This week we spent reading classic anthropological ethnographic studies on death. I was assigned Consuming Grief by Beth Conklin. It is about the Amazonian Wari' and their pre-contact funerary rituals which centered around eating the body of the deceased. Conklin wanted to know why they practiced funerary cannibalism and so she spent years among the Wari' recording family histories of all of them. Since funerary cannibalism is no longer practiced, she had to rely on memories of the Wari'. Apparently this is a 'no-no' in anthropological method, because she was not able to observe the ceremonies directly herself, so she wasn't able to draw her own conclusions from those observations.
This made me laugh aloud since all I do is work from secondary materials, having no direct contact with any early Christian (and I am completely jealous of Conklin who could talk to people who were there!). What disturbs me about the anthropological method is the fact that anthropologists seem to think that their own observations and interpretations of the materials are in some way superior to what the people they study remember and tell them. Conklin was trying to swim upstream, making the very fundamental argument that we have to start listening to the people we study. Maybe they know what they are talking about. She finds it essential to take seriously what the Wari' themselves say about their cannibalism. She writes: "The problem with limiting analysis to the level of ideas and symbols, as many anthropological studies have tended to do, is that this leaves out the very aspects that Wari' themselves emphasize: cannibalism's relation to subjective experiences of grief and social processes of mourning."
Why did the Wari' cannibalize their deceased? Because it helped the deceased transition into the spirit world to join the realm of the animal spirits who dwelled there, and it aided the grieving family disassociate from the deceased and forget them. It was part of the blotting out of their memory that also involved burning the home and property of the deceased, and never using their name again. One of the elders said to her, "Why are you always asking about eating the ones who died? You talk about me eating; Denise [Merieles, a Brazilian ethnographer] came here and asked me about eating. The missionaries and the priests always used to say, 'Why did you eat people? Why did you eat? Eating, eating eating! Eating was not all that we did! We cried, we sang, we burned the house, we burned all their things. Write about all of this, not just the eating!" (p. xxii).
I won't spoil the book for those of you who want to read it, but I want to end this post with an observation. Since the 1960s after contact with outsiders, the Wari' no longer cannibalize their dead. With contact brought infectious diseases that decimated their population. The missionaries, desperate to get them to alter their funerary ritual, told them that if they continued to eat the dead bodies, they would become infected with the disease. So the Wari' began to bury their dead as the missionaries wanted them to, even though they considered the ground to be filthy and polluted and cold, and still complain about their loved ones having to rot in the cold earth.
But all of this has me thinking about Christianity and those missionaries and us today whose central religious ritual is the killing and cannibalization of Jesus' body on an altar. The ancient Romans, in fact, accused the early Christians of just this crime. For Catholics, the bread and wine are transmuted into the body and blood of Jesus and are shared and ingested communally. For Protestants, the cannibalization is more symbolic, but nonetheless present.
Are we dealing with a matter of perspective? Who are the cannibals?