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Dancing on the grave | Stephen Jones: a weblog

Barley grave cover

  • Nigel Barley, Dancing on the grave: encounters with demise (1995).

The harmless anthropologist is cited so typically in my posts on fieldwork that I’ve awarded Barley his personal tag within the sidebar.

Since a lot of my work in China consists in documenting funerals, it is sensible for me to hunt views from around the globe. Whereas making an allowance for the extra abstruse ritual theories so lucidly launched by Catherine Bell, Nigel Barley is at all times immensely readable. With typical humour, he surveys the number of methods of viewing demise and coping with it, that are such an idée fixe of anthropology. Citing the key gamers akin to Malinowski, Durkheim, Levi-Strauss, and Bloch, he refers to a variety of subject reviews.

Like detective fiction, it isn’t stunning “that Western anthropologists have sought, in funerary follow, the sense of an ending that might remedy and interpret all of the vicissitudes of life”.

But curiosity in “perception” could merely be a largely Western obsession. In China nice concern with a standard ritual response has gone fairly fortunately with an awesome disregard for similarity of perception: it doesn’t matter very a lot what you assume you’re doing so long as you do it like everybody else. It’s left to a small variety of international and native consultants to fret about concepts.

On this most unpromising foundation, totally different peoples have raised up complicated and tortuous rites which can be elaborated into true artworks.

(Cf. Geertz, and A flawed funeral.)

Certainly, Barley countenances the view that the fieldworker’s presence at funerals could also be

a marker of the predatory nature of all analysis or the function of the anthropologist as undertaker and embalmer of moribund cultures.

(cf. my be aware on “re-hearsal”!).

He considers the general public expression of grief. The efficiency of wailing (not solely in cultures like China however in early trendy rural Europe) appears to be largely a matter of etiquette. Different behaviours are numerous too: the firing of weapons and beating of drums, or the widow “displaying her appreciation of the mourner’s sympathy by courageous however tight-lipped hand-grasping by means of a soggy hankie”. And “around the globe, grief is as prone to discover expression in verbal artifice and poetic fireworks as mere noise or stillness of sound or movement”.

Against this with our personal funerals, the place “a blanket of straight-laced formality covers all”, in lots of cultures merriment and jokers are widespread. Because the Nyakyusa of Malawi instructed Monica Wilson:

We speak and dance to consolation the family. If we others sat unhappy and glum then the grief of the family would exceed ours. If we simply sorrowed what depths of griefs would they not attain? And so we sit and speak and chortle and dance till the family chortle too.

However Barley additionally unpacks the double-edged nature of joking at funerals, “strolling a line between aggression and solace”.

Within the writings of anthropologists on the sociality of African demise, the triumph of the group over the person is an endlessly reiterated theme that quantities to little greater than an urging of the sick to “lie again and consider Africa”.

He considers the Mexican Day of the Useless, at odds with the Catholic church’s urging of “respect” and sobriety—not in contrast to the English wakes that have been lastly pushed underground by the Puritan dictatorship. And he notes the “joke slot” in trendy British rituals, which for our mortuary practices could happen within the disposal of the ashes. Maybe At all times look on the intense aspect of life hadn’t fairly caught on; now it appears to have changed Abide with me in reputation.

Barley intersperses his forays into numerous cultures each with reflections on his personal English upbringing and with notes from his fieldwork in Cameroon—such because the traditional story in The harmless anthropologist:

“What occurs to a person’s powers/soul/spirit after he dies?” I attempted querulously, like a vicar hoping to get a present affairs dialogue going at a youth membership. They ignored me. Then one younger man turned spherical and snapped, “How ought to I do know? Am I God?”

In one other daring try to elicit origin myths among the many Dowayo, Barley talks with the native schoolteacher. The dialog turns to Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel:

“And Europeans?” I requested. “White males like myself. The place did they arrive from?”

He appraised me coolly. “I’ve studied the Bible in nice depth, monsieur. So far as I recall, there aren’t any white males in it.”

In English it’s widespread to keep away from the phrase “died” by euphemism and a proliferation of phrases; not simply “handed away” (to which I’m allergic) or “gone to satisfy his maker”, however “take an early tub” and “hear the ultimate whistle”, to not point out the wealthy lexicon of the Parrot sketch. The Layli of Bolivia say {that a} useless particular person “has gone to domesticate chilli pepper”.

Barley pics

Barley notes change, together with the way in which that Chinese language paper artefacts for burning maintain tempo with the newest shopper luxuries. Discussing the items buried with the useless, he finds that such practices

don’t essentially translate simply into beliefs concerning the materials wants of the useless or any surviving spirit. In a transfer that might drive anthropologists to distraction, pilgrims to the grave of Andy Warhol have taken to stacking it with unopened cans of Campbell’s soup.

He mentions the zombies of Haiti (cf. Zora Neale Hurston), “ghost marriages” (for China, see right here, below “Excesses”), and the smashing of pots (cf. “smashing the bowl” at Chinese language funerals: my movie, 1.16.49). He introduces notions of kinship, gender points, the siting of the grave, “dangerous deaths”, and political funerals—together with these of state socialism:

Whereas the incorruptible physique is likely to be seen by the peasants as a continuation of the normal veneration of saints’ relics, the Soviet management appears to have urged its interpretation as an anti-mystical act, a fascinating and debunking of the church’s claims of saintly preservation, neatly displaying ritual’s capacity to transmit two completely opposed messages on the identical time.

The guide ends with a helpful bibliography and index.

* * *

Xingyuan 2011 female kin

To return to Chinese language village funerals, held over two or three days, I stay impressed by their ritual exuberance and complexity; the differentiated apparel of the kin, the shawm bands, firecrackers, communal meals, feminine wailers, the ritual sequences of the Daoists, the skits of itinerant beggars, the pop band on a stage exterior the gate (for the latter, see my movie, from 30.32). Younger city educated Chinese language returning for the funeral of their grandparent will discover all this outstanding too.

At the grave
My Daoist pals are bemused by my accounts of the perfunctory nature of our observances in England. Having noticed as an outsider, Barley provides a private account of his personal father’s funeral. He remarks on the motley outfits, the structure of the crematorium, the “witness” who spoke as a substitute of a parson (“his mannequin was a press convention”);

I felt indignant on the hypocrisy of all of it. We have been colluding in a dishonourable pretence and we knew it. […]

The uninteresting vacancy in your abdomen is named grief. However grief isn’t the precise phrase. It’s a type of cocktail of acrid emotional pollution of which the strongest aspect is unquestionably guilt. Guilt for sins of omission and fee or maybe merely when there may be an emotional vacuum, anonymous guilt simply floods in to fill it up. A part of what we really feel for our family members is a type of addict’s dependence. Presence could not carry ecstasy however absence is insufferable. […]

I believe there have been hymns, however not the comforting meaningless hymns from faculty that carried emotions of nostalgia. In these, though the tunes have been acquainted, the phrases have been fallacious, all too spiritually appropriate and involving no allusion to a transcendental increased God. I had an intensely irritated feeling of being interfered with. […]

A trapdoor opened as in pantomime and the coffin disappeared. […]

On the home was an embarrassingly small group of largely unfamiliar family, a parody of kinship, testomony to the failure of the Western household. The symbolism of the chilly meats was horribly apparent.

“Dreadful,” one mentioned with clicking false enamel. “Once I have been a lad there’d be horses with black plumes. What did we get this time? A bloody van. Not a hearse. A van like we have been going to a constructing web site. It’s not proper.”

He additionally notes that Western funerals,

stressing as they do the distinctiveness of the useless, deal closely in separation and liminality however have little or no to say about reintegration, leaving the mourners excessive and dry of their grief and the useless with nowhere to go.

In relatively comparable fashion, Kate Fox additionally interrogates funerals in Watching the English.

There are few rites of passage on earth which can be as stilted, uncomfortable, and excruciatingly awkward as a typical English funeral.

The rituals “are simply formal sufficient to make us really feel stiff and resentful, but additionally casual sufficient to show our social dis-ease”.

We’re anticipated to say solemn, earnest, heartfelt issues to the bereaved family, or reply to those issues in a solemn, earnest, heartfelt manner if we’re the bereaved.

However not too heartfelt. […] Even these household and pals who’re genuinely unhappy should not allowed to bask in any cathartic weeping and wailing. Tears are permitted; a little bit of quiet, unobtrusive sobbing and sniffing is suitable, however the type of anguished howling that’s thought of regular, and certainly anticipated, at funerals in lots of different cultures, would right here be considered undignified and inappropriate.

And for as soon as, our default mode of humour appears inappropriate; we “placed on a courageous face”. Fox provides a quaint listing of the “optimum tear-quota”, categorized by gender, affinity to the deceased, and age. She additionally observes class variations—with working class, lower-, middle-, and upper-middle lessons, and higher class all having their very own most popular methods of performing funerals.

Even the “outpouring of grief” (thought of “un-English”) that adopted the demise of Princess Diana was marked largely by the standard English behaviour of “quiet, orderly, disciplined, dignified” queuing, and flowers; tears, however no wailing.

Fox could have exaggerated a few of this for impact, however such critiques appear authentic coming from cultural insiders. As she herself observes, self-deprecation is a significant trait of the English; a Dowayo or Chinese language ethnographer is likely to be disturbed by facets of our ritual behaviour, however I doubt if they might analyse it in fairly the identical manner. In fact, these should not degree playing-fields.

Anyway, whereas the laments of Barley and Fox ring a bell, I discover myself surprisingly reluctant to indict the stoic stiff-upper-lip funerals of Center England, or at the very least the mourners. Sure, our “blanket of straight-laced formality” covers drabness, repression, embarrassment—however a sure kindness can also be notable. We too construct on the cultural norms of our heritage. This will not be a grandiose anthropological perception, however folks do their greatest within the circumstances.


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