Death and the Regeneration of Life
Death and the Regeneration of Life
Death and the Regeneration of Life written by Maurice Bloch and Jonathan Parry focuses on the significance of symbols of fertility and rebirth in funeral rituals. Their book includes many theories that anthropologist have studied with the idea of life and death. The idea of death and the regeneration of life changes with each culture and tradition. Everyone has his or her own opinion of how it shall work. With the help of many contributors to the book, one is able to read the different types of ways some cultures value their own rituals.
The notions of fertility and sexuality often have a considerable prominence in funeral practices. These practices have excited the attention of anthropologists for almost one hundred years. It all began with Swiss anthropologist Bachofen in 1859. Bachofen was one of the first anthropologists to focus any attention on mortuary symbolism. In 1859, he published his first book Versuch uber Grabsymbolik der Alten, meaning “An essay on ancient mortuary symbolism” (1). He focused most of his study with the Greek and Roman symbolism, particularly as manifested in the Dionysian and Orphic mystery cults. He started by studying the significance of eggs as symbols of fertility and femininity in Roman tombs and in funerary games. Each of the eggs was painted half-black and half-white, representing the passage of night and day and the re-birth of life after death (1). After Bachofen’s study he believed that, “The funeral rite glorifies nature as a whole, with its twofold life and death giving principleThat is why the symbols of life are so frequent in the tomb.” (1).
After Bachofen’s studies, many other writers and anthropologists began to study his themes and other themes related to the topic. For example, J. Frazer took Bachofen’s ideas and looked more at the materials of ancient mystery cults. His question was, “How could killing be a rite of fertility and renewal, and in particular how does the killing of a divine king help regenerate the fertility of the community?” With questions similar to Frazer’s, other anthropologists have questioned themselves all the time. Many could not understand the theme of life and death. For many years, anthropologists would take works from others and try to combine them to make them more understandable. With all the different essays written throughout of the years, one is now able to compare the differences between death related practices in different societies.
In all the essays written over the years, one must understand how they use the term ‘fertility.’ Never do the anthropologists use the term in any restricted or technical way, but more in the dictionary sense of productiveness. If death is often associated with a renewal of fertility, which is renewed may either be the productivity of people, or of animals and crops, or of all three. In most cases what would seem to be revitalized in funeral practices, helps show what is truly culturally conceived to be the most essential to the reproduction of the social order (7).
Needless to say, not all societies look at fertility of death essential to the social order. A study done by Woodburn focuses on four hunter-gatherer societies. He displayed that these societies had none or little concern with the ensuring of the continuity of the human group itself, or the replacement of social personnel (7). The groups are more emphasized on the ability to save nature, which is the ability that is put into jeopardy at birth. These societies were constantly dealing with death due to the nature of hunting wild game. For them death was a way of life. To kill animals was the main focus for men. It was the prize of the animal that they strived for. The death of a man was accepted just as long as food was still available. For example, in the Laymi ideology they believe that land is more important than families. Land should be looked at as paramount, and large families should be looked down upon. It is here that they believe that large families upset the balance between people and the amount of land used. Due to this, agriculture is their primary value and is their main focus on mortuary rituals.
In contrast with the hunter-gatherer societies studied by Woodburn, there is the Gimi ideology. The Gimi’s believed it was more important to reproduce the clan members. However, it was on the land that women were required to meditate for fertility.
To be born one must be fertile, however if one is born then one must die. Death is very similar to the concept of day and night. When day comes naturally night follows. This is the same with life and death. When one is born, time passes and one must die. With the concept of time many want to try to determine the time and place of death and the dissociation of social death from the termination of bodily function, clearly represent an attempt to control the unpredictable nature of biological death and hence the victory of order over biology (15). Death can be looked at in two different ways: good death and bad death. Good death suggests some degree of mastery over the arbitrariness of the biological occurrence by replicating a prototype to which all deaths conform, and which can therefore be seen as an instance of a general pattern necessary for the reproduction of life. On the other hand, the deaths that which most clearly demonstrate the absence of control are suggested to be bad deaths and do not result in regeneration (15).
The Merina society, nothing is worse then the nightmare of the thought of having one’s body lost after death, thus stopping it from entering the communal tomb. The burial of the corpse helps recharge the fertility of the descent group and the fertility of land. If it is loss after death, then the group will not be able to use the energy released from the body. The body also rescues the deceased itself from obliteration. Without the burial and reburial of the body the group believes that termination of the society could be ahead of them.
Not only do societies value the body after death, they also value the fate of the soul. After the ones death it takes time for the mourners to readjust. This phase of readjustment is very dangerous for the soul of the deceased. This is because the soul may be socially uncontrolled by the mourners. To stop this from occurring, the mourners have a final ceremony. This involves the reassertion of society manifested by the end of mourning and by the belief that the soul has been incorporated into the society of the dead and has settled down in the same way as the collective consciousness of the living has been resettled by the rituals (4). After the final ritual, it is the nature of society and the state of collective conscience that determines both the treatment of the body of the corpse and the soul of the corpse.
Once the soul is properly set free, the problem that now arises is the transfer of the soul from one dimension to another. The transfer of the soul will explain the parrells between the symbolism of mortuary ceremonies and the initiation rites. Each of the rites involves a transfer in which a new identity is formed. It is this that Hertz argues that funerals are in fact a double ceremony. In the first part of the ceremony a disaggregation of the individual is established and in the second part one has the re-establishment of aa new society. Ironically, throughout Hertz’s discussion over the “double funeral” he leaves out the biologically value of the death ceremony. He fails to mention the social emotions of the ceremonies. Hertz finally states that, “Every life cycle ritual implies the passage of one group to another, an excursion, a death, and a new integration, and a rebirth. The rebirth which occurs at death is not only a denial of the individual extinction but also a reassertion of society and a renewal of life and creative power.”
There are many different examples of rituals throughout societies. To begin, one might consider the society of the Bolivian Laymi. The Laymi are Aymara speakers, though most of them also speak a second language called Quechua. There are around 8000 members in the Laymi. The Laymi’s have many rituals that deal with death and the regeneration of life. To name one, is the remembering of the family. The Laymi take four family lines of each individual: father, father’s mother, mother’s father, and mother’s mother. These cognatic ancestors are remembered through the pouring of libations of many ritual occasions. It is the responsibility of both the kin and the group of the whole to take the responsibility of celebrating the death of the ancestors.
As said before, the land of the Laymi is paramount. Everyone must have some part of taking care of the land. The land should be preserved by cultivation and worship. That is why it is so important to celebrate your ancestors because they will help the land stay strong, very similar to the Merina society.
When a member of the Laymi society is slowly dying family and friends look after them. However, the member of their kin watches them while chewing coca leaves and smoking cigarettes. They do this because they believe that the leaves and cigarettes are being used as a prophylactic against the devils that are afflicting the sick person (49). When the person’s soul has finally left the body, a three-stranded string is spun counter-clockwise. This is used to tie the neck, hands and feet of the deceased and thus to prevent the ghosts from escaping and entering another persons body. Some religions actually strangle the body because they believe the stench from the ghosts will escape causing pain on someone else (50). Sadly to say, there are no monuments and a few records of the dead in the Laymi culture.
Not only does death and life deal with worship and land, some societies look at women as the problem. In the Zulu culture, the wives and mothers are looked at as having negative polluting mystical forces that causes death. However, daughters and sisters are not looked at as negative. They are believed to have a positive mystical force with them. The discrimination of women is very rare in the death rituals of societies. It is absent from South America. In the cases of the Merina and the Laymi, the stresses are not focused on the sex rather than the their parallelism and completeness of their societies. However, in other societies women can be cleared of all the negative forces after death. It is in the Catonese society where the funeral specialists (who are paid for their pains) can absorb and remove all their negative forces.
This constant theme of death and decomposition seems to have held a particular fascination for the western European mind during the late medieval period. The symbolism that is provided by the societies offers a potent warning against the vanities of death given off by the world beyond life.
The cultures that were discussed focus most of their attention on the idea of death and the regeneration of life. They believed that everything, including land, food, and worship evolved around the concepts of life and death. They worried of whether one died a good death or a bad death. Others believed that death helped their land and society has a whole. However, one must consider that not all cultures handle death as a creation of ideologies like the Laymi, Marina, and Zula. Finally, as Woodburn pointed out, “The force of analogy between death and rebirth is missing when you not only enter and leave the world naked, but remain naked while in it; where there is no transcendental authority to be created the dead can be left alone” (42).