Funerary Rites Essay, Research Paper
In every society there exists certain customs, traditions, and beliefs associated with the movement of any given individual through life. Typically, the major events that are connected with these rituals are occurrences such as birth, puberty, marriage, and death. Each culture possesses its own set of rules and ideals to accompany the attainment of a new social status. These rituals are often called rites of passage. In his book Rites of Passage, Arnold Van Gennep describes the three phases of transition that accompany a ?rite de passage?. The three phases are separation, liminal or margin, and the final being reintegration or aggregation. I would like to compare and contrast these phases, focusing on the transition phase (liminal), in relation to funerary rites across different groups of people. In collaboration with this comparison, I would like to look at the way family members and members of the community are pulled into the liminal state by the death of a loved one.
Marcia Eliade makes reference to the Toradja people in the passage From Primitives to Zen. The article is meant to bring the reader through the events that take place when a member of the Toradja community dies. Throughout the reading it becomes clear that the immediate family members and close friends become very weary when a death occurs. Immediately mourning begins and both the deceased person and close friends and family are thrown into a liminal state. The society believes that crops, weather, and other natural occurrences, as well as the spiritual well-being of those closely related to the departed, can be negatively influenced by the deceased person. It is because of the prospective threat of misfortune befalling the community and family that onlookers become so wrapped up in ensuring that the soul (angga) arrives successfully to the underworld (torate). In doing so, the group separates themselves from the rest of society and uneasiness is felt within the family until the shaman performs the final rites of passage.
In the article Betwixt and Between, Turner explores the thought that what is unclear and contradictory tends to be regarded as unclean. So, in effect that which is unclear is unclean. The Toradja might argue that death is a prime example of this idea. For that reason, precautions are taken such as removing the corpse through an unconventional doorway or window to prevent the pollution of other exits. The death rites are performed so that eventually the liminal state will end and cleanliness and normalcy will return to the community. The liminality actually ends after a series of prayers, mourning, and the final song and dance takes place. At this point the deceased becomes a member of the underworld and is viewed as a memory in the community instead of a functioning member of it. In passages such as death, the reintegration process takes place not with the person who died, but with the members of the public effected by the loss.
The passage of a person through death is also associated with other concepts that Turner addresses. For example, at one point Turner addresses a negative characteristic associated with those going through the transition, in this case the deceased person. He states that transitional beings have nothing. This term would include the loss of all status, property, rank, and kinship position. One example of this deficiency of all possessions in the final stage, is the Hindu view of the final samskara (rite of passage).
After death, the deceased is readied to be brought to burial or burning grounds without any emphasis on worldly possessions or status. A Hindu death is viewed as the end of the life body and the beginning of a new life in the afterlife. For that reason, it is unnecessary for any worldly ideals or objects to accompany the soul through this liminal journey. One may contend that this loss of all worldly recognition may in fact be one thing that separates the dead from the living and places the departed into the liminal phase.
The Hindu belief in the continuation of life after death plays a large role in the way in which mourners feel and react to death. In contrast to the Toradja people, Hindu society does not usually possess a sense of fear of the dead, nor does it place attention on the liminality of the mourners. Instead mourners view themselves as being a living force to aid in the safe journey of a loved one?s soul. The people do not suppose that they are at all in harms way. Death is viewed as a natural part of Hindu life. The final passage of the soul is said to be complete after a ten-day gestation period. After the ten days, the soul is considered to reside with ancestors and the liminal state ends as the community embraces the departure of the person.
Betwixt and Between also makes reference to one other obstacle encountered in the liminal. Those voyaging through the liminal are not thought to be classified as anything. Death in Yoruba society would demonstrate this lack of classification. The lifeless immediately encounter the liminal stage, as is the same in all other cultures.
Contrast can be seen when one looks at the way the family treats the corpse, almost as if it is not there. There is no urgency to bury the body, and also no mourning period is set aside. Instead, loved ones gather and remember the passed individual by honoring their attributes in some way. Unlike other cultures where the dead must pass through the rites of passage to be accepted as a memory or ancestor, the Yoruba incorporate the memory of the departed as a rite of passage. After burial within the compound, prayers are said to complete the funerary rites of the individual. Shortly after it is believed that the person was accepted into the good heaven (orun rere), festivities and dancing are pursued and a new shrine is erected in honor of the new ancestor. Therefore, in this case one can view the reintegration process as the induction into a hall almost.
Throughout the exploration of Turner?s essay as well as the glimpse at particular funerary rites, there are some patterns and similarities that can be drawn. One constant theme that is recognized throughout all three examples is the belief of an afterlife. No matter if the afterlife consisted of other passed members of the community or random people of the world, every example believed in life after death, and that was the final rite of passage. Another similarity that was encountered was the state of the liminal. That transition period, one may argue is unavoidable, especially in death, which we have seen through the illustration of each culture. A minor pattern of funerary rites among the people was the incorporation in some way of song and/or dance. The purpose of the song and dance may vary, however that element has been noted to be crucial for the ushering of the soul to the afterlife. One final pattern to be noted is the need for the living to aid the deceased person to the afterlife, and out of the liminal. In fact each case mentioned drew this interaction of the living with the dead to be a requirement for the safe passage of the soul.
These patterns are simply a basic standard for funerary rites. I do not attempt to argue that these are definite, rather agree to the fact that in some cases these patterns may not apply. Perhaps the last idea I leave you with should be that the one thing that remains constant throughout all religions is death. It is the one factor in life that, despite the acquisition of manhood or marriage, is absolutely certain. It is for this reason that I might suggest that death is the one organizer of life, and all rites of passage. Through the prospect of death societies organize themselves accordingly. In doing so cultures have developed religion and rites of passage to remedy what Turner referred to as the unclean being the unclear. No one person really knows what awaits us after death, it is unclear. In an attempt to reassure its people, societies have developed standards as to their own ideas, and rituals in view of those standards. So, if nothing else is learned or understood or even questioned throughout the length of this essay, ponder in that simple phrase and all that it could mean: death is the organizer of all life.