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Lecture 6

ANTHROP 3HI3 Lecture 6: Death

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Dr. Rebecca Plett

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Anthropology of death
Death is a fundamental human experience
o Ways of understanding it are "elaborated by the many ways of treating the dead and
postulating their continuance beyond the mortal plane"
Thinking in some sense, part of us that may live on in a different form ,life
o Anthropologists look at variation in how the living and dead interact with one another, how
desired this interaction is, the kinds of death that occur (and responses to them), and the
disposal of bodies and rituals surrounding them
Different relationships between birth and death
How you treat the dying person
Do they turn into ghosts or ancestors?
Are certain kind of deaths seen as more tragic?
In the early days of anthropology there was a strong interest in uncommon forms of death, but
overall a tendency to look for universal features in the diverse cultural responses to death
o Resulted in ambitious, comparative efforts by early anthropologists
o Now anthropologists focus more on sophisticated ethnographies on particulars of death
Paradoxically, much work of death is centred on life:
o Death as the disturbance of the social order or of the social body, and a break in social and
family networks
o How grief and mourning function in society
o The variety of mortuary rituals and how they work
What they do to the body
While there isn't a "distinct" anthropological voice on death for much of the 20th century, there
was interdisciplinary dialogue, especially between psychology and anthropology
o A central theme in these dialogues is the tension between the inevitability of death and the
belief in spiritual immortality
Psychologists - people are dominated by a fear of death
Malinowski indicated that while there is a universal fear of death, there is a complementary denial
of death through a belief in immortality
o Mourners concerned with dangers of the corpse and contamination by death, AND a sense
of spirituality, hope, the sacred, and the otherworld
o This is "religious imagination" - a functional response to death by giving a sense of
Functions in a certain way to provide relief of this existential fear of providing hope
Strong connections
The study of death by medical anthropologists focuses significantly on death in a biomedical
context, issues of human suffering in relation to illness and death, and meaning-making of the kill,
dying and dead body
o How bodies are made meaningful when they enter this new phase? No longer living
o These ethnographies often place these bodies in larger cultural and global contexts
Individual that is dying is also connected in a social connection
E.g., dad dies - not because of his body, but also social relations
Nancy Scheper-Hughes: "Death without Weeping"
Ethnography of mothers living in an impoverished community in Brazil who practice "selective
neglect" of their infants
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