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Problem definition

«The ritual attention that universally surrounds the corpses (and that seems connected to the same phylogenetic origin of the human being), arises from the fact that they are “remains” of humanity and not simple organic residual. Preparing to take leave from the corpses, the community deals with that evanescent and residual humanitas that’s characterizing the remains. If life in humans “embed” culture through anthropopoietic operations of aesthetic type, or daily ritual, death threatens to put an end to these actions, placing the bodies in a sort of anthropological limbo, giving rise to the liminal category of the remains, suspended between culture and biology, between organic and inorganic, between presence and absence, between human and post-human. Cultural investments and affective whose bodies are subject in life do not dissolve completely in the onset of death: in the remains still resonates, even if fading, the echo of humanity carved in them. » (Favole 2003, p. 22).

The quoted passage condenses the results of a wider reflection that, since the early 90s, has been developing in Italy over the interpretation of the processes of “anthropo-poiesis”, or “social construction” of a person, in particular by anthropologist Francesco Remotti and his School. That issue is indissolubly linked to the debate on the concept of “identity” on which has been concentrated anthropological criticism in the last three decades, in an attempt, especially, to emancipate themselves from cultural and ethnocentric barriers that prevent us from seizing the essence in a definable perspective, finally, “post colonial”.

Among the most innovative contributions of Italian anthropological reflection on the theme of the social construction of identity, is without any doubt, its conceptual extension to the “sphere of death”, with the inclusion in the anthropo-poietic process the phase of “life” that extends beyond earthly experience, giving rise to what Remotti, integrating theories of Favole, defined “Thanatos-metamorphosis” (“Tmm”, the “cultural transformation” of bodies and spirits of the dead), and had place, with “anthropo-poiesis” (“Ap”, «interventions, conscious or not, by which individuals living is shaped, not only their bodies but also their minds, their emotions, their behavior») in the «general category» of “anthropo-metamorphosis” (“AMM”) (Favole 2003, Remotti 2006a). For Remotti the “Thanatos-metamorphosis”, assuming explicit intentionality, arises at a level conceptually and symbolically more “significant” (or, better, “expressive”) than the “anthropo-poiesis”, since «a community can hide its anthropo-poietic (Ap) objectives and procedures, keeping them hidden in the folds of everyday life, but the operations of Thanatos-metamorphosis (Tmm) necessarily belong to the level of aware designs (although awareness cannot be related to assumptions, deep goals, and implications of these operations)» (Remotti 2006a, p. 6).

This reconstruction finds some of its assumptions more or less direct in theorizations of anthropologist A. Appadurai, to whom we owe the allocation of a “social life” on inanimate reality and, therefore, consequently, also to the one that can be considered the type of “material” par excellence of humanity: the “corpse” or, more generally, the “body”, that it is alive or dead. Based on these acquisitions the “body” was started to be perceived not as a simple material reality, bounded and limited, but rather as a fluid “frontier” (in the Barthian sense), a construct of identity with soft edges, suspended between the cognitive sphere of “perception” and the cultural and social of “representation”.

As shown clearly by Favole in the quoted passage, in this “plot” the corpse, condensing in itself, simultaneously, the human condition with the material one, represents not only the extreme synthesis of earthly experience but also the concrete product of a long anthropo-poietic process, the realization of which can last well beyond the extinction of the individual component that originally had the connotation and that death, as Hertz had guessed, with its biological metamorphosis risks to compromise deleting forever with corporeality also his “social being.”

In order this does not happen and the body could become itself a product of so-called “material culture” - maintaining, therefore, its “social dimension” - is inevitable and necessary a confrontation with the organic appearance of its essence, which causes the body, independently of the human will, is subject to natural transformations that, in the absence of exceptional environmental factors, alter irreparably the appearance and texture, to cancel it altogether for by that Favole and Remotti have defined, very appropriately, “Thanatos-morphosis” (“Tm”), that is «the processes of natural order that attack the body with death».

The main novelty of the Remotti’s and his School approach consists precisely in the detailed review of the multiple cultural values inherent to the processes of “Thanatos-metamorphosis”, from which it became possible to systematize and categorize conceptually the main attitudes that follow the death and the “problem” of the treatment of the corpses of which there exist historical and ethnographic demonstrations.

Reworking on anthropological bases the Heidegger’s philosophical intuition ofDasein” and skimming some absolutist aspects, since 1993, Remotti highlighted the many similarities between the social perception of space and places/buildings, on one hand, and of body, on the other; an analogy which, however, was apparent even at the linguistic level, by means of concepts semantically polysemous like the one - well known to anthropology - of “habitus” (“appearance”, “body shape”, “attitude”, “disposition”, “character”, “dress”, “a way to dress”, “clothing”), derived from the latin verb “habito” (a frequentative of the most common “habeo”), whose principal understandings are “use to”, “have” or “hold” and “live”, “dwell” (Remotti 1993, pp. 32 ss.). Through in-depth investigation of the relation between “sites/bodies understood as objects through which expresses the culture as much as power”, Remotti forth came to an enucleation of a set of three categories which, refer to “the theme of time”, would be common to both extremes of the analogy: «i) what disappears. ii) What remains iii) What emerges (Remotti 1993, p. 76).

Applied to the body this classification effectively summarizes what are the antropo-poietic strategies for Remotti regarding the handling of corpses and the “cultural putrefaction control”, especially regarding the basic opposition between seeing “disappear” and “let remain” forms of humanity. Within these two alternatives for Remotti are carried on major cultural and behavioral strategies through which can be confronted with death and, in this case, with its unavoidable biological contingencies; an aspect that becomes even more explicit when the corpse in question is that of the “sovereign” and the “choice” between the one and the other option anticipates the way in which can be understood the transmission of political power and/or the same conception of the State. Generally, there is the problem of the “identity” concept because, as Remotti noted: «In a moment when the various communities decide what to disappear and how to do it - they decide about their identity. And when we find in the category of disappearing - as it is inevitable - the problem of death and that of corpses treatment, the sense of identity is particularly acute, since death is the event that most of all puts into question the identity (social as well as individual). [...].

In order to define “who we are?” we need to establish some distance (a difference) regarding those who came before us, as we need to establish some continuity. Continuity and discontinuity with the past are ingredients or essential factors for the construction of identity» (Remotti 1993, p. 77 and 87).

It is not difficult to understand how these reflections are of vital importance in an archaeological perspective.

The anthropological survey conducted by Remotti demonstrates, undoubtedly, as the focus of interpretation should be moved from the mere recording/viewing of the funerary ritual in itself with its “cultural” results, in the terms previously categorized, where this is, of course, possible and from the awareness that the choice of «What needs to disappear and what to remain, and how these two operations can and should be combined with each other, are issues on which every society never ceases to reflect» and that «when we talk about “building” identity [... ] one must not assume that it is similar to a building that every society - and each generation in it - builds in a definitive manner (and much less definitive). “Construction” should instead transmit the idea of continuous creation and dissolution, dissatisfaction and discomfort that is felt in every statement of identity, the need for replication in different ways always the argument about proper identity. The construction of identity is in fact marked by a great and invincible insecurity» (Remotti 1993, p. 82 e 87; see more recently: Remotti 2004, Favole, Ligi, Viazzo 2004, Remotti 2008).

Since 1977 E. Leach has clearly shown to the archaeologists gathered at a major interdisciplinary seminar organized by M. Spriggs that the question to ask in dealing with the perception of death in other cultures isn’t focused on the specific characteristics of their graves, but rather, on fundamental opposition between practices that could or could not foresee the use of a formal burial (Leach 1977). The anthropological approach to funeral practices reveals to be, in this sense, clearly distinct from the archaeological, for the simple fact of being able to document by direct observation of reality or attitudes without a significant material consistency but, often, of equal or even greater importance than those destined to leave some tangible trace on the ground. The existence of anomalies in the demographic composition of the burial grounds and/or in their representativeness, however, may also reveal to the archaeologist, at least starting from “negative” assumptions mode in the treatment of the funeral remains aimed at privileging (consciously or unconsciously) the “disappearance” rather than the “permanence”.

This assumes, of course, a thorough awareness of the ways in which a given culture can face or not the problem of the management of “humanity remains”, as highlighted recently by A. Favole, opting for different alternatives related to major intent that may preside over the most common forms of “cultural putrefaction control” which, have origin in a biologically inescapable requirement, may be, therefore, categorized within a «limited number of choices», corresponding to «different concrete ways to tackle the inevitable disintegration of dead bodies, without particular reference to the meanings and the elaboration of ritual which every community encloses these interventions» (Favole 2003, pp. 38-39).

The analysis is by this shifted from the mere observation of the material aspects of the funerary practices (burial, cremation, mummification etc.) To the conceptual sphere of the aims that through them are intended to achieve (the disappearance, the remain and the re-Remotti’s re-appearings) from “ground zero” represented by the waste of the corpse, to the more complex and advanced techniques for its preservation, such as denying even the very appearance of death (through complex processes such as mummification or criogenisation). In terms of content it determines, in our view, an inescapable fracture vs. traditional conceptions of historical-cultural type, still often quoted, under which the choice of the rite is variably reduced to preconceive ethnic factors and/or a misunderstanding cultural/ritual “diffusionism”: «the treatment of the corpse itself is configured as a culturally organized response to the inherent ambivalence of dead bodies. [...]

From this chart we can see how the choices that communities make regarding the treatment of the corpse aren’t almost never exclusive. Although in cultural areas and historical moments in particular can dominate one or the other of these forms, mostly it is impossible to identify a community with only one of the specified category. [...]

The identification between a society and a precise mode of dealing with putrefaction perhaps begins from the assumption - very common in anthropology as in other areas of Western knowledge – according to which cultures are characterized by belief systems and practices rather homogeneous and consistent, but does not find evidence in ethnographic analysis.

If it’s possible to summarize in a pattern, types of intervention on the corpse, it proves extremely difficult (and even impossible) to rank the societies based on how they treat the bodies of the dead. [...] The death event invites to cast an eye on how others, in other worlds, facing the edge of disintegration, as if before the horror of the dissolution of the body - the supreme negation of cultural nature of man - could not have been done other but take a look to other contexts. In addition, the celebration of a funeral is an excellent opportunity to affirm differences within society (rich and poor, men and women, leaders and ordinary people, children and adults etc.). Although no one can deny that there are preferential practices in body treatment, this is altogether wrong, or at least very simplistic to say that the Indians burn, the Mediterranean people bury, the ancient Egyptians embalmed»(Favole 2003, pp. 40, 44).

As highlighted most recently by the same Remotti, the strategies of cultural control of putrefaction can be further categorized according to whether they presuppose a “waste” or “acceptance” of this biological process and arise or less a continuation of the “work anthropo-poietic exercised in life” (in the broader frame of the so-called “anthropo-metamorphosis”), allowing or not the survival (more or less prolonged) of those “forms of humanity” that characterize potentially every bodily identity (Remotti 2006a).

In this reconstruction putrefaction is only the central moment of the wider process of “Thanatos-metamorphosis” (“stage II”), preceded by a phase of “pre-decomposition” (“stage I”) and followed by the “mineralization “(“stage III”).

While the steps II and III provide a clear biological action of “Thanatos-morphosis” which can be combined or not with cultural interventions of “Thanatos-metamorphosis” the stage «I» can be apparently a continuation of life (“Stage 0”), extending «between the time when the individual breathes his last breath, and the first appearance of signs (visual and/or olfactory) of putrefaction.». So this is a period that can obviously vary in duration, «according to the different climatic conditions, technological and cultural», but which is still «of great importance, both at the conceptual level, as on the operational level».

Ethnographic documentation refereed by Remotti shows, in fact, how in this stage can be held different attitudes, often consisting in “fictions of life,” through which various ways are searched to “refine” time to say farewell and/or prepare the deceased for its future “transformation” (material and conceptual) «Stage I is a moment, short and laboured, of forms conservation and, at the same time, preparation, arrangement, for future changeovers, before they happen, inexorable, the signs of putrefaction. It is precisely a phase of transition, and it is significant to see how cultures oscillate therefore between the need (or the illusion) to maintain an “appearance” of life and, instead, the recognition of an irremediable end».

This may also imply interventions cultural “deconstruction” of that humanity that the “anthropo-poiesis” had hardly built, that is restoring with death of that natural dimension that men, with their antropo-poietic interventions, have altered.

Also what follows putrefaction, that is the process of “mineralization”, assumes a set of attitudes variable according to the way in which one chooses to relate to what is survived or choses to preserve the human materiality in its transit from the biological to mineral condition. Behaviors that may occur in an extremely heterogeneous manner even within the same culture, caused by factors that depend on ideological differences, cultural, social and economic, but that does not necessarily provide ritual solutions aimed at preserving the integrity and/or the dissolution of the corpse.

For Remotti the classification of cultural behaviors results from the mineralization of the remains of the deceased essentially provides four possible “solutions”: «integrity», «fragmentation», «dissolution with remains», «dissolution without remains». A process during which, if it is not possible to preserve the integrity of the deceased, may also occur a substitution of body materiality with a surrogate symbolic or with the preservation of a specific part thereof, such as, for example, the jaw of the “ómwami” baNande or relics of Christian saints. This happens in cases when prevails intentionality to preserve the remains, because the “thanatopolitics” can assume also intentional processes of dissolution of the bodies and, with them, the memory of the deceased, through forms of discrimination which, in recent years, also archeology began to rediscover, giving rise to those forms often defined as “deviant burial,” in which the “violence” (by contrast, for Remotti, the “enhancement”) replaces the ritual, simply denying and/or altering the essence relative to the customs of a particular culture.

But, as Remotti underlines, this latest aspect is equally relative and what remains of the base is always the idea of metamorphosis and transformation, even when on the other side of the scale there isn’t nothing concrete, but a simple “nothing”, charged, however, with cultural values, as it’s an element of balance or recovery (and acceptance) of the natural condition of departure:

«There are many destinations and outcomes of Tmm processes: relics and spirits, ancestors and cultural heritage (monuments, cultural tools or instruments), natural realities (trees and banana plantations [...]) or supernatural entities. In all these transformations there is always, inevitably, the component of “disappearance”, combined with varying doses with the component of the “remain.

But among the possible outcomes of the Tmm transformations we must not forget the “nothing”, an outcome in which the “disappearing” clearly dominates the “remain”. [...] It is about [...] a desired nullification, culturally determined: a way to “dismantle humanity” culturally shared and for this humanly acceptable and accepted. [...] It would be a great mistake to think that the culture of Tmm methods and techniques is always taut to the “memory”, preservation, “remain”; it gives way, in different sizes, to “disappear” and all “oblivion”. [...] The “right to be forgotten”, the “right to disappear” total and definitive, can indeed be interpreted as a conscious and culturally accepted solution: not only as a final farewell by the survivors of the deceased person, but also as a leave of culture from itself, a renunciation of its claim to extend after death the will to action, a recognition of the impotence and ambitions of their “fictions”, an acceptance of nothing and of proper dissolution in nature. Culture can be done (nurture thoughts and emotions) about this dissolution, about the end of the person and with them of the culture as well.» (Remotti 2006a, pp. 30-31).