Death is not only a physical process, but a social and spiritual paradigm infused by a culture’s specific ‘beliefs, emotions and activities which give it its distinctive character’ (Hertz 1907, p. 197). Facing another culture’s beliefs around death can be confronting, often creating ethnocentric reactions and cultural misconceptions. Comparing American and Aberrant death practices highlights how these rites, and the spiritual beliefs underlying them, can appear horrifying when viewed only from the observer’s own cultural paradigm.
Anthropologist Peter A. Metcalf observed the practices of the Aberrant tribe, found along Borer’s north-central waterways, including the tribe’s four-stage funeral rites (Metcalf 1993, p. 325). The first stage lasts two to ten days and includes ‘rites performed immediately after death’ (Metcalf 1993, p. 325). The second stage, eight months to several years In duration (Metcalf 1993, p. 325), sees the corpse stored on a platform or in the communal residence with the remains contained in a coffin, earthenware Jar or similar vessel (Metcalf 1993, p. 5). During this period the corpse decomposes, allowing the soul’s transformation to ‘perfect spirit’ (Metcalf 1993, p. 326). However during this period the soul lurks close by, restless and uneasy, spreading the risk of Illness to the living and the possibility of corpse reanimation by an evil spirit (Metcalf 1993, p. 326). During the third stage, which Hertz referred to as the great feast’ (Metcalf 1993, p. 326), the remains are brought into the residence and guests celebrate the deceased for six to ten days (Metcalf 1993, p. 325).
The bones ay be removed and cleaned in preparation for the fourth stage – the decease’s final burial wherein the physical remains are housed in a receptacle of value, such as a glazed Jar or wooden coffin, with that receptacle accommodated in a large mausoleum; safe in the knowledge the soul had transcended (Metcalf 1993, p. 325). American funeral practices, by contrast, alma to preserve the body appearance (Hertz 1907, p. 201); embalming fluids replace bodily fluids, Injections fatten gaunt corpses, cosmetics enhance skin color, padded coffins give Impressions of a peaceful, endless slumber (Metcalf 1 993, p. 27). The American death,’afterlife transition is perceived as immediate, with little time between death and spiritual judgment (Hertz 1907, p. 197). In contrast, the Brawn’s soul must await the body decomposition – and transformation – before beginning its journey to the afterlife (Hertz 1907, p. 202). Only when dry bones remain, is the soul ready (Metcalf 1993, p. 326). American practices offer horrifying outcomes for the Aberrant exemplar.
For a body not given appropriate time for full decomposition and a premature final burial, ‘death ill not be fully consummated, the soul will not leave the earth, the mourning of the living will not be ended’ (Hertz 1907, p. 204). The American rites suspend the deceased In a limbo between life and death – the period the soul Is most discontent, still with great capacity to affect the living through illness. During this time potential America is a land carpeted with potential zombies’, all awaiting reanimation via the evil spirits that exist in Aberrant culture (Metcalf 1993, p. 26). With such a spiritual intent it can be understood why Aberrant are horrified by their belief the American culture traps a soul at the point of greatest unhappiness, dooming them to restlessly wander eternally; the dead never finding peace and the living never progressing past grief and mourning. The Aberrant-American comparison demonstrates that to fully comprehend a culture’s significant, spiritual customs one must first seek to understand the social, spiritual and cultural paradigms surrounding those customs.