Pascal Couderc and Kenneth Sillander, Eds., Ancestors in Borneo Societies: Death, Transformation, and Social Immortality

By King, Victor T. | Borneo Research Bulletin, Annual 2012 | Go to article overview

Pascal Couderc and Kenneth Sillander, Eds., Ancestors in Borneo Societies: Death, Transformation, and Social Immortality


King, Victor T., Borneo Research Bulletin


Pascal Couderc and Kenneth Sillander, eds., Ancestors in Borneo Societies: Death, Transformation, and Social Immortality, Copenhagen: NIAS Press, Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, Studies in Asian Topics, No 50, 2012, x, 390 pp., maps, illustrations, ISBN 978-87-7694-091-1 (Hbk), 978-87-7694-092-8 (Pbk).

One would have thought that there was not a great deal more to say about death, death rituals and the afterlife in Borneo other than to fill ethnographic gaps. The subject has claimed an inordinate amount of attention, particularly as a result of the early fascination and preoccupation of European travelers, missionaries and colonial observers with the ritual practices and major ceremonial expressions associated with secondary treatment of the dead and exemplified most especially, as Anne Schiller has demonstrated (1997), in the elaborate tiwah rituals of the Ngaju Dayak and their culturally related neighbors. In this connection Robert Hertz's famous essay, "A Contribution to the Study of the Collective Representation of Death," first published in French in 1907 and introduced to the English-speaking world in Rodney and Claudia Needham's translation of 1960, Death and the Right Hand, addressed secondary mortuary rituals using Bornean ethnographic materials. Hertz's precocious insights have also had a significant impact on more general theoretical discussions of the symbolism of death and rites of passage. Other important moments in the study of "collective representations" and mortuary rituals came with publications, again not in English, but in German, particularly Hans Scharer's Die Gottesidee der Ngadju Dajak in Sud-Borneo in 1946, again translated by Rodney Needham into English and published in 1963, and the posthumous Der Totenkult der Ngadju Dayak in Sud-Borneo: Mythen zum Totenkult und die Texte zum Tantolak Matei (1966), along with the well-known encyclopaedic and classificatory volume, though deficient in many respects, by Waldemar Stohr, Das Totenritual der Dajak (1959).

In my view this important intellectual tradition was further strengthened above all by the work of Peter Metcalf, which addressed the specific ethnographic context of the Berawan and the associated nulang arc (see 1982 among others), but also, in collaboration with Richard Huntington, the wider comparative context of conceptions of the body, death and ritual treatment in Celebrations of Death: the Anthropology of Mortuary Ritual (1979; and see 1991). More recently, William Wilder's edited volume, Journeys of the Soul: Anthropological Studies of Death, Burial, and Reburial Practices in Borneo (2003), adds further weight to the role and position of the anthropology of Borneo in our more general understanding of the relations between the mortal and the spiritual world and the ways in which the two are both separated and intertwined in complex and dynamic processes of ritual action and the values, ideas and rationales ("ideological landscapes") which give them cultural meaning and significance.

I have deliberately introduced some of the significant landmarks in this literature (and 1 could go on to refer to other substantial contributions to this field of studies) because the whole argument presented by Couderc and Sillander is that, in spite of this voluminous scholarly treatment of what happens when Borneo people leave this "transient world," we have still missed something important. Despite this preoccupation with the eschatology and rituals of death, the editors suggest that "ancestorship has been a neglected field in Borneo studies" and, in particular, there has been a lack of attention to "the dead in a benevolent or authoritative capacity as ancestors" (p. 2). So the task which this volume sets out to accomplish is to bring together ethnographic detail and analysis on ancestor roles, conceptions, relations and encounters, transformations, ritual and non-ritual manifestations and expressions of ancestorship, and processes which underlie its construction and reproduction. …

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