Being with the Dead
Burial, Ancestral Politics, and the Roots of Historical Consciousness
Hans Ruin

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Thanatologies

ON THE SOCIAL MEANINGS OF BURIAL

At wedding-feasts of sky and earth. Thread

My hands to spring-rites, to green hands of the dead

—Wole Soyinka, “O Roots!”

Introduction

In the overall context of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, the particular theme of burial will first seem marginal to most readers. But as we stop at this particular point in his narrative and focus instead on the broader range of problems that it actualizes, a different story can be told, with wider implications. It starts with the questions that Hegel claims to have answered: What is the meaning and existential truth of burial? And why do humans bury their dead? In describing the act of burial not as an exclusively religious or superstitious ritual but as an act of spirit and of ethical life, he initiates questions that will continue to work their way through the study of human culture up until the present with an ever-increasing urgency, where the different ways in which humans care for, communicate with, and in general relate to the dead will emerge as a decisive dimension of culture. By connecting the analysis to Sophocles’s narrative, Hegel has also pointed to an ethical compulsion and passion among the living vis-à-vis the dead, not just of a responsibility but of a potentially uncompromising allegiance to the dead.

But what is burial? Is it even one thing or one type of practice? As is generally the case throughout The Phenomenology, its descriptions of supposedly essential structures are rarely based on references to specified sources. Instead, they are presented as explicatory schemata with an inner logic and necessity and with a universal reach. Among more recent sociological and anthropological interpretations of human culture and behavior, such philosophical-phenomenological or “intellectualist” analyses were often viewed with suspicion. For the specific case of burial, the problem was articulated in a poignant way by Peter Metcalf and Richard Huntington in their modern classic, Celebrations of Death: The Anthropology of Mortuary Ritual (1977). Here they argue that even though we are inclined to see death as a universal event with universal emotional repercussions—notably “horror and grief”—we should be cautious in thinking that we can explain the differences in death practices in terms of one original general pattern. The sociological approach will be reluctant to confirm a general meaning as experienced by an ideal individual. Instead, it will seek to ground the analysis in the interpretation of the collective practices themselves. In the first chapter they state, in a graphic passage that was often quoted in the subsequent literature,

What could be more universal than death? Yet what an incredible variety of responses it evokes. Corpses are burned or buried, with or without animal or human sacrifice; they are preserved by smoking, embalming, or pickling; they are eaten—raw, cooked, or rotten; they are ritually exposed as carrion or simply abandoned; or they are dismembered and treated in a variety of these ways. Funerals are the occasion for avoiding people or holding parties, for fighting or having sexual orgies, for weeping or laughing, in a thousand of different combinations. The diversity of cultural reaction is a measure of the universal impact of death.1

Their description clearly contrasts with that of Hegel, which spontaneously connects burial with interment or inhumation, as was the common practice in Europe in Hegel’s own time. When Antigone speaks to Ismene of her wish to “heap the earth above the brother whom I love,” she confirms the exemplary role of earth. Yet, as pointed out by Robert Garland in The Greek Way of Death, for the Greeks in the classic age the most common form of burial was actually not inhumation but cremation, as illustrated in the most detailed description we have of early Greek burial practices, the funerary rites for Patroclus as depicted in the last book of the Iliad.2

The historical record also shows that the form, scope, and even the very fact of burial were unevenly distributed over time. Certain individuals would receive extraordinary burials, whereas others seem to have been handled without ritual. Likewise, the social context of burial obviously changed over time. The practice in Hegel’s own time actually marks a significant change in this respect. With the establishment of the Père Lachaise Cemetery in 1804, Napoleonic France took the lead in a process that had been tentatively initiated over the course of the preceding century and that would drastically change Western burial practices, in which the bodies of the dead were moved from the church and inner-city graveyards to state-organized necropolises on the outskirts of the city, and burial was declared to be a “right” for every citizen. This change of responsibility and location was partly motivated by an anticlerical return to pre-Christian Roman and Greek practices. These and other historical transformations were studied by Philippe Ariès in The Hour of Our Death, another modern thanatological classic published in 1977. It was an inspiration for many subsequent studies of mortuary culture over the course of the following decades, the most recent of which is Thomas Laqueur’s impressive The Work of the Dead (2015), which traces the complex connection between political, religious, and practical motives behind the new burial regime of modernity from the second half of the eighteenth century until the present.3

All of these studies confirm the need to contextualize and historicize the kind of sweeping interpretations that Hegel represents. Still, they do not invalidate or ultimately transcend the basic question and the underlying problem that he first raised concerning the meaning and significance of burial in the general sense of a ritual caretaking of kin after death. Despite their stress on the historical and cultural diversity of burial ritual and the need to broaden its scope and empirical underpinnings, Metcalf and Huntington ultimately also confirm the continued relevance of this more fundamental question in basing their study on the general concept of “mortuary ritual.” The growing body of thanatological studies, the entire historical, anthropological, and archaeological literature devoted specifically to the study and interpretation of death and funerary culture, also underscores the relevance and importance of continuing to reflect on this fundamental philosophical and existential-ontological question: Why do humans bury their dead?

In anthropological and sociological studies of burial, Hegel is never mentioned. His short analysis never became part of or a reference within this field. Throughout the nineteenth century, researchers in the human sciences gathered a massive historical record of various ways of caring for the corporeal remains of the dead. But mostly it was not accompanied by a sustained theoretical effort to think these practices, which were perceived mostly through an explicit or implicit Christian framework. Only with the rise of the comparative approach to the history of religion and the culture of death toward the end of the nineteenth century did a presumably “secular” theory of burial in general became possible. This modern ethos of the human sciences is represented in an exemplary way by Durkheim and his circle that gathered around L´année sociologique, initiated in 1898. An important part of their work was devoted to the sociological and philosophical understanding of religious life and practices.4 It is therefore not surprising that it was from within this group that the single most important theoretically oriented text on the problem of burial culture emerged, “Contribution à une étude sur la représentation collective de la mort,” written by the twenty-seven-year-old philosopher and sociologist Robert Hertz.5 It was published in the 1907 edition of Durkheim’s yearbook. Eight years later Hertz died as a soldier in the First World War. His singular achievement lay mostly dormant for half a century, but in 1960 the essay was translated into English by Rodney and Claudia Needham on the initiative of Edward Evans Pritchard, as “A Contribution to the Study of the Collective Representation of Death.”6 It then became a canonical text within the emerging field of death studies, thanatology, or the study of mortuary culture.7

The main topic of this chapter is a critical-philosophical reconstruction of this classic essay in the anthropological literature. This is carried out in a comparison with Hegel and also against a background of the philosophical-phenomenological schema developed in the previous chapter. Burials and graves are acts and artifacts with a peculiar temporality and historicity. With the grave, the past is made into an explicit goal of a future-oriented action through a technique that responds and relates to what no longer is, the life of an other as living-on and having-been. To read Hertz’s text from the perspective of these questions permits us to explore the inner continuity between speculative idealism and sociology/anthropology on the topic of death. It also gives us a deeper perspective on the theoretical stakes and implications surrounding the phenomenon of burial for the human sciences at large and how it challenges the limits of their interpretive framework and exposes their own ethos as themselves caretakers of the dead. Thus, a historical loop is disclosed where the presumably limited practice of burial begins to move across its initially established anthropological limits.

Hertz and the Sociology of Burial

At the outset of Hertz’s essay, death is presented as both a familiar and an everyday event surrounded by strong emotions. Often it is said to have given rise to ideas of how “the soul has left the body and travelled elsewhere.” He notes that burial does not primarily have to do with hygiene but that it is experienced as a genuine “moral obligation” and that the event of death imposes certain cultural specific duties on the living. It is in this sense, he writes, that “death has a specific meaning for the social consciousness” as an “object of collective representation” (27).8 The study is then devoted to describing and analyzing the elements and the origin of this representation. And just as in Hegel a century earlier, its explicit goal is the general meaning of burial through a theoretical-eidetic variation of its different empirical manifestations.

According to Hegel, death demands a response in and through which the living show respect for the dead in the form of a burial rite, the underlying purpose of which is to reestablish and secure the autonomy of spirit across the threshold of death. Despite a prevailing Christian confessional bias that structures the overall argument of the book, Hegel is aiming toward a transcultural interpretation. The reference to Greek burial custom through Antigone also shows that he is looking for a philosophical understanding of the inner necessity of burial through an interpretation of the logic of universal spirit.

In initial contrast to this universal aspiration, Hertz begins his study by discussing how “we” in “our” society tend to see and represent death. As we compare our practices with those of other societies, it becomes clear that “death has not always been represented and felt as it is in our society” (28). It is against the background of this cultural relativization of death and its symbols that the study then approaches its more specific theme and introduces its key conception, the so-called double or second burial. Here he builds mainly on earlier published anthropological reports from the Dayaks of Indonesia, more specifically from the Olo Ngaju population of southeastern Borneo.9 Even though the study explicitly distinguishes itself as an analysis of an empirically specific and situated material, over and against culturally biased and “intellectualist” generalizations, it makes it clear that the analysis of this remote and particular culture is nevertheless meant to lead us, through a comparative approach, to a more general and valid matrix for the understanding of a transcultural phenomenon. Indeed, the purpose of the study is to see how the extraordinary burial practices among the Dayaks are “not merely local customs.” The social experience of death and loss as such is said to be represented in rituals that correspond to a process of “mental disintegration and synthesis” (86). In formulations like these, society and the social do not designate a specific Indonesian community but a general structure pertaining to the “collective consciousness.” In relation to this ambition, the Dayaks of Borneo obtain a role and position for Hertz and for the continued understanding of death and burial in anthropology that is methodologically different from but structurally similar to the role of Sophocles’s heroine in the Phenomenology. I return to the philosophical implications concerning the general meaning of death and its rituals that emerge from such a parallel reading of Hegel and Hertz. But before doing so, we need to look closer at the central concept of “double burial,” as this is first introduced and elaborated by Hertz through some of the empirical observations on which it was based. The philosophical and phenomenological implications of this anthropological matrix in the study of mortuary culture are greater than they may first appear.

Double Burial and the Precarious Temporality of the Dead

Hertz divides his analysis of mortuary rites along three basic dimensions: the body of the deceased, the soul of the deceased, and finally the survivors. At the center of the double burial complex is the transformation of the corpse from living tissue to bones and the different practices that surround this transformation. This can be carried out in many different ways. He describes that among the Dayaks the remains are taken to their final burial place only “after a more or less long period of time during which the body is placed in a temporary shelter” (29). This shelter can be the house of the family, a temporary hole in the ground, a wooden platform, simply a structure with some kind of protective roof, or on branches in a tree. This temporary sheltering of the body during the time of its decay can take place anywhere between a few months and several years before the remains are handled in the final ceremony, the local name of which is tivah, a burial feast that often involves great expenditures with complex and excessive social rituals and that sometimes may include human sacrifice. The details of these burial feasts as recounted by Hertz need not occupy us here. What is important for the general interpretive matrix are the meaning and importance of the transformation of the body to its skeletal remains and the cleansing and the drying of the bones. Among the Dayaks, the potentially repulsive process of bodily decay is not concealed but integrated within a ritual form. Hertz lists various ways in which during the course of this process the decaying remains are carefully taken care of and later buried together with the bones and, in certain cases, even partially consumed by the relatives.

The aspects of the burial ritual that concern the actual handling of the body are what can be described most straightforwardly. It is when the analysis moves to the second stage, to the question of “the soul,” that it becomes more tentative and involves more interpretation. Hertz begins this part of his essay by equating the two levels: “in the same way as the body is not taken at once to its ‘last resting-place,’ so the soul does not reach its final destination immediately after death” (34, my emphasis). It has to “stay on earth” or “wander in the forest” before it can move to the “land of the dead” with the aid of the proper ritual. To this he adds that the “ideas relating to the fate of the soul are in their very nature vague and indefinite.” The soul of the dead is not a unitary entity but is seen among the Olo Ngaju as containing two parts: one has more to do with the “personality” of the person, and the other is more bodily and “unconscious” and connected to the actual decaying corpse. The more genuine soul of the person leaves the body at the time of death, but it is seen as occupying a sort of middle region, as in waiting, before the final ceremony is celebrated and through which it can then move safely to be with its ancestors.

Hertz then lists a number of different ways in which this middle period is ritually articulated. It is a time when the soul is understood as remaining among the living: “as long as the temporary burial of the corpse lasts, the deceased continues to belong more or less exclusively to the world he has just left” (36). The ontological instability of the soul during this time is also a source of anxiety among the living since it can be transformed into a “malicious being” that can cause damage to the community, especially if the rituals are not carried out properly. Once the final ritual has been celebrated, the relatives can control the return of the dead, but until that moment the dead are credited with an “initiative” of their own. The middle and transitory period thus captures in a concentrated way the two supposedly basic affects vis-à-vis the dead, “pity and fear.” Hertz lists a number of ways in which not just the body of the deceased but also his or her belongings and house become perceived as impure, tainted with the fear of contagion and surrounded with “taboos.” This applies also to the relatives who are temporarily isolated from the community in various ways during this transitory period. The time of this perilous middle period is partly correlated with the actual time it takes for the body to fully decompose to a point where “only the bones remain.”

What makes the Dayak rituals so striking is how they follow this biological process of decay of the corpse and how they integrate it within their overall response to the death of kin. For Hertz, the essential point is not ultimately connected to any specific process of transformation but concerns the inner logic and meaning of this intermediary period. Even though embalming and incineration are not common among these particular groups, he concludes that “these artificial ways of disposal do not differ essentially from the temporary ways that we have listed” (41). In this way the concept “double burial” also permits him to integrate the practice of Egyptian mummification within a larger anthropological framework, or as he writes, as “a special case derived from temporary burial” (42). The same argument is then applied to cremation, since “far from destroying the body of the deceased, it recreates it and makes it capable of entering a new life” (43).10 He also mentions the famous practices among the followers of the Zend Avesta or Zoroastrianism of letting the bodies be eaten clean by birds and dogs before the purified bones can be buried. He suggests that its theological context can in fact be seen as a “later” construct and that we must “discover what meaning younger societies attach to reducing the body to a skeleton” (45). This remark is followed by a number of examples of similar practices across a wide geographical and cultural array, from Africa to South and Middle America, of different ways in which the body is transformed into its skeletal remains before it can be handled in a final burial. What he is looking for through this “eidetic variation”—to use a term from Husserl—of his material is something he himself refers to as an “essential point” and a “constant theme.” And this he finds in the “two complementary notions” that “death is not completed in one instantaneous act” but considered to be “terminated only with the dissolution of the body” and that “death is not a mere destruction but a transition” into a different and sometimes even superior existence (48).

A striking expression of this conception is found in a Maori tradition, where a chief is quoted as having said to his son: “For three years, your person must be sacred and you must remain apart from the tribe . . . for during all that time my hands will gather earth and my mouth will feed constantly on worms and vile food, the only kind that is offered to the spirits of the underworld. Then when my head falls upon my body and when the fourth year has come, waken me from my sleep, show my face to the light of day. When I arise, you will be noa, free” (51).11 The story points to the often strictly regulated period of mourning, which is sometimes directly correlated to that of corporeal decay and transformation. The time between a first and second burial is also a time when the living are required to act in particular ways in relation to the remains of the dead and in relation to the community. For Hertz’s overall analysis, this also permits him to integrate those communities that do not have an exterior second burial ritual but can nevertheless have a regulated period of mourning. These rituals can then be interpreted as a sublimated version of a widespread practice of following and culturally integrating the transformation of the body from living flesh to dry bones. Or as he writes, “One would be tempted to answer in the affirmative if our view were accepted that there is a natural connection between the beliefs concerning the disintegration of the body, the fate of the soul, and the state of the survivors during that same period” (53).

A special section in the text is devoted to a comparison of different ceremonies through which the second and final burial is carried out. Sometimes these are lavish feasts that consume huge resources from the family and the community. Their overall purpose is not just to give the dead a final burial and thus to ensure that the souls of the dead pass into the “land of the dead”; they also free the living from the obligations connected to the period of mourning and thus restore the community to its ordinary life. At the center of these feasts are the concrete remains, the cleansed bones that are sometimes also painted or dressed and paraded in public. Parts of the skeletal remains may also be kept by the family, especially the heads of important persons. Hertz lists several examples of decorated skulls becoming part of the family’s sacred treasury. The implied parallel to Christian relic ossuaries does not even need to be spelled out, as it would be obvious to any contemporary reader of the text.

The ceremonial feasts and the keeping of body parts confirm the connection between burial practices and ancestor worship. In many of the societies to which Hertz refers, the explicit purpose of the ritual is to enable the dead members of the community to enter the domain of the ancestors. How this domain is visualized can vary greatly, but the general structure has to do precisely with the sense of a parallel community beyond the community of the living and to which the living community stands in a reciprocal relationship. Hertz notes that the societies on which he has focused have moved beyond the supposedly earlier stages of “totemism,” where a mythic ancestor is worshipped in an often half-human and half-animal form. He mentions several examples of the second burial rites involving rituals in which the bones of the dead are reunited with the ancestral totem and sometimes believed to be reborn again in other incarnations of this original and foundational force.

Through the different examples it becomes clear how the connection between the dead and their community is often enacted and symbolized through a care for the bones, where great efforts are sometimes spent to bring back bodily remains to the land of their origin. Referring to the North American Choctaw, Hertz writes: “It seems that the group would consider itself diminished if it were to admit that one of its members could be permanently cut off from it” (70). As a striking example, he recalls the so-called feast of soul among the North American Hurons that was held every other decade, when individual groups would unearth and bring the bones of the dead to a communal burial feast as a celebration of the nation as a whole (71).12

He also mentions several examples from different parts of the world of the fear that the common burial grounds will be disturbed or destroyed by enemies. This fear sometimes even leads communities to conceal the final burial ground so it will not be desecrated. In the extension of this concern one can also interpret the practices of carrying the bones of ancestors as amulets, including the exceptional practice documented among some South American tribes of grinding the bones to a powder that they rub onto their bodies or swallow with drink, thus literally making their own bodies into the burial site of the dead (72).13

In a concluding section Hertz tries to summarize the wealth of sources and testimonies that he has mobilized throughout his text (a few examples of which have been recalled here). A principal prerequisite for his analysis is that death is not perceived in these societies as a “natural thing” or as a “natural phenomenon.” Instead, it is understood as the action of “spiritual powers.” Rather than see these societies as misguided or in “error” in this respect, Hertz interprets it as the “naïve expression of a permanent social need,” in other words, as the spontaneous experience within the community of seeing itself as “immortal.” The death of an individual is therefore experienced as an attack on the community as a whole. In extreme cases the dead individual and its closest relatives can even be attacked by its compatriots as though the threat to the community came from the deceased body itself.

Ultimately, “collective consciousness” is said not to believe in death. In a very Hegelian turn of phrase, Hertz concludes that the last word must remain with life (78). From the “least advanced” societies up to the contemporary Christian Church, this collective life provides a release from the damage of individual death and holds out a promise of a reintegration within itself. At this point in the essay, the Christian context of Hertz’s argument is made explicit in a comparative leap between the primitive tribes and contemporary church ministers, in relation to which he concludes that “at whatever stage of religious evolution . . . the notion of death is linked with that of resurrection” (79). The space of the resurrection he calls the “mythical society of souls, which each society constructs in its own image.” It is a world that exists “only in the mind” and is therefore said to be “free of all limitations,” in other words, “ideal.” He then makes the comparison between the rituals of death and other initiatory rites, such as adolescence and marriage. He compares his own type of civilization, where the life of an individual goes on more or less the same way from birth to death with “less advanced societies,” where every new stage is said to be perceived as a death and a subsequent rebirth. All of this is brought together in the conclusion that to “social consciousness,” “death is only a particular instance of a general phenomenon” (81).

The concluding remarks suggest that burial could be seen as a “rite of passage,” as this was subsequently developed by Arnold van Gennep, who is often mentioned alongside Hertz as the other principal theorist of mortuary culture in the anthropological literature. In his book with this title published in 1909, van Gennep devotes one chapter to funerary rites. There he classifies them as a branch of the more general phenomenon of rites of passage, which all presumably seek to handle the transport between different stages in human existence. While using and even repeating parts of Hertz’s argument, van Gennep also voices sharp criticism of Hertz just as he criticized Durkheim and his school in general for what he took to be their “social determinism.” Even though his work and analytic model are often equated with those of Hertz, and even though they partly overlap in their general orientation in seeing death rites as parallels to rites of initiation and rebirth, van Gennep’s study is of less philosophical interest and weight. In its explicit urge to develop the general concept of rites of passage, it overlooks the specificity and thus also the broader implications of the phenomena of death and burial. It does refer to the space of interaction between the dead as a middle ground and as a “special society,” but it does not try to develop any ontological understanding of this middle ground. Nor is van Gennep attentive to the deviant cases of the temporal-historical aspect of the phenomenon of burial that emerge when we consider what Hertz has to say about extraordinary and sudden deaths.14

Notes

1. Peter Metcalf and Richard Huntington, Celebrations of Death: The Anthropology of Mortuary Ritual (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 24.

2. For a more extended discussion of this question, see Robert Garland, The Greek Way of Death, 2nd rev. ed. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001), 34, which remarks that the two practices in fact seem to have been used interchangeably, with one taking precedence over the other at different times.

3. Philippe Ariès, The Hour of Our Death, trans. H. Weaver (New York: Knopf, 1981). For the analysis of the establishment of the modern necropolis and the gardenlike memorial grounds, see 531–533. For a longer analysis of the same topic, see Thomas Laqueur, The Work of the Dead (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015), chap. 5. For a summary and critical discussion of Laqueur in a contemporary theoretical context of mortuary studies, see also Hans Ruin, “History and Its Dead,” History & Theory 56, no. 3 (2017): 407–417.

4. This point is made by Edward Evans-Pritchard in his preface to the English translation of Hertz’s study, where he comments that this circle of “Jewish and Catholic atheists” showed an almost “obsessive interest in religion.” See Robert Hertz, Death and the Right Hand, trans. Rodney Needham and Claudia Needham (Aberdeen, Scotland: Cohen and West, 1960), 16.

5. Metcalf and Huntington pay their respects to Hertz, as do numerous studies in the growing literature on mortuary practices, including the other modern classic in the field, Maurice Bloch and Jonathan Parry, eds., Death and the Regeneration of Life (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), which focuses explicitly on the figure of rebirth and rejuvenation in mortuary culture. Ariès is actually one of the few important writers in the field who does not recall Hertz, which is notable in view of the fact that Hertz basically invented theoretical anthropology of mortuary culture in France more than half a century earlier.

6. Hertz, Death and the Right Hand, 29–88.

7. Hertz’s essay often shares its status as the founding document of anthropological death studies with Arnold van Gennep’s Les rites de passage (Paris: Emile Nourry, 1909), a text of lesser philosophical interest but to which I return later in this chapter.

8. The parenthetical page references in this chapter are all from Robert Hertz’s essay” A Contribution to the Study of the Collective Representation of Death,” in Death and the Right Hand, trans. Rodney Needham and Claudia Needham (New York: Routledge, 1960).

9. Hertz’s main informants, judging from his footnotes, were the German linguist August Hardeland, who had published a grammar and a dictionary for the Dayak language in 1858, and the German zoologist Friedrich Grabowsky, who did field work in Borneo in the early 1880s. By the time of Hertz’s study, most of the more extreme practices documented in these reports had already been forbidden and uprooted by the Dutch Christian colonists and missionaries.

10. The time of writing the thesis was also a time of increasing debates in Europe on the topic of cremation. In the largely Catholic France it was still mostly anathema, but in the northern Reformed part of Europe it was propagated by a growing movement, connected to Enlightenment ideals of both intellectual-spiritual and hygienic nature. For a detailed discussion of this debate, see Laqueur, The Work of the Dead, pt. 4, 492–548.

11. This is quoted from an earlier study by Edward Shortland, Maori Religion and Mythology (London, 1882).

12. At the time of the study, the French colonial name “Huron” was used to designate the people now recognized as the Wyandot, who mostly reside in Quebec.

13. Among the peoples mentioned in the footnotes are the Arawaks from southern Orinoco.

14. See van Gennep, Les rites de passage, chap. 8, 211.