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The Death Rituals of Rural Greece by Loring M.

Danforth
Review by: Jill Dubisch
The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 97, No. 383 (Jan. - Mar., 1984), pp. 88-89
Published by: American Folklore Society
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/540408 .
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BOOK REVIEWS
Folk Ritual and Folk
Religion
The Death Rituals
of
Rural Greece.
By Loring
M. Danforth.
Photography by
Alexander
Tsiaras.
(Princeton:
Princeton
University
Press,
1982.
Pp.
ix +
169,
preface,
introduction,
bibliography,
index,
photographs.
$30.00 hard
cover; $12.50 soft
cover)
Greek rituals of death have drawn considerable attention from both
anthropologists
and
folklorists,
not
only
because of the extended
length
of the
mourning period (which
can
range
from three to seven
years),
but also for the
accompanying
rich
array
of
symbols
and rites. No
less
fascinating
is the culmination of
mourning,
at which time a final memorial service is
held,
the now fleshless bones of the deceased are
exhumed,
and the soul is released from its
earthly
bonds. While numerous studies have been done of different
aspects
of these
complex
rituals,
this is the first
book-length scholarly
work which
attempts
a
holistic,
integrated analysis,
in-
cluding
both a detailed discussion of the structure of death ritual and an examination of its rela-
tionship
to rural Greek
society.
The volume itself is a
joint
work,
the
product
of the collaboration of a Greek-American
photo journalist,
Alexander
Tsiaras,
and an American cultural
anthropologist, Loring
Dan-
forth. Tsiaras
photographed
the rituals of death in his
parents'
native
village
in northern
Greece.
Danforth,
who had
previously
done fieldwork in
Greece,
returned to Tsiaras's
village
to
carry
out this
special
research on the rites
surrounding
death and
mourning.
Tsiaras's
photographs,
with
descriptions
of the events and individuals which
they portray,
follow and
illustrate the
anthropological
text.
Danforth's
analysis
focuses on
understanding
death as a universal human
experience. By
analyzing
the death ritual of one
particular society,
he
suggests,
we can arrive at a better
general understanding
of this
experience
and the
way
in which human
beings
seek to deal with
it. His
analysis attempts
to move
beyond
functionalism
(as exemplified by early
theorists such
as Durkheim and
Malinowski),
since the functionalist
approach
to ritual
emphasizes
its role in
maintaining
social
equilibrium
and
solidarity
and does not confront
problems
of social and
cultural
change. Instead, Danforth follows the lead of
anthropologist
Clifford Geertz in
employing
the methods of
interpretive anthropology,
an
approach
that seeks to elicit the
meanings
embodied in the
socially
created
systems
of
symbols
with which
people attempt
to
order and make sense of the world.
Specifically,
he
explores
the
way
in which death ritual con-
structs
reality
in order to
help
individuals and societies
cope
with the
physical
event of death
and with the
psychological, social,
and
cognitive
threat that the
experience
of death
poses
for
the bereaved.
The
analysis
is in three
parts.
It
begins
with an examination of death rituals as rites of
passage, drawing upon
the works of Van
Gennep, Turner,
and others. The
culturally pre-
scribed
period
of
mourning
is
clearly
a time of transition and
liminality
for both the mourners
and the deceased. The rituals that
bring
this
period
to a close mark the final
severing
of the
bonds between the deceased and the bereaved. The mourners now return to the normal
every-
day
world of the
living,
while the deceased is
permanently separated
from that world and
passes
to the realm of the dead. Danforth examines the manner in which this liminal
period
is
structured and the
symbols
that are utilized both in the
passage phase
and in its entrance and
termination.
The second
part
of the
analysis
focuses on the structure of the laments that are such an im-
portant part
of
mourning
ritual in
many
areas of Greece. The laments
attempt symbolically
to
mediate the
opposition
between life and death; they
utilize a rich and evocative
imagery
in
order to make the
tragedy
of death
comprehensible
and to both
express
and ease the
pain
of the
88
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BOOK REVIEWS
bereaved.
(Such imagery
includes
comparison
of death with other
experiences
of
separation,
such as
journeys
and
marriage.)
The book concludes with an
analysis
of the
ways
in which death rituals allow the continua-
tion,
for a limited time at
least,
of the
relationship
between the mourners and the dead.
During
the
mourning period,
the bereaved maintain their conversation with the deceased and continue
to
perform
certain social
activities,
through
their
tending
of the
graves, providing
food,
light,
water and
clothing
for the dead
(by placing
them on the
grave),
and
performing
the
prescribed
memorial services. Examination of this
aspect
of
mourning
allows us to see death ritual in the
more
general
context of Greek rural life and in
particular,
to relate it to the
position
of
women,
to social institutions such as
inheritance,
and to the nature of social bonds that exist
within and
among
families.
In the
end,
of
course,
the contradiction between life and death cannot be overcome. In the
exhumation which marks the end of the
mourning period,
the stark confrontation with the
white fleshless bones of the deceased
brings
home to the
living
the
painful inevitability
and
finality
of the
separation
that is death and makes
sharp
and clear the
pain
of "the wound that
never heals."
Death Rituals
of
Rural Greece does not
attempt
to
present
a
complete ethnographic picture
of
life in a Greek
village.
Nor,
despite
some discussion of
regional
variation,
is it an
attempt
to
survey
death rituals for all of Greece. Rather, its aim is to describe the
process by
which such
rituals enable individuals to
cope
with death and to
place
that
process
within social context.
Beyond this, however, the author has a further
aim,
which is "to communicate both an in-
tellectual and an emotional
response"
to the rituals he describes and "to
collapse
the distance
between Self and Other," between "us" and "them," so that we realize that what is
por-
trayed
"is not
just
. . . how others die, but . . . how we die as well"
(p. 7).
There is no
question
that the author has succeeded in both of his aims. The book
provides
us with not
only
a valuable contribution to Greek
ethnography
and to the
study
of ritual, but also with an emo-
tional
understanding
of what the
experience
of death, and the rituals that surround it, mean to
those involved, and, by
extension and inclusion, to all of us.
Alexander Tsiaras's
starkly
beautiful black and white
photographs
are an
essay
in themselves
and
provide
a
moving accompaniment
to the
anthropological analysis, illustrating
the relation-
ships
and the emotional and ritual events described in the text and
drawing
the reader even
more
closely
into them.
Princeton
University
Press is to be
congratulated
on a
beautifully produced
work. The
quali-
ty
of the volume is
superb,
and
many
of the laments are
printed
in Greek as well as
English
(rather
than
being transliterated),
a detail which will be
appreciated by
those who wish to
refer to the
original
texts.
In
summary,
The Death Rituals
of
Rural Greece is a book to be
highly
recommended both to
scholars interested in Greek rural life and to those interested in ritual
generally
and in the struc-
ture and
symbolism
of death ritual in
particular. Although
some of the
analysis
in the book is
rather technical and
complex,
the
general readability
of the book, the
universality
of its
theme,
and the
striking photographs
which
complement
the text make it a work suitable for under-
graduate
students of both
anthropology
and folklore.
University of
North Carolina JILL DUBISCH
Charlotte
89
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