Mortuary metaphor: location of the remains of the deceased as a symbol of group membership

by Barbara Allen Fuchsman

Institution: Oberlin College Masters Theses
Department: Sociology
Degree: MA
Year: 1979
Keywords: Families and Family Life; Forensic Anthropology; Sociology; mortuary; remains; burial; funeral; artifacts; dead; cremation; social
Record ID: 1502035
Full text PDF: http://rave.ohiolink.edu/etdc/view?acc_num=obgrad1339076421


The question of where to place the dead is a universal problem for mankind. The body of the deceased is not regarded as ordinary carrion. It must be cared for in a correct manner and disposed of in an appropriateplace, not simply for hygienic reasons, "but out of moral obligation" (Hertz 1960:27). Death creates similar psychological and social problems in all human societies. Consequently similar kinds of rites, such as rites of separation, of protection, of reaggregation within a new order, and of commemoration, are very widespread, as is the ritual sequence in which they are found (Hertz 1960; Van Gennep 1960; Malinowski 1925; Goody 1962; Rosenblatt,et al., 1976). At the same time, great variation is found in the specific ways in which mortuary ritual is given concrete form. Disposition of the body may consist of cremation, burial in the dirt, enclosure in a containerplaced either above or below the ground, exposure, cannibalism, the keeping of relics, or some combination of these procedures. Likewise, the location considered appropriate for the disposition varies widely. The meanings invested in the form and location of the disposition of the dead also differ in different societies. It is my contention that these meanings can be usefully categorized. The variation in meaning does not seem to be random.My research project consists of a cross-cultural study of mortuary ceremonialism in sixty societies, the purpose of which is to investigate the influence of sociological and economic variables on certain aspects of mortuary ritual. The aim of this thesis is to examine the extent to which predictable variation occurs in the way social affiliation is symbolized by the location of the disposition of the dead. This work is built upon studies of both the relationships between ritual and socio-culturalorganization and also the social and psychological functions of funerary ritual. It entails study of ecological adaptation in its widest sense,involving the intersection within funerary activities of demographic, economic, sociological, cultural (in the sense of ideas and values including concepts of the supernatural and afterlife), and psychological aspects of human behavior. In addition, an important purpose of thisproject is to increase the understanding of the ways in which mortuary artifacts excavated by archeologists can be expected to reflect the organization of the societies of which they are the tangible remains. Systematically searching out ways in which aspects of funerary ceremonies,such as the location of disposition of the deceased, vary with changes in such factors as population density, fixity of residence, degrees of political integration and social stratification, systems of subsistence, technologicaldevelopment, systems of inheritance and measures of overall complexity should reveal the strength of the influence of each and the effects of their interaction. In addition, the reliability with which one can predict backward from the mortuary practice to the presumed presence of one or another of the economic…