October 1991

Ritual is relentlessly optimistic, which is why death is in constant demand as a comic villain. In Spain he flew over a bed full of babies but was foiled. In the Congo he appeared among the Kota in the blue faces of the initiates but succeeded in stealing only their childhoods. And even in death's own star turn, our last great passage on earth, ritual denies the Reaper absolute triumph.

To wit: Why do we bury our loved ones? The anthropologist's reply: Because at some buried level of our own, we expect them to sprout up again next spring. It has been dubbed eternal return, a bequest from our agricultural days: The human progression, like that of the crops or the seasons, as a cycle of birth, death and vernal rebirth. Reassuring  and serene, the ancient dream of life as a circle attends every funeral.

The coffin? An attempt to provide housing. His best suit? Something useful for a journey, like the coins the Greeks left for the raftsman or, among the ancient Norse, the vessel itself.

If such practices seem somewhat silly now, perhaps this is why: While ritual remains stubbornly literal, Americans have become antiseptically abstract. For several decades we tried, emotionally at least, to shove death into the corner, ignore it,  get on with life. It didn't work. Our scholars and doctors told us that try as we might, we could not sanitize death. What is suppressed festers. The grief we cannot share becomes solitary torment.

Better to bang a drum slowly. Better to weep aloud with others who are mourning too. Render honor to the dead and offer community for the living.  Eternal return or no, at least our own passing will not go unmarked. We are humans. Even in death we celebrate ourselves.

Along the road to the cemetery, mourners accompanying this funeral procession in Yunnan Province, China, prostrate themselves under the coffin as it passes. Others set off firecrackers to ward off unfriendly spirits. At the grave side relatives will throw in handfuls of dirt. In Taoism, as in many Eastern religions, death is seen as the gateway to a new state of being. Nevertheless, weeping and other expressions of grief are accepted as signs of love and respect. 

Photograph by Mary Ellen Mark