Death Rituals

Death Rituals
Funeral Rituals
– Mainly done to comfort the living, while providing a way for the soul to remove itself
from the community.
• Murngin of Australia
Dying person is surrounded by wailing, singing mourners attempting to comfort him/her. Men tend more towards expressions of
revenge, while women display grief, cutting their heads with sharp sticks.
• Ancient Egypt
Professional mourners would be hired to walk behind the coffin of the Pharaoh, wail and tear at their hair.
Sadness and anger thought to be disruptive to interpersonal relationships and bad for one’s health. Only during specific times at a
funeral are public displays of grief appropriate.
• Tana Torajans of Indonesia
• Nuer of East Africa
Body is quickly buried and the grave obliterated so that the ghost does not cause problems for the living.
The ghost is seen as a particular problem and elaborate rituals are performed to appease the ghost and allow it to move on.
• Dani of New Guinea
– Disposal of the Body
• Depends on cultural perceptions of an individual’s corporeal self
Secondary Burials
19th century U.S. culture
Present-day U.S. culture
 The most common
disposal method.
Sometimes the body
may be buried quickly
and not carry much
meaning, as with the
Nuer of East Africa.
More often, the body is
elaborately buried:
 Burial under/near
dwelling or special
preparation of the body
was also common
 Ancient Egypt Predynastic (pre-3,000
B.C.E.) non-elite burials:
 Deceased wrapped in a
shroud, placed in a small
wooden coffin.
Secondary Burials
 Secondary Burials
 Often marks the end of the mourning period.
Commonly involves, digging up, processing and
reburying the body in some way. Sometimes thought
that what happens to the body also happens to the
 Murngin of Australia
 After 2-3 months (or more) body is exhumed, bones are washed of any remaining
flesh. Cleaned bones are placed in a bundle and watched over for several months,
then taken out, smashed up and placed into a log which is then left to rot.
relic for the family
 An object of religious veneration, especially a
piece of the body or a personal item of
religiously important person, such as an
ancestor or saint.
 A finger or other small bone may be saved as a
• Funerary practice of burning the body. Practiced for a variety
of reasons:
– A way to destroy the corpse, so ghost cannot haunt the living.
– Reaction to the indignity of the decay process.
– Economically cheaper than burial.
• Yanomamö: Body is decorated, burned on a pyre in the
middle of the community. Smoke is thought to be
contaminating so all children and the sick leave the village
during cremation. Bits of teeth and ashes saved in a hollow
log to be crushed and consumed in a soup later on.
– The Yanomamö are Endocannibalistic anthropophagers meaning that
they eat the bodies of their own people.
The technique of preserving a dead body involving drying and preservatives.
Story time…
• Getting rid of the body by leaving it to nature
– Inuit: Exposure done out of necessity, ground too
hard for burial
– North American societies: Tree/high platform for
– American Southwest: Body left in cave, becomes a
natural mummy
– Tibet: Sky burials where body is left to be eaten by
U.S.A. 19th Century Death Rituals vs.
• 19th Century Death Rituals
– Person usually dies at home surrounded by friends and family. Female
family members prepare the body for the funeral, create a burial
shroud. Body stays in the parlor for about 3 days and is then
transported the funeral home. Body would stop at church for service
by a special horse-drawn carriage and then interred either on family
land or a local cemetery
– The African Burial Ground
• Over 400 skeletons uncovered (~50% children) in Lower Manhattan, New York, perhaps as
many as 10,000 people interred total.
• Forensic Anthropologists :A specialist in the analysis of the human skeleton in a legal context.
– Children of slaves not provided accurate food or shelter (disease and malnutrition evident in bones).
– Muscle strains, tears, fractures evident on bones from carrying heavy loads.
– Civil War changed everything
• Massive, national cemeteries (Arlington National Cemetery). Over 600,000 died.
• Embalming, used previously only on medical cadavers, was practiced on a large scale to keep
servicemen intact when shipped
U.S.A. 19th Century Death Rituals vs.
• U.S. Funeral Rituals Today
– Death is announced through network of friends and family
– A mortician will prepare the body and the body is almost always
– Terminology has also changed: funeral director for undertaker, casket
for coffin. Why is this? Why might we not be as comfortable with
death as other cultures? What is our overall attitude towards death?
– Roadside Memorials
• Should they be allowed? Block traffic?
• Sacred Remains
– Even if body is damaged upon death, may have elaborate and
expensive methods of reconstruction for funeral services.
– Servicemen who have died overseas. The funeral is not complete
without the body.
Days of Death
• Halloween/Eve of All Saints/All Saints
– Halloween
– Eve of All Saints (Even of All Hallows)
– All Saints Day
– Samhain
• Dia de los Muertos
• Beautiful Feast of the Valley (Heb Nefer En