I grew up without any knowledge of religion and, as a result, it holds great fascination for me. The link below illustrates my journey into understanding religion and religious practices with an inside view.

The Mosque, the Imam, and Lessons in Islam: A Skeptic’s Inquiry into Muslim Religious Concepts, Rituals and Practices


My fascination with death practices sits side by side with religion. What do we really know about death and the diverse rituals around the world that honor death–or fear it?

Ritual Practices and Approaches to Death

Death is universal, but ritual practices concern the bodies of the dead, as well as the bodies of the living that mourn and care for the dead, which varies across religions, secular organisations, and cultures. This essay examines the ways in which the body of the dead and the bodies of the mourners are included in anthropological studies of ritual practices.

The Death Rituals in Rural Greece (Danforth & Tsiaras, 1982) and Death in Banaras (Perry, 1994), as they are book-length ethnographies, will be used as primary examples, supported by shorter, scholarly articles from Brazil and Britain, to demonstrate cross-cultural approaches to ritual practices regarding the body and death.

One such approach is from the evolutionist perspective, which associated death with a way of informing the origin and nature of religion. The fear of death and the concept of the soul’s ability to survive death are related to early primitive religion, in that religion is a response to the fear of death, a way to overcome death, and to maintain contact with the dead by way of an afterlife, ancestor worship, and mortuary rituals (Danforth & Tsiaras, 1982).

Twentieth-century anthropologists’ approach was to change course from the universalities of evolutionism and toward structural-functionalism as a lens for considering the study of ritual practices and death (Danforth & Tsiaras, 1982). Durkheim (1976), for example, focused on religion as a functional contribution to society, and viewed religion as a vehicle for creating feelings of togetherness, reinforcing social commitments, group structures, and solidarity. He explained:

“When some one dies, the family group to which he belongs feels itself lessened and, to react against this loss, it assembles. A common misfortune has the same effects as the approach of a happy event: collective sentiments are renewed which then lead men to seek one another and to assemble together….they embrace one another, put their arms round one another, and press as close as possible to one another. But the affective state in which the group then happens to be only reflects the circumstances through which it is passing…. the society exercises a moral pressure over its members, to put their sentiments in harmony with the situation (Durkheim, 1976, p. 399).”

According to Danforth and Tsiaras (1982), death disorganizes social life to such an extent that social unity is at least partly destroyed and becomes imbalanced. Malinowski and Redfield (1954) explain further:

“The ceremonial of death which ties the survivors to the body and rivets them to the place of death, the beliefs in the existence of the spirit, in its beneficent influences or malevolent intentions, in the duties of a series of commemorative or sacrificial ceremonies—in all this religion counteracts the centrifugal forces of fear, dismay, demoralization, and provides the most powerful means of reintegration of the group’s shaken solidarity and of the re-establishment of its morale (Malinowski & Redfield, 1954, p. 35).”

People cannot escape death and grief, but both can be conceptually managed in rituals and rites of passage.

Death Rites of Passage

In rural Greece, an Orthodox priest is generally asked to carry out the sacrament of Unction (or Anointing the Sick) when a person is extremely ill or dying, which also involves prayers and forgiving sins, and may include communion if the patient is dying. When a person dies their soul, “which is described as a breath of air located in the area of the heart, leaves the body through the mouth (Danforth & Tsiaras, 1982, p. 38).” A fast death, in which the soul effortlessly abandons the body, is regarded as an indication that the person lived a good life. Conversely, a protracted, tormenting death might indicate the person was sinful, in which case confession is warranted, preferably in the presence of those who may have been wronged by him or her. As a person lay dying, it is forbidden for anyone present to sing laments or cry because the dying person’s soul will be prevented from leaving the body. Much like the separation between the dying and the living, the body and the soul disunite. Eternal life or afterlife centres around the perception of good and bad death; the living do what they can to help the dead on their way to the afterlife, and at the same time, try to find comfort for their loss (Danforth & Tsiaras, 1982).

Upon death, new clothes are laid out for the body, which is bathed and dressed, and then placed on a bed in the living room of the home. While the immediate family sing laments and cry, women from the neighbourhood and relatives who are not members of the household arrange the body. They bind the feet together, and tie a long strip of fabric around the head from the lower jaw to the top of the head to keep the jaw closed. A white shroud is placed on the lower half of the body, and across the chest the hands are tied, holding a tall candle.  An icon, such as a printed, framed image of Jesus and Mary, is placed on the body’s thighs. When the body is ready for mourners, the priest of the village is apprised to ring the church bells, informing the village someone has died. Relatives, friends, and neighbours arrive at the house of the dead to watch over the body, place lighted candles around it, and lay coins on the chest. They kiss the forehead as well as the icon that rests on the body’s thighs. After offering sympathy to the immediate family, the men go outside while the women gather around the body, sing laments and cry. The mourning increases as more people come to pay their respects. They fling themselves on the body, embrace it and call out to the dead (Danforth & Tsiaras, 1982).

The village priest is called when it is time to bury the body, which signals the transitional phase of the rite of separation. The mourners become quiet while the priest gives prayers for the soul of the dead, and the body is placed in a coffin. A few women lead the procession from to the church, where the priest delivers an Orthodox funeral service. The ritual placement of coins, kissing the forehead and icon, are repeated. Then, the mourners follow the coffin to the graveyard, and the body’s feet, hands, and jaw are released from their fastenings and the coffin is let down into the ground. With a closing ritual of pouring wine over the body and recitation for the soul to find paradise, the mourners and the priest each drop a handful of soil onto the coffin. A shroud is placed over the coffin and it is covered with soil (Danforth & Tsiaras, 1982).  The body has become part of the earth, and the separation between it and the mourners is complete for the time being.

At the end of the service, the family returns home while their friends and neighbours share koliva (a boiled wheat and raisin dish) and bread in the church courtyard. Afterward, they go back to the home of the family, where the priest conducts another service and the assembly eats a light meal. Thus, the liminal, or transitional, period begins when the funeral rituals are concluded. However, Danforth and Tsiaras (1982) further illustrate aspects of incorporation concomitant with the period before the liminal phase:

“As we have seen, these rites attempt to bring about several types of incorporation…In addition to marking the separation of the body from the soul and the dead from the living, these rites express concern for the incorporation of the soul into paradise, the body into the earth, and the close relatives of the deceased back into the world of the living (Danforth & Tsiaras, 1982, p. 43).”

During the next three to seven years the body will decay, and at the end of the liminal period the body will be ritually exhumed. If the flesh has fully decomposed, with only bones remaining, it is a sign that the soul has achieved paradise, and has been forgiven of sins. If the flesh has not disintegrated, it is a sign that the deceased has not been forgiven of sins and will reside forever in hell. However, in some instances, the partly decayed body is simply reburied and exhumed at a later date. Still, a body that has not decomposed may well be an indication that the soul has resisted separation from the body and the living. The mourners similarly find themselves isolated from those who are living because they are still deeply connected with the dead through their grief, until the exhumation rite begins (Danforth & Tsiaras, 1982).

Although exhumation is a transformation that negates burial and life itself, it does not negate death, since death and disintegration of the body cannot be negated. The entirety of the body is not unearthed, but the death that began the process persists. “Exhumation is also an attempt to mediate the opposition between life and death, to resolve this universal contradiction by denying the finality of death. The exhumed remains are above ground, no longer separated from the world of the living, yet they are only bones (Danforth & Tsiaras, 1982, p. 66-67).” The exhumation is, therefore, a failure, and the ultimate resting place of the bones is the ossuary in the village, where all the other exhumed bones are kept.

In the rural Greek example of the death rites of separation, transition, and incorporation, the body passes through phases of immediate death, burial and decomposition, exhumation, and reburial or interment. In parallel, the mourners pass through the similar rites of separation, not only from the dead, but also from the living as they isolate themselves in their grief, transition from the mourning period to the certainty that their loved one is not coming back, and in the end, integrating the finality of death with the continuation of living.

Gender and Emotion in Death and Cremation Rituals

Parry (1994) discovered, during his intermittent fieldwork over the course of fifteen years, that, “the city of Banaras in north India attracts pilgrims and mourners from all over the Hindu world (Parry, 1994, p. 1).” The bereaved bring the bodies of their dead to have rites performed, which will assure a good life after death, while the pilgrims simply go to Banaras to die an acceptable death (Parry, 1994, p. 1).

In Hinduism, what determines a man’s social existence is the semen of his father. The rite of bringing a son into the world is a man’s duty because a man cannot reach heaven without a son to perform rites and preserve the offerings to the ancestors of his father. As such, “the father repays his debt to the ancestors by siring a son; the son repays his debt to his father by giving him birth on a new and higher plane, and this newly created ancestor in turn confers fertility and material prosperity on his descendants (Parry, 1994, p. 151).” The son is reborn as his father as he takes up his father’s moral and mortal responsibilities and status. The cremation of the father’s dead body is a creative sacrificial performance—one that gives birth to the father (Parry, 1994). The gendered subjugation of the birth process is a role reversal, contrary to the physical reality of a woman gestating an embryo and giving birth. In this sense, Hinduism gives a man the power to rebirth his father as an ancestor on a heavenly plane.

When a Hindu man dies, his son gives birth to him because women are not emotionally strong enough to go with the body to the cremation ghat (an area by the side of a river) and help with the cremation. The role of the women is simply to mourn. For example, when an elderly woman died, it was the men who placed her body with her feet toward the south in the courtyard under a shade, while the weeping women gathered around the body and lamented. Much like the death rituals of rural Greece, friends and family from across the city came to pay their respects. The men arrived quietly while the women wailed and lamented, but they all hovered over the body to view the face “so that they might have darshan (‘auspicious sight’) of it (Parry, 1994, p. 153).” After which the men wandered away and spoke quietly to each other, while the women continued to mourn loudly. Women, who are perceived by the men as being not strong enough to go to the cremation ghat with the dead body, also do not hide their emotions, while men practice restraint and endure silence.

Some of the mourners brought saris, which were taken to the dead woman’s son, who had been sitting in quiet mourning, for inspection, and then to the women who inspected them further. The men proceeded to build for the body a large bier, decorated with pennants and flags, fruit, balloons, and garlands.  Outside the courtyard music was struck up, and young men went out to the street to listen and dance competitively while rubbing abir, a favourable red powder, on their faces. Meanwhile, the women washed the corpse and swathed it first in a white shroud, and then 37 more. The men tried to place the body on the bier, but the women made such a wailing commotion the men had to persuade them to surrender it. Two saris, one gold and one red, serving as standards for the funeral procession, were tied to tall poles attached to the bier. The dead woman’s face was rubbed with abir, and the men moved to lift the bier and start the procession, but again, the women prevented them. Finally the men were able to restrain the women and the procession began with women wailing, dancers dancing, and cries of greeting to Lord Shiva (Parry, 1994). These ritual performances express the gendered roles of women (grief), men (silence and industriousness), and young men (dancing erotically in celebration of a proper death).

At the first crossroads they met, a water pitcher was broken, and the women were repeatedly entreated to not go any further. The women resisted until they reached the second crossroads, when the men so strongly forbade they acquiesced and went home. After the women left, the procession carried on more slowly because the young males who danced erotically and the musical troupe were entertaining the men who carried the bier, as well as the onlookers who watched from their shops as the procession passed by (Parry, 1994).

Rites of separation reflect the mourners and the dead, women from men, literal and figurative crossroads, from courtyard to cremation site. It is a continuation of ritual performance with additional audience, witnesses to the death, procession, celebration. The men bore the weight of the dead and the authority to send the women away.

When they reached the cremation site, each of the approximately eighty mourners poured five handfuls of water over the face of the body. In the midst of the ceremony, an argument broke out regarding the 37 shrouds that accompanied the body, whether they should remain with the body as it burned or be given to the cremation specialists. It was resolved as the son of the dead woman lit the funeral pyre. When the cremation was complete in the evening the group dispersed to bathe in the river (Parry, 1994).

The period of mourning for the son was ten days, during which mourning women came to visit him, to weep, and share his sorrow, while men came spoke nonchalantly with him. On the tenth day the mourning was completed, and the final celebration took place. The courtyard was decorated, songs were played, and an image of the dead woman also decorated and placed in a prominent location.  The following day, the men occupied their time by drinking liquor while the women tidied up (Parry, 1994). Eventually, all traces of the death and mourning had vanished, and the relatives of the dead woman went on with their lives.

Endocannibalism: Eating the Dead

Conklin’s research in the anthropology of anthropophagy (cannibalism) as a mortuary rite of the Wari, an indigenous people of western Brazil, describes social mourning processes, concepts of the material body, and ritual transformation of grief. Endocannibalism is a corpse-eating ritual, usually carried out by the consanguineal kin, meaning, the relatives of the dead eat the dead. Conklin does not cover the topic of exocannibalism (ritually eating one’s enemies) because it is only slightly similar to eating one’s relatives (Conklin, 2004).

Conklin (2004) highlights the relationship between mortuary cannibalism, grief and mourning. The emotional expression of death is described as follows:

“Death wails are of several types, including wordless crying, the singing of kinship terms for the deceased, and a more structured keening…in which mourners recount memories of the deceased, singing of shared experiences, and the person’s life history, deeds, and kindness. From the moment of death until the funeral’s end, everyone joins in a ceaseless, high-pitched keening that sends a haunting mantra of collective grief reverberating off the surrounding forest (Conklin, 2004, p. 243).”

Eating (or assimilating) the dead helps the mourners to detach emotionally from their memories of the dead. Emotions of grief and memories are transformed, tempering the mourner’s loss. One of the Wari’s told Conklin, “When we ate the body, we did not think longingly about the dead much (Conklin, 2004, p. 238).” In fact, endocannibalism is the Wari’s way of demonstrating honour and respect for the dead.

The Wari funeral ritual is conducted in the elder kin’s house with two groups of mourners. The primary mourning group is the closest blood kin, and the secondary group is of non-blood kin. The closest kin sit closest to the corpse, but all the mourners gather around the body. The closest relatives were prohibited from eating the body because the Wari consider blood relatives to all be of the same body, which would mean that eating a relative would be like eating oneself. Other family members who do not share the same blood eat the dead, concurrent with incest boundaries. Cannibalism is gendered in that men must eat the dead; it is an option for women, but not a requirement (Conklin, 2004).

The men of the secondary mourning group prepared the pyre and racks for roasting. The body was dismembered amid the rising intensity of wailing among the mourners. Dismembering the body symbolized not only a violent change in the corpse itself but also the connection of the mourners to the corpse, and an explicit depiction of separation, which aroused intense feelings. The inedible genitals, entrails, intestines, and hair were burned. The brains, heart, and liver were diced and placed on eating mats, and the non-blood relatives were invited to eat; however, they resisted and cried. After repeated entreaties, they began to eat. The rest of the roasted flesh was similarly prepared, and the ritual continued until the following morning. The bones, and whatever else remained, were burned, pulverized and buried. All other traces of the funeral were swept away (Conklin, 2004).

Secular Ritual and Humanist Funerals: Why the coffin? Where’s the body?

According to Engelke (2015), “The anthropology of death has, in essence always been an anthropology of the body, of how the brute facts of mortality, of the body’s putrescence and decomposition get enfolded into social projects of triumph, of life’s regeneration (if not resurrection) (Engelke, 2015, p. 30).” As such, these projects are ways in which the living mourn and deal with dead bodies; for example, rites of cremation, burial, exhumation and reburial, and cannibalism. Secular humanists, on the other hand, strive for non-religious funeral services.

The British Humanist Association celebrants (also called ritual specialists) provide funeral services for anyone who is not religious—for example, atheists, agnostics, and humanists—to specifically avoid services performed by priests or other religious persons. In order to uphold their professional guidelines, BHA regularly sends observers to evaluate their celebrants, and a singular achievement of celebrants is their ability to learn about the dead person, to sincerely recount information about the person, their life, and uniqueness for the benefit of the mourners (Engelke, 2015).

Cultural demonstrations of emotion, imagination, and renewal are as much or more for the mourner as they are for the dead. The presence or absence of a coffin, a material element and symbol of death, at a humanist funeral, even though the dead and the mourners are not religious, can be awkward. The final farewell may therefore be difficult unless the humanist celebrant who presides over the event finds a way to provide closure to the living (Engelke, 2015).

One of the ways in which BHA celebrants create a satisfying farewell for the mourners is to spend time with the family beforehand and get to know the person who died through their stories and reflections so that they can deliver an appropriate and effective service. The words the celebrants use are carefully chosen and masterfully delivered to reflect the fragile mortality and the realities of death (Engelke, 2015). Furthermore, Engelke asserts, “Humanists work very hard to make the funerals they provide personal, and individual, as a way of strengthening the frame, all the while underscoring that death means death (Engelke, 2015, p. 29).” And they impart that knowledge with clarity, kindness, and concern for the mourners.

Engelke (2015) attended a no-nonsense BHA funeral at a council-run crematorium chapel in London, and while there was no committal (burial of a dead body) involved, there was a coffin in the room, which suggests a body. The body is a powerful symbol, and the material aspects of funerals, particularly the coffin as it traditionally relates to transcendence, can render inadequate the immanence of a secular funeral. Engelke further suggests “the coffin has become a locus of humanist efforts to frame immanence (Engelke, 2015, p. 45).” Thus, the materiality of the coffin is a focal point that bears consideration.

Another point of consideration is the council-run crematoriums in London, which have historical chapels rife with religious material symbols. Crosses, images of angels and saints, are removed by celebrants immediately whenever possible. Secular humanists perceive the body, not as an agent of enchantment or an actor in the humanist scene, but as a material reminder of the person and the memories evoked by thoughts of that person. The humanist funeral, as Engelke witnessed it, involved masterful illocution by the celebrant, special songs, and music, and an effective final farewell. In a performative, subtle gesture of camaraderie with everyone present, the celebrant put his hand on the coffin. Without a word, the gesture in itself brought closure (Engelke, 2015).

Engelke calls it The Coffin Question, but it is more so a dead body question precisely because the coffin represents a dead body. In the future, humanist funerals might not include a corpse or a coffin (Engelke, 2015). Only the memories of the person will remain, and with affinity, shared ceremoniously.

Conclusion: Evolution, Structure, Function, and Humanism

Evolutionists suggest religion originated as a response to death, that within religious beliefs there are means to assuage the fear of death, defeat or circumvent death by transcendence, an afterlife, a resurrection, or to maintain a connection with the dead. The mortuary rituals of endocannibalism, and the male rebirth and afterlife concepts of Hinduism exemplify the primary stage evolution perspective. Theoretically, evolutionists could perceive structural functionalism as a higher stage of evolution because it frames religion as means for functional involvement in society, bolstering social responsibilities and generating emotive togetherness and cooperation within the group, as well as control over the group. All of the examples in this essay illustrate the structure and function of death and religion, even the humanist perspective which itself builds upon pre-existing structures and functions of religious rituals. In anthropology, the bodies of the dead are included in ritual practices in a wide variety of ways, but most importantly, at death the bodies become universal again, and yet there remains the valued, loved, and remembered persons who once inhabited them.


Conklin, B. (2004). Thus Are Our Bodies, Thus Was Our Custom. In: A. Robben, ed., Death, Mourning, and Burial: A Cross-Cultural Reader, 1st ed. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, Ltd, pp.238-259

Danforth, L. and Tsiaras, A. (1982). The death rituals of rural Greece. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Durkheim, E. (1976). The elementary forms of the religious life. London: Allen and Unwin.

Engelke, M. (2015). The coffin question: death and materiality in humanist funerals. Material Religion, 11(1), pp.26-48.

Malinowski, B. and Redfield, R. (1954). Magic, science and religion. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

Parry, J. (1994). Death in Banaras. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Copyright © 2016-2017 Marla K. Greenway

Copyright © 2017 Marla K. Greenway