Anthropological Perspective

It is rather hard, if not impossible, to answer the question of how long anthropology has existed. Should social scientists consider anthropology the detailed descriptions appearing in the work of ancient and medieval historians—which deal with the culture of certain ethnic groups, such as their death rites, eating habits, and dressing customs—just as they consider the fieldwork reports based on long-term participating observations published in the twenty-first century? Although it is not easy to find the unambiguous answer to this question, it is obvious that no work in history of science can lack a starting point, which helps its readers pin down and comprehend its argumentation. During the mid-1800s anthropology first appeared as a "new" independent discipline in the fast-changing realm of social sciences.

The Evolutionist Perspective

Searching the origins of society and religion, writing the "history of their evolution," seemed to be the most popular topic of nineteenth-century anthropology. Death and the belief in the soul and the spirits play important roles in the evolutionist-intellectual theories of origin written by Edward Burnett Tylor in 1871 and other scholars of the nineteenth century.

Tylor assumed that in the background of the appearance of the soul beliefs, there may be such extraordinary and incomprehensible experiences as dreams and visions encountered in various states of altered consciousness, and the salient differences between the features of living and dead bodies. In his view, "the ancient savage philosophers" were only able to explain these strange, worrying experiences by considering humans to be a dual unity consisting of not only a body but of an entity that is able to separate from the body and continue its existence after death (Tylor 1972, p. 11). Tylor argues that this concept of spirit was later extended to animals, plants, and objects, and it developed into "the belief in spiritual beings" that possess supernatural power (polytheism) (ibid., p. 10). Eventually it led to monotheism. Tylor, who considered "the belief in spiritual beings," which he called animism, the closest definition and starting point of the concept of religion, argues that religion and notion of death were brought into being by human worries concerning death.

Tylor's theory was attacked primarily because he did not attribute the origin of religion to the interference of supernatural powers but rather to the activity of human logic. He was also criticized on the grounds that a part of his concept was highly speculative and unhistorical: He basically intended to reconstruct the evolution of religion from contemporary ethnographic data and through the deduction of his own hypotheses. Although most of these critiques were correct, Tylor can only partly be grouped among the "armchair anthropologists" of his time.

Two other individuals—Johann Jakob Bachofen and James G. Frazer—are also acknowledged as pioneers during this early period of anthropology. Bachofen prepared a valuable analysis of the few motives of wall paintings of a Roman columbarium in 1859 such as black-and-white painted mystery eggs. He was among the first authors to point out that the symbolism of fertility and rebirth is closely connected with death rites. Based on his monumental collection of ethnographic data from several cultures, Frazer, in the early twentieth century and again in the 1930s, intended to prove that the fear of the corpse and the belief in the soul and life after death is a universal phenomenon.

The French Sociology School

The perspective of the authors of the French sociology school differed considerably from the primarily psychology-oriented, individual-focused views of these evolutionist-intellectual anthropologists. Émile Durkheim and his followers (including Robert Hertz and Marcell Mauss) studied human behavior in a "sociological framework," and focused their attention primarily on the question of societal solidarity, on the study of the social impact of rites, and on the various ties connecting individuals to society. In other words, they investigated the mechanisms by which societies sustain and reproduce themselves.

In his monumental work The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1915), Durkheim argues that the most important function of death rites and religion in general is to reaffirm societal bonds and the social structure itself. In his view, a society needs religion (totem as a sacral object in this case) to represent itself in it, and it serves to help society to reproduce itself. In his other work of the same subject (Suicide: A Study in Sociology, 1952) Durkheim studies the social and cultural determination of a phenomenon that is considered primarily psychological.

However, it was undoubtedly the 1907 work of Durkheim's disciple, Robert Hertz, that has had the most significant impact on contemporary anthropological research concerning death. Hertz primarily built his theory on Indonesian data, and focused his attention on the custom of the secondary burial.

Hertz discovered exciting parallels among (1) the condition of the dead body, (2) the fate of the departing soul, and (3) the taboos and restricting measures concerning the survivors owning to their ritual pollution. In his view, where the custom of the secondary burial is practiced, the moment of death can be considered the starting point for these three phenomena: the corpse becomes unanimated and the process of decomposition starts; the taboos concerning survivors become effective; and the soul starts its existence in the intermediary realm between the world of the living and the deceased ancestors. (In this liminal state of being the soul is considered to be homeless and malignant.) This intermediary period ends with the rite of the secondary burial, which involves the exhumation of the corpse and its burial in a new, permanent tomb. This rite also removes the taboos of the survivors, thus cleansing them from the pollution caused by the occurrence of the death. The same rite signals, or performs the soul's initiation to the realm of the ancestors, by it the soul takes its permanent status in the other world.

Hertz argues that the most important function of these death rites is to promote the reorganization of the social order and the restoration of faith in the permanent existence of the society, which had been challenged by the death of the individual. In addition to these functions, they serve the confirmation of solidarity among the survivors.

The utmost merit of Hertz's work is undoubtedly the novelty of his theoretical presuppositions. Like Durkheim, he concentrated on the social aspects of death and not on its biological or psychological sides. Hertz was among the first to point out how human death thoughts and rituals are primarily social products, integrated parts of the society's construction of reality that reflect the sociocultural context (religion, social structure). According to Hertz, the deceased enters the mythic world of souls "which each society constructs in its own image" (Hertz 1960, p. 79).

Hertz emphasized that social and emotional reactions following death are also culturally determined, and called attention to numerous social variables that might considerably influence the intensity of these reactions in different cultures (i.e., the deceased person's gender, age, social status, and relation to power).

In one and the same society the emotion aroused by death varies extremely in intensity according to the social status of the deceased, and may even in certain cases be entirely lacking. At the death of a chief, or of a man of high rank, a true panic sweeps over the group . . . On the contrary, the death of a stranger, a slave, or a child will go almost unnoticed; it will arouse no emotion, occasion no ritual. (Hertz 1960, p. 76)

From the commentaries on Hertz's work, only one critical remark needs mentioned, which calls attention to the problem of exceptions and the dangers of the overgeneralization of the model of secondary burials.

Arnold van Gennep and the Model of the Rites of Passage

In his book The Rites of Passage (1960), Arnold van Gennep places the primary focus on rites, in which individuals—generally with the proceeding of time—step from one social position/status to another. (Such events are birth, various initiations, marriage, and death.) The author considers these "border-crossings" crisis situations.

Van Gennep claims that these rites accompanying transitions generally consist of three structural elements: rites of separation—preparing the dying person, giving the last rite; rites of transition—for example, the final burial of the corpse in the cemetery or the group of rites that serve to keep the haunting souls away; and the rites of incorporation—a mass said for the salvation of the deceased person's soul. In the case of a death event, the individual leaves a preliminary state (living) by these rites and through a liminal phase in which the deceased usually is in a temporary state of existence between the world of the living and the dead), and reaches a post-liminary state (dead).

Van Gennep argues that these rites socially validate such social/biological changes as birth, marriage, and death. They also canalize the accompanying emotional reactions into culturally elaborated frames, thus placing them under partial social control, consequently making these critical situations more predictable. His theory served as a starting point and pivot of several further rite studies (including the liminality theory of Victor Turner in 1969), inspired the study of the rites' symbolic meanings, and promoted research that investigated the ways of an individual's social integration.

The British Functionalist School

While the evolutionist-intellectual anthropologists were interested in finding the reason of the origin of religion and the followers of the French sociology school concentrated on the social determination of attitudes concerning death, members of the British functionalist school were concerned with the relation of death rites and the accompanying emotional reactions. They focused their attention on the question of the social loss caused by death (such as the redistribution of status and rights).

The two most significant authors of this school had opposing views of the relationship between religion/rites and the fear of death. Bronislaw Malinowski considered the anxiety caused by the rationally uncontrollable happenings as the basic motivation for the emergence of religious faith. He suggested that religion was not born of speculation and illusion,

but rather out of the real tragedies of human life, out of the conflict between human plans and realities. . . . The existence of strong personal attachments and the fact of death, which of all human events is the most upsetting and disorganizing to man's calculations, are perhaps the main sources of religious belief. (Malinowski 1972, p. 71)

In his view the most significant function of religion is to ease the anxiety accompanying the numerous crises of a life span, particularly the issue of death.

However, according to Arnold Radcliffe-Brown in the case of certain rites, "It would be easy to maintain . . . that they give men fears and anxieties from which they would otherwise be free—the fear of black magic or of spirits, fear of God, of the devil, of Hell" (Radcliffe Brown 1972, p. 81).

It was George C. Homans in 1941 who succeeded in bringing these two competing theories into a synthesis, claiming that they are not exclusive but complementary alternatives.

From the 1960s to Present

There has been continual interest in the anthropological study of death, marked by the series of books and collections of studies published. Among these works, scholars note the 1982 collection of studies edited by Maurice Bloch and Jonathan Parry that intends to provide a comprehensive coverage of one single area: It studies how the ideas of fertility and rebirth are represented in the death rites of various cultures. The equally valuable book Celebrations of Death: The Anthropology of Mortuary Ritual (1991) by Richard Huntington and Peter Metcalf, which relies extensively on the authors' field experience, discusses the most important questions of death culture research (emotional reaction to death; symbolic associations of death, etc.) by presenting both the corresponding established theories and their critiques.

See also: Afterlife in Cross-Cultural Perspective ; Cannibalism ; Durkheim, É MILE ; Gennep, Arnold van ; Hertz, Robert ; Human Remains ; Omens ; Rites of Passage ; Sacrifice ; Voodoo


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Durkheim, Émile. Suicide: A Study in Sociology. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1952

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Metcalf, Peter. "Meaning and Materialism: The Ritual Economy of Death." MAN 16 (1981):563–578.

Radcliffe-Brown, Arnold. "Taboo." In William A. Lessa and Evon Z. Vogt eds., Reader in Comparative Religion: An Anthropological Approach. New York: Harper and Row, 1972.

Turner, Victor. The Ritual Process. Chicago: Aldine, 1969.

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