Critique and Innovation

While Hertz noted that death rituals tapped deep emotions, his study and those that followed emphasized the socially determined nature of emotional responses to death. Indeed, Block and Parry (1982, p. 41) describe emotion only in the service of sociality, stating that mortuary practices anchor the social group, "not just by political power, but by some of the deepest emotions, beliefs and fears of people everywhere." An exception is the work of LeVine (1982) in psychological anthropology on grief, anger, and fear among the bereaved in Gusii funerals. In their comprehensive cross-cultural review of death studies up to 1984, Palgi and Abramovitch (1984, p. 385) comment: "When reading through the anthropological literature in one large sweep, one is left with the impression of coolness and remoteness. The focus is on the bereaved and on the corpse but never on the dying." Agreeing with and extending that assessment of observer detachment and an absence of an engagement with powerful emotion, Rosaldo (1989a, 1989b) and Fabian (1974) both develop critiques of the state of the anthropology of death. Rosaldo characterizes ethnographic representations of death by their formality, externality, and generality, while ignoring lived experience, subjectivity, and particularity. Seeking to describe broad cultural patterns, anthropologists "flatten their accounts, distancing themselves from the tears and agony as they seek out the lowest common denominators that make all funerals not different from one another but the same" (Rosaldo, 1989a, p. 173). He calls for a shift from ritual to bereavement as the unit of analysis and a move in ethnographic writing from distanced witnessing of visual spectacle to an engagement with the subjective experience and intense emotion of mourners. Fabian, in a more scathing claim, asserts that the historical representation of death in self-contained rituals, performed for the sake of social solidarity in bounded societies, has had an "intellectually disastrous effect" on anthropology. The discipline has looked only at visible behaviors surrounding death— "parochialization and folklorization"—rather than addressing the supreme social reality of the final dilemma of life. The study of "how others die," Fabian notes, has placed death at a safe distance from one's own society and one's self.

A number of pathbreaking ethnographies emerged from scholars trained in and following the 1960s. While maintaining the tradition of employing ritual as a central theme, those texts are influenced by the turn to interpretive techniques in ethnographic writing. They move well beyond strategies of generalization to explore the impact of individual deaths on particular communities and to consider the topic of death from the perspectives of poetics and politics, gender, emotion, the body, the self, memory, and modernity. For example, Myerhoff (1978), following Van Gennep and Victor Turner, describes the social drama and performative aspects of death as a life cycle passage ritual in a fading community of elderly Jews in California. Battaglia (1990) in an ethnography of cultural responses to mortality, explores the ways in which personhood is performed and experienced in rituals of commemoration in Sabarl society. Serematakis (1991) uses women's laments as her point of departure to examine the social uses of pain and methods of emotional communication and resistance in women's experience in modern Greece. Desjarlais (1992) focuses on sensory practices among the Yolmo Sherpa to develop an esthetics of experience that encompasses ways of understanding and writing about death, illness, and healing.

Moving beyond ritual as the guiding analytic frame, Cohen (1998) uses the themes of senility and old age in India, the United States, and in European social thought to ponder ways in which the decay of the body comes to be enacted and interpreted as decline and as reflection of family and community relations, the culture of the state, and scientific practices. The anticipation and location of death emerge as major preoccupations for elderly immigrants and refugees to the United States in Becker's (2002) study of transnationality and ethnic identity in late life. Biehl (1999) documents the interplay of science, government, poverty, and subjectivity in his study of AIDS and the experience of dying in Brazil's "zones of abandonment." The cemetery is a site of cultural production for Francis, Kellaher, and Neophytou (2004) in their cross-cultural study of memory-making, ethnic identity, and the incorporation of the dead into everyday life.

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