Passages and Afterworlds: Anthropological Perspectives on Death in the Caribbean

Passages and Afterworlds: Anthropological Perspectives on Death in the Caribbean

by Maarit Forde, Yanique Hume

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The contributors to Passages and Afterworlds explore death and its rituals across the Caribbean, drawing on ethnographic theories shaped by a deep understanding of the region's long history of violent encounters, exploitation, and cultural diversity. Examining the relationship between living bodies and the spirits of the dead, the contributors investigate the changes in cosmologies and rituals in the cultural sphere of death in relation to political developments, state violence, legislation, policing, and identity politics. Contributors address topics that range from the ever-evolving role of divinized spirits in Haiti and the contemporary mortuary practice of Indo-Trinidadians to funerary ceremonies in rural Jamaica and ancestor cults in Maroon culture in Suriname. Questions of alterity, difference, and hierarchy underlie these discussions of how racial, cultural, and class differences have been deployed in ritual practice and how such rituals have been governed in the colonial and postcolonial Caribbean.

Contributors. Donald Cosentino, Maarit Forde, Yanique Hume, Paul Christopher Johnson, Aisha Khan, Keith E. McNeal, George Mentore, Richard Price, Karen Richman, Ineke (Wilhelmina) van Wetering, Bonno (H.U.E.) Thoden van Velzen

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781478002130
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 11/15/2018
Series: Religious Cultures of African and African Diaspora People
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 320
File size: 20 MB
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About the Author

Maarit Forde is the Head of the Department of Literary, Cultural, and Communication Studies at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, and coeditor of Obeah and Other Powers: The Politics of Caribbean Religion and Healing, also published by Duke University Press.

Yanique Hume is Lecturer in Cultural Studies at the University of the West Indies at Cave Hill, Barbados, and coeditor of Caribbean Popular Culture: Power, Politics, and Performance.

Read an Excerpt


"The Dead Don't Come Back Like the Migrant Comes Back"


Paul Christopher Johnson

Death is ever present in Garifuna villages in Honduras such as Corozal. Not a week passes without a funeral or a ninth-night vigil nearby. Family are obligated to attend these events that propel the dead in their proper progress — from the status of a lingering ghost to a beneficial ancestor, and from earth to Sairi, land of the dead. Shirking attendance will expose the laggard to future consequences, not only from resentful kin but also from the scorned departed. Since kinship is reckoned bilaterally, and since it is not uncommon for men to have progeny with multiple women, "family" is expansive, wide ranging and plastic, such that every other death in the village has a reasonable chance of being a family duty. This means that dealing with death soaks up a good part of leisure time, especially on weekends, yet the obligation mostly isn't seen as onerous. On the contrary, death is a festival, to follow João Reis's (2003) title, making for lively social calendars with plenty of chances to dance punta and drink guaro and herb-infused gifiti on the cheap. The constant rhythm of death and its rituals are the form of village sociality that most constitute "family." As a wide social network frequently reaffirmed, it is rivaled only by the regularity of cristiano (evangelical) church gatherings, where notions of family based on blood or ritual kinship are replaced with the brotherhood and sisterhood of all in Christ. There, in voices booming over loudspeakers, ancestors and their ritual needs are dismissed as the primitive and diabolical past in need of reform and redemption. The fierce enmity with which Garifuna evangelicals verbally firebomb their ancestral spirits, somewhat paradoxically, only vivifies and supercharges these spirits. Through what Joel Robbins (2004) has called "ontological preservation," even new evangelical converts retain the ancestors as powerful actors in the world, precisely by demonizing them. Yet evangelicals sometimes hasten ancestors' returns simply by avoiding them. When evangelical family members are deliberately derelict in their attendance of funerals and other events, the dead are lonelier and more impatient than ever. No ritual ever comes off quite right anymore. With all the missing migrants and evangélicos, "the family" is riddled with holes. That's one of the main reasons additional and stronger rites to assuage the ancestors will inevitably be needed, and soon.

In this chapter, I present and compare two modes of rendering ancestors present, and perceptible, in Afro-Atlantic religions. I will call the first of these, rendering ancestors present in spirit possession rites, the "transmissive" mode; and the second, the performance of the work and crafts of the ancestors in such a way as to create an ancestral tableau vivant, the "emissive" mode. I argue that the modes not only mediate ancestrality differently, but they even produce different ancestors.

Modes of Ancestral Return

In the village, death is ever present, yet the ancestors are only sometimes around. The lingering but inconsistent company of the relevant dead — which for the Garifuna includes all of the recently dead, and a few of the distantly moribund — poses a question as important for scholars as it is for Garifuna ritualizers themselves. That question is, how do the dead return? After all, the dead don't come back like the migrant comes back, to crib from Beatriz Melendez's punta lyric that appears in my title. Migrants who live in the US — and almost every family has some — often come back yearly, their pockets full, ready to give and play the cosmopolitan tycoon. Ancestors, by contrast, visit rarely. They have to be begged and cajoled, and then they come with empty hands. Getting the ancestors back to their alma mater village takes work, and once arrived, they just ask and ask. Another difference between migrants and ancestors is that while the former are encountered routinely and according to a fairly predictable calendar, the latter are not always as perceptible, nor so readily at hand. Ancestors have a more specific ubiety, a where and when of their tangible being. What are the conditions and tools of their appearance? What are their modes of return? How do you know when they have arrived?

First, since ancestors cannot linger in their previous terrestrial form, they need material things in which they or their effects can be perceived: a ceiba tree whose roots twist in a certain way, or a hammock that swings unexpectedly, or that one woman's body that, during dügü and chugu rituals, suddenly is able to use expressions that old Martino Amaya used to say, and drink like him too. Ancestors need things in which to become perceptibly present. Second, presence requires living perceivers with the right hermeneutic skills, capable of taking note of the signs presented by things and reading them in the correct fashion. Ancestors need descendants adept at "perceptive regimes," or forms of attunement (Wirtz 2014; see also Irvine 1982), able to discern the difference between, for example, a vague tingling along the spine from one that signals a special presence. Third, reading the ancestors' presence correctly requires translation. The dead cannot appear in their familiar former body, but yet must appear in some body, or some thing that mediates and instantiates their presence. This means that their being has to be reconverted from the new guise back into the remembered figure of the dead. Only through such complex semiotic conversions can a slight, elderly woman dancing in the temple be taken to be a robust deceased fisherman, now returned. Fourth, the presence of ancestors requires a selection of the relevant dead, since many, even most of the departed, aren't remembered or ritually recalled at all, plus a means of discerning the specific locations of those relevant dead.

Webb Keane (2013) notes that the conversions of form involved in materializing immaterial forces (or dematerializing material things), and the shifts from one form to another, which he calls transduction, are a key part of what makes spirits legibly returned. Their transforming effects in the world are read in such a way as to infer spirit-presence. "Spirit possession" has perhaps been the most commonly documented form of transduction in the ethnographic record. Similarly, Michael Lambek (1988, 2010) highlights how tromba Malagasy spirits are most apparent through their mobility, their entrances and exits from bodies whereby materializations (as incarnations) are especially marked. We could also add that the skill of translating transductions into ancestral effects, or even better, ancestral messages of specific content instead of mere mute presence, helps determine the relative skill level, not to mention market value, of various sorts of spirit professionals. Despite the routine banality of work with the ancestors in many societies, then, it turns out that the conditions of ancestors' returns are quite complex, requiring developed expertise. No wonder, then, that the spirits don't abide always and everywhere, at least not in the sense of special presences of the more dramatic sort, the sort conventionally gathered under the awning "spirit possession" or other transductions.

I find these leads useful because of how they give boundaries to otherwise elusive descriptive phrases such as "return of the ancestors." At the same time, however, we can refine these ideas on the arts of rendering present to take account of differences among Afro-Caribbean groups, rather than assuming a relative universality of the mode of "return" through trance or possession as their key unifying distinction. For example, the transductive idea mentioned above seems most fitting for the interpretation of Afro-Caribbean and Afro- Brazilian religions in which the materials and actions employed in ritual events are clearly distinguished from those used in everyday life, in part because of contexts of racialization that criminalized some religions and rituals, segmenting African diasporic religions off into secrecy, or onto the margins (Johnson 2002; Matory 2005; Price 2007, 306), such that the sphere of expected transductions is marked and readily apparent. Also, in these religions spirit possession takes center stage as the performative crescendo of ancestral presence, made not only visible but insistent and unavoidable through the metamorphosis of familiar persons into demanding long-deceased ones. Under these conditions, transduction, or sudden material conversions of form, is relied upon by practitioners as the main resource for rendering the ancestors present.

The stars of that group of religions, Cuban Santería and Brazilian Candomblé, especially in their Yoruba-centric derivations, fit this analysis of how spirits' presence happens fairly well, because the markings of arrival and departure, or the transduction from a regular to an "ancestral" mode, are typically clearly marked in the ritual format, in bodily comportment, in the clothes donned when a god is present, and in drum rhythms. The spirits' locations are even carefully marked in the ritual space, where spirit-holding dishes or vases are cordoned off in restricted rooms or cabinets. You know exactly when you are entering a place where gods or ancestors live. Many other African diasporic religions, though, among them the practices of the Garifuna, are less benefitted by a focus on transduction or spirit possession as the signal mark of the ancestors' return. The differences between Garifuna ancestor rites and the stars of African diasporic religions such as Santería and Candomblé, and the reasons for those differences, are worth considering. Richard Price (2007, 306–307) has offered suggestive leads related to those African diasporic religions developed in the context of plantation slavery and racial oppression versus those that, like the Saramaka, developed out a relatively autonomous inter-African-American exchanges, creating ritual forms that are less spectacular and theatrical than the orixá forms, and more contiguous with everyday life. In this chapter I hope to add to the conversation by considering the Garifuna — who share certain features with the Saramaka — an African American society that successfully resisted enslavement (and even, in a few Garifuna cases, owned slaves), with a degree of autonomy maintained by an indigenous language and a series of villages along the Central American coast of the Caribbean and which, despite their long history in transnational trade, maintained a relatively separate cultural life until quite recently.

In the Garifuna dügü, the largest, longest and most spectacular ritual event of reverence and appeal to ancestral spirits (ahari, in beneficial form; gubida, in malevolent form), we encounter a different repertory of rendering the ancestors present than that of, say, Candomblé. Though spirit possession enters into the dügü, possession is not the primary or climactic event, nor is it clearly marked where and when it will occur. It is rarely the center of attention. In fact it is not essential whether it occurs or not, because it is not the key marker of the ancestors' presence. "Catching a trance" serves to amplify the sense of ancestral presence, but it does not decide ancestors' presence in a forensic sense. That is an important difference from Candomblé, Santería, or Vodou. As Eduardo Estero, a Garifuna of Livingston, Guatemala, put it, "It's not just about possession. ... One honors the ancestors by inviting them into one's life. One does that by living according to tradition — cooking, playing music, planting in the traditional ways. When you're cooking the cassava, you're reenacting their lives, using the tools they gave us" (in Barnett).

Ancestors' presence happens in the Garifuna dügü by acting ancestrally, even becoming ancestral, in myriad routine, practical tasks — from building a shelter (dabuyaba) in traditional mud-and-wattle style, to fishing the cays from large wood canoes, to grinding cassava on a mahogany board pocked with stones, from dying clothes with annatto-seed, to weaving baskets, to, of course, song and dance. Yet none of these activities are foreign from daily life before and after the dügü, in the way that grinding manioc by hand, stringing palm fronds, dancing to the drums, or being possessed by orixás are specifically and strictly Candomblé terreiro (temple) sorts of activities for devotees in Rio, São Paulo, or Bahia. In the Garifuna dügü, ancestral presence is composed through a choreography of everyday traditional movements, a harmony of accumulating layers of doing ancestral sorts of things, over a week's time. This choreography is what ultimately invites the ancestors' marked return, in spirit possession, but the choreography is also the return itself. The techne of rendering ancestors present is one of conscious, deliberate building of a tableau vivant that effects a territorial occupation, the seeping infiltration of the village's habits for a given period of time. This is quite unlike spirit possession or trance in their conventional use of the penetration of, and loss of consciousness of, a particular body. Through the attention to ancestral practices, spirit possession recedes in import as but one of many, and not even the primary, signature of ancestors' return, as I will describe. When possession does occur, it is as though it arrives not from beyond, but as an aftereffect of hours of "traditional" practice itself; from an interwoven sensory load that is named, when done according to code, a spirit. The dead return in this case not so much through transduction, the conversion of forms producing the experience of special presence, as through the dogged, selective performance of everyday labor (albeit a purified idea of the traditional everyday). The ancestors return in the collective performance of this vivid tableau vivant, one with no spectators but the participants themselves.

These are two distinct modes of rendering ancestors present. The mode of the tableau vivant and the mode of spirit possession are both forms of mimesis, broadly conceived — representations enacted to cause the perceived presence of the viscerally absent. But they are not the same. The former is mimesis via personation, approximating the ancestral by playing its roles persuasively over time, as opposed to a possession mode, that of becoming the ancestor through abrupt metamorphosis. The former is, we might say, epideictic — it's goal is not to prove or persuade anyone of anything, so much as it is to amplify something, a vague but valued sensibility of ancestral virtue. The technique of rendering present with spirit possession, by contrast, presents an almost forensic claim — here in this woman's body is Martino Amaya again, now returned — which may be disputed or even rejected ("she's had too much to drink again!") — but, more important for my purpose here, may allow for the surprising appearance of new, heretofore unknown ancestors that even shift the idea of family, or "the people," or history.

To be sure, these ideal-type modes are far from mutually exclusive. As mentioned, the Garifuna dügü includes spirit possession in its repertoire, and Brazilian Candomblé marshals plenty of material labor to mounting its compelling ritual aesthetic. The question is the mode of spirits' return that takes the fore in a given ritual event. I suggest that Garifuna ritual privileges ancestral returns via attentive, conscientious practice — in some ways the opposite of spirit possession — whereas Candomblé ritual privileges spirit returns via the spectacle of possession.

On Aristotle and Flat-Screen TVs

There exists a wide range of theoretical materials to which we could appeal to help clarify these two modes. Since there is no space here for their summary review, I will simply point to two sources — an unlikely pair, to be sure — that have been helpful to me in thinking through the argument.

In the Poetics, Aristotle described art, like ritual, as the craft of imitation or representation. The mode can be fairly direct, as in the imitation of a character with one's own voice, or impersonation, or even becoming another personality (Section I: Part 3). But it can also be more subtle, and this is noteworthy for my purposes. In place of a direct representation of a character, the object of mediation can be created through a harmony of parts, or even a synesthetic conversion, as when rhythmic dance with the feet is felt as an emotion of longing for return (Section I: Part 1), or when foods are coded to represent different places and times such that one eats, as well as dances, a history. We might think of the difference of modes in rendering ancestors present as two of Aristotle's possibilities of theatrical imitation: In one, the spirits are presented by becoming them through their incarnations in persons, in possession. In the other, a sensibility of ancestral presence emerges gradually but progressively from a harmony of diverse actions executed well; performed, that is, "ancestrally." It persuades through display rather than through argument or direct evidence (Rhetoric I, 9).


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  ix
Introduction / Maarit Forde  1
I. Relations
1. "The Dead Don't Come Back Like the Migrant Comes Back": Many Returns in the Garifuna Dügü / Paul Christopher Johnson  31
2. Of Vital Spirit and Precarious Bodies in Amerindian Socialities / George Mentore  54
3. The Making of Ancestors in a Surinamese Maroon Society / Ineke (Wilhelmina) van Wetering and Bonno (H. U. E.) Thoden van Velzen  80
4. Death and the Construction of Social Space: Land, Kinship, and Identity in the Jamaican Mortuary Cycle / Yanique Hume  109
5. Mortuary Rights and Social Dramas in Léogâne, Haiti / Karen Richman  139
II. Transformations
6. From Zonbi to Samdi: Late Transformations in Haitian Eschatology / Donald Cosentino  159
7. Governing Death in Trinidad and Tobago / Maarit Forde  176
8. Death and the Problem of Orthopraxy in Caribbean Hinduism: Reconsidering the Politics and Poetics of Indo-Trinidadian Mortuary Ritual / Keith E. McNeal  199
9. Chasing Death's Left Hand: Personal Encounters with Death and Its Rituals in the Caribbean / Richard Price  225
Afterword. Life and Postlife in Caribbean Religious Traditions / Aisha Khan  243
References  261
Contributors  283
Index  287

What People are Saying About This

Wizards and Scientists: Explorations in Afro-Cuban Modernity and Tradition - Stephan Palmié

Passages and Afterworlds is a timely and important contribution, written in accessible language and with vivid ethnographic detail. It juxtaposes case studies from around the region, allowing for an appreciation of both the variabilities and the commonalities of the relations between the living and the dead in local Caribbean social formations.”

The Reaper's Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery - Vincent Brown

“This remarkable collection of essays bridges worlds—those made by language, religion, race, and geography, to be sure, but also the domains made by humankind’s journey through time. The authors attend carefully to relations between the living and dead, noting the ruptures, continuities, losses, and regenerations that have animated a wide range of deathways around the Caribbean basin. Heard in chorus, the compendium intones a revelatory commemoration of our common voyage toward untold final destinations.”

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