Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Saturday, 19 April 2008

Why are Anthropologists interested in death?

Caricature of a typical British funeral from an animation called ‘The Godson’ (Catlow et al. 2004) – here portrayed as dark, dull and miserable. Originally I wanted this opening picture to be of the inside of a British church funeral service but this proved impossible to find online, due perhaps to the solemnity of the proceedings precluding the triviality of photography. There where however many photographs of the coffin being carried to or from the church (see the discussion on later of the differing importance of the procession verses the church service when comparing Romany funerals to that of the majority in England and Wales.

It seems highly pretentious to pretend from a few books that a culture is understood, or even pretend to understand some practice carried out by that culture, particularly when dealing with concepts as powerful as death and the burial of the dead. Given that I have here the opportunity to spend a few weeks with secondhand accounts of a different culture, and not a lifetime of study within a living culture I will undoubtedly reveal, no matter how I strive against it, an ethnocentric bent to my writing and understanding. For this purpose I have chosen my own culture – reasonably mainstream English – and my own experiences of death and funerals to be one of my two ethnographic examples (henceforth I shall refer to this culture as ‘my own’). The other culture that I shall be looking at shall be that of the English and Welsh Romany Gypsies (henceforth referred to as ‘Romany’) as these people not only have been well studied over a long period of time but they also inhabit the same geographical location. Their own culture, though distinct and unique, has, in some writers accounts (Okley 1993:77-78), been shaped in opposition to that of the hegemony (as probably to a lesser extent has ours by that of the Romany’s). The customs I have highlighted in the following essay are only a few of the many associated with burial, those that seemed most useful when used in comparison.

For this essay I shall use Huntington and Metcalf’s Celebrations of Death –the Anthropology Mortuary Ritual (1980) to discuss the importance of death to Anthropology. The works of Jarman and Jarman (1998) and Okely (1993) shall be my primary sources on Romany burial practices, and finally I shall use my own experiences to inform my analyses of my own cultural practices. I was going to also use information from the local funeral directors, but unfortunately it did not display its opening times, and always seemed to be shut.

In this essay I shall be looking primarily at the differences between the two cultures burial customs and attitudes, and then through this attempt to show that these apparent differences hold many of similarities, especially when looked at through the lens of Van Gennep’s tertiary structure of ‘rites of passage’ ceremonies (Huntington and Metcalf 1998:9).

Death is in some ways the ultimate ‘right of passage’ that any culture or individual can face. It shapes our values within a society (Huntington and Metcalf 1998:5). It is universally applicable – all cultures have to deal in some way with the death of the individuals within that society (Huntington and Metcalf 1998:1). This makes it of particular interest to anthropologists looking for wide pan-cultural themes, as well as having important more local roles in ethnographic studies. The transition of an individual from life to death is accompanied by powerful feelings and reactions and thus the rituals associated with it are usually full of meaning (Huntington and Metcalf 1998:1). Death and the reaction to it seems to emphasize many of the attitudes of the culture involved, casting the participants in a harsh light of loss that brings to the fore the otherwise sometimes hidden world of identity inside. As people pass irreversibly from one state of being (that shared by all the living members of a community) to another separate one the living must do their best to cross this change in group dynamics while holding the remaining society together. Perhaps consequently to this universal and shaking up nature of death, where the edges, distinctions and common values between people are often emphasized, the study of cultures attitudes to it go right back to the origins of anthropology, with anthropologists such as Tylor, Frazer and Durkheim (who influenced the work of Van Gennep, whom I shall discuss later) all focusing on death as a way of understanding the living (Huntington and Metcalf 1998:5-8).

Another important realization (from a rational western point of view) to have about death is that it is primarily a ceremony for the living, no matter what emphasis is put upon the dead. The dead person is now a passive player in society (though many societies might protest this), their only active role being through that of their memory, emotional and cerebral. It is the living who decide what is done to the dead persons body (though their spirit may still in some cases be seen to operate as a free entity – the Ramanys would seek to control this as much as possible (Okley 1993:215-230)).

The Death-Mask taken from Ishi after he had died. This along with his brain and most of his possessions were kept without his consent or prior knowledge after he had died. It was considered by his white American friends there was “no objection” (Kreober 1961:234) to the creation this mask, though they had agreed Ishi’s body should be “touched and handled as little as possible” (Kreober 1961:233) out of respect for him.

A good illustration of the way that death ceremonies are a construct of the living people, rather than that of the dead person, is shown in the death of Ishi, “the Last Wild Indian in North America” (Kroeber 1964). When Ishi died he was treated within the hegemony with reference to his own perceived beliefs: he was burned in a crematorium, not an open wood fire, his ashes placed in an urn, not a basket and he was buried in a cemetery of the dominant American culture, not in a place of his own peoples choosing (Kroeber 1964:234-236). All this was done with respect to his friends guesses of his beliefs: he was not buried - he was burned with grave goods (“all of which we felt sure would accord with Ishi’s wishes” (Kroeber 1964:235)); and his urn was of native American origin (though not his own culture – it was also inscribed with his name that was given to him on his “discovery”). Also, in the climate of the times where native American remains where routinely retained for study and against the wishes of Ishi’s academic friends (who had now gone beyond merely studying him – one wrote afterwards “he was the best friend I had in the world” (Kroeber 1964:234)) his brain was removed and kept for study (Kroeber 1964:235). All this shows quite clearly that it is the living and the living culture who decide the fate of the dead (the focus of the study of anthropology). The dead have crossed an irreversible barrier, and the living must do their best they can for themselves and the surviving society, easing guilt and lessoning grief by reaffirming there own beliefs and principles.

This binary division of Life from Death was part of the study of ritual by Van Gennep in 1909 (Huntington and Metcalf 1998:8). Van Gennep, later developed by Turner, realized that in transitional rituals such as funerary rites (rites of passage) three stages where involved (Huntington and Metcalf 1998:9,11). In between the two states involved with a rite of passage (e.g. life/death) was a third transitional stage that he christened a ‘liminal’ stage, where the individual involved (and to some extent the community around them) where neither of one state or the other. Prior to Van Gennep’s study very few anthropologists had looked at any cases of rites of passage with thought given to this liminal stage, Hertze and his 1907 study into secondary burial being a notable exception (Huntington and Metcalf 1998:13). This development has been crucial in the development of the discipline of anthropology, as has other insight gained from the special nature of death in human societies as discussed above.

In order to apply this idea of liminality to Romany culture I shall first take a brief look at one of the principle beliefs picked up by those who have studied them, and which has a baring upon their death ceremonies. This is the concept of an inside world / outside world binary division and the possibility of polluting the inside with the outside that permeates through many aspects of Romany culture, be it from a cat polluting its body by licking its fur, to the outsider Gorgios (non-Romany) inherent Mochadi (polluted) nature compared to those of the insider Romany culture (Okely 1993:80-83,95-96).

The liminal period of the dead person in the Romany culture begins even before a person is dead. If possible the dying person is taken outside the living area, often to a hospital, not (according to Okley 1993:217) for the possibility of healing but because the place is seen as mochadi enough already not to have the living Romany world disrupted by the event. In the past a special tent would have been set up outside the camp to serve this purpose (Okley 1993:217, Jarman & Jarman 1998:26) This is the first in a long line of ritual practices designed to prevent the mixing of the living and the dead worlds, of ensuring the mulo, or ghost, (Okley 1993:193) remains apart from the living Romany’s.

A caravan burns at Brecon at the funeral of an old Welsh Romany man. Before setting it on fire the caravan was beautifully decorated inside with white cloth (Online BBC News (b) 2007).

In my own culture, in the 21st century, the polluting nature of death seems superficially more limited, almost to the point of being just to the senses themselves (if you can not see,– and defiantly not hear, smell, touch or taste - the dead person then all is well). However, a room in which somebody died could be seen as haunted and thus polluted. If it is redecorated, or maybe altered in some way in order to help remove that memory then this pollution can be removed. Maybe this is similar to the burning of the tent or caravan that a person has lived in within Romany culture (Jarman & Jarman 1998:26). Similarly within both cultures the final resting place for the dead persons body are widely seen as polluting. This appears within my own culture to apply if the individual is buried; the place where ashes are scattered after a cremation are regarded differently. In the case of the Romany, the burning of a persons body is seen as anathema. Okley (1993:222) would suggest this is connected to the ‘settling’ of the mulo after death to prevent it returning to haunt the living community.

In mainstream English and Welsh culture (at least outside the local community level) graveyards are not beyond redemption back into the world of the living, as is shown in the decision (being one such case among many) to build flats over a cemetery in Wrexam (Online BBC News (a) 2007). Here a similar theme to the removal of the dead from the seniority world at a funeral can be observed, for the flats where deemed as acceptable to be built so long as the bodies beneath them remained ‘undisturbed’. This probably is not the entire picture in this case, it is also a way of letting money exchange hands without letting its flow be disturbed by the relations of the dead, or by other non-fiscally-inspired groups, who can be told that these ancestors have been ‘respected’ – despite the fact they have now been built upon.

This in the Romany world could be seen as another example of the morchadi nature of the Gorgio. Here the world of Outside/Inside (in this case Dead/Living) has been violated to such an extent that people are now living in a realm reserved for the dead. Okley (1993:220,222) suggests that it is precisely because of the hegemony’s preserved greater respect for the sanctity from development of these places that they are chosen as sites for Romany burial, with all the church-based paraphernalia that has to be endured to insure burial. It is also suggested that the burial is also seen as the removal of the mulo from the vibrant, fluid, inside world of the Romany camp to the morchadi, dead, settled, outside world of the Gorgio, for being dead the person must stay forever in one place (Okley 1993:228). I do not hold this view, as the grave is treated with the same respect for cleanliness and beauty as the inside of a caravan, and visited often, with generations being buried in the same areas of the same graveyard (Okley 1993:226-227). This suggests to me that the dead are simply entered a different realm, still possessing a separate nature from that of the Gorgio, and have not become assimilated into the Gorgio society, despite their now sedentary nature.

Other precautions are taken to ensure that mulo remains separate from the living once the person dies. The dieing person’s (smart) clothes are turned inside out in order to help their mulo away from the body (Okley 1993:218, Jarman & Jarman 1998:27-28) symbolically turning the persons inside/outside roles into reverse, expelling them from the living world. The night before the burial the Romany’s body is then taken back to the camp where an all night wake is held, with friends and families gathering around communal bonfires. All rivalries are forgotten for the period of the funeral. This gathering could be seen as a way of re-establishing community bonds, of ensuring stability at a difficult time. Within my own culture this bonding period seems to usually take place after the internment, when everyone returns to the persons house. I can remember in particular at the funeral of my 14 year old cousin my family gathering together and the older generation telling family stories that we in the younger generation knew by heart, even being prompted by us to tell stories we all knew. No mention was made of my cousin until right at the very end before we said goodbye. The family have been in much closer contact ever since. Thus the gathering of family and a reaffirming of these bonds at a time of crises such as at a funeral can be inscribed into the rituals associated with it.

Large procession preceding the burial of the man mentioned in the preceding photograph (Online BBC News (b) 2007)

Small groups of relatives keep watch on the body in an open coffin (Okley 1993:217, Jarman & Jarman 1998:27). This watching over the body may occasionally occur in my own culture, I have at least one friend who spent the night by her sister in an open coffin with her mother and partner, but this seems unusual, it is more likely that the body will arrive the day of the burial already safely sealed within their coffin. One major characteristic of the Welsh and English funeral in recant years (even when excluding from consideration those not culturally of English or Welsh origin) is the diversity and opening up of different kinds of funeral practices and rituals. These range from a ‘traditional’ funeral, through a plethora of humanist funerals and beyond, with many people taking and adapting (or even inventing) various funeral rites to fit the individual and their family and friends, possibly as a result of both the collapse of religious power and rise in individualism within our society (e.g. 2007). This phenomenon is also affecting Romany funerals, with older individuals within this community bemoaning the fact that traditional funerals are dieing out (Online BBC News (b) 2007). This could be used to show how closely interwoven the two cultures actually are, sharing both the land and being affected by each others politics.

One major way that the two cultures differ is in the gathering attending the burial. In my own culture even if the individual who has died is known quite well unless the family (or maybe close friends) have invited you you would not turn up to the funeral. In Romany culture importance is attached to how many as well as who is present. In the procession from the camp to the graveside (maybe via the church) the more people of Romany origin who attend the better, with importance also being attached to Gorgio onlookers. The numbers attending is seen as an indicator of how important a role the person played in Romany society, and thus how good a Romany they were. This indicates to me the strong identity of the Romany culture, and the importance of ensuring its cohesion in the face of a much larger society.

Another difference lies in the different importance given within the two cultures to the church/crematorium ceremony and the actual burial/cremation. Romany funerals are focused more towards the procession to and gathering at the graveside (Okley 1993:220, 218), the place which henceforth shall become an inside area for the dead person. It is here the grief of the family is expressed most strongly (or even acted out – a practice to elevate the importance of the dead person, and consequently the remaining family as well) as well as symbolic gestures given towards the locking out of the mulo from the living world. These might include floral ‘gates of heaven’, not seen as keeping the evil out of heaven, but on keep the dead in (Okley 1993:226). Within my own culture, at least in the more traditional settings, the church ceremony is seen as the important component, with the actual deposition treated almost as an afterthought. In my own experience of cremation ceremonies the actual placing of the body in the place where it is burnt and its firing up is removed entirely, being replaced instead with an electronic curtain.

This division could be thought of as symbolic of the Christian importance associated with the soul over that of the body. However, as Romany culture is also broadly Christian (Okley 1993:216), I would associate another meaning to it. I would see it as a hangover from a time when the church was a very powerful political and spiritual force within mainstream society and this level of importance would be reflected (and actively encouraged) by a focusing on the church at a time when people are at their most fragile. It also serves to connect with the other important rites of passage within a persons life, their christening and marriage.

Finally there is an interesting division between the treatment of the belongings of the dead within the two cultures. In traditional Romany culture the belongings would be burnt, along with the caravan or tent within which a person lived (though they could also be sold to Gorgios if they where considered very valuable) (Okley 1993:222, Jarman & Jarman 1998:27). Even their animals may have been destroyed in the past (Jarman & Jarman 1998:26). This was seen as a fear of the mulo being drawn back to their belongings (Jarman & Jarman 1998:27) (see ‘Into The West’ (Newell 1993) for a filmic example of this happening when a husband fails to burn his wife’s caravan). Small keepsakes such as photographs where kept, though not on display, and money was also kept by the family (Okley 1993:222,225). Any relation made homeless by the destruction of the van was give money by the community (perhaps another effort to ensure unity within the society). If a caravan was particularly valuable then before the person died they could be given a cheaper one to live out the last of there life in, and this would be later destroyed. In my own culture the valuable belongings of a person would typically be shared out according to their wishes as set down in their will, with other objects being taken as a keepsake. In a way, the ‘polluting’ of an object with a persons spirit is seen as what makes it valuable, and what affords it special treatment above that accorded to it by its utilitarian or monetary value.

Anthropology can learn a lot from the burial customs of individual cultures, especially to highlight the similarities and differences between two cultures. For example, in relation to the Romany funeral components like the all night wake, ban on rivalries and mass inclusive procession all serve to show and emphasize strength and separate (unified) identity of a minority culture in the face of a majority. This pattern of constantly reaffirming cultural identity, and creating clear boundaries between those inside it from outside it is not so clear in the mainstream English and Welsh funeral, indicating the less immediate threat to cultural identity. However, the many-faceted division of modern funeral rights in both cultures may indicate a growing sense of individualism (or conversely a collapse of monolithic cultural identity) throughout England and Wales, and probably, though beyond the scope of this essay, across the western world. In addition to this role of individual cultural insight the study of burial customs can and has also been used to look at some fairly universal components of human cultures, for instance Van Gennip’s rites of passage theory.


Catlow, B., C. Catlow & L. Catlow 2004 The Godson 3 bear animations. Available from: [Accessed:2/28/2007] 2007 Humanist Funerals British Humanist association. Available from: [Accessed:2/28/2007]

Huntingdon, R. & Metcalf, P. 1980 Celebrations Of Death – The Anthropology Of Mortuary Ritual Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Jarman, A. O. H. & E. Jarman 1998 The Welsh Gypsies – Children of Abram Wood Cardiff: University of Wales Press

Kroeber, T. 1964 Ishi – In Two Worlds – A Biography Of The Last Wild Indian In North America Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press

Newell, M 1992 Into The West Miramax Films

Okley, J 1993 The Traveler-Gypsies Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

· Online BBC News (a) 2007 Graveyard flats 'morally wrong' British Broadcasting Association. Available from: [Accessed:2/28/2007]

Online BBC News (b) 2007 Respects paid as caravan burns British Broadcasting Association. Available from: [Accessed:2/28/2007]

Friday, 18 April 2008

perhaps I should go to sleep, instead of looking at youtube


Are they good for you? Oooh hydrodginated!

I prefure butter...

Thursday, 17 April 2008