Anthropology and death

Authored by: Douglas J. Davies

The Routledge Companion to Death and Dying

Print publication date:  May  2017
Online publication date:  May  2017

Print ISBN: 9781138852075
eBook ISBN: 9781315723747
Adobe ISBN:


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Death has occupied anthropological thinking from the discipline’s nineteenth-century origin, and one key theoretical factor has concerned the different emphases given to social and to psychological dimensions of life. E. B. Tylor (1832–1917) and his foundational Primitive Culture presented descriptive material from classical antiquity to contemporary travelers’ reports and identified death as “the event which, in all stages of culture, brings thought to bear most intensely, though not always most healthily, on the problem of psychology” (1871, vol. 1: 404). Though “psychology” might seem an unusual term in this primary text on anthropology, it reflects Tylor’s interest in “experience,” and in “taking our own experience as a guide” (1871, vol. 2: 359). Framed by his “rudimentary” and “minimum definition of Religion” as “the belief in Spiritual Beings,” and by “Animism,” with its double focus on “souls of individual creatures” and on “other spirits up to the rank of powerful deities” (1871, vol. 1: 383, 385), he provided extensive accounts of souls leaving the body at death and on funerary rites as “the dramatic utterances of religious thought, the gesture-language of theology” (1871, vol. 2: 328). As part of this theory, Tylor develops ideas of sacrifice using the motifs of gift, homage, and self-abnegation, before finally arriving at “the natural conclusion of an ethnographic survey of sacrifice” in the division between Catholics and Protestants on the notion of the sacrifice of the Mass (1871, vol. 2: 371).

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