Death is a universal inevitability, but human responses are different. How people deal with death has always been closely studied by anthropologists.
Death-related beliefs and practices provide a window for viewing a society’s social organization, cultural values, and worldviews. With a long-term perspective, this window can also allow us to see mechanisms of culture change and cultural adaptation to new socioeconomic circumstances.
Ethnographic record shows that there exist a wide variety of death rituals in the world. Death rituals usually start when a person stops breathing or is pronounced dead culturally. The body may be first washed, shaved, combed, painted, or perfumed. Then, it may be dressed or left naked, covered with blankets or adorned with jewelry. Finally, it may be buried, cremated, kept in the house, preserved by smoking or pickling, dismembered to feed animals or birds, thrown into river or sea, exposed as carrion, or even eaten, raw or cooked. Family, friends, and neighbors may get together to express grief by weeping, wailing, singing dirges, beating the breast, or tearing the hair. How the body is treated and disposed and how family, friends, and neighbors should behave for a specific period of mourning are all determined by cultural guidelines.
Anthrop ological Perspectives of Death Ritual
The study of death-related beliefs and practices has been of crucial importance to anthropology from its beginning. In archaeology, remnants from burials are often the only data surviving from early paleolithic cultures. They have provided evidence of cultural activities for the world’s oldest civilizations and religious practice of prehistoric people. Mortuary structures have produced impressive and revealing evidence about ancient ways of life. The huge pyramids in Egypt and the magnificent tombs in Greece and China have yielded a plethora of information about the ideologies and values of ancient societies in those countries.
In sociocultural anthropology, interest in death-related beliefs and practices can be traced to the cultural evolutionists of the 19th century who attempted to construct grand evolutionary schemes of social development in the world. Edward Tylor and Sir James Frazer, for example, focused their attention on beliefs associated with death and existence thereafter. They argued that early humans’ contemplation of death and deathlike states, such as sleeping and dreaming, was the origin of the concept of the soul and that the belief in its continued existence after death lead to the origin of all religions.
The evolutionary approach of Tylor, Frazer, and others has been discredited because of its ethnocentric scheme of universal cultural evolution, its faulty use of the comparative method, and its unsupported speculations concerning the origin of various institutions, beliefs, and practices. However, the subject of death-related behaviors continued to play an important role in the anthropological study of religion. In the 20th century, anthropologists interested in the study of religion shifted their attention from its origins and evolution to the study of basic functions that religion serves in human society. The functional approach to religion had its origin in the works of French sociologist Durkheim, developed further in the works of his students such as Robert Hertz, and in the works of British social anthropologists such as Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski. These functionalists, through the analysis of death-related behaviors, attempted to demonstrate how a religious system serves to affirm and preserve the social system by establishing equilibrium and maintaining social solidarity.
Emile Durkheim in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912) put forth the theory that funeral rituals, and other rituals as well, are expressions of the unity of a society. He asserted that the function of those rituals is to recreate the society or the social order by reaffirming and strengthening the sentiments on which social solidarity and therefore social order itself depend. His student, Robert Hertz, in his study of the second burial in Indonesia (particularly the island of Borneo), also pointed out that the continuity and permanence of a society is threatened by the death of one of its members and that at the death of a member, the society, disturbed by the shock, must gradually regain its balance. It is only through the performance of death rituals during the period of mourning after the death that the society can recover its peace and triumph over death. For Hertz, death ritual is a long transformative process consisting of different stages.
The works of the Durkheimian school strongly influenced British functionalists. Radcliffe-Brown wrote in 1933 in his study of the funeral customs of the Andaman Islanders that a person’s death constitutes a partial destruction of the social cohesion. The normal social life is disorganized. The social equilibrium is disturbed. After the death, the society has to organize itself anew and reach a new condition of equilibrium. This view was also clearly expressed by another British anthropologist, Malinowski, who pointed out that death in a “primitive society” was much more than the removal of a member. The ceremonial aspect of death counteracted the centrifugal forces of fear, dismay, and demoralization caused by the death and reintegrated the group’s shaken solidarity.
The functional approach has been seriously criticized for its excluding not only a large range of data such as indigenous interpretation of ritual acts but also important theoretical questions, such as how rituals convey meaning. It has been criticized for ignoring the role of the individual in society. It has also been criticized for being incapable of dealing with the dysfunctional components of religious behaviors and their contribution to the transformation of cultural systems.
In 1908, a French social anthropologist Van Gennep published The Rites of Passage, in which the funeral is regarded as one of a large class of rituals concerned with transitions from one state to another. He argued that all these rites of passage share a common tripartite structure, involving, first, separation from one status, then a transition or liminal period, followed by reincorporation into a new status. He pointed out that in death ritual, transition plays a dominant role.
Victor Turner brilliantly elaborated Van Gennep’s notion of liminality. Building on Van Gennep’s concept that the transitional phase sometimes acquires a certain autonomy from the rest of the ritual, Turner developed a view of a “state of transition,” in which the inhabitants are “betwixt and between” normal social status. Based on his intensive study of life crisis rituals among the Ndembu of Zambia, Turner regarded this liminal or transitional phase as ambiguous, inversive, ludic, and a source of the intensive, effervescent camaraderie that he described as “communitas.”
Turner’s works represent a trend in anthropological studies of ritual that shifted emphasis from seeking for function to meaning in 1960s and 1970s. Symbolic and interpretative anthropology developed out from this trend and have had tremendous influence on anthropological studies of death ritual. They have sought to understand symbols and rituals primarily through the indigenous interpretation of the society in question. Victor Turner defined ritual as an aggregation of symbols, with the symbols being the smallest unit of ritual that still retains the specific properties of ritual behavior. From this definition, we can see a crucial feature of his methodology, which works from discrete ritual symbols (“storage units,” “building blocks,” and “molecules of ritual”) to their incorporation in ritual systems, and then to the incorporation of such systems in the whole social complex being studied. He stressed the common diachronic profile or processual form in rituals, that is, the sequence of ritual acts in social contexts. He treated ritual symbols not as static, absolute objectifications but as social and cultural systems, shedding and gathering meaning over time and altering in form. This emphasis on social process distinguishes him sharply from his own background in British social anthropology, which focused primarily on structure and static functionalism.
Turner outlined a method to analyze symbols. Symbols, according to him, should be examined in terms of three levels of meaning: exegetical, operational, and positional. Exegetical meaning consists of how indigenous people consciously understand a symbol, as well as the symbol’s linguistic derivation, social history, and material substance. Operational meaning centers on how a symbol is used—in what institutions, by what groups, and so on. Positional meaning has to do with a symbol’s relationship to other symbols both within a particular ritual and within the framework of a total ritual system.
Clifford Geertz advocated an interpretive approach to the study of symbols and rituals. He argued that the analysis of culture is not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning. He believed that culture should be understood to consist of socially established structures of meaning embodied in systems of symbols. It is through these structures of meaning, these webs of significance, that we order our experience and make sense of the world we inhabit. Ritual, according to Geertz, is such a system of symbols, which stand for values, codes, and rules. Ritual interpretation is a process that integrates theorists’ abstract conceptual categories and the cultural particularity of a rite. The theorists’ conception should be based on the natives’ view. Their perceptions and knowledge are melded to those of the indigenous people. Geertz believed that what we call our data are really our constructions of other people’s constructions of what they and their compatriots are up to. In a word, Geertz’s model in ritual study illustrates that ritual participants act, whereas those observing them think. The observers’ understanding of the ritual behavior should be based on the performers’ own emic views. The title of one of Geertz books, Local Knowledge, signifies his view of seeking knowledge by starting from the base of indigenous knowledge and combining it with that of the observer.
The influence of Turner and Geertz can be seen in two anthropological books on death rituals: Celebration of Death, by Huntington and Metcalf, and Death and the Regeneration of Life, edited by Bloch and Parry. The first book, based on the authors’ ethnographies of the Bara of Madasgascar and the Berawan of Central Borneo, attempts to interpret the relationship between the symbols of death and sexuality and rebirth. The second book contains seven articles that incorporate the sociological, symbolical, and psychoanalytic approaches to explain the significance of symbols of fertility and rebirth in death rituals.
Death Rituals in Sanyuan Village, China
Sanyuan Village lies at the northeast edge of Chongqing Municipality of China. It is an administrative unit, consisting of 10 natural villages or hamlets. Four of them are located on the plain over the Dahong River Valley, and the rest are down in the valley by the river, whose fields are often submerged by the flooding river in spring and summer. Its economy depends on rice farming.
In Sanyuan Village, every family holds elaborate funerals for its members who die, except children who die before reaching adulthood. They are regarded as gui erzi or gui nuer (son or daughter of devils) and are doomed to die. Any family who gives a deceased child a full formal funeral will suffer from misfortune or even the death of other members in the family.
Preparation for Death
Preparation for death usually starts when a person is over 60 years old. A coffin may be made or purchased for him or her, or coffin money may be collected from his or her children for future use. Aged villagers may have their shouyi (grave clothing) sewn in the eventuality of their death. A shouyi consists of a coat and a pair of pants. The number of the shouyi depends on the wealth of the family. It is always an odd number, varying between three and nine pieces. Seven is considered the ideal, because qi (seven) is a homophone for the abundance of descendants, harmony, and prosperity of the family. The color of the shouyi is either black or white for all, regardless of gender difference. But the outerwear is always black. With the coffin purchased and shouyi made, the predeath preparations for funeral are completed.
When a person is seriously ill and near death, his or her houren (offspring) will be summoned and gathered around him or her. Before he or she breathes the last breath, the patient will be moved into a chair in his or her room, facing the door. To die in bed is considered as harmful because the soul of the newly deceased cannot easily leave the bed. To die in a chair is considered as the most dignified death, with all the descendants kneeling down around the chair and the spouse, brothers, and sisters standing around. The oldest son holds the ill person upright. Last words are exchanged between the dying and the surrounding persons. The local terminology for this process is songzhong (sending off the dying).
As soon as the dying person breathes a last breath, the descendants, especially women, burst into a loud wailing. Firecrackers are set off to scare away hungry ghosts who might be wandering around the house. The loud wailing and firecrackers also inform the community that a death has occurred, so that the other families can take proper measures to eliminate bad effects of the death. Daotou fuzi (paper money bound in small rectangular bundles with the names of the deceased and donors written on the cover) is burned to provide the deceased with traveling expenses on the way to the world of the dead. Messengers are sent out immediately to inform other relatives of the death in the family.
Treatment of the Body
After a person dies, he or she is placed on a wood board in the tangwu (living room) and is prepared for mahang (ritually washing the deceased). Aishui, which literally means “love water” (water boiled with eucalyptus leaves or tea), is prepared. The sons’ clothes are soaked in the aishui. It symbolizes the ai (love) of the descendants to the deceased. This specially boiled water is to clean the dead body ritually and to drive away any evil spirits that might have possibly attached to the body.
Two or three elders in the village are invited to wash and dress the deceased. They soak a piece of white cloth in the aishui and move it across the body three times from head to feet. The cloth does not necessarily touch the body. After this, they dress the deceased with shouyi (grave clothes), tie up the deceased’s feet and waist with black threads, put the corpse into a coffin set up on two benches in the tangwu, and fix the corpse tightly so that it will not shift when the coffin is moved out of the village to the grave site. A shoubei (a very small cotton-wadded quilt) is put on top of the body. The coffin is half closed, with only the head end open, so that the face of the deceased can be seen. A piece of white cloth is laid over the face. An incense pot and a kerosene lamp (called changming deng) are set on the top of the coffin. A ceramic pot or iron basin is put under the coffin for burning paper money.
Preparations by Specialists
A funeral in Sanyuan Village involves several groups of specialists. A bereaved family needs to hire Daoist priests to conduct funerary rituals, a funeral band to play mourning music, a feng shui master to look for a grave site, a local scholar to write a eulogy, and one or two craftsmen to make a miniature paper house, paper furniture, and other items of daily necessity for the deceased to use in the otherworld.
Priests usually arrive at the bereaved house in the afternoon. They generally spend the afternoon preparing for their rituals. The most important items they make for the funeral are a lingpai (soul tablet) for the deceased, a fan (a lanternlike object), passports to the otherworld, written documents addressed to certain deities in the otherworld, five tablets representing east, south, west, north, and center directions, a xiao dan (a list of all filial descendants), and many bundles of fuzi (paper money).
After making the soul tablet, fan, and other items, the priests set up a tan (altar) with two dining tables in the tangwu against the wall facing the door. Four benches are placed by the two sides of the altar for the priests to sit on. A tablet for the ancestors of the bereaved family, the soul tablet of the deceased, two kerosene lamps, and incense holders are placed on the altar. With the altar set up, the priests are ready to start their ritual performance.
All the rites performed by priests are accompanied by percussion music, produced by drums, gongs, mu you (wooden sound boxes), and brass ringing bowls, and by chanting of scripts by the chief priest alone or by all the priests in chorus with their percussion music. Their performance usually lasts all night. Though different priests may conduct rites in different order and in various styles, their performance consists of the following rites:
- Rite of Pobai (breaking the white). After the sun sets, priests start their performance. They chant their scripts first. Their chants point out that life is hard and death is unavoidable. They inform the deceased that the descendants are all heartbroken. They ask the xiaozi (filial descendants) to kowtow toward the soul tablets. Then, they tell the xiaozi to put on xiaofu (mourning clothes, usually a long piece of white cloth) to show their filial piety to the deceased. As soon as the xiaozi put on mourning dresses, they officially enter the mourning stage.
- Rite of Qingshui (fetching water). The priests lead all the xiaozi to a well or a river nearby, accompanied by the funeral band. When the troupe reaches the well or the riverside, the priests plead to the dragon and guardian spirits of the water for permission to fetch their water. Paper money and incense sticks are offered to them by being burned. The eldest son or other siblings in his absence then fills a bottle with water. The burning of paper money suggests that the water is purchased from its sacred guardians. So it is shengshui (sacred water) and is used by the priests symbolically.
- Rite of Jingzao (worshipping the Stove God). The priests lead the xiaozi into the kitchen. The soul tablet, a passport, and a copy of a written document are put on the top of the stove. Incense sticks are burned on the stove. The chief priest chants scripts. He pleads the Stove God to report the death to the Jade Emperor. Xiaozi then kowtow to the stove. Paper money is burned. The purpose of this rite is to inform the Stove God of the death and to appeal for his protection for both the deceased in the yinjian (the underworld) and the living members in the yangjian (this world) by providing them with abundant food. It is believed that this rite facilitates admittance of the soul of the deceased into the world for the dead.
- Rite of Kai Wufang(opening the way). There are two kinds of kai wufang: a grand one and a little one. For the former, at least six priests are needed; for the latter, one to three priests. The priests lead all the xiaozi into the courtyard to dance around five tables that stands for five directions in the universe: east, south, west, north, and center. Paper money, incense, and food are offered, respectively, to five gods who are in charge of those directions. Five paper tablets of the directions are burned one by one, suggesting the gods have received the offerings and have opened up all the directions for the deceased to travel. Then, the priests lead all the xiaozi to cross a bridge built in the courtyard. The bereaved family can choose to construct gao qiao (high bridge) or ping qiao (flat bridge). For the high bridge, 11 to over 40 square tables are needed. The tables form a pyramid-like shape, with one on the top. The flat bridge can be built with three or five tables placed on the same level. Under the bridge, the priests put a bronze snake (actually made of bamboo), an iron dog (made from bamboo and paper), a paper boat, and a blood basin (basin with red color water). They symbolize the bloody river that separates the living world and the world of the dead. The bridge is called Laihoqiao that symbolically connects the two worlds. The priests and all the xiaozi (with the eldest son carrying the soul tablet of the deceased) will cross the bridge three times, suggesting crossing three bridges. If the little kaifang is chosen by the family, the priests will let the eldest son move the soul tablet across three paper tablets on a long bench that symbolizes Laihoqiao. Crossing these bridges suggests that the deceased has entered the world of the dead and will be judged by the gods there.
- Rite of Yingwang Anwei (welcoming back the soul of the deceased). A priest puts a kerosene lamp at the front door of the house to light the way for the soul of the deceased to return home. A temporary bathtub is improvised by using a bucket or basin full of water. The sacred water purchased from the gods earlier is poured into the tub. The tub is enclosed by a straw or bamboo mat. The soul tablet of the deceased and another red tablet representing ancestors are moved over the bucket of water, indicating that the deceased and his or her ancestors have taken a bath before entering home. The bath washes away dirt they carry and refreshes them up. Then, the two tablets are set at the head of the altar, ready to receive offerings and prayers. Food and liquor will be placed in front of them.
- Rite of Tuanfu (praising the deceased). First, the eulogy writer reads his writing with great emotion in the tangwu. All the xiaozi should kneel down on the ground, while other senior relatives stand around listening. The eulogy usually covers the whole life of the deceased, from the birth to the death, emphasizing his or her contributions to the family, the sufferings and achievements in his or her life. Then, the chief priest reads Shi Yue Huaitai (Ten Months of Pregnancy) or Shi Er Xifu Bu Xiao Niang (Ten Daughters-in-Law Don’t Observe Filial Piety to Their Mother-in-Law) for a female client. The first is a rhymed account of the happiness and sufferings that a mother has experienced in her 10 months of carrying a baby and in nursing the baby for the first 3 years after the birth. The second one describes various unfilial behaviors of 10 daughters-in-law and the great sufferings their mother-in-law has experienced. If the deceased is a man, the priest reads Shier Dian (Twelve Large Houses). It is a story about the sufferings of a father who strives all his life to build houses for his 12 sons.
- Rite of Baican (praying to gods for the deceased). The bereaved family invites old women from the village to sing laments in the tangwu. They kneel down on cushions or mats on the ground in front the altar in the tangwu. They kowtow toward the altar as guided by the priests. They sing laments (a combination of weeping, singing, and speaking) to mention many good deeds the deceased has done in this world and to pray for the gods to release him or her from all of his or her crimes or misdeeds committed in this world. It is believed that the deceased at this time is going through the 10 courts in the diyu (the hell or underworld) and is being judged by magistrate, secretary-attendants, and demonical monstrous underlings of each court. Baican, and tuanfu as well, are intended to seek mercy for the deceased so that he or she may not be punished too severely and can go to the Western Heaven of Paradise.
- Rite of Chushang(the funeral procession). Early in the following morning, the bereaved family checks the coffin and the body. If the deceased is a woman, her brother or relatives from her own natal family are invited to make the final check to make sure that the body is set at the right place and no unwanted object such as nails are placed inside the coffin. Then, the chief priest knocks at the coffin with an ax, without chopping it, while chanting scripts to wake up the soul of the deceased. He uses rooster blood to write a few magic spells on the coffin to drive away any hungry ghosts and evil spirits. After the priest’s performance, the coffin is closed and sealed by old men from the village. Eight selected villagers carry the coffin on their shoulders. Firecrackers are first set off to scare away ghosts and give courage to the deceased on his or her way to the Western Heaven of Paradise. The funeral parade sets out for the gravesite. At the head of the parade is an old villager carrying a torch, which symbolizes a light in the otherworld for the deceased. Next is the fan carried by a son or nephew of the deceased. The soul tablet of the deceased is at the third position carried by the eldest son. The funeral band follows the soul tablet. Next comes the coffin. Following the coffin are the xiaozi, relatives, friends, and neighbors. Relatives and friends carry jizhang (pieces of cloth offered to the deceased by relatives and friends, which are put up on bamboo sticks like flags and on which the names of the donors and the deceased are written). The priests and the feng shui master are at the end of the parade. At the gravesite, the feng shui master first drops some rooster blood into the pit to drive away any hidden ghosts and demons, and then cleans the pit with a few drops of the sacred water before the coffin is moved in. He then orients the coffin in the most beneficial direction to secure the best feng shui that will determine the future prosperity of the bereaved family. He shovels some soil on each corner of the coffin before the xiaozi throw dirt on the coffin with their hands. With this done, the xiaozi hurry home, taking a different route in order to evade the soul of the deceased in case it follows them. Two or three villagers stay behind to fill the grave pit with soil first and then pile up the soil into a cone-shaped tomb. Later, the bereaved family will cover up the tomb with a layer of stone to prevent the mound from erosion. They may set up a stone monument in front of the tomb with the deceased’s name and the time of birth and death.
- Rite of Shao Huotang (burning paper house, the fan, and the soul tablet). Returning from the gravesite, the bereaved family provides a final feast to all the participants. Food and drink are offered to the soul tablets of the recently deceased and the ancestors at the altar in the tangwu. This is the last meal for all of them at home. After the feast, the priests ask the xiaozi to remove the two soul tablets out of the house to an open space. A miniature replica paper house made by craftsmen is also moved there. The soul tablets are placed inside the paper house. The fan is placed against the paper house. Paper furniture, paper TV sets, and any other paper objects are placed either inside the paper house or outside. They are set on fire. Measures are taken to ensure that they are completely burned up. This is called ciling (sending away the souls of the deceased and other ancestors). Burning the two tablets suggests that the deceased now has joined his or her ancestors. After burning down the paper objects, the chief priest asks for a rooster, some food and liquor, and a bundle of sorghum heads. Having chanted scriptures, the priest puts a drop of rooster blood into a bowl of liquor and read the patterns to see if the deceased is pleased with the funeral. He then picks up the bundle of sorghum heads and uses it as a broom to symbolically sweep the floor for the bereaved family and the village. This drives away all hungry ghosts that wander around the house and the village after the death, and the villagers can resume normal life. This marks the end of the funeral.
Burial does not end the descendants’ obligation to the deceased. The bereaved family observes a period of mourning for 49 days. On every 7th day, the family members go to the tomb to offer food and paper money to the deceased. Locally, this is called shaoqi. On the last 7th day (the 49th day after the burial), the bereaved family prepares a banquet and invites relatives and friends for the banquet. Priests are hired to chant scripts. This marks the end of the mourning period for the bereaved family. After that, the bereaved family makes offerings to the deceased on the 100th day after the burial, the deceased’s birthday, the death anniversary, and festivals such as the Chinese New Year.
Significance of Death Ritual
The death ritual in Sanyuan Village serves to reinforce family and kin group cohesion. It enhances cooperation and harmony in a community. It facilitates grieving and helps reduce fear and anxiety. It teaches villagers to observe filial piety to their parents and to take good care of their children. It provides principles to regulate human behaviors and interpersonal relationship. It displays economic and social resources that a bereaved family can utilize at a time of crisis. It transforms the discontinuity of biological death into social continuity and the corpse into an ancestor. It helps the deceased to adjust to the new environment and helps the living to understand that the deceased has become one of their ancestors. It ensures harmony between the living and the dead, and between the dead and supernatural beings. It celebrates death.
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- Geertz, C. (1983). Local knowledge: Further essays in interpretive anthropology. New York: Basic Books.
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