Blog Post 3: Dead “Things”

What can we learn from studying shifting patterns of human behavior with regard to dead things? How might we explain variations in cultural traditions and taboos across cultures and historical periods? Explaining variations in cultural traditions across cultures and historical periods requires understanding the ideas of individual and cultural identity. Russell W. Belk’s article “Possessions and the Extended Self” aims to explain the connections we establish between our possessions and our identities. Belk’s article is an excellent resource that suggests specific connections between possessions and the self. I will use the following ideas (as mentioned in Belk’s article) to try and explain cultural mortuary rituals; specifically, the mortuary ritual of transumption among the Fore region in Papua New Guinea (with an understanding of why it is no longer in practice). We invest ourselves in objects (with the understanding that people can be seen as “objects”) We have a potential for contaminating ourselves (positively and negatively) through objects In a consumerist society, humans have strong connections with the objects they have in their lives. There is a subset of scholarly work that observes this connection between humans and objects: the study of material culture. In Belk’s article, he mentions that “incorporation of objects into self and self into objects is shown in various practices of traditional peoples” (144). This type of incorporation can apply to objects we use as we are living and objects that we use after death. An example of incorporating the self into an object is mentioned in Luke Fidler’s article “Impressions From the Face of a Corpse.” In this article, Fidler talks about the practice of creating death...
Blog Post #3: Dead Things

Blog Post #3: Dead Things

What can we learn from the way a culture deals with death, particularly how they handle dead human remains? As Russel Belk (reading for Week 5) explains in “Posessions and the Extended Self,” in modern Western cultures, bodies–and their associated smells and effusions–are associated with negative forms of contamination. This aversion to contact with someone else’s body, Belk argues, is expressed in the way crematoria sift through human “cremains” to remove any traces that retain too much of their original form as bones, teeth, etc. Yet, again as Belk explains, the aversion to bodies, especially dead bodies, has numerous cultural and historical exceptions. These exceptions include actual and symbolic cannibalism, the collection and reverence of saintly relics, and as Luke A. Fidler describes in his essay, “Impressions From the Face of a Corpse,” the practice of creating memento mori of the dead: Death masks also record the work of human hands. They figure the body as something subject to post-mortem manipulation, as a kind of storehouse waiting to be raided by curious scientists, churchmen, or souvenir-seekers. Autopsies, for instance, left their marks. Beethoven’s death mask, taken two days after he died, shows the saw marks where the composer’s ear bones were removed. His left ear later wound up in a curiosity cabinet. In the Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer’s portrait of the Pardoner depicts–and perhaps subtly mocks–the medieval practice of collecting the finger bones of saints, and splinters of the true cross. During the 19th century, in Europe and the United States, grieving relatives transformed the hair of dead relatives and loved ones into elaborate jewelry and decorative objects. To this...
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