Read Complete Research Material





Death is not only a biological occurrence leaving the corpse as a residue that must be administered to; it is also, and more importantly, a sociocultural fundamental because of the beliefs and representations it gives rise to and the attitudes and rituals it brings about. It is of course understood that rites are the immediate extension of beliefs, and that funeral rites, in particular, are the conscious cultural forms of one of the most ancient, universal, and unconscious impulses: the need to overcome the distress of death and dying.

Funeral rites are so important that the presence of the participants becomes a strict obligation, particularly in traditional societies. In traditional Africa, funeral rites are the most resistant to the pressure of acculturation. A function of the rite essential to the social group is easily seen; after all, numerous psychiatrists affirm that many problems derive from the guilt arising when one hurries over obsequies or comes out of mourning too soon (Ariès, 1974).

Rites of integration and the cessation of mourning

In almost all traditional societies, double funerals are held. After a delay varying from a few weeks to ten years, according to the ethnic group and the resources at the family's disposal, a final ceremony takes place that confirms the deceased in his new destiny and confers on his remains a definitive status. Like the integration of the dead person, this ritual consecrates the reintegration of the mourners into the group: Order is reestablished and interdictions are lifted. As a rule, the bones are exhumed and then treated in different ways according to local traditions: Washed, dried, sometimes covered with ocher, they are preserved as visible relics, placed in containers, buried again, or even pulverized and mixed with ritual beverages.

In sub-Saharan Africa, the latter custom is quite prevalent, especially among Bantu-speaking peoples. Among the Bamileke of Cameroon, the inheritance of skulls according to rigorous rules symbolically secures the collective memory and the continuity of the clam. In Madagascar the Famadihana (which has been wrongly translated as "turning over the corpses") gives way to costly festivities: When a family decides to celebrate the cult of its dead, they proceed from opening the tombs and changing the winding-sheets to rewrapping and reburial with great ceremony, before an audience in a state of great jollity. For two days songs, dances, music, processions, and festivities punctuate the ritual manipulations.

In Borneo, the Olo Nyadju gives themselves up to analogous states on the occasion of Tiwah. Along with some degree of fasting, the majority of Indonesian ethnic groups do the same thing. This bone cult, which is generally referred to as an ancestor cult, flourishes among the American Indians, in China, and elsewhere and still has its equivalent in Europe. There is hardly any difference between the old Chinese who carefully brushes his ancestor's bones and the skeleton washer of Neapolitan cemeteries who, two years after the burial, when the corpse has dried out, washes the bones in front of the families before putting them in a marble ...
Related Ads