Category Archives: ritual

Funeral Traditions in Tana Toraja

Death is something that is unavoidable. Whether you have experienced the death of a close one or have yet to do so, it is a universal experience. However, it is not experienced in the same way all over the world. In Tana Toraja, located in the Sulewesi highlands of Eastern Indonesia, cultural anthropologist, Kelly Swazey, explores how death is not a singular event in her TedTalk, “Life that doesn’t end with death.” The physical cessation of life is not considered the same thing as death. Instead, the deceased are referred to as “to Makala” (a sick person) or “to mama” (a person who is asleep). These people continue to live with and be members of the household, where they are “symbolically fed and cared for.” It is during this time, that families will begin a series of ritual orders that informs the community that a member of their family is transitioning into the Puya (the afterlife). The deceased member is considered truly dead only when the extended family reaches an agreement and when the family has enough resources to hold a funeral ceremony that is deemed appropriate for the status of the deceased.

These funeral ceremonies are lively affairs that can last from a few days to weeks. They are considered the most important social moment in someone’s life, outweighing births and weddings. Through these ceremonies, a reciprocal debt society exists within the community that depends on the number of animals, such as water buffalo, pigs, and chickens, that are given and sacrificed in honor of the deceased. In a way, the sacrifice of the water buffalo and the ritual display of wealth is a way for the family to exhibit the status of the deceased member and by default, the family. These funeral ceremonies are required to take place in front of the entire community and involves everyone’s participation. Once a person is deemed physically dead, their body is placed in a special room in the tongkonan (a traditional residence). The tongkonan represents both the family’s identity and the life cycle. The shape of the tongkonan that you are born into is the same structure that brings you to your ancestral resting place.

A Torajan family with a deceased relative shown in Kelly Swazey's TedTalk

A Torajan family with a deceased relative shown in Kelly Swazey’s TedTalk

While the Torajans practice ways to live long, healthy lives, they do not put as much effort in prolonging life if they have reached an old age or have a terminal illness. They believe that everyone has a predetermined amount of time to live that is like a thread, and that it should be “allowed to unspool to its natural end” without artificial interruptions. While this funeral practice may be something that is foreign to us, it is familiar in that it is a way for people to come to terms with the death of a loved one. The Torajans recognize that their relationships with other people do not end with the physical death of someone close. They are able to extend their relationship with the deceased by transitioning from a relationship to a living person to a relationship with the deceased as an ancestor.

Southern Christian Mourning

In the fall of my sophomore year, my friend Kalyssa, who attended Georgia State University, killed herself. While suicide is in itself worthy of a discussion post, I was struck by the radical differences in funeral and funerary processes between her culture and mine. Kalyssa Fuentes and I had attended the same middle and high school, we had the same friends, and shared an unrivaled passion for Rihanna. Yet at her funeral, I felt entirely out of place.

I have attended my fair share of funerals for grandparents and family friends, but always from a Jewish perspective. Our funerals, at least in my synagogue’s practice, are short affairs that take place at the cemetery. We tear our clothes and inter the body quickly. Following the burial, we sit shiva for a week and do not work, look into mirrors, or bathe in warm water. For the Fuentes family, the funeral took place at a church, following a viewing with an open casket. It is the casket that stands out most clearly in my mind; I had never seen a body before. Kalyssa’s body was blocked from direct view by a veil, but she was still able to be seen. She looked like she was made of plastic, and she had been dead for two days, so I assume that she was embalmed. There was no smell. 

The funeral itself took place in an African Methodist Episcopal church, where the Fuenteses had found a community after immigrating from Trindidad. The word that immediately came to mind during the service was ostentatious — the people did not look, to me, to be in mourning. The women wore large hats, the choir wore bright robes, and they passed around pamphlets featuring Kalyssa’s face. There was a section of the service devoted to a memorial film, featuring Kalyssa singing a solo in our high school choir during a trip to Rome. Despite this, it was evident that everyone present, for whom this sort of service was the norm, was deeply moved.

Since attending Kalyssa’s funeral, I have been to a handful of others that were christian, all of which also involved a viewing of the body before burial. Although personally I feel a bit disturbed by the practice, I believe that the process of seeing the body prior to burial to be important to some people in order to accept the death of their loved ones. Viewings may not be a part of my own culture, but are an interesting way to explore the grief.

Aboriginal Mortuary Rituals

Similar to many practices that we’ve discussed in the blog and in class, Aboriginal mortuary rituals in Australia are much different than Western ideas. The rituals begin with a smoking ceremony. The purpose of this ceremony is to drive away the deceased’s spirit. In order to do this they smoke in the deceased home. Next, they paint ochre in places the deceased lived and put up a flag to mark that the deceased has died. There is another ceremony called the death ceremony. The body is left inside the deceased’s home while mourners celebrate before it is wrapped up and placed on a platform where it will decompose as opposed to a tomb/coffin. Instead of mourning the deceased in sadness, they feast and celebrate with singing and dancing.

Another interesting part of their mortuary rituals is that Aboriginal people in Australian avoid saying the name of the dead or depicting them in photos or films. According to ancient law, saying or depicting a dead person’s name would disturb their spirit. As can be seen from their mortuary rituals, driving the deceased’s spirit away is incredibly important. Therefore, disturbing the spirit would be just as harmful. They also believe in the rebirth of the soul; therefore, driving the spirit onward to it’s next life is crucial.

Upon reading about these burial practices, it became apparent that many of their rituals are similar to other cultures we discussed including the Tana Toraja and the Malagasy people. Mortuary rituals are extremely important to these cultures and while they may seem obscure to Western cultures, their practices hold a crucial role in their society. Many of these cultures interact with the deceased in a way that allows for celebration. The burial and funerary practices take precedence over many of the other rites of passages in these cultures. In contrast to our society, mortuary rituals aren’t even thought about usually, until someone has died.

 

Sources:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19112922?report=abstract

https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/people/mourning-an-aboriginal-death#axzz4edfY4S9X

Ebola: Public Safety Issue or Cultural Violation?

Locals observe foreign health officials burying an Ebola victim. WHO Guidelines for Ebola Burials

The 2014 Ebola Outbreak claimed about 11,000 lives and transcended country borders. Ebola presents with frightening symptoms: more frightening was that it kept spreading. Thanks to Anthropologists, health officials knew why: local burial practices endangered the lives of those partaking in burial rituals. We will look at how those practices influenced Ebola policies and procedures:

Initial Resistance

When the first responders to Ebola came to Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, they were determined to stop Ebola’s transmission at any cost. The Ebola virus is transferred through infectious bodily fluids, so foreign health officials took over disposing of the dead and developed a procedure to handle mass casualties. The African locals did not respond well to this practice, often resisting health officials’ efforts to bury the dead.

Anthropologists’ Observations

Anthropologists were tasked with understanding the locals’ resistance. Anthropologists discovered common practices and beliefs among locals:

  1. Handling of the body with the bare hands
  2. “Love Touch”: loved ones either touch the face or lie on top of the deceased in order to unify the living and ancestral spirits, and even receive spiritual gifts from the deceased.
  3. Importance of a proper burial: many locals believe in life after death. If a proper burial does not occur, then the deceased cannot achieve spirithood, and therefore the angry spirit will return and punish the living relatives.
  4. Mistrust of government: foreign health officials had to have communicated with the government to assist, so many Africans thought their governments did not respect them. As a result, many locals mistrusted their leaders and did not want to comply.

Solution

Anthropologists realized that in isolating deceased Ebola victims, the health officials were dishonoring locals’ culture and beliefs. Anthropologists relayed these findings to policymakers, who formed coalitions with government officials, tribal and religious leaders in order to come up with burial techniques that would honor the dead and living while halting Ebola.  As a result, locals allowed their leaders and foreign officials to assist and Ebola transmission slowed. It was one of the first times that foreign health officials recognized that religious and cultural practices and political beliefs strongly influence health promotion techniques on an epidemic level. They adjusted their procedures accordingly.

Evaluation

It was important to recognize the cultural factors at play, but was recognition and adjustment too late? How many have to die before world aid organizations adjust their policies and procedures to accommodate many different cultures and societies? Although these organizations are powerful, they sometimes adopt a “savior” mentality, and forget that they can still learn. Another outbreak could happen: public safety is of great importance, but so is cultural relativism.

Works Cited:

Manguvo, Angellar and Benford Mafuvadze.”The Impact of Traditional and Religious Practices on Spread of Ebola in West Africa.” The Pan African Medical Journal. Vol 22 Issue 9. 10 October 2015. Accessed 12 March 2017. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4709130/

Maxmen, Amy. “How the Fight Against Ebola Tested a Culture’s Traditions.” National Geographic. 30 Jan 2015. Accessed 12 March 2017. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/01/150130-ebola-virus-outbreak-epidemic-sierra-leone-funerals/

Human Sacrifice in Maya Culture

Death is already an uncomfortable topic to talk about, let alone the idea of human sacrifices. From the pre-Columbian era, human sacrifices were pretty common in Maya culture. The Maya civilization covered a large area of land which included southeastern Mexico and northern Central America. The reasoning behind this ritual was due to the belief that it was offering of nourishment to the gods. The sacrifice of a living creature was a powerful offering and a human sacrifice was the ultimate one. Usually, only high status prisoners of war were sacrificed while other captives were used as the labor force.

There were several different ways these sacrifices occurred. The most common ways were decapitation and heart removal. Dedication to a new building or new ruler required a human sacrifice. Many of these were depicted in Maya artwork and sometimes took place after the victim was tortured (beaten, scalped, burned, etc.). If the sacrifice happened through heart removal it took place in the courtyard of the temple or summit of the pyramid-temple. The person was painted blue and wore a headdress while being held down by four attendants representing the cardinal directions. The nacom, or official, used a sacrificial knife to cut into the victims chest and pull out the heart. He then would pass the heart to the priest, known as the chilan, where then the blood would be smeared onto the image of the god. Once this occurred, the body was thrown down the steps and skinned by assistant priests but the hands and feet were left alone. The chilan then wore the skin of the victim and performed a ritual dance of rebirth.

These rituals provided hope and security to the Maya culture and demonstrated their own outlooks on death.

 

Sources:

“Human Sacrifice in Maya Culture.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 07 Feb. 2017. Web. 22 Feb. 2017.

“Maya Civilization.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 19 Feb. 2017. Web. 22 Feb. 2017.

Reincarnation in Hinduism

The Western definition of death is known as “the irreversible cessation of all vital functions especially as indicated by permanent stoppage of the heart, respiration, and brain activity”. Although this is true to define the end of someone’s life, there are many who believe that there is more to life even after death. Those who worship Hinduism believe that death does not necessarily mean the end. They follow the idea of reincarnation which means that the soul is indestructible and repeatedly takes on a physical body until moksha. Moksha is a term in Hinduism which refers to the various forms of liberation or release which occurs when the cycle of dying and rebirth ends. It is the central concept in Hindu tradition and included as one of the four main goals in human life. These goals include dharma (virtuous, proper, moral life), artha (material prosperity, income security, and means of life), and kama (pleasure, emotional fulfillment). The four together are called Purusartha.

Since reincarnation is essentially another chance of life, there are some important things to keep in mind. Good intentions and actions lead to a good future while bad intentions and actions create the opposite outcome. This plays an important role in how one is reincarnated. There is no heaven or hell in Hinduism but more of a release from the cycles which brings freedom to the individual.  The death of a family member is seen more as a celebration rather than a time of mourning. Hindus are cremated due to the fact that burning the body releases the spirit from the person. 

Sources

  1. “Reincarnation.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 04 Feb. 2017. Web. 17 Feb. 2017.
  2. “A Memory Tree.co.nz – a lifetime of memories.” Customs and Protocols on Death, Dying and Funerals. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Feb. 2017.
  3. “Moksha.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 30 Jan. 2017. Web. 17 Feb. 2017.
 

Tibetan Sky Burials

Sky burials (or celestial burials, as they are also called) are the burial rites of choice for the Tibetans. After a member of the community has died, the body is cut into pieces by a Burial Master, and then taken to a selected site, usually in an area of high elevation. This is because the corpse is then supposed to be eaten by vultures, who tend to congregate at higher altitudes. After the vultures have consumed the body, the belief is that they take the body away to heavens where the soul of the deceased person remains until they are ready for their next reincarnation. This practice is believed to have been practiced for as many as 11,000 years, but there is little written evidence, or physical evidence, due to the fact that the remains are ingested by the vultures or other animals.

For Tibetans, the sky burial serves both practical and spiritual functions. Often, the ground is frozen, making it difficult to dig graves, making sky burials an appealing alterative. Also, some of the central values in Tibetan culture revolve around being humble, generous, and honoring of nature; sky burials allow the physical bodies of Tibetans to be returned to the earth in a way that generously provides a meal for the vultures and very minimally disturbs the earth. Because of their belief in reincarnation, death is seen as more of a transition as opposed to an ending. They believe the soul moves on from the body at the very instant of death, leaving very little room for attachment to the physical body after death. In fact, in order for the soul of the person to have an easy transition into their next life, the Tibetans believe there should be no trace left of the physical body after death, providing another advantage of this practice.

Sohma, Marina. “Sky Burial: Tibet’s Ancient Tradition for Honoring the Dead.” Ancient Origins. N.p., 15 Nov. 2016. Web. http://www.ancient-origins.net/history-ancient-traditions/sky-burial-tibet-s-ancient-tradition-honoring-dead-007016.

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Seppuku – Honorable Suicide

A staged version of the Japanese ritual suicide known as Seppuku or Hara-Kiri, circa 1885. The warrior in white plunges a knife into his belly, while his second stands behind him, ready to perform the decapitation. (Photo by Sean Sexton/Getty Images)

As an anime fan, one thing that I have grown to love and appreciate is the diversity and uniqueness of both modern and traditional Japanese culture. One practice that does stand out to me is the practice of the honorable death known as Seppuku.  Seppuku, death by self-disembowelment, became a ritualized and institutionalized form of suicide among the Samurai in Feudal Japan; and it was seen has a form of honor and courage reserved for the Samurai, the traditional Japanese military. I was interested in learning a little bit more about this practice especially with our recent class discussions of what constitutes a “good” death or a “bad” death.

The deaths of Minamoto Yorimasa, a poet, and Minamoto Tametono, a samurai, describes the earliest known acts of Seppuku. Seppuku, which describes a process of slicing the stomach open, was considered the most courageous, straightforward and bravest way to die because the stomach was considered to be where the human spirit resided. In these practices, witnesses would sit discreetly to the side while the samurai, dressed in white, would kneel on large white cushion. The Samurai would then inflict the fatal injury to his stomach and his Kaishakuin, second in command or assistant, would make sure the Samurai did not experience prolonged suffering and ensured a honorable death.

Seppuku’s adoration and inspiration in Japanese culture has remained even today and can be seen depicted in movies, plays, novels, anime and more. During WWII, in the Pacific Islands, American soldiers witness Japanese militia committing this ritual right before their very eyes. After losing the war, some men and women performed the ritual in order to serve as an apology to the Emperor of Japan.  But for people who are not Japanese the practice has been held with horrid fascination.I think this is because each individual has their own qualms about the topic of death and even more so suicide. So for me, it is interesting to see how understanding death is highly influenced by the culture, the society and the time and how they all play a major role in determining what constitutes a “good” or “bad” death.

References

http://www.ancient-origins.net/history-ancient-traditions/honorable-death-samurai-and-suicide-feudal-japan-005822

Fusé, Toyomasa. “Suicide and culture in Japan: A study of seppuku as an institutionalized form of suicide.” Social Psychiatry 15.2 (1980): 57-63.

 

 

Pet Funerals

Pets can easily become part of your family at home. When they die, it can hit us a much as a person’s death would. For a young child, the death of a fish might be detrimental to them because it is the first experience of death. However, rituals to help the child cope with the death of a fish are not as extensive as a person’s death. They usually just involve flushing the fish down the toilet while saying a few words about how meaningful the fish’s life was. But as the involvement and length of the life of the pet increases, such as with a cat or dog, the death rituals also increase. The death of a cat or dog also comes at a later age. I found this chart in an article about how to talk to your child about the death of a fish.Screen Shot 2015-11-28 at 8.31.55 PM

 

It shows us that a child is able to better grasp the idea of death as they grow older. With the better grasp comes more elaborate rituals for some. You often have the option to cremate your pet and keep their ashes in an urn. My cousins have a shelf in their living room called the “dead pet shelf”. This isn’t uncommon in households where pets are considered part of the family, but anything more than this, such as a funeral, is unusual. Even though they are unusual, pet funerals do happen. Not far from Emory, the Shugart Family owns Deceased Pet Care, which offers burial and funeral services for pets, including horses. Because these deaths mean so much to some people, they are willing to pay and involve others in the funerals for their pets. They buy caskets and bury their furry friend in a garden. How far are you willing to go for your pet and where would you draw the line?

Comfort in Contact, Solace in Sharing

In New York City, a photographer named Brandon has made a career of photographing people in the streets, recording their story, and posting them together on Facebook. Started in 2010, his Humans of New York Facebook page has since accumulated over 15 million followers and garnered international fame. His candid photographs and either concise or multi-part stories reveal intimate stories to the public, connect individuals all over the world, and create a beautiful network of strangers related only by a common humanity.

Stories portray a range of human experiences- the joys of falling in love, the losses of family members during wars and genocides, the violence in poor neighborhoods, and moments of personal struggle, defeat and successes that will trigger tears in crowded coffeeshops, laughter in silent libraries, and long reflection during the busiest of days. Among the most poignant of stories are the ones revolving around death and dying. One recent post depicts a woman whose spirited smile defies her 86 years of age.

Screen Shot 2015-11-03 at 8.56.28 PM

Although the photographer emphasizes that the fear of death seems to be a human universal, she denies sharing this feeling. Her matter of fact assertion that she does not fear death is attributed to her longing for her husband. Does this woman believe death will reconnect them in the afterlife? Or does the sheer pain of life without him cause her to forsake life itself? Regardless of her reasoning, the yearning for her husband is powerful enough to neutralize a fear so intense it is referred to as “a natural condition of living”,  and readers are left with heart wrenching empathy for this woman’s literally undying love and loss of her husband.

Other stories touch on the spiritual.

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A young woman describes the close relationship she had with her grandfather- a man who deeply valued education. He suffered a major stroke and remained on life support, while his granddaughter went on to college. Her descriptions of the college graduation at his bedside preceeded his death later that night. Whether an eerie coincidence or a divine sign, the news of his granddaughter’s academic successes seemed to provide him with a sense of completion and finality- allowing him to pass from this life to whatever lay ahead.

Stories like these go on for pages. While their faces represent the full range of physical diversity, their words are identical in candor and intimacy. Why are these people so willing to share such tragic, uplifting, and intensely personal moments of their lives with millions of strangers? Is there something inherently palliative about confiding in others? Perhaps the social dialogue revolving around death is a way for us to cope with the dread it invokes. By addressing death, we lessen its power. The thoughts and narratives on platforms like Humans of New York provide vital outlets for survivors to share the burdens of tragedy. By sharing their stories and forming connections, people around the globe are healing from the wounds of mortality.