Grief, Loss, Death & Dying

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Grave MattersReview - Grave Matters
A Lively History of Death Around the World
by Nigel Barley
Henry Holt and Company, 1997
Review by CP
Mar 25th 1999 (Volume 3, Issue 12)

[Published in Britain as Dancing on the Grave]

The danger in writing (and reviewing) a popular book on death rituals around the world is that what makes it interesting is "oh yuck!" factor. Here is a description quoted by Barley of the reaction to news of a death by the Warramungas tribe of Australia.

All of them were howling and wailing at the top of their voices... One man had been to his camp for a stone knife, and now rushed up, yelling and brandishing his knife in the air. Suddenly he jumped into the group of men, gashed both his thighs deeply, cutting right across the muscles, and unable to stand, fell down into the middle of the group, from which he was dragged after a time by three of four female relatives -- his mother, wife and sisters -- who immediately applied their mouths to the gaping wounds, while he lay exhausted on the ground...
Oh yuck. A Torajan family in Sulawesi keeps the body of their grandmother wrapped in "vast amounts of absorbent cloth to soak up the juices of putrefaction. Quite quickly, the whole bundle becomes relatively inoffensive. ... Food and drink will daily be put on a plate and balanced on the body." Double yuck!

But if you read enough of these descriptions, and think about the rituals common in North America, you start to see them as all equally bizarre or equally normal. Soon, especially with the worry of being culturally insensitive, you become nonjudgmental. Jessica Mitford, in The American Way of Death (now "Revisited") condemned many of the bizarre rituals of modern America, such as putting pillows and mattresses in coffins, for better resting in peace. Sure, maybe it’s a stupid ritual, but it's our stupid ritual. Yes, the average cost of these rituals is pushing the $10,000 mark these days. That is probably still cheaper than most weddings, and there is normally less time to plan ahead for a funeral. On Oaxaca, Mexico, every family, no matter how poor, has to purchase a totally new set of dishes every year, for the festival of the Days of the Dead, in order to please the spirits. It probably pleases the dish sellers too.

 Grave Matters is a cheerfully irreverent look at all sorts of cultures, full of personal anecdotes and interesting stories. The author is British, and you occasionally have to be quite familiar with British culture to understand all the references he makes in trying to convey the flavor of other cultures. Barley writes, "As a child I was much impressed by a woman in our village who wore a black armband when one of the Archers did." Most American readers won’t know that "The Archers" is a long running daily radio drama or soap-opera on BBC Radio Four, set in a farming community, focused on the family of the Archers. But most readers probably will still be able to get the point even if they don’t fully understand the obscure cultural references.

 Of course, it is the foreign cultures that seem hardest to understand. Barley keeps the pace brisk, and doesn’t spend much time going into the details of particular cultures. He emphasizes how dangerous stereotypes are, and his tales often make the point that it the anthropologist who seems silly or bizarre to the people he is studying. In the end though, I was left feeling that he had spiked my curiosity about other cultures while giving me very little sense of what was at the heart of them. A little cultural relativism is healthy, but ultimately I want something deeper, some reference point that helps me move beyond the idea that we are all just very odd. So I’ll be on the lookout for books that make more of an effort to explain the variation in the reactions of different cultures to death.


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