Naming Your Dead

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Among the Kiowa Indians the name of the dead is never spoken in the presence of the relatives, and on the death of any member of a family all the others take new names. Likewise, among the Bahima of Central Africa, when the king dies, his name is abolished from the language, and if his name was that of an animal, a new name must be found for it at once. In Masai the name of a dead child, woman or warrior is not spoken again and, if an ordinary word, is no longer used by the family while in all indigenous Australian languages when a person dies not just his name becomes taboo but all words similar to his name.

As for gestures, which can be hard to interpret, in Guatemala, when someone holds their hands together, it is a sign of death. For a baby to do so is especially ominous. In nineteenth century Germany, they believed the same thing.  It is related to the common position of folded hands in the corpse before burial or cremation. The earth itself however is the dust to bite. Afrikaans talk of going to the goat field (gaan bokveld toe); Germans biting into the grass (ins Gras beißen) and in Chile they go to the courtyard of the hushed (irse al patio de los callados).

Among the Maoris if you handled a corpse, if you helped to convey it to the grave, if you touched a dead man’s bones, then you were cut off from almost all communication with mankind. You could not even touch food with your hands, which had become so tabooed or unclean as to be useless. Food would be set aside for you on the ground, and you would then sit or kneel down, with your hands carefully held behind your back, and gnaw at it as best you could. In some cases you would be fed by another person, who with outstretched arm attempted to do it without touching.

The Dogon people of southwest Mali have large and elaborate funerals. They believe that when someone dies, his or her spirit is let go to lead the spirit away from the village and is traditionally buried in caves high up in cliffs to prevent trouble. It is hauled up with ropes and then allowed to rot in the stone chambers.

In Hindu funerals the eldest son prepares the body, which is set on a wooden raft. The body is cremated and set afloat down the river, a process that is believed to both free and purify the spirit. Hindus believe that, during the first ten days after death, the spirit of the deceased is in a transition period. Devotees consider that it is looking for or creating a new life. During this time the children of the deceased perform the Shraddha ceremony. Every day, they make offerings of rice balls, known as pinda. This type of food is thought to provide the nourishment the spirit will need during this challenge.

Among the original people of Patagonia in South America, it was the custom to open the coffins of the dead and redress them each year on the anniversary of the person’s death. The same custom is found among the Inuits, who annually take new clothes as a gift to the dead. Among many Native American tribes in earlier times, the widow was obliged to remain beside the tomb of her deceased husband for a year, while other family members brought food daily for her and for the spirit of the dead man.

In Ghana the dead get a last hurrah in a coffin designed to be relevant to their lives. The Ga pour libations of gin, schnapps, and the blood of a sheep over coffins as they move in procession, to keep evil spirits from contaminating the dead. During the last several decades, these coffins have been crafted by a group of artisans who take inspiration from the livelihoods of the deceased and make, for example, a Mercedes-Benz for a wealthy merchant; an eagle for a chief; a cow for a dairy farmer; or a lobster for a fisherman.

According to French tradition, ashes will preserve a household from storm damage if they are scattered over it. They have the most inventive range of expressions for this delicate topic from passing a firearm to the left (passer l’arme a gauche); to sugaring the strawberries (sucrer les fraises) to my favourite: to swallow one’s birth certificate (a translationof avaler son bulletin de naissance).


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