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Sites and Rites of Death: Spacing the Corpse in and across Religious Contexts



There is a variety of conceptions, regulations and ritual practices centered on the ways of disposing the dead across religious communities. Hegel once remarked that history is the record of “what man does with death” and he may be right. Arguably, religion is a testimony of how humans have dealt with death and without death there might have been no religion. Though this may be open to debate, undeniably there are enduring discourses concerning the proper and improper ways of disposing the body (the vessel)–i.e., entombing, mummifying, embalming, cremating, burying (soil/water), dismembering, consuming (cannibalism), feeding it to the beasts (sky-burials, ‘towers of silence’), and so forth–which is believed in many cases to have an effect on the afterlife of its ‘contents’ (i.e., soul, spirit, mind-stream). While there are symbolic links between the physical after-life of the corpse and the location of its disposal (i.e., cemeteries, mausoleums, catacombs, rivers, etc), these ‘places of death’ (burial sites) may serve to unite and attract people of the same faith and exclude people of other faiths. There are many stories of persons who were unable, for a variety of reasons (including suicide), to cross to the other side and roam as ghosts and malevolent spirits haunting places and people. Ethnographically, cemeteries are generally seen as dangerous places avoided by those living. Fahlander & Oestigaard (2008:12) follow with the remark that in such cases there is a common belief that “the dead are not dead, but they are alive, although not as a fully fledged human being, but nevertheless real and present.” The dead body conjures up a host of attending discourses and legends concerning the physical and metaphysical spaces it ‘occupies’ before it gets disposed and after. It is closely linked with the creation of borders and with their transcendence (i.e., ‘life and death;’ ‘dead and the living;’ ‘purity and impurity;’ ‘partisans of religion x vs. y’).

Generally speaking the dead body calls upon two ritual processes; first, is the initial preparation of the corpse (i.e., washing or anointing the body with oils or other substances) and second, the actual manner of its disposal. Burial evidence may be instructive for understanding the formation and expansion of religious structures and traditions. Funeral rites are after all about a set of rituals by which those living are forced to deal with death and its materiality. As such they are not consistent, coherent and unchanging. They are not performed in the same way among equals (i.e., varying according to the rank of the deceased) and social and legislative variations are often observed within the same religious contexts. It would appear that death rites are vital to the definition and redefinition of religious ideas. New burial patterns emerged, for instance, when Islam spread from the cities of Arabia to Mesopotamia, the eastern Mediterranean, and North Africa, while religious scholars were often at odds to distinguish Islamic rites from Christian, Jewish, and Zoroastrian practices. The participation of members of different religious communities in funerary practices and commemorations was at times, but not always encouraged, while instances of desecration may be the byproduct of cross-religious dynamics. Hybridized death rituals and shared burial sites speak of periods of conversion and transference of ideas from one religion to another, while mixed artistic traditions in slabs and funerary monuments might reveal compelling traces of religious acculturation and adaptation. There are instances where codes of funerary law or funerary rituals have transformed and were transformed by commonly held practices in accordance with changing political, economic and urban settings. In this workshop we will be looking at case studies addressing this topic that illuminate instances of contact among compatible and/or competing religious traditions.

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