Dead gran finds shelf-fulfilment

Dancing on the Grave
July 5, 1996

Dancing on the Grave is a fascinating survey of responses to death worldwide. In our society death has become a taboo, though we have a seemingly insatiable appetite for it in film, fiction and the news. Nigel Barley's preoccupation with the subject puzzled and alarmed his interlocutors. One African compared him to a vulture, for his arrival was an infallible sign that someone had just died.

The aim of Barley's book is to convey the immense variety of practices and beliefs surrounding death and its rites, and to celebrate human ingenuity in the face of our universal fate. There are societies where the prescribed behaviour at funeral rituals includes feasting and drunkenness, sexual orgies with close kin or even the deceased, and flinging excrement or insults. Still more disturbing is the female Asante practice of heaping insults on the body of a woman who has died in childbirth and dumping it on a rubbish heap.

How do we make sense of such practices? Barley is sceptical of attempts at universal explanations, and of our ability ever to fully understand other societies or ages. Quite often participants themselves have no clear or agreed explanation of the meaning of their rituals; the ritual is important for itself, not as a signifier. In some places sexual acts or gestures may assert ongoing life, in others symbolise a collapse into chaos paralleling the disintegration of the body. For the Torajans of Indonesia funerals are a vital opportunity for young people to meet and flirt. "If there were no funerals," Barley was told, "no one would ever get married." In the West we take photographs at weddings, though never at funerals; in other societies a photograph of the funeral group, including the deceased, is thought normal. Barley is good at jolting the reader with such juxtapositions. Many of our customs, he points out, seem bizarre, even scandalous, to others. Most westerners now die in institutions, away from family and friends, and bodies are handed over to strangers for disposal. Such practices would appear cruel and unnatural to most traditional societies, and indeed to our ancestors.

Barley resists the temptation to use the supposedly "instinctive" behaviour of more traditional societies as a stick to beat the artificial, repressed West, but he insists with reason that our contemporary practices serve us poorly. Modern funerals dispatch the deceased with public decorum, but do very little to help the social reintegration of the living. Equally, most of us now have no concept of a reintegrative process for the dead, for we believe in neither reincarnation nor a hereafter, while "dust to dust" offers small comfort for even the most dedicated ecologist. Yet modern rationalism is often as skin-deep as was religious faith a generation ago. We smile to learn how Madagascan people may place a transistor radio in the coffin, switched on, just before the lid is closed. But then Barley tells us how in Britain crematorium staff often have to remove spectacles, spare dentures or packets of digestive biscuits placed beside the body by relations.

This is an intriguing and thought-provoking miscellany, witty and accessible. It is also a frustrating book, with little sustained argument or comment. But much of the material will lodge in the reader's memory. Who could forget the Torajan granny dead three years but still in the house, wrapped in thick cloths, brought food and drink at meal times, and yet also serving as a shelf to store the family's cassettes? She would not be "dead", her son explained, until it was the proper time to remove her. Such scenes challenge our own notions at every turn, as do many of the startling illustrations to this book. Fortunately we can observe without running the risk Barley faced in Java, of being suspected as a witch looking for fresh corpses to eat.

Bernard Capp is professor of history, University of Warwick.

Dancing on the Grave: Encounters with Death

Author - Nigel Barley
ISBN - 0 7195 5286 9
Publisher - John Murray
Price - £19.99
Pages - 240

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