The Anthropology of Mortality: Notes on the Amsterdam Anthropology Lecture Series (AALS)

‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’ by Damien Hirst, photo by bloggers.it

By Matthias Teeuwen      We had the pleasure to listen to prof. Michael Lambek in last week’s instalment of the Amsterdam Anthropology Lecture Series. Lambek presented us with an ethnography of a practice native to Mayotte, a small island northwest of Madagascar, called ‘mandeving’. Mandeving is a practice by which the dead are commemorated as they are today, after having passed away, and not as they were when they were still alive. Lambek stressed that it is not so much about the individual act of remembering the deceased as about the collective enactment of the whole event. The talk, saturated with ethnographic description, got me thinking about the importance of investigations into death for anthropology.

In the story called “The Immortal” Jorge Luis Borges imagined an explorer discovering the fabled city of immortals. The city was a monstrosity of meaningless paths and courtyards, pointless walls and towers and insignificant ponds and bridges. The immortals themselves had moved out of the city, they were lacklustre, absentminded, and apathetic and only the strongest stimulus would bring them back to physical life. So according to Borges, being immortal makes one numb for actual existence and makes life pointless. Conversely, it is being mortal that makes one acutely aware of one’s existence and each passing moment takes on a significance it would not have if there was an infinite amount of moments following it.

So how are we to understand this meaning that arises with mortality? The hermeneutic circle, the idea that one can understand a whole by understanding its parts and vice versa, would suggest that it is the boundedness of life that gives it its meaning. Death rounds off life into a cohesive whole that can then be understood from its parts and vice versa. Yet this existential understanding of life would presuppose the ability to experience one’s own death, which is clearly impossible. Death thus remains only a possibility because as soon as it becomes actual… well, then you cannot experience it anymore.

So where does this reflection take us? Maybe the possibility of death is presented to us every time someone else dies. It is always someone else’s death we experience; the loss we feel is not the loss of one’s own life but of someone else’s life. So perhaps the significance of death for anthropology lies in the way people deal with this possibility of death that comes to the surface every time someone dies but lingers throughout one’s life as something that is inevitably and inexorably on the horizon.

This is also what Renato Rosaldo suggests in “Grief and a Headhunter’s Rage” (1989) when he says that anthropologists focus too much on the rituals surrounding death. He says that when describing funerary rituals anthropologists are actually only considering social structure and not death itself. However, one’s own death as a possibility and the bereavement following other people’s actual deaths are carried around throughout one’s life and form a constituting factor of it and should therefore form the locus of anthropological inquiry into death.

This might explain what makes mandeving such an interesting phenomenon. It is performed some time after the deceased have passed away, depending on what suits the mourners. As mentioned above, even though it is organised to offer prayers for the dead it is actually mainly about the event itself. In fact mandeving shows how it is possible that mourning hardly features in the ritual itself and that, more often than not, mourning takes place outside the ritual. It is in everyday moments not necessarily connected to any ritual that the dead are remembered, bereavement is talked about, and mortality is contemplated.

Matthias Teeuwen is student of cultural anthropology and theology at the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam. His research interests include religion, language, and the philosophy of science.

The Amsterdam Anthropology Lecture Series (AALS) is a year-long event organised by the department of Social and Cultural Anthropology of the Vrije Universiteit of Amsterdam. It involves public lectures for the academia and the wider public and it means to connect current affairs with anthropology. The series is linked to the new research theme of the department entitled ‘Mobilities, Belonging and Beliefs’ (MOBB).

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