Our project on death, mourning, and memory builds on a long tradition of anthropological research. Cultural anthropologists, as well as the archaeologists who study material evidence of ancient mortuary rituals, have developed distinctive approaches to document and understand death and dying. Increasingly, anthropologists have studied how death practices change over time in response to new historical conditions.
Increasingly, anthropologists have studied how death practices change over time in response to new historical conditions.
Colonialism, slavery, war, changes in religious and secular ritual, the exercise of political and state power over how communities experience loss, as well as new technologies, are among the many factors that influence a society’s deathways. Examples of research on these topics include the African Burial Ground Project in New York City which explores continuities and discontinuities in the burial practices of the African diaspora in the context of European enslavement; the struggle to carry out funerals for those whose bodies were never found in the aftermath of war, as in Vietnam, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and, more recently, Ukraine; new funeral practices as the result of the merging of religious traditions in sub-Saharan Africa and southeast Asia; and the adoption of new mortuary technologies like motorized conveyer belts and semi-humanoid robots in Japanese funerals.
The cultural anthropologist’s primary method is ethnography. They write about culture after immersing themselves in one or more communities for extended periods of time, typically (but certainly not always) in communities different from their own. More qualitative than quantitative, ethnography entails long-term observation and participation, extensive interviews, and ultimately a set of interpretations of culture. These interpretations come with an understanding that anthropologists must be attentive to how they represent others and to recognize the risk that such representations can exoticize or simplify a society’s beliefs and practices, perpetuate power imbalances, or reinforce harmful stereotypes.
Culture is everywhere, not only “abroad.”
Culture is everywhere, not only “abroad.” And as much as anthropology is about traveling outward through space and time, it is also about turning our gaze inward, for researchers to use the methods employed and the knowledge gained from the study of diverse societies to see their own beliefs and practices in new ways. “Rituals in the Making” is one such effort. Our study analyzes sudden changes in ritual, funeral, and commemorative practices due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and with the conviction that anthropological methods are vital to our understanding of human behavior in current and future epidemics.