Grounded in the work of Tylor, Frazer, and Durkheim on the origins and social function of religion, the anthropology of death developed around the task of describing normative funeral and mourning rituals in pre-literate societies. Analysis aimed to illustrate ways in which particular rites enabled the transfer of the soul from one realm to another and reinforced social solidarity. Durkheim's student, Robert Hertz (1907/1960) in his study of secondary burial rituals, set the standard for anthropological considerations of the corpse and its treatment, the soul, ritual practices of mourners, and relationships among them. His work emphasized the following: death does not coincide with the destruction of an individual's life; death is a social event and the beginning of a ceremonial process by which the dead person becomes an ancestor; and finally, death is an initiation into an afterlife, a rebirth. His insights about death as passage from one classificatory status to another remained central subjects in the anthropology of death through most of the 20th century.
The studies of Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown, while influenced by Durkheim and Hertz, focused not on the corpse, but instead on the problem of death as a social crisis for society. (See Palgi & Abramovitch, 1984, for a review of the classic studies.) The impact of functionalist theory on anthropological studies of death, especially regarding the social implications of mortuary rituals, was felt well into the 1970s and 1980s. The period from the 1960s to the 1980s saw a profusion of ethnographic accounts of rituals surrounding death, in both their symbolic and structural aspects (e.g., Block & Parry, 1982; Danforth, 1982; Douglass, 1969; Goody, 1962; Gorer, 1965; Huntington & Metcalf, 1979; LeVine, 1982; Metcalf, 1982). Rosenblatt, Walsh, and Jackson (1976) surveyed grief and mourning practices in 78 cultural groups to identify universal or near-universal cultural responses to the death of someone close. They compared death customs from around the world—behavior surrounding the bereaved, taboos, ritual practice, and the role of anger and aggression, for example—with customs in the United States.
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