In the borderlands

Charles Cowling

 Untitled #20 (2003-3)

Photograph by Bill Henson

 

Posted by Jenny Uzzell

There is a very useful word frequently used by anthropologists and students of religion and mythology to describe something that is neither one thing nor the other; something that is ‘in between’. The word is ‘liminal’.

Classic examples of things that are ‘liminal’ are marshes or other places at the water’s edge, crossroads, twilight and, interestingly, people who are in any way trans-gender. Liminal things are very powerful and very dangerous. They create ‘thin’ places where the ‘Otherworld’ can bleed into this. This is, unless your shaman has deliberately created the situation and is very much ‘In Control’, generally considered to be a Bad Thing. 

Dead bodies are most definitely ‘liminal’. A dead body hanging around in the community belongs neither to the world of the living nor to the world of the dead. It is, both practically and ‘magically’ a very dangerous thing. It both is and is not your husband, mother, son, friend… Dead bodies, by their mere presence blur the boundaries between life and death and this is definitely a Bad Thing… things can become confused. Things can cross over. On a purely practical level there is disintegration and a very real risk of disease as time goes on. 

It is little wonder then that our ancestors sought to neutralise the risk of a dead body by rendering it, practically and ritually, into something that is stable and does not present a threat to the living. Before burial the body was treated with great care. In some cultures the body could not be left unattended between death and burial. Sometimes all mirrors in the house were covered. The shoes of the dead person removed. Doors opened. Always the purpose is to ensure that the dead remain dead, the living remain living and nothing leaves its appointed place. We saw a good example of this in the Vedic funeral mentioned last time in which Death is ritually restricted to the burial mound and a boundary drawn which it cannot cross. 

Whilst this may be very interesting to an archaeologist or an anthropologist, you could be forgiven for asking what it has to do with modern funerals. The answer, as it happens, is ‘quite a lot’. One of the major purposes of a funeral, ancient or modern, is to move the person who has died from ‘here’ to ‘there’. The body itself is removed from the community through burial, cremation, mummification or some other means. The ‘person’ is removed from the realm of the living to the realm of the dead. What this means will depend on the beliefs of the community which is carrying out the ritual. Where there is a clear belief in life after death in some form then the purpose is clear and I talked about this at length in the previous two articles here and here. Where there is a hope rather than a belief, then this will be expressed and affirmed by the community. Even where there is no hope at all of an afterlife, and the understanding is that the dead person has truly ceased to exist, there will still be a transition from the living person who was a part of the fabric of society and of the community to one who lives in the memory and imagination of those left behind and who will be different to each person who remembers.

This is one reason why for many people, myself included, it is so vital to have the body present at the funeral. The community gathers together to acknowledge and bear witness to the appalling fact of death in general and this death in particular. They stand with the body, accompanying it as far as the living are able on its journey from ‘this’ to ‘that; from; ‘here’ to ‘there’ and then they acknowledge not only that someone has gone from their midst, but also that they are still alive and can start the long and painful task of re-constructing the community without the missing member. 

Many people feel that the real journey of grief and healing cannot begin until after the funeral because it not until then that the person is really ‘gone’. 

It is in the case of secular, materialist funerals in particular that there is, perhaps, a need for new rituals and new ‘liturgy’ that effects and bears witness to this transition from one state of being to another. We do not do badly with the words, but the ritual, the ‘acting out’ of this transformation is still not fully recognised and acknowledged in many non-religious funerals and I suspect that over the next hundred years or so this will change. Humans are ritual animals, and where no ritual or tradition exists that fully expresses what we need to say or need to feel we will continue to use the old ones, even if they are irrelevant, for a very long time. Eventually, however, we will create new ones that reflect our own reality. 

Of course, the process of moving through and out of the liminal state does not entirely end with the funeral. Memories are still fresh and immediate; sometimes it is difficult to accept, even to remember that the person has gone. For this reason many religions and cultures have a second ritual about a year after the death that effectively moves the dead person into an ‘ancestral realm’. Regardless of whether this is seen as an actual thing which happens to the ‘soul’ or not, this is, I think, a healthy thing which could, usefully, be incorporated into modern funeral tradition. 

One modern development is likely to have a far reaching impact on this whole idea of the realms of life and death which as yet we cannot even begin to grasp. Online ‘personas’ on Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites, to say nothing of virtual worlds such as Second Life, may continue beyond physical death so that the ‘person’ remains in the virtual community in some form or other. This is an eventuality for which our ancestors could not prepare us, and it remains to be seen what its impact on the way we approach death will be in the coming centuries.

 

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Quokkagirl
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Quokkagirl

A great thinking piece Jenny. Thank you. That liminal space question – the space between death and removing the evidence of a life is a very difficult transition. Often the funeral is too soon for the first faltering acceptance to have reached and hit the reality button. Alternatively, the cultures who remove the human evidence of the dead one within a very short period of time seem to cope extremely well. It’s surely all about acceptance and gaining comfort from what is the norm for your culture and there’s the rub. I heard a phrase the other day from a… Read more »

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[…] Uzzell’s excellent GFG posting about the liminal state between death and burial has got me thinking, specifically about […]

Evelyn
Guest

Jenny – THANK YOU – this is wonderful stuff. Many of my thoughts have been voiced by the others already. The ‘liminal space’ between death and funeral – the place where you are not what you once were but are not yet what you will be… I was pondering that as I read the comments – it seems there are three viewpoints – one is the liminality of the corpse stage one, life to death, one is stage two death to ????? and one is the liminality of the still living and how they deal ( or don’t deal) with… Read more »

gloria mundi
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Much here to think about and enjoy, much that relates so directly to celebrancy work – thank you very much Jenny. The distinction between atheist (rare) and agnostic, possibilist contexts (frequent) is one I find all the time in families I visit. The latter context often gives rise to observations about “spiritual” rather than “religious” matters – we grope forward with this, I feel, and it’s much more than anxiety about definitions. I’m not sure that the emphasis on one life in a secular funeral is quite as isolating as some think, for two reasons. Firstly, I find a recurrent… Read more »

Ariadne
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Ariadne

Wonderful writing and so much to consider. Thanks Jenny. You rule.

Richard
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Richard

Jenny, I think your mention of social media beyond the grave is lost in the last paragraph of a post offering so much else to think about: http://www.deadsoci.al merits a post all of its own! We remember the dead in so many ways: recollections of shared experiences, reading their written legacy, hearing their favourite song, seeing their favourite chair, smelling the scent they used, watching their Youtube vlogs perhaps. I don’t know what to make of receiving their scheduled tweets and facebook messages, activated by their executor after they’ve died. How would we feel to get a ‘happy birthday, darling’… Read more »

Jennifer Uzzell
Guest

Hi, Richard. You are right, there is a whole different issue around this and one which, I confess, I don’t know much about, although I know Charles has raised it on the blog before. I included it here because it occurred to me that things like this would impede the transition of the person who has dies and those that love him through that liminal period. I have to say I have serious concerns about this, I suspect it would not be useful in terms of a journey of bereavement. Having said that…I’m getting old. Many other things have changed… Read more »

Vale
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Vale

Fascinating and important Jenny. Secular funerals, when well done, can be moving, loving, even transcendent – but they are usually very specific to the person and the particular circumstances of the death. What they lack is any overarching context to give meaning to the ceremony. It’s the one question that we return to time and again in this blog – why do we have funerals? I think you’ve scented out the start of a trail here – liminality, transition, the effect on a community of a death all give context to the funeral. More importantly they are steps toward a… Read more »

Jennifer Uzzell
Guest

Vale, I agree entirely. The honouring of a particular life is and should be central to a ‘secular’ funeral but the emphasis on the individual does, I think, erode the community aspect of the funeral. (I think the same thing can often be true of civil marriages.) A ‘big picture’ enclosing the individual would be powerful and useful I think.

Hmm, this is going to need more than 20 minutes isn’t it 🙂

Richard
Guest
Richard

Hi Jenny, thanks for this meaty read. Re your comment on my last post, in contrasting ways (lighthearted and philosophical in this instance) we’re both dwelling on the differences between religious and secular funerals, how the afterlife is approached in the former, and how lives are celebrated in the latter. I’d be interested to hear any conclusions you reach on the way forward for funerals devoid of belief in the afterlife. Keep sharing your thoughts! You touch on the limbo period between death and committal; the practical role of the funeral to end this limbo period; the importance of having… Read more »

Jennifer Uzzell
Guest

Hi, Ricahrd. I suspect that complete commitment to a particular set of dogma and complete reductionism materialism (faith and atheism to use common short hand) are very much the exception to the rule in the UK. That is certainly my experience with the families we serve. We do, very occasionally, arrange for a totally atheistic funeral where there is no idea of a life after death. These are almost a case apart and probably worthy of a separate article to themselves, but they are also very uncommon. Most ‘secular’ funerals do not lack an element of the spiritual and they… Read more »

Richard
Guest
Richard

Hi Jenny, you say: ‘We do, very occasionally, arrange for a totally atheistic funeral where there is no idea of a life after death. These are almost a case apart and probably worthy of a separate article to themselves’. I agree this subject is worth separate discussion. I think it might lead to more clarity about what a secular funeral is for. A Catholic funeral isn’t about celebrating a life but is about praying for the repose of an immortal soul. That’s good for me but Dies Ire is clearly not for others. An atheist funeral is about celebrating a… Read more »

Jennifer Uzzell
Guest

Thank you all so much for the lovely comments! Thanks, also, Susan for the book recommendation. I will immediately purchase a copy! I don’t know about the ‘naming’ of the liminal space, I wouldn’t know where to start with that one. The problem with labels is that they tend to exclude one group or another, albeit unintentionally. I do think that its important to claim that time and use it, relating it, as you say, to the purpose and impact of the funeral. I don’t know how to go about it though, other than one family, one newspaper article, one… Read more »

Kitty
Guest
Kitty

Perhaps it is important after all that our funeral directors, bearers, priests and officiants should stand apart from the mourners in ‘special’ clothes, giving them the status and power needed for their role.
A lot to think about – thank you Jenny.

susan
Guest

Hi Jenny, I agree with Fran, so beautifully written and some great new insights. As you say there is a lot written by bereavement theorists, anthropologists, death sociologists and other death academics there is a missing link of reflections of this liminal space and connecting it to funerals and in particular the time between death and the funeral. I think of it as the ‘liminal space’ for creating religious and none religious rituals around the funeral planning. One of my favourite books which explores this liminal space is Allan Kellehear’s ‘A Social History of Dying’ Cambridge University Press. Jenny, is… Read more »

Fran Hall
Guest

Wow Jenny! This post has just made my morning! Beautifully observed and written, thank you!