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Vanishing worlds

In his essay Mourning and Melancholia (1917) Freud argues that mourning is a response to the loss of a loved object. Reality demands that one accepts that the dead person is forever gone and requires that one detaches oneself from that loved object. This takes time and can be painful, but it is normal to bring it to completion. Melancholia, on the other hand, may also be the reaction to the loss of a loved object, but it is pathological, since the patient identifies himself with the lost object to the extent of losing the will to live. In writing about the funeral rituals of respectively the Sora and the Lolopo, both Piers Vitebsky in his Living without the Dead (2017) and Eric Mueggler in his Songs for Dead Parents (2017) refer to Freud’s essay in an attempt to describe by contrast how the Sora of Odisha (Orissa, East-India) and the Lolopo of Yunnan (Southwest China) relate to the dead. The most striking difference with Freud’s theory in both of these accounts is that his reality principle requires an acknowledgement that the dead person does not exist anymore. This is not true for the Sora, for whom the dead continue to exist. The dead miss the living and want the living to share their pain. They communicate with the living through the mouth of the entranced shaman whose task it is to find out the cause of death and to lead the dead into positive ancestorhood that supports the living. In one sense the Sora bereavement therapy is therefore like the Freudian directed to a healthy state of the living, but the Sora include the dead in their search for health.

The Lolopo (or Mueggler) seem to go a step further. The dead body is ritually made as an objectified and materialized assembly of social relations from which the living have to be cut out. Where for Freud the dead are really absent, and for the Sora they are present as voices through the mouth of a shaman, for the Lolopo the dead are actually present in material form in corpses, coffins, and stones, and in the assembly of mourners. The ritual forges new, contractual relations with the dead. From the perspective of the rituals of making dead bodies (by using all kinds of materials with symbolic significance) the living are nothing but potential dead bodies while the dead are the real bodies. This effectively turns the Freudian distinction between imaginary dead beings and real living beings upside down. Both Mueggler and Vitebsky propose a processual perspective on these rituals. For the Sora the dead move between Experience Sonum (a state of being trapped in the specific cause of their death) and ancestorhood, for the Lolopo the dead move between material and immaterial forms.

Freud’s theories are only one instance of Euro-American traditions. Perhaps one could see such theories that originate in Europe as part of a historical transformation that includes the rise of a secular understanding of the world in the sense of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (2007), producing what Taylor calls ‘the buffered self’ as opposed to the ‘porous self’ that Taylor supposes characterize ‘earlier’ societies (see my strong reservations about these evolutionary assumptions in van der Veer 2018). In China the Lolopo are deeply affected by the spread of such a secular mindset through various phases of communist materialism that battle ‘superstition’, while for the Sora in India the impact is quite different, mediated as it is by a Christian conversion that directly challenges Freud (and the pre-Christian Sora religion) by denying the value of mourning. The transformations in both cases follow historical pathways that have commonalities but still are different, just as also the worldviews in these societies cannot be reduced to the elusive universalistic category of animism nor to the encompassing logic of incorporation into world capitalism. While Vitebsky purposely calls the pre-conversion Sora ‘animist’, Mueggler rejects seeing Lolopo ideas as signifying what Descola (2013) calls an ‘animist ontology’, since he is able to provide a broad history of changes in funeral practices under the influence of Han Chinese cosmologies. Still there are valid reasons to look at the Sora and the Lolopo in parallel. They are small-scale societies, in which kinship plays a very important role. They are marginal societies both spatially and socially, living in mountainous areas at the fringes of large Chinese and Indian nation-states that themselves are going through thorough transformations, of which the increasing opening up to world markets is among the most important. It is worth noting, however, that neither Vitebsky nor Mueggler seem to indulge in James Scott’s charming phantasy (2009) about all such peoples running away from state control into the mountains. What the Sora and the Lolopo seem to have most strikingly in common is that their worldviews and the rituals that sustain them are vanishing and that they are themselves actively involved in that process.

Both Vitebsky and Mueggler are in the business of recording what may already not exist anymore outside their recordings. They are historians of a world that is changing beyond recognition. Vitebsky has recorded this changing world during 40 years of active engagement with the Sora. It is a historical record that is at the same time an autobiography. His first ethnography (1993) already dealt with some of the issues addressed here. Mueggler has stayed among the Lolopo repeatedly since 1993 and his first ethnography (2001) also addressed issues of memory and death. In this new book his historical research digs deeper, probably because there are Chinese sources that record the penetration of Han migration in the area from the seventeenth century bringing the calligraphic bureaucracy to bear on the Lolopo. After a number of rebellions the Lolopo shifted gradually at the end of the nineteenth century from their forbidden practice of cremation to that of burial, starting in imitation of the Han to inscribe their tombstones. Just as Sora shamans run their animistic system by marrying Hindu rajas and policemen in the Underworld, so the Lolopo combine their own understandings of shamanic power and Han understandings of bureaucratic power. Divination was used to read the traces of immaterial beings in the sky after cremation but textual authority has shifted to people who could inscribe the tombstones, although, in Mueggler’s interpretation, these inscriptions are nothing but new forms of a continued practice of ‘wrapping’ of corpses in social relations.

Mueggler’s book gives us a story about the decline of the funeral rituals and of the songs of lament. In The Age of Wild Ghosts (2001) he recorded in amazing detail the assault on Lolopo ritual practices and the responses by the Lolopo during communist campaigns. Here we read that today the Lolopo themselves want to take distance from the supposed backwardness of these funerals with their loud expressions of grief and their pathetic theater of drunkenness. They have interiorized their Han neighbors’ views on civilized behavior and feel ashamed about their own practices. Nevertheless, laments have survived, although they have shifted from expressing collective suffering in the relations between generations to expressing a more subjective, emotional relation. This might be interpreted as a move towards a more interiorized self, something that Vitebsky also identifies as a consequence of Baptist conversion. Ritualized relations with the dead are the most important site to assess these shifts. Many of the great chants of Tenth-Month Sacrifice and Sleeping in the Forest have already disappeared and Mueggler describes how he got hold of a last ritualist, who had fled as far away from political oversight as he possibly could and was dying with his knowledge of the chants lodged in him. After an embarrassing transfer of very little money the ritualist sets off to let Mueggler record hours of chanting at a fast pace. A major part of the book is devoted to these recordings and their interpretation.

The Sora have abandoned their funeral practices more radically than the Lolopo by converting to Christianity. Here we see also a shift from cremation to burial, but in this case the graves are neglected while the dead wait for resurrection at Christ’s return. Whereas the shifts have been gradual for the Lolopo, despite the onslaught of Communist campaigns, for the Sora the changes have become irreversible within a few generations and wistfully put on record by their ethnographer who sees their conversion as a great loss. Indeed, the defining question of his book – historical, theological and psychological – is how such an apparent loss can be seen by the people themselves as a liberation. Part of his answer is that conversion has one great benefit. The Sora were subjected to a regime of indebtedness that was largely controlled by the Pano, a Christian untouchable caste who could speak both Oriya and Sora and thus occupied an intermediary role in transactions with the outside world. It is especially the constant need for buffalo sacrifice at funerals that created the deep indebtedness of the Sora. Conversion to Christianity took the need for such sacrifices away and thus provides some possibility to climb out of the poverty trap. This is only a partial and rather functionalist interpretation and it remains striking how successful Christian conversion is among the mountain societies of South, South-East, and East Asia, leading nationalist politicians to launch campaigns to stop it (see Ngo 2015).

Crucial to the understanding of the relations between the living and the dead is the metaphysics of personhood. Vitebsky and Mueggler both point out that personhood is relational. Mueggler interprets Lolopo funeral practices as reflecting on the social world of relations. Lolopo do not regard the corpse as a problematic left-over, signifying a liminal transition and their rituals as restoring social order. Rather they focus on assembling a body from material objects like clothing, quilts, goats, and rice loaves. Mueggler follows Alfred Gell (1998) in seeing such an effigy as a meshwork of intentionalities of the dead and the living. A dead body is a wrapped assemblage of relatedness. For the Lolopo a person has three souls: one in the house, one in the graveyard, and one that follows the body. There is not an inner person, an individual who animates the body. The work of making a body for the dead begins with giving the soul a temporary home in the crushed corpse of a chicken.

Vitebsky explores the shift in religious energy from an egalitarian wrangling with human ancestors to the worship of superior gods, whether Christian or Hindu. He is understandably reluctant to define and translate the word sonum that is crucial in the animist cosmology of the Sora. In his Dialogues with the Dead he glossed it both as Experience and as Memory and categorizes sets of Experiences as both sets of causes of death (having been killed by a leopard is the Leopard-Sonum for instance), and as a collectivity of dead persons. It is crucial to understand the sonums not as internal to a person’s mind but as an external force that influences the living. As Vitebsky notes, “To the extent that we accept this gloss for sonum, we are obliged to accept that when a Sora goes to a shaman to have a trance performed, she does indeed confront him with the speech of his Memories” (1993: 201). Thus, one crucial difference introduced by Baptism is to change the experience of forgetting. Vitebsky observes in passing that this bears some similarity to how Lienhardt (1961) has described the Dinka perception of the self. What it all seems to boil down to are conceptualizations of personhood that are relational in a social but also in a material as well as an ecological sense. They are different from each other but united in their distinction from Euro-American conceptions of the self, and of the social world. That is of course the dominant comparison, but it raises the unanswered question how they differ from Han Chinese and Hindu conceptions of personhood. In Mueggler’s analysis the interaction with Chinese conceptions is crucial in his historical account; in Vitebsky’s account the interaction with Hindu ideas occurs in phantasy when the shaman marries an Underworld bureaucrat, and above ground when some Sora convert to some form of Hinduism.

Compared to the anthropological literature on funeral rituals of the 1980s (Huntington and Metcalf 1979, Bloch and Parry 1982, Parry 1994) these two monographs are much less concerned with the symbolism of sexuality and fertility. They are concerned with the production of the social, but hardly with an emphasis on producing a social order or assuming, with Maurice Bloch, that ritual ideologically denies the flow of events in the real world. For Mueggler rituals are technical procedures just like the procedures of agricultural or pastoral work. For Vitebsky the emphasis is on thinking, feeling, and relating through speaking with the dead. I found it remarkable that neither Mueggler nor Vitebsky even refer to that literature, although they do assert that funeral rituals create the conditions for kinship among the living. Procreation and health among humans, animals, and plants depend on the life substance channeled through filial relations with dead parents. While Bloch and Parry, following Leach (1961), focused on the relation between concepts of time and death, Vitebsky and Mueggler are concerned with historical change that affects the continuation of these rituals.

Given the circumstance that he might be the sole custodian of two great chants of the Lolopo Mueggler at great length pays close attention to the poetics of these songs. These songs are political in the sense that they record the history of socialist attacks on them and are acquired by Mueggler in this political context. They are also political in the sense of imagining and creating a world for the dead to live in and to work for the benefit of the living. At the same time they also imagine routes to escape from the bureaucratic machine of the world of the dead.

Vitebsky is also a custodian of the vanishing tradition of dialogues with the dead. The calling and speaking with many generations of the dead allow him to understand how kinship works, not only among the living, but also among the dead. The most important funeral shamans were women and they were married to Hindu sonums in the underworld and had children with them, basically creating two kinship systems, one above and one below. All this is abolished in the Baptist church which celebrates the rupture with the world of the ancestors in repetitive sermons and songs. Alcohol, such an important element in the communication with the dead, is abolished and instead of funerals it is weddings that have become the focus of community life and expenditure. The Baptist cosmology is in direct and deliberate opposition to the Sora funeral tradition.

It is the extraordinary richness of these ethnographic accounts that make them such a joy to read. They are extremely well written and are able to convey both detachment and involvement that bring them to life. Vitebsky’s ethnography is deeply personal in recording his interactions with his Sora friends as an intimate part of his life trajectory. Mueggler is more detached but ends with a moving epilogue in which his understanding of the Lolopo funeral traditions help him to reflect on the death of his brother in an avalanche at the untimely age of 31. These ethnographers have been able to make these worlds their own, but also to open them up for at least partial understanding to outsiders who are willing to step into them through these books. They provide us with understandings of human responses to the facts of death that are not encapsulated in the cultural history of Europe (see Laqueur 2015) and also not in those of mainstream China and India. Vitebsky makes a case for the importance of the diversity of human religious thinking (‘theo-diversity’) as a parallel to the importance of bio-diversity. Since Sora animism has already passed through an irreversible transformation, he particularly wants to put his energy now into trying to save the Sora language. That is an eminently laudable pursuit, but it does not take away that the sentiment that is, at least for me, most poignantly conveyed by these two books is one of mourning for vanishing worlds in which the ethnographer can only bear witness. On the other hand, showing the ambivalence of emotions, I felt that these exceptionally poetic renderings of alien lifeworlds demonstrate the strength of the anthropology of this century.



Bloch, M. and Parry, J. (eds.) 1982 Death and the Regeneration of Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Descola, P. 2013 Beyond Nature and Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Freud, S. 1917 ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, edited by James Strachey, 243-258. London: The Hogarth Press.

Gell, A. 1998 Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Huntington, R. and P. Metcalf 1979 Celebrations of death: the anthropology of mortuary ritual. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Laqueur, T. 2015 The Work of the Dead. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Leach, E. 1961 ‘Two essays concerning the symbolic representation of time’ in Rethinking Anthropology. London: Athlone Press.

Lienhardt, G. 1961 Divinity and experience: the religion of the Dinka. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Mueggler, E. 2001 The Age of Wild Ghosts: Memory, Violence, and Place in Southwest China. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Ngo, T. 2015 The New Way. Protestantism and the Hmong in Vietnam. Seattle: University of Washington Press

Parry, J. 1994 Death in Banaras. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Taylor, C. 2007 A Secular Age. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press

van der Veer, P. 2018 ‘The Secular in India and China’, in K. Dean and P. van der Veer (ed) The Secular in South, East, and Southeast Asia. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 37-51

Vitebsky, P. 1993 Dialogues with the Dead. The discussion of mortality among the Sora of eastern India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

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