Compassionate Cannibalism

Author: Edward Dunstan, a research coordinator in the Indigenous Settler Relations Collaboration programme in the School of Social and Political Sciences as the University of Melbourne. He has a BA in Anthropology and a Master’s degree in Development Studies.

A piece of anthropological writing that has stayed with me from my undergraduate years was the book Consuming Grief by Beth A. Conklin. The book focused on understanding the relationship between grief and cannibalism in the Wari community in the West Amazonian rainforest. In addition to ridding the group of the deceased’s possessions, cooking and eating the flesh of those who died was central to the process of mourning and “transforming survivors’ memories of their dead relative”.

Conklin’s interviews with community elders in the 1980s detailed a process that was central to the Wari people’s ideas around death and loss. As missionaries and others arrived across the 20th century the process was slowly eradicated in favour of Christian burial. As with many acts of colonisation, this left the local people in distress. They were unable to say goodbye in a way that made sense to them culturally or emotionally, thus leaving spirits in limbo within the community. Reading about this during undergrad left me, for the first time, distinctly concerned that when Europeans go to different parts of the world, it isn’t just innocent exploration and adventure.

As a student, this book shaped my appreciation for the way in which anthropology can challenge our sense of right and wrong; of good and evil, by showing us the infinite difference in the ways different peoples and cultures experience and make sense of life and death. I still find that, years later, this book returns me to a place of considerable professional and personal reflection. Through life events, discussions and a fair bit of further reading, a question has started to nag at me: what are my own culture’s rites of passage for death and grieving? 

Processing Grief

As another TFS blog discussed, losing one’s own family members brings cultures of grieving into a new light. Questions of how appropriate certain rites of passage around death are became front and centre in my mind when I lost my mum in 2012. Her death took place in a hospice, surrounded by family in the early hours of a morning in August of that year. It was both heartwarming and heartbreaking to be in this place, watching the life eek out of my unconscious mother, while her closest family watched and waited. She died and we wept; we hugged, cried and called friends and family, letting them know what had happened. We cancelled work, continued crying, ate some food at a café, I got drunk, and then… we just kind of went back to our usual business. From there, I wasn’t quite sure what to do. Part of me was in shock, part of me relieved that it was finally over; lots of emotion, a lot of it not expressed, and not many friends to talk to that had experienced the same thing.

While at the time I felt okay, I knew something was not right. My dad fell in to a personal hole, and I cut myself off from feeling grief too much because it stopped me from achieving my goals professionally and keeping up my social life.

Perhaps in part because of what I had read in Conklin’s book, a nagging itch to make sense of this experience in the context of my life kept at me until, through therapy, I began to explore what it meant to lose a loved one, and in particular my mum who I was very close to. A pain rose and exploded like a shot in my heart as I let out everything that I’d held back. I then recognised my own mortality and the fact that I would never see this person again.

Different ways to connect

Through exploring different ways to make sense of and connect to those that I’ve lost, I feel comfortable with the place that death and loss have in my life now. I have developed what I feel are grief touchstones, for me, and an emotional relationship to a loved one who no longer exists in a physical form. And this is important as it also made me understand how little I had to draw on culturally to assist me in this process.

Of course, there is no perfect way to grieve. But thinking about contrasts between ‘compassionate cannibalism’ and my own experiences of reconnecting with my lost loved ones has  made me reflect on the way in which people from secular, western European backgrounds have so little in the way of a guide when it comes to grief. Paul Bowell stated, too, in his TFS blog, “Anglo-Australian culture lacks defined social protocols surrounding death and mourning”. We are told that we find our own ways to grieve; that it is an individual experience. This is true in some sense, but in my anthropological view we are not ever truly just individuals, we are part of a broader cultural and social experience that shapes our reality in an ever changing way.

For an anthropology of western grief

As universal as dying is, so are finding ways to cope with this distressing time. I believe that in my cultural world of (predominantly) white-settlers in Melbourne, Australia, we need to go far further to explore what grief and mourning actually looks, feels, and sounds like from an anthropological perspective.

I worry about the over-pathologising of emotional human events, and I think there is a need to reflect on ourselves as beings in need of both an individual and collective experiences of grief. Cultural resources and supports are important, and not necessarily in the form of self-help books. I know that dealing with loss means to some extent communicating with others, and developing ways to just be with feelings and experiences. Yet, I also know that there is work to be done and to be explored at a cultural level.

Returning again to the ethnography by Conklin that started my thinking on this issue, the experience of compassionate cannibalism of the Wari spoke to the collective experiences of saying goodbye in a way that is supported culturally and emotionally. This exemplified a place of grief where both individual and collective experience were privileged equally. The process was vital to this community in moving on with their lives (or not moving on once contact was made with Europeans). I don’t think I really want to eat the dead, but thinking about what it means symbolically in this particular context can help us to make sense of how death is not just about one individual body. 

[Image: ‘William-Adolphe Bouguereau’ sourced through wikimedia commons]

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