Death Is a Festival: Funeral Rites and Rebellion in Nineteenth-Century Brazil

Article excerpt

Death Is a Festival: Funeral Rites and Rebellion in Nineteenth-Century Brazil. By Joao Jose Reis. Translated by H. Sabrina Glidehill. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. 2003. Pp. xi, 386. $59.95 clothbound; $27.50 paperback.)

Death is a festival. Death is the hereafter. Death is faith. Death is omnipresent. Death is a will. Death is a good end. Death is a passing. Death is family unity. Death is a funeral. Death is religious solidarity. Death is a tomb. Death affirms social distinctions. Death confirms cultural traditions. Death causes medical and cultural innovation. Death is so important that meddling with its meanings can incite riot.

The above litany presents the principal findings of Joao Jose Reis's study-revised from the original, Portuguese-language edition of 1991-of death in the Brazilian city of Salvador da Bahia (inhabited mainly by people of African descent) in the early nineteenth century. The book shows how dramatically and drastically death has been banished from contemporary culture. For us the only legitimate cause for dying is extreme old age. In Salvador, as Reis points out, social, economic, and health conditions made death all too intrusive. It struck down the most vulnerable, who were often the most cherished. In 1836, 30% of the freeborn and at least 47% of the slaves who died in the city were aged ten and under. Orthodox medicine availed little against death, it was inept even at identifying the diseases causing death.

The intrusiveness of death meant that, to be made emotionally bearable, it had to be ritualized and that ritual incorporated, as the study shows, into every aspect of life. The most powerful vehicle in this process was religion, which provided formularies for dying, burial, and remembrance and which also linked the living to the departed and supplied the means to aid the dead in the hereafter. Both the ceremonies and the doctrines of Catholicism, the state religion of Brazil, served all these ends most effectively. Joao Jose Reis, the leading authority on the culture and lives of the African slaves in Brazil, argues that, for many, the indigenous religions of Africa served the same purpose. …