The dead body is dangerous. Not only does it produce numerous liquids, vapors, and fumes—decay is a messy business—it represents the margin of life. The dead body therefore poses a constant threat to those of us still among the living. We have good reason to shun the body, to banish it underground, or transform it into ash. Many cultures have treated death as a taboo to be strictly observed or as an enemy with whom one fights a losing battle.

Many cultures, but not all. Some have cherished the dead body and others have viewed it as yet another active figure in the everyday. Many ancient cultures had death rituals that assumed that the dead had needs—food, clothing, prayer. In order to expand our own understanding beyond the contemporary context, Cosmologics spoke with Kimberley Patton about the different ways of dealing with death in the neolithic and the modern worlds. Patton talked vividly about the contrast she sees between the visceral (even intimate) way that humans processed death in the neolithic period, versus the way the modern world “banish[es] the ruined body that is now void of spark or speech.” In Patton’s view, our alienation from the dead body “divorces [us] from all human history” and leaves very little room in “our own psyches to deal with the weirdness of death.”

—Lewis West for Cosmologics


Cosmologics: I was wondering if you could discuss mourning and ritual, and how you see your work as speaking to the assumption that these are primarily useful in getting rid of attachments and moving beyond loss.

Kimberley C. Patton: You are speaking to a popular, and very American, notion of ritual, particularly death ritual, as tying up loose ends and putting death behind. I don’t think that’s what traditional funerary ritual is meant to do; I think it does something quite different, something much more radical: it is both integrative and divisive. Death ritual varies of course, from culture to culture, and even within traditions and families there are enormous variations. Particularly in the “postmodern,” alienated West, we have been influenced by a kind of secularist, almost cynical thinking about death and the identity of the dead, one which says, for example, that “funerals are only for the living.” But historically that has never been the case.

A funeral accomplishes many things. It ceremonializes the traumatic rupture of death, and thus creates a sanctioned space for the horror and loss experienced by the bereaved. It allows the family to integrate the newly dead (and therefore newly “other”) person into a wider family history—a new, reconfigured reality that includes both living and dead. And it entreats the gods, the angels, the ancestors, or the saints, to receive the newly dead into their company. Through prayer or rituals of intervention, a funeral also helps the soul of the deceased to escape the body and to make safe passage into the next realm. But mortuary rites generally do not view death as an extinguishment or disappearance. Rather, even if the individual personality is believed to dissolve, death is still a change rather than an end of existential standing. That doesn’t mean that the relationship between the living and the dead is permanently severed. Properly done, funeral rites allow the grief of the living to find expression, but also ensure the safety and acceptance of the newly dead on the other side.

In Judaism there’s a notion of the dead as helpless: they can never be left alone. A corpse must be attended to and cared for, like a baby. It has to be washed—you find this in many traditions—it has to be kept vigil by. The mourners have to pray on behalf of the deceased, since she can no longer pray herself. In some traditions, it has to be fed. She can’t feed herself, so there is a collective performance of substitution. That’s much too graphic for postmodern or secular sensibilities, but it seems much more real or “true” at a deep level. In this way, mortuary rituals are on the other hand divisive: they make crystal clear that the dead and the living now live in two different worlds, and are two different categories of person. They can no longer be in the same relationship, except within very specific parameters.


We cordon off death the way we cordon off birth, as if we might catch something and become less vital, active, or youthful.


Cosmologics: Could we talk a little more about those postmodern sensibilities? Specifically, what role does the body play? What can’t happen when it’s not there?

Kimberley C. Patton: The corpse at a funeral is like the bride at a wedding. The ritual is just not the same without her there; I would go so far as to wonder whether funerals “work” without some kind of physical presence of the deceased. By this I mean, as storyteller Michael Meade puts it, “Does the funeral shut the door [that is, between life and death]? Does it close the portal all the way?” If it does not close the portal entirely, the powerful realm of death can easily pull the living through before their time, as in the case of “contagious suicide” among the teenagers of afflicted communities. The presence of the corpse, cold and naturally blue, an eerie simulacrum of the familiar features yet not animated in the familiar way, makes it clear that the dead person is dead. There can be no illusion otherwise.

When a body is present at death rites, so, very generally, is the residual charisma of the person, the earthly vehicle in which the person lived out his or her life. To say that the person is not there is not true. They are there—not in the way that they were when they were alive, but they are there. Things get very graphic, very intimate with dead bodies in ritual. Corpses must be washed and dressed for burial; they can be kissed and anointed; oil, earth, and other substances can be poured on them. In Tibetan sky burials, they can be chopped apart by body-breakers and vultures can feast on their flesh. In our disembodied “memorial services” and “celebration of the life of X,” we protect ourselves from all this, but only perhaps because we have become so unfamiliar with dead bodies. We cordon off death the way we cordon off birth, as if we might catch something and become less vital, active, or youthful. Many people now have never even seen a corpse, let alone touched one.

Cosmologics: What about the deaths of animals; how have you seen that come up in your work or not? It seems like that often falls by the wayside.

Kimberley C. Patton: It does. But so often animals are buried with human beings, to accompany them in death or even become them. In the evidence from the Neolithic period, one really can’t ignore this. We have a number of animal-human composite skeletons from digs in, for example, the Levant, or more recently, the Orkney Islands in Scotland. Human bones are rearranged to include animal or bird bones, including skulls, shells, and talons, thereby creating composite beings postmortem. At Çatalhöyük, in central Anatolia, there is a related paradigm. This was a Neolithic city, perhaps the first in history, composed of aggregate housing on at least nineteen different levels and constructed over a period of about 1800 years (c.7500 to 5700 BCE). Throughout the Neolithic geographical range, the common practice was to bury bodies under the floors of houses in special raised, often corner platforms, and to demarcate these areas with wild animal parts, generally auroch horns and skulls, vulture claws, or fox jaws. Aurochs were the huge, giant ancestors of today’s cows—really frightening and impressive creatures, hunted and feasted upon, not domesticated.

So the idea seemed to be that you wanted to keep the dead as close as possible, and to protect their burial places with the dangerous attributes of wild animals. All indications are that the Neolithic dead were powerful, not powerless. Skulls were often “re-animated” with white plaster to re-create skin, and cowry or other seashells were inserted into eye-sockets. This was a whole different kind of metamorphic thinking about death whereby the living curated the skeletons of the dead with animals. Perhaps they did so to create new, therioanthropic representations. Or perhaps such arrangements gave the dead person the protection of animal powers. In the religious imagination of our ancestors there was apparently much more fluidity between humans and animals, and the living and the dead.


We don’t want the dead loose or mixed up in our sphere of action. We want them right where they should be; underground, cordoned off, out of the town or city center, out of commission.


Cosmologics: As someone who works in archaeology as well as in comparative religion and the history of religion, how do you see these approaches interacting, and how do they change your approach to death both in academia and in life?

Kimberley C. Patton: Because death has always been so charged for human beings—it has never meant nothing, and this seems to be true of animals as well—historical approaches to death, especially in the ritual dimensions of forensic archaeology, reveal a great deal about patterns of human thought and thought-worlds. First in my own personal experience, and then as a scholar, I’ve always been drawn to try to understand death, but I think that recently traveling to Çatalhöyük for three summer seminars and seeing how these people needed and wanted the dead to be close to them, instead of far away, was transformative. There was still a sense of division between the living and the dead—the Neolithic dead had their own special place in the home—but there was also an integration between the living and the dead that, once the modern mind becomes accustomed to it, seems natural and even comforting.

I think about the Albanian Orthodox grandmother of a friend of mine who’s an archaeologist. Whenever they drove by a cemetery, the grandmother would say, “There are the dead! Right where they should be.” We don’t want the dead loose or mixed up in our sphere of action. We want them right where they should be; underground, cordoned off, out of the town or city center, out of commission. Neutralized. Even the Victorians visited cemeteries on Sunday afternoons, but we don’t visit the dead anymore. In our view, they’re not really on the map; they’re no longer in the game. They’re not there. This is very different from how the dead have traditionally been seen, even up until very recently. I suspect the dead aren’t too happy about our neglect of them.

When we clean everything up with our positive “celebrations of life” in the place of funerals, when we banish the ruined body that is now void of spark or speech, remove the wail, the rending of garments or smashing of skulls, the prayers that the dead they won’t be judged harshly in the afterlife; when we take away all of this and only speak brightly about the lost life lived, we divorce ourselves from all of human history. We’ve also left very little space, in my view, in our own psyches to acknowledge the weirdness of death, the way that everything seems wrong. In the Hindu cremation everything, even the circumambulation direction, is backwards. Our society seems to be moving in a direction that suggests we are supposed to heal quickly and resolve the grief (and get back on the assembly line, Marx or Weber might say). The social antipathy seems to focus on the strength of grief, on its threatening potential to make us unproductive as the dead are.

So there are two different ways of looking at death. My preference is for the more traditional way because I believe it’s how we’re wired, how we tend. But I think that, no matter what we say or do, our sense of what constitutes traditional mourning persists in our bones. We recognize a dirge even if we have never heard one; our hair stands on end on hearing the Anglo-Saxon dirge sung by Éowyn for her slain cousin Théodred in the extended version of the film The Two Towers. We hear that her cry is dug out of her broken heart and lifted up as Théodred’s body is committed to the ancestral hillside tomb. But the tradition of the dirge formalizes her wild grief, gives it a space, and marries it with its ancient words to the grief of all who have gone before.

Death remains a shocking thing and a cruel thief, but it is also the most important source of meaning in our lives. When we euphemize its power, when we shun these beautiful, time-honored rituals, with their emotional and metaphysical correlatives, we lose ourselves as well. Not only our response to death, but our ability to be fully alive, is lost.

Kimberley Patton is Professor of the Comparative and Historical Study of Religion at Harvard Divinity School. She specializes in ancient Greek religion and archaeology, with research interests in archaic sanctuaries and in the iconography of sacrifice. She is the author of Religion of the Gods: Ritual, Paradox, and Reflexivity and The Sea Can Wash Away All Evils: Modern Marine Pollution and the Ancient Cathartic Ocean, as well as numerous articles and book chapters.

Lewis West is co-editor-in-chief of Cosmologics.


Image from Flickr via Mariano García-Gaspar


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