Death: Individual Practices in Mourning, But Universal Emotions

In Annette B. Weiner’s The Trobrianders of Paupau New Guinea, the author follows in the footsteps of one of the fathers of modern anthropology, Bronislaw Kasper Malinowski and conducts an ethnographic study in the Trobriand Islands of Paupau New Guinea. The author mentions how the “…Trobriand Islands are one of anthropology’s most ‘sacred places,’ having attained scientific renown through Malinowski’s fieldwork” (Weiner 1). The reason the Trobriand Islands is known as a very sacred place for anthropologists is because it is where Malinowski ended up temporarily living for 3 years and studied the Natives closely. In the book, Weiner mentions how “Following his return to England, he steadily poured out on books and articles on various aspects of Trobriand life” (Weiner 3). Malinowski objected the earlier conceptions of “primitive” societies and cultures made by “armchair” anthropologists, thus making him and his time spent in the Trobriand Islands revolutionary in the field of anthropology (Weiner 3).

In the book, Weiner conducts fieldwork in the Trobriand Islands herself in order to shadow Malinowski’s perspective and understand how he got the conclusions made about Trobriand way of life. Although Weiner was able to come to many of the same conclusions, she found many significant gaps and missing aspects to the Trobriand identity and way of life in Malinowski’s observations, and touched based on them. The biggest aspect Malinowski missed that Weiner caught onto was the importance of female wealth in Trobriand society and the fact that it is a matrilineal society (Weiner 5), which plays a huge role in marriage and politics of Yams, men working for women, the father’s role, and death and the work of mourning in Trobriand society.

Something I found really intriguing about Trobriand culture was its rituals surrounding death. A person’s death in Trobriand society will mark perhaps one of the biggest ceremonies of their lives. Death is taken extremely seriously through a series of rituals done on a dead person. The reason I found it captivating was due to the fact that at first glance, it seems that the way death is seen and handled in the Trobriand Islands is completely different to how Americans mourn death, but upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that the questions people ask in Trobriand society and in American society when people die are the exact same questions. Additionally, the types of emotions expressed and felt are the same within both cultures, showing that universal patterns are not just ones that revolve around biological functions, but around psychological and mental/emotional functions as well. The difference lies in how the questions were answered and how the emotions were addressed. This paper will be centered on the focus of death ceremonies and rituals within Trobriander culture and how it compares and contrasts to American rituals and ceremonies revolving around death.

In the book, Weiner writes about the events following the death of Uwelasi, someone she describes as “an old, but powerful chief, second only to the Tabalu chief” (Weiner 33). The rituals of death in Trobriander culture begin as soon as signs of an upcoming death begin showing in someone. Weiner describes how she“…found Uwelasi, although gravely ill, surrounded by villagers who were making him look young and beautiful” (Weiner 33). In America, this is similar the process that takes place on a dead person when they are being prepared for an open casket funeral. The difference is that in Trobriander society, this occurs shortly prior to death. Americans find this practice more important for the funeral, when the person is already dead and is being seen by people for the last time ever, whereas in Trobriander culture, it’s the opposite; it is most important for a dying person to look youthful and full of life during their last few moments of life, what they look like after death or when preparing to be buried doesn’t matter so much in Trobriand culture.

Something else which represent a specific approach to a universal problem in both American and Trobriand culture is how emotions are dealt with following death. In American culture, it is socially acceptable for those who had close ties to a deceased person to show their emotions, cry, and let their frustration out when that person died because Americans see bottling up emotions as unhealthy. However, the opposite is encouraged and believed in Trobriander culture, Weiner states that “Trobrianders are adept at disguising their feelings about each other,” and goes onto say that she was told “…the words we say are not the words we think. You must keep your face smiling, even when you are angry with someone” (Weiner 39). The Trobrianders believe that expressing anger and deep grief leads to fighting and hostile feelings; therefore, the mourning of deceased people in Trobriander society involves expressing grief through singing and dancing while outdoors, and only crying while indoors (Weiner 38).

Universally, when someone dies, usually the family, friends, and those who knew the deceased person are curious and want to know what caused the death, especially if it is the death of a young or healthy person. However, the Trobrianders believe that “only when a person is very old and dies while asleep is death considered ‘natural.’” If death occurs any other way, then the Trobrianders believe that almost every death is the product of “…sorcery (bwagau) effected by a specialist who chants magic spells into the victim’s betel nut or tobacco” (Weiner 34). This causes the family members of the deceased to worry that they will be hunted by the sorcerer next. Even though there are no large beliefs of sorcerers in America, family members of the decease do often worry that if the death was sudden, then it was potentially caused by an undiagnosed health issue which they worry about their other family members having as well.

Furthermore, Death is a sacred event universally and similar emotions, worries, and desires arise universally, the only thing that differs is how the aforementioned things are dealt with. All cultures perform rituals on a deceased person, most cultures around the world tie death in with some sort of afterlife in one way or another, and what is done with the remains of the deceased is also similar universally as well. Weiner explains how “The women workers who ‘carried’ Uwelasi’s body during the night mourning removed a few of his fingernails and cut off some of his hair. They carefully placed these physical momentos in a small white cowrie shells, which were attached to a long red shell necklace” (Weiner 41). The women worker’s who were the closest to Uwelasi such as his father’s sister’s daughters even his own daughters would get these necklaces (Weiner 41). This is very similar to the largely American/western tradition of the family of a deceased person cremating their remains and wearing their ashes in a necklace locket or ring. It fulfills the desire to carry a piece of the deceased person with them wherever they go. Death is seen as a destruction to family structure in both Trobriander culture and American culture as well. However, in Trobriander culture, death is seen specifically as destruction to the matrilineal lineage that the culture places a large emphasis on (Weiner 35). Similarly, in American culture, if one loses a parent for example, they become devastated. Or if a family loses their child, they are upset because a branch of their legacy will not be carried on.

Finally, I have concluded that there are four universal aspects to death. The first is mourning/grief. This generally occurs when someone is nearing death or someone has just died. This stage can last anywhere from four weeks to months in some cultures. The next aspect is keeping some form of the deceased person or some remnant of them and symbolizing how sacred that remnant is. This can be done in the form of keeping one’s ashes, or even simply keeping some of their belongings in a safe place. The third universal aspect of death is the re-structuring of family. In Trobriand culture, this was a direct concern for the uniformity of matrilineal lineage, but in other cultures, this could be a need for searching for new parent roles for a child who lost their parents in a car accident. Often times in these situations, there are “secondary guardians” for the children universally. In trobriand culture, it may be the biological father, whereas in American culture it could be a grandma, uncle, or orphan home. The final universal aspect of death is the belief or non-belief of an afterlife. Whenever someone dies in most cultures universally, there is at least some belief pertaining towards afterlife (even if it is the lack of a belief of afterlife). In Trobriand culture, it is believed that when someone dies, they will be sent to an island and will be reincarnated into another life again. In Western society, we have a varied amount of beliefs, but overall, we believe in the existence of a heaven and hell, and we’d like to believe that our deceased family members go to heaven most of the time to calm our worries and make the mourning process easier. Overall, this book did a good job re-visiting one of the most classical fieldworks of anthropology and expanding on it. All works of science and research need to be looked into deeply by multiple people, or else major discoveries will not occur, such as the important ones Weiner found through her research.



A Cultural and Biological Anthropology student based in the Washington, D.C. area

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A Cultural and Biological Anthropology student based in the Washington, D.C. area