in the ritual from high at primary disposal to low in post-disposal activity, and with the ancestor group which, from little part in the first two stages, moves to heightened emphasis in the last two. The soul is a strong focal element throughout, as are the kin, and from the primary disposal process they are joined in high emphasis by the community at large.

ElementActivity before death Primary disposal activitySecondary disposal activityPost-disposal activityElement
JourneyingLHML Journeying
Symbolism LHMMSymbolism
Fertility LHHMFertility
Returning LLMHReturning
Aggregation LMMHAggregation
Order LMHHOrder
Disorder HHMLDisorder
Separation HHMLSeparation
Bad death HHLLBad death
Good deathHHLLGood death
Jeopardy MHMLJeopardy
Sexuality LHMLSexuality
Transition LHHLTransition
Time (point)LLLHTime (point)
Time (elapsd)LMHLTime (elapsd)
Place LMHHPlace
Space (zone)LHMMSpace (zone)
Space (direct) LHLLSpace (direct)
Space (limin) LHLLSpace (limin)
Soul MHHHSoul
Ancestors LLHHAncestors
ElementActivity before death Primary disposal activitySecondary disposal activityPost-disposal activityElement
Table 8.7-1 Relative emphases given to elements in the four stages of mortuary ritual

Again, some of these patterns complement patterns in the Groups above, as one might expect: transition, journeying, directional space and the corpse all being linked in the model of belief underlying certain acts and processes through each stage, and returning, aggregation, place, soul, kin, community and ancestors having similar associating links.

There is always the risk that in selecting the elements for analysis, and in judging the degree of emphasis put upon them, bias may have occurred which has given a result subconsciously sought. The information base is not great in scale, although it has covered several millennia and examples from a number of cultures. Whether or not this was sufficient, the results seem broadly to confirm models described in general form by writers expert in the field, and simple internal tests for consistency appear to work.

Links with other aspects of societal behaviour

Morris (1992, 13-21) considers that analysis of burials is the analysis of symbolic action. In rituals people use symbols to express social structure (he says), and they set up both models of proper roles and relationships and models for them. He cautions that no single feature of burial evidence can be treated on its own, and believes that religious and social explanations of ritual should be complementary.

Even on the limited evidence available in this review, it seems apparent that disposal activity provides many links with other contexts of societal behaviour. The most obvious are those activities concerned with hierarchical ranking of society, social standing independent of hierarchical rank, community membership (deriving from economic contribution and admitted status), territory, security of the community, well-being and continuity of the community, unity of the community, community perceptions of the nature of the world in which life is lived and how it works, community perceptions of the nature of the otherworld and its inhabitants and how it works, kin group relations, male-female roles and relations, and ethics and the flexing of ethical behaviour. These might be related to some of the elements above and categorised as: rank-oriented behaviour (space, place), community-oriented behaviour (aggregation activities, fertility, sexuality, disorder, order), and belief-oriented behaviour (types of death, jeopardy, liminality, space, disorder, order).

Only the well-researched anthropological studies can indicate with any certainty when these links exist and with any clarity how they work in a culture. From that well-informed and well-focused state, the strands of evidence available to describe and explain disposal processes and attitudes weaken as the sources become second hand, unfocused, less informed or even prejudiced, and distant in time and space until they reach the most tenuous state of all - material remains and nothing else.

8.8 Conclusion

This section has taken the elements of disposal processes and analysed how these appear in each of the four stages of mortuary ritual - from the state of dying, through primary and secondary disposal, to the point where a culture may regularly revisit a mortuary focus for post-disposal ritual. The varying degrees to which elements and participants are to the fore in each stage of activity has been assessed, and the results reapplied to the general theories.

There is no suggestion that all cultures apply the same model of process in the same way, but the evidence seems to be considerable that a very similar general model is there in every culture, barring a small minority. The differences lie in the profile of the different stages for each culture, and in the detail of ritual acts. These may vary considerably in their nature, while their symbolic intent may in essence share the same ends. It is against this pattern, wherein differences in the detail may often (but not always) shield a fundamentally similar model of disposal and even attitude to the dead, that the archaeological material may now be re-examined.


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