Anthropological Reflections on a Family Death

Author: Paul Bowell, soon to complete his Bachelor of Arts, majoring in anthropology, at the ANU. Paul has undertaken several fieldwork projects during his degree in preparation for graduate level ethnographic study in the areas of either biotechnology or Pacific Island politics. He wrote this blog to help formulate his own feelings following the death of his father, and the role that studying anthropology can play when facing such pivotal life events.

Reflexivity and death

Reflexivity is a vital component of the anthropological process, allowing us to better account for our subjective interpretations of cultural experiences. But the importance of such reflection was only made fully apparent to me following the recent death of my father. There are few pre-defined social protocols attributed to death that govern the interactions of Anglo-Australian society. Rather, mourning is positioned as an individual emotion, as are the various responses to it.

Without cultural defined guides, simple social interactions became uncomfortable, awkward and difficult for all involved. For example, when I returned to work and university there were many conversations in which people felt they needed to engage in the topic of my father’s passing yet had no idea how to do so. This lead to comments such as, “well, you know it [death] will happen to all of us”. At the time these interactions were intended to be caring and comforting, yet I found them to be far from it.

The social experiences I had following my father’s death have thus prompted me to ask the question, why is the social expression of death such a difficult, almost taboo subject in Australia, and in particular, Anglo-Saxon Australian society? My response is grounded in my own experience of my father’s passing, and how it differs from the experiences of Tiwi islanders.

The evolution of ‘Western’ attitudes towards death

French medievalist Philippe Ariès argued that since the Middle Ages, Western European attitudes towards death can be broken into four historical phases. The first, ‘tame death’, characterises attitudes in the Middle Ages (seventh to the twelfth centuries), highlighting death as a part of day to day life. Death was a communal event, family and community members gathering at the dying person’s death bed.

From the seventeenth century, the focus shifted to what Ariès refers to as ‘one’s own death’. Dying became an individual experience as Christian narratives positioned death as the individual’s religious judgment day. The 18th century marked an abrupt change, with death heavily romanticised and dramatised, associated with literature and art, with the mourning of the deceased an acceptable element of ritual practice. Ariès describes death at this moment in time as ‘thy death’.

The end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century marked the advent of what Aries refers to “forbidden death”, a cultural paradigm in which death was associated with fear, became unspoken, and was fought against. This final shift in Western attitudes towards death can, Aries argued, be traced back to the Enlightenment, when the disestablishment of state churches undermined the historic role of religion in many Western societies. Scientific advances in medicine during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries further dislocated many cultural beliefs and practices associated with religion. As a result, when the scientific method of healing the body failed, the absence of spirituality left the individual ill-equipped to cope with death. Furthermore, modernity has changed the approach to death, framing death as a fearful experience.

Today, death is often experienced in institutional settings such as hospitals, which coincide with a deterioration in the quality of an individual’s life that can be de-personalising and dehumanising. In such situations, people are left with few social protocols to deal with death when it occurs. Death is left an individual experience, which each member of society fumbles their way through.

Tiwi vs Ango-Australian mortuary rituals

Yet outside of Western Europe, cultural attitudes relating to death and dying, and appropriate behaviour, differ widely.  Many Indigenous Australians communities have defined mortuary rituals that are enacted once a member of their society has passed. These rituals take different forms, depending on community. These rites include smoking ceremonies, public acknowledgment of the death, communal gathering, singing, dancing and public wailing. Taboo also plays a significant role, with restrictions on verbalising the name or displaying images of the deceased person common.

Unlike ‘Western’, individuated approaches to death, in the culture of the indigenous inhabitants of the Tiwi Islands, mourning and burial are regulated by clearly defined social norms. At the heart of this is a mortuary ritual with the aim of freeing the deceased person’s spirit from this life and propel them into the next-life. Failing to do so is unthinkable, and practice of the ritual forms a core component of Tiwi cosmology. American anthropologist Jane Goodale echoed these sentiments in her ethnographic accounts of Tiwi life, stating: “The Tiwi regard the Pukumani [the death ritual] as the most important ceremony in a person’s life in the world of the living, and even though the Mobuditi (spirit of one dead) has been released, the person’s existence in the living world is not finished until the completion of the ceremony”. In other words, Goodale’s ethnographic participants did not see death as the end of a person’s life; death marked the beginning of their journey to the spirit life. The completion of this journey was solely dependent on the living kin of the deceased, and it was this dependence that insured compliance of this ritual from all of the living Tiwi kin.

A feature of Tiwi mortuary ritual is that it is an ongoing process over several months. There is an initial funeral ceremony called an Iliana that takes place at the time of death, and then there will be a further ritual sometimes many months later called the Pukumani. The Pukumani ritual features singing and dancing and is the culmination of the Tiwi mortuary ritual. The ceremony concludes with the liberation of the deceased person’s spirit from this life, and the erecting of the Pukumani pole, a family commissioned carved wooden post, placed on the site of the ritual.


Pukumani ritual site displaying Pukumani poles on Melville Island, Photo by Robin Jay, 2006

Funeral performances

Catholic burials still involve rituals. But, at my father’s funeral, I felt that these performances were limited and short-lived.  Leading up to the funeral, there was a clear sense of involvement from my family and friends, yet after the funeral this feeling dissipated, my immediate family left to mourn in isolation. This sense of loss was encapsulated in my mother’s statement  “I can’t understand how everyday-life just continues on oblivious to the fact that my husband has gone”.

This sudden and abrupt end to the performative aspect of the bereavement process further complicated future social interactions for me, creating a sense of ambiguity. This uncertainty was compounded by the lack of a shared culture of mourning: each member of my family was experiencing different feelings so relating our emotions was sometimes difficult.

Egocentric vs sociocentric

What I find most striking as I reflect on my father’s death is the degree to which, as an Anglo-Saxon Australian, my family and I continue to experience death as a matter of individual emotions.  Anglo-Australian culture lacks defined social protocols surrounding death and mourning. For me, this lead to discomfort and unease when broaching the subject in social settings. It seems that we are often detached from spiritual comfort upon the death of a loved one.

Comparing my own experiences of death to those of the Tiwi culture that I learned of in my anthropology studies, the void that I felt in the months since the passing of my father has manifested as feelings of disbelief, isolation and under-preparedness — prompting me to write this blog. In doing so, this reflection has helped me to understand why mortality, one of the most familiar of understandings, is also one of the strangest of concepts.

[Image selected by Paul Bowell: A ‘cemetery displaying ‘Western’ attitudes to commemorating death, Photo by Denis De Mesmaker, 2006  ]

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