How Death Rituals Are Indicative of Aspects of Identity

Categories: Death

If one thing is truly universal in this world, it must surely be death. Everything that lives will definitely die. However, the ways in which it is rationalised and handled are incredibly diverse, so too is the concept of morality, which are all dependent on ones culture and society. Death is central dynamism underlying the life, vitality and structure of the social order, and so profoundly affecting the individual and their identity. It can be utilised as a barometer to measure the adequacy of social life, through indicators such as life expectancy, homicide and suicide rates.

It can be argued that funerary evidence is perhaps the very first indicator of sapiens’ humanity: for example, the remains of a Neanderthal middle-aged man, covered in flowers and found laid to rest in the foetal position, whose relative longevity despite deformity indicates the support of others.

Archaeological evidence suggests that humans, while once simply discarding their dead, started to assume a mournful role, making graves and depositing with in their various momentos.

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These momentos ranged from flower petals to flint, foetal positions to facing east, animal bones to horns, and other adornments and rituals supplementing the basic corpse. This ritualistic approach evolved from Neanderthal and especially Cro-Magnon times. Like paleoanthropologists one can attempt to delineate the identity of our forefathers, but by studying their death rituals, as opposed their skulls and bones, and using aetiology rather than phenomenology.

The ideas associated with death, the fears, hopes and orientations one has towards it, are not intrinsic.

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Death is socially constructed, learnt from public symbols such as religious and funerary rituals, which in turn reflect aspects of social affiliation and identity. It could be said that death is a catalyst, which when put into contact with any cultural order, reveals the central concerns and beliefs of a person. James Barron Hope said, ‘Tis after death that we measure men”. As the proverb goes “Good men must die, but death cannot kill their names”, they live on, immortalised in memories, cemeteries, eulogies, obituaries and memorials, their personal death rituals reflecting and identifying aspects of their identity. For Goffman (1969) ritual, is the crucial means by which self-identity is maintained.

The notions of society, culture, ritual and identity are complexly inter-related, each having a profound influence upon the others. “The definition of identity is a social process because, of course, identity is always constructed by reference to others” (Cohen; 1975; p95). Gender, ethnicity and class are some of the boundaries and parameters in which our identities are created. Firth noted that “Every human being is a bundle of institutionalised roles. He has to play many parts, and unless he knows his lines as well as his roles he is in no way use in the play” quoted in Verma (1969; p293). Roles are integral to our identity, how others see us and we see ourselves, and come prepared with ‘scripts’ attached and associated rituals. We have multiple roles and sub-roles, each with boundaries, which may overlap, some can be easily cast-off and others are more integral to our sense of identity, for example, some of the roles relating to my social identity are daughter, university student, employee, colleague, and friend. Seeing our identity in terms of patterns of roles and rituals links it to social expectation; each role played according to script and situated within social relationships that are culturally defined. Our identities are practised in our actions or interactions and in our relationships with each other (Althusser; 1979). “By their deeds shalt thou known them” (Matthew ch7 v20).

In this sense, our identity is a matter of how we stand in relation to others, of how we see them and ourselves, and, in turn, how they see us and themselves (Billington, Hockey & Strawbridge; 1998; p53). Social or cultural groups that we identify with are defined using notions of similarity and difference. Jenkins (1996; 280) extends this theory to the individual through a process of socialisation called ‘labelling’, where one identifies oneself and others in terms that distinguish us and us our identities, for example, I, myself, am a young, single, middle-class, European Caucasian, and nonpractising Christian amongst other things. Mead (1956) noted that when members of a particular society interact with one another, their conceptions of their own and others’ social status and cultural identity, with the role behaviours associated with such statuses, influence their actions. “For the Tallensi, personhood is finally validated at the death of the individual” (La Fontaine; 1985; p132). Concerns of ‘self’, ‘role’ and identity are organised and created socially, out of the legal, moral, religious, social and political processes and rituals that surround them. In other words, Hindus’ and Christians’ differ, Ancient Romans (who had no persona) appear empty compared to the Modern American (who has constitutional law to enshrine and protect their personhood), and the Tallensi contrast strangely with their contemporary European (a person before birth) (Prior; 1989; p153).

“The biographical transition requires the greatest amount of ritual is the passage from the world of the living to the world of the dead” (Kearl; 1989; p 28). In his book ‘Rites de passage’, Van Gennep attempted to write, in general terms, about ritual. He believed that all rituals could be divided into three stages; he called them separation (of person and society), transitional (liminal), and reincorporation (entering society again). In order cross boundaries one must submit to these ceremonies, known as the social determinants of subjectivity (Seale; 1998; p18). Ritual plays an important role in establishing identity and constructs the terms of membership in our relationships to society. Durkheim believed that ritual and religion provide both context and medium in affirming of the fundamental principles in given society’s organisation. However, anthropologists have come to regard the implications of ritual as more complex with a far greater range of competence than even Durkheim could have envisaged, impressing society upon the individuals mind and body most intimately and insistently. Geertz, in his ethnography of the people of Modjokuto, Central Java, demonstrates how in a society undergoing change, traditional rituals can emphasise boundaries and clearly establish social/cultural identity, saying “The social structure of a group is strengthened and perpetuated through the ritualistic underlying social values upon which it rests” (Geertz; 1993; p142).

The ritual system of the Javanese is supposed to support a person with severe emotional damage through grief. Tears are not encouraged or approved of, the mood of a funeral being calm, undemonstrative almost languid, ceremonial, letting go of a relationship no longer possible. The funeral ritual is said to induce feelings of iklas (a kind of willed affectedness) for these involved, and produce rukis (communal harmony) for the neighbourhood group. The actual service takes place once news of the death spreads through the area and everyone stops what they are doing to go to the home of the bereaved. Women cook rice into slametan (the first of many), and men cut wooden markers and dig the grave. The Modin (holy-person) directs the proceedings and reads the deceased his duties as a believer. The corpse is ceremonially washed and prepared by the relatives, “…who unflinchingly hold the body on their laps to demonstrate their affection for the deceased as well as their self-control” (Geertz; 1993; p154), and is carried in a ceremonial procession to the graveside, amongst numerous other ritual acts.

The death of a ten-year-old boy named Paidjan indicates aspects of contemporary Indonesian society. Where occupational differentiation, population growth and urbanisation have worked together to erode the traditional ties of peasant social structure. Individuals where once banded by geographical proximity are now linked in terms of an ideological like-mindedness. These changes are represented through a split in those emphasising the Islamic side of the native state (santris) and others with Hinduist and animistic (abangas) elements. These contrasts (were formerly) reconciled by the tolerance of the Javanese for wide religions, as long certain concepts such as slametan are recognised and supported. When the Modin arrived, the boy’s Uncle Karman was told he could not perform the ritual, claiming he did not know the correct burial rituals for the boy’s religion, though the Modin are supposed to bury everyone with impartiality irrespective of political orientation. The only terms upon which he would proceed was if Karman would sign an official statement of declaration that he was a ‘true’ Muslim, but the boy’s uncle refused to abandon his beliefs.

The boy’s neighbourhood, Kampang, is a mix of santris and abangas, and interaction between both is minimal. Despite this “the demonstration of territorial unity at a funeral was still felt by both groups to be an unavoidable duty” (Geertz; 1993; p156). So, by the time news of Paidjin’s death had spread, people were gathering and tension was rising, with “a general air of doubt and uneasiness in place of the usual quiet busyness of slametan preparing, body washing and guest greeting” (Geertz; 1993; p156). A young man present, named Abu, decided to attempt to rectify the rapidly deteriorating situation by sending someone to bring the Modin, and suggesting meanwhile, that the washing and wrapping of the corpse could be undertaken by relatives and volunteers. Unfortunately this was found to be, “…an unusual procedure which deeply disturbed everyone” (Geertz; 1993; p157) and was carried out, “…rather haphazardly and in unsacralised water” (Geertz; 1993; p158). The process was once again abandoned because no one knew the correct arrangements of cotton pads that, under Muslim law, should block bodily orifices. The boy’s aunt then began to cry unrestrainedly and Geertz was told, “It is not nice for her to cry that was” Abu, apologising for the tension, noted, “…that political differences had to make so much trouble. But after all, everything had to be ‘clear’ and ‘legal’ about the funeral” (Geertz; 1993; p160). Death rituals should be performed sensitively as they are indicative of identity, as ritual is not only a pattern of meaning but also a form of social interaction.

The tripartite structure of all rites of passage, noted by Van Gennep, can be profitably applied to funerary rituals of Ireland, which tend to circulate around three modes of person – the corpse, the soul and the social persona. These three aspects having to be attended to in their various ways, over the course of the three days from death to disposal. “The funeral rite glorifies nature as a whole, with its two fold life-and-death-giving principle. Death is represented as bound up with life and even its foundation” (Bachofen; 1967; p39). The theme of resurrection is emphasised numerously throughout Catholic ritual. According to Christian Burial (1983) it is mirrored during rituals performed at the graveside, during the funeral mass, and in the prayers at the deceased’s home before the service. Catholics also believe in a more active interaction between the dead and the living, during a prolonged period of purgation. Prayers are offered for the souls of the departed, intercessions are requested from the Saints, the dead are believed to be able to serve the living, though assistance is usually requested from ‘Our Lady’ and the Saints.

The hierarchy of the living is directly reflected in the envisaged organisational structure of the after world. The funeral service, obituary notices and tombstone inscriptions demonstrate this interaction through ritual. “…Christian eschatology both structures other interrelations between the living and the dead and given to the funeral service it’s most fundamental and basic rationale” (Priors; 1989; p169). The fact that the deceased once belonged to a mesh of social networks has implications for the funerary ritual, and so, it seems not unreasonable to assume and expect that the social worlds once belonging to the departed will be reflected, in part, within the rite. “It is therefore only when boundaries have been crossed during life that it is regarded as legitimate to cross them during death…this sectarian view…reinforced by…religious service…place of burial and the symbolism on the tombstone” (Prior; 1989; p170) also poignantly expressed in the Catholic-Protestant divide within Ireland discussed by Prior.

It is in military funerals that the use of symbolism in ritual is the most evident, flags and emblems affirming faith in nationhood if regiment/battalion/comradeship/political world. Funerals not only reinforce aspects of political, kinship or military organisation, they, in a broad sense, reflect elements of social status in number of mourners, size of ceremony, and money-spent etc. The Unitarian Universalists call it a ‘memorial service’, not a funeral, and the mention of God to the bereaved is considered in appropriate; there is no mourning at the death of a Sikh, since they believe the soul never dies; the Tibetan way of treating the corpses (discussed below) is very different from that of the modern American, “very willing to transform death, to put make-up on it, to sublimate it (Ari 1974; p100)”.

A major tradition in the study of death across culture and time has been to distinctive death epochs in Western history. The most notable example of this is the five-models of death succeeding one another over the past millennium, developed by Phillipe Ari, they were: tamed death, one’s own death, remote and immanent death, thy death and, more recently, forbidden death. Changes in the conceptions of selfhood over time mean that the death face by contemporary man is very different to that of the past. Previously personal extinction did not hold the terror one associates with it now, as the ultimate social unit (ones clan or tribe) lived on. With increasing individualism, the quest for identity a self-knowledge has become people’s primary source of life meaning. This has made the self more vulnerable to death, which is what gives life existence and value. Books, such as ‘How to be a perfect stranger’, have been produced as a comprehensive survey of varied religions and their perspectives on death, and gives ‘useful tips on the etiquette to be observed and what to expect when attending other people religious ceremonies’. “The social worlds to which the deceased once belonged are immediately represented in the organisation of dispersal, and how, in the act of disposal, are buried the social, political and cultural symbols which served to derive the social persona of the deceased” (Prior; 1989; p174).

Cross-cultural analysis reveals that neither grief rituals nor the meanings and taboos surrounding death are fixed. China is a culture with a strong taboo around death, they do not make wills, plan for funerals, or make decisions about a coffin in which they are to be buried (Cline; 1995; p62). “Other Western people may wish to die at home surrounded by their friends and relatives. Chinese people prefer the dying relative to die in hospital. This is partly because medical facilities are on hand in hospitals but more importantly because death at home brings bad luck to the house and family. In China and Hong Kong you can find people building bamboo towers around the window of the family house so that the dead body can be removed from the house without using the escalators and staircases because these are reserved for the living”, according to Thomas Chan, Advocacy Services Manager for a British Health Authority responsible for Chinese people. He also emphasised that Chinese people do not like to think or talk about death.

By contrast, Mexico is a vividly death-affirming culture, with the annual extravaganza celebration the Dios de los Muertos or the day of the dead. This death-rich cultural tradition results partly from the fusion of Indian and Catholic legacies, the former of which, including the heritage of human sacrifices practised by the Mayans and Aztecs. The bullfight, the Dios de los Muertos and La Calavera are deeply ingrained in the culture. Octavio Paz (1961) suggested that Mexicans’ indifference to the ‘gloom’ and ‘morbidity’ of death could be as a result of the low value they attach to life, and in his study of the Mexicans’ special relationship with death said, “To the inhabitant of New York, Paris or London death is a word that is never uttered because it burns the lips… [to)…the Mexican, on the other hand, …it is one of his favourite playthings and most enduring loves” (pp1-2). In fact, the festive death rituals are neither positive nor negative, but rather, “an existenhood affirmation of the lives and contributions made by all who have existed…(and) the affirmation of life as the means for realising its promise while preparing to die” (Sanchez; 1985; p12), reflecting Mexico’s cultural heritage, and economic and political exigencies.

“The fundamental Law of Social order is…the progressive control of life and death” (Baudrillard; 1984; p172) and it has been said that, “Life becomes transparent against the background of death” (Huntington & Metcalf; 1979; p2). This is most cogently expressed in Tibetan views in synch with other Buddhist views in Asia, and demonstrated in the Book of the Dead’. Essentially, the fear that death must be confronted to truly achieve spiritual professes in the cycle of rebirth, towards the goal of enlightenment in order to attain the status of oneness with Buddha. Much meditation occurs on the topic of death, and familial members present at the death-bed attempt not distract from this confrontation, where often a lama may preside to help the dying and their family. Religious orientation can play a major role in identity formation and is reflected in death ethos and ritual. Tibetans reportedly even hacked up their dead for bird food as they had little want, need or respect for the corpse, which was just considered to be an empty vessel for the reincarnated soul.

Death is dealt with differently by people in different cultures depending on their death and mortality ethos. It is assumed here that social environments directly structure the individual experience of death (and its accompanying rituals); death like the identities of the people it effects, is a social construct. Indeed, it has been said, and I agree, that to study the attitudes and fears of individuals divorced from their socio-cultural milieus is as futile as ethologists studying animal behaviour in zoos! However, these conflicting views put forwards by different societies can never be reconciled, since nobody ahs come back from the dead to say whose was the most correct or which rituals were the most use. History, Hegel once wrote, is the record of “what man does with death” (Whaley; 1981, p1). Death is a biological fact which man shares with other species. Yet only man’s existence is characterised by the awareness of his mortality and transitory nature, and so, in a sense, as W.B. Yeats claimed, “Man has created death”, and my belief is that this argument can be extended by saying, perhaps, Death creates man, and its rituals can recreate men.


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How Death Rituals Are Indicative of Aspects of Identity. (2021, Sep 10). Retrieved from

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