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Death Be Not Strange
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Death Be Not Strange
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Death Be Not Strange
Peter A. Metcalf
 
 
The popular view of anthropology is that is is concerned with faraway places, strange peoples, and odd customs.  This notion was neatly captured by a nineteenth-century wit who described the field as “the pursuit of the exotic by the eccentric”.  In recent decades many anthropologists have tried to shake this image.  They see the exotic as dangerously close to the sensational and, therefore, a threat to the respectability of a serious academic discipline.  They argue that anthropology has solid theoretical bases, and that some anthropologists routinely work in cities right here in America. And they are right.  Nevertheless, anthropologists are as much involved with the exotic as ever, and I think that this concern actually works to scholarship’s advantage.
 
This continuing involvement is a result of the characteristic modus operandi of anthropologists.  First, we seek out the exotic, in the sense of something originating in another country or something “strikingly or excitingly different,” as my Webster’s puts it.  Second, we try to fit this alien item--culture trait, custom, piece of behavior--into its social and cultural context, thereby reducing it to a logical, sensible, even necessary element.  Having done that, we feel that we can understand why people do or say or think something instead of being divorced from them by what they say, think, or do.
 
Sir James Frazer, whose classic study of primitive religions The Golden Bough, was first published in 1890, provides an excellent example of the eccentric in pursuit of the exotic.  For him, the process of reducing the mysterious to the commonplace was the very hallmark of scientific progress.  Like many anthropologists of this time, Frazer assumed that some societies were superior and other inferior, and that anthropology’s main task was to describe how the latter had evolved into the former.  To Frazer, Europe’s technological achievements were proof of social, intellectual, and moral superiority.  The domimance of the West represented the triumph of science, which in Frazer’s evolutionary schema, superseded even the most rational of world religions.  Science’s clear light was to shine far and wide, driving superstition, the supernatural, and even God himself back into the shadows and dimly lit corners.
 
But Frazer might have found a second aspect of the anthropological modus operandi less to his taste.  In the course of making sense of someone else’s behavior or ideas, we frequently begin to observe ouw own customs from a new angle.  Indeed, this reflexive objectivity is often acclaimed as one of the great advantages of our methods and cited as a major justification for the long, expensive physical and psychic journeys that we make, seeking out societies far removed from our own cultural traditions.  Less often remarked upon, however, is that the exotic possesses its own reflexive quality.  As we learn to think of other people’s way as natural, we simultaneously begin to see our own as strange.  In this sense, anthropologists import the exotic, and that, I suppose, puts us on the side of the angels.
 
An incident that occurred about four years ago during my fieldwork in north-central Borneo brought home to me the depth and subtlety of anthropologists’ involvement with the exotic.  I was working with the Berawan, a small tribe comprising four communities, each made up of several hundred people living in a massive wooden longhouse.  The four longhouses stand beside the great rivers that are the only routes into the interior of Borneo.  Berawan communities live on fish and on rice planted in clearing cut anew in the rain forest each year.  In the late nineteenth century, which was a stormy period of tribal warfare, each longhouse was a fortress as well as a home, and the Berawan look back with pride on the military traditions of that era.
 
Among the things that interested me about the Berawan were their funeral rites, which involve what anthropologists call “secondary burial,” although the Berawan do not usually bury the dead at all.  Full rites consist of four stages: the first and third involve ritual preparation of the corpse; the second and fourth make up steps in storage of the remains.  The first stage, lasting two to ten days, consists of rites performed immediately after death.  During the second stage, the bereaved family stores the corpse in the longhouse or on a simple platform in the graveyard.  This storage lasts at least eight months and sometimes for several years if the close kin cannot immediately afford to complete the expensive final stages.  Third, if the corpse has been in the graveyeard, the family brings it back to the longhouse, where it is kept for six to ten days, while the family lavishly entertains guests who have been summoned far and wide.  Finally, the remains are removed to a final resting place, an impressively proportioned mausoleum.
 
Within this four-part plan, details of the corpse’s treatment vary considerably.  During the first storage stage, the family may place the corpse in a large earthenware jar or in a massive coffin hewn from a single tree trunk.  For secondary storage, the family may use a valuable glazed jar or the coffin left over from the first stage.  During the third-stage rites, the family may take out the bones of the deceased and clean them.  As the corpse decomposes, its secretions may be collected in a special vessel.  Some neighbors of the Berawan reportedly consume liquids of decomposition mixed with rice--a variety of endocannibalism.
 
For anthropologists, this intimate interaction with the corpse is certainly exotic.  For Americans not professionally trained in the niceties of cultural relativism, Berawan burial is no doubt disgusting: keeping corpses around the house, shuttling them between the graveyard and the longhouse, storing them aboveground instead of burying them, manipulating the bones, and, to Western eyes, paying macabre attention to the process of decay itself.  My Berawan informants were aware that some phases of their ritual bothered Europeans.  They soon learned, moreover, that I had a lot of questions about their funerals.  One of the pleasures of working in Borneo is that people soon begin to cross examine their interviewer.  They are as curious about the stranger as he or she is about them.  So before long, they began to quiz me about the death ways of my country.
 
On one memorable occasion, during a lull in ritual activity, I responded to one of these questions by outlining American embalming practices--the treatment of the corpse with preservative fluids and its display in an open coffin.  I was well into my story, concentrating on finding the right words to describe this unfamiliar topic, when I became aware that a sudden silence had fallen over my audience.  They asked a number of hesitant questions just to be sure that they had understtod me correctly and drew away from me in disgust when they found that they had.  So shocked were they that I had to backtrack rapidly and change my story.  The topic was never broached again.
 
At the time, I did not undestand why American embalming practices had so unnerved the Berawan.  Now, having thought about the meaning of Berawan death rituals, I think that I do understand.
 
The death rituals of central Borneo early attracted the interest of explores and ethnologists.  In 1907, Robert Hertz, a young student of French sociologist Emile Durkheim, wrote an essay about these rites that has become a classic.  Never having set foot in Borneo, Hertz relied on the accounts of travelers.  Had he not been killed during the First World War, he might well have undertaken firsthand research himself.  Nevertheless, his analysis is still routinely cited in discussions and comparisons of funeral customs.  Yet, oddly, Hertz’s central thesis has received very little attention.  Hertz hypothesized that peoples who practice secondary burial have certain beliefs about the afterlife, namely, that the fate of the body provides a model for the fate of the soul.
 
Since Hertz did not know of the Berawan, they provided me with an appropriate test case for his hypothesis.  I collected data on everything related to Berawan death rites: the people involved, mourning practices, related rituals, myths and beliefs, and so on.  I also pressed my informants for interpretations of rituals.  All the material I accumulated revealed a consistent set of ideas very similar to those described by Hertz.  The Barawan believe that after death the soul is divorced from the body and cannot reaminate the already decaying corpse.  However, the soul cannot enter the land of the dead because it is not yet a perfect spirit.   To become one of the truly dead, it must undergo a metamorphosis.  As the body rots away to leave dry bones, so the soul is transformed slowly into spirit form.  As the corpse is formless and repulsive until putrefaction is completed, so the soul is homeless.  It lurks miserably on the fringes of human habitation, and, in its disconfort, may affect the living with illness.  The third stage of the mortuary sequence, which Hertz called the “great feast,” marks the end of this miserable period.  The soul finally passes to the land of the dead, and the mortal remains of the deceased join those of its ancestors in the tomb.
 
But before this happy conclusion is reached, the hovering soul is feared because it may cause more death.  Even more dread surrounds the body itself, caused not by the process of rotting, for that releases the soul of the deceased from the bonds of the flesh, but by the possibility that some malignant spirit of nonhuman origin will succeed in reanimating the corpse.  Should this occur, the result will be a monster of nightmarish mien, invulnerable to the weapons of men, since it is already dead. 
 
I once witnessed an incident that dramatically demonstrated how real is the Berawan fear of reanimated corpses.  Toward sunset, a group of mourners and guests were chatting casually beside a coffin that was being displayed on the longhouse veranda in preparation for primary storage.  Suddenly there was a tapping sound, apparently from inside the coffin.  The noise could have come from the house timbers, contracting in the cool of the evening, but the people present saw a different explanation.  After a moment of shock, the women fled, carrying their children.  Some panic-stricken men grabbed what  weapons were handy, while others tied up the coffin lid with yet more bands of rattan.  Calm was not restored until later in the evening when a shaman investigated and declared that nothing was amiss.
 
We can now see why American mortuary practices so shock the Berawan.  By delaying the decomposition of corpses, we commit a most unnatural act.  First, we seem to be trying to trap our nearest and dearest in the unhappiest condition possible, neither alive nor in the radiant land of the dead.  Second, and even more perverse and terrifying, we keep an army of the unrecompensed corpses, each and every one subject to reanimation by a host of evil spirits.  For the Berawan, America is a land carpeted with potential zombies.

After a couple of field work, and an application of the ideas of Hertz and others, I can offer a relatively full account of Berawan death ways: what they express about Berawan notions of life and death; how they are manipulated by influential men in their struggle for power; how they relate to their sense of identity, art forms, and oral history.  Meanwhile, I have also explored the literature on American death ways--and have found it wanting.  For the most part, it is restricted to consideration of psychological variables--how people react to death, either the possibility of their own or that of close relatives and friends.  None of these studies begins to explain why American funerals are the way they are; why they differ from British funerals, for instance.

Jessica Mitford, author of The American Way of Death, tried to explain the form that American funerals take by arguing that they are a product of the death industry's political power.  But Mitford's theory does not explain the tacit support that Americans give to this institution, why successive immigrant groups have adopted it, or why reform movements have failed.

I have tried to relate American practices to popular ideas about the nature of a fulfilling life and a proper death.  Despite these intellectual efforts, I am left with a prickly sense of estrangement.  For, in fact, I had spared my Berawan friends the more gruesome details of embalming: replacement of the blood with perfumed formaldehyde and other chemicals; removal of the soft organs of the chest and abdomen via a long hollow needle attached to a vacuum pump; injection of inert materials.  I did not mention the American undertaker's elaborate restorative techniques: the stitching up of mutilated corpses, plumping out of emaciated corpses with extra injections of waxes, or careful cosmetic care of hands and face.  Now did I tell the Berawan about the padded coffins, grave clothes ranging in style from business suits to negligees, and other funeral paraphernalia.  Had I explained all this, their shock might have been transformed into curiosity, and they might have reversed our roles of social scientist and informant.

In the meantime, something of their reaction has rubbed off on me.  I have reduced the celebrated mortuary rites of remote and mysterious Borneo to a kind of workaday straightforwardness, only to be struck by the exotic character of an institution in our very midst. 

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