Introduction

“In all societies, regardless of whether their customs call for festive or restrained behavior, the issue of death throws into relief, the most important cultural values by which people live their lives and evaluate their experiences. Life becomes transparent against the background of death and fundamental social and cultural values are revealed.” (Metcalf & Huntington, 1991)

Death is unavoidable and is an inevitable phenomenon of the life course as everyone has to experience it eventually. Yet, there is nothing inherent about the concept of death as it is in itself a social and cultural construction; the way people think about death and the strategies they develop to deal with death is dependent upon the meanings they attach to death, which can vary across cultures and time. Thus, the form that death takes on and the effects of death are non-universal and non-static and are instead constantly evolving according to changes in the socio-cultural-historical circumstances. As such, it is important to first study the meanings that people attach to death, for instance, the way they interpret the causes of death and the value and significance they accord to death. This then allows us to understand how those beliefs influence the types of death rituals and practices they engage in. Therefore, death rituals and practices cannot be merely seen as isolated events with a haphazard collection of ceremonies and activities but rather, as meaningful, coherent and expressive. They throw light upon the community’s perception of death and enables us to better understand how it is through those death practices and beliefs that those related to the deceased come to cope with their loss.

Due to the folk nature of the beliefs surrounding death which have been passed down across generations, it is normal for different societies to subscribe to different cultural and belief systems and hence, make sense of the world differently. This in turn leads to the variations in the methods people have developed to deal with death. There is no fixed or singular way of performing death rituals. Moreover, when studying the issue of death, we must not judge those practices using our own perspective and experiences and must instead seek to remain objective but yet, empathetic to the variations and diverse interpretations that exist. Nonetheless, in this report we will attempt to show how there is an underlying logic to all these death beliefs and rituals, even for those which may appear illogical to the masses. From the perspective of those involved, there is often a very rational explanation for their practice of certain rituals and beliefs. Our task then is to uncover those meanings through analyzing the symbols used in the death rituals and people's perceptions on the meanings of death and how they deal with its eventuality. More specifically,how the body of the deceased is disposed, the process of mourning and coping with the loss of a loved one will be examined and compared across the Dobe Ju/Hoansi, the Wari tribe and within our own cultures in contemporary and highly urbanized societies.

More importantly, the study of the death rituals and practices of various cultures will allow for deeper insight into some of the most important and prevalent values and ideas of these cultures. For instance, we may gain knowledge about the social relations between the living and the dead and how this relationship is maintained, altered or perhaps, even destroyed with the death of a member of the kinship network or of the community they reside in.

We will be focusing on the death beliefs and rituals to which Dobe Ju/Hoansi subscribe. The cause of death according to the Dobe Ju/Hoansi is fairly physically unnatural, as death is usually a result of external forces claiming the lives of the living, with the exception being those who pass away due to old age. Viewed from this perspective, it helps to explain why the Dobe Ju/Hoansi engage in a variety of rituals and practices when someone is on the verge of death; they believe that death is can be averted and hence, the aim of those rituals and practices is to help prevent a death that is not natural.

For the Wari tribe, they do not question the causes of death as they believe death is something that is natural and not preventable, and instead the tribe chooses to focus upon the aftermath of death. Thus, we will be exploring the post-death rituals and practices of the Wari tribe which are often elaborately performed only upon the passing of a kin or member of the community.

More pages