For a year or two after my brother Paul died, my parents would see a bird – maybe a magpie or a blackbird or another well-known species – that was behaving strangely. This bird (they would report later) would seem to follow them, or would reappear a few times over the course of a day, or else it wouldn’t fly away when one or both of them approached. And, half joking, they would associate the presence of this bird with the absence of their son, Paul, as if the creature was somehow also Paul, only now in bird form. This annoyed me the few times they told me about it, though I didn’t really know why at the time, and I’m ashamed now of how priggish I was.
Three weeks before his twenty-third birthday, sometime after one in the morning, about two weeks after Christmas, Paul left a bar and called my phone a few times without success. After a while he sent a text message to say goodnight, and that he loved me, and that he loved our parents too. And then at some point, at the edge of the harbour, when he would have been about halfway home, he took off our father’s leather jacket, folded it carefully on the ground and entered the water. How do you understand something like that through an afterlife of birds?
Thinking back, though, I’m not sure that this attention to birdlife came from a very direct belief in reincarnation on the part of my parents. It seems more likely to me now that they were simply open to the idea that some part of a person might become present again after death; that a dead person might make themselves known, if only obliquely, and in forms that are not always predictable; that birds and cats, occasionally baby foxes, were as likely a channel as any other for such an encounter. For a while, though I would certainly not have admitted it then, I too looked with particular intensity at birds. But I never saw anything strange. After a while, my parents stopped noticing these incidents, or at least they no longer said anything to me. Maybe these acts of mediation stopped altogether. Or maybe the media themselves took on different forms. Either way, I never heard any more about it.
In an essay published in the Année sociologique in 1907, a young French scholar, Robert Hertz, proposed that a person’s death should be thought of as a collective or social event, and not simply an individual calamity. ‘When a man dies,’ Hertz wrote, ‘society loses in him much more than a unit; it is stricken in the very principle of its life, in the faith it has in itself.’ Hertz had recently returned to Paris from London, where he had been researching a project on death rituals in the British Museum. He was trying to show that what we call ‘mourning’ is not really about grief or sadness. Rather it is about managing the transition of the soul to another realm, such that the missing person – and thus the social world of which they were part – might go on.
Hertz had drawn much of his evidence from writings about peoples he called the Dayak – a loose term to describe different non-Muslim Indigenous groups in Borneo. The island, including its many Indigenous groups, had been caught up in European imperialism since the mid-nineteenth century, and been made visible in the kinds of anthropological and orientalist writing that often travelled with colonisation. In an introduction to a much later translation of Hertz, the English anthropologist Rodney Needham notes that the word ‘Dayak’ is an invention of early Dutch ‘ethnographers’ and that Hertz was likely talking about a group that Needham called the Olo Ngaju, in south-eastern Borneo. How much Hertz’s description can be related to people who identify with, or are identified by others with, Dayak communities today – the term is currently used particularly in Indonesia – remains unclear.
Nonetheless, having studied these texts with some care, Hertz argued that what was at stake in the funerary practices of peoples within some Dayak communities – in the management of decomposition, the practice of double burial, the lengthy social isolation of the dead person’s kin – is not a simple act of grieving or remembrance, it is rather a collective attempt to overcome, even to undo, death. He described how, among one group, the custom was to keep the coffin at home for some time, pierced at the bottom, and with a basin underneath, to catch the liquids that escape during the process of decomposition. These liquids were mixed with rice, which was then eaten by the dead person’s family during the mourning period. Thus, says Hertz, ‘the living incorporate into their own being the vitality and the special qualities residing in the flesh of the deceased’. After all, he reasoned, if a person is truly a social being as much as a corporeal one, then their death, which is in one sense the death of the social order itself, is literally unconscionable. ‘The last word must remain with life,’ Hertz argued, ‘the deceased will rise from the grip of death and will return, in one form or another, to the peace of human association.’
Hertz was a pupil of Émile Durkheim, whose own study, Suicide, now regarded as a foundational text of European social science, had been published ten years before. By comparing patterns of suicide in different European countries, Durkheim showed that what we often imagine as the most supremely individual and psychological act – the act of self-killing – in fact follows a regular and predictable social pattern. Men are much more likely to kill themselves than women, he wrote, and divorced men even more so. Protestants are more likely than Catholics to take their own lives, as are soldiers more likely than civilians. People kill themselves in warmer rather than colder months, during economic crises and periods of upheaval, in Denmark more than in Norway or Sweden. These findings, he argued, and their clear patterning, tell us that suicide is not a great individual reckoning with the world. It is, like everything else, a product of culture. Whatever else one might say about Durkheim, it has always struck me that there is a kind of perverse, even cruel, genius in observing that even the desire for obliteration might be part of the mundane human work of remaking the social order – in turning even a suicide into a kind of regeneration. Such, at least, are the doleful lessons of undergraduate social science: nothing belongs to you, not even your own self-destruction. No less than Durkheim, the stakes of Hertz’s texts are not so much with Indigenous peoples in Borneo – here, as ever, anthropology is at best a partial guide – but are rather more to do with a group of European men, conjuring death and reproduction on the eve of catastrophe. Hertz died less than a decade after publishing his essay, at the age of thirty-three having volunteered for service in the First World War. He was one of several of Durkheim’s pupils killed in that conflict, though whether Durkheim thought of this collective self-sacrifice as the mere unfolding of social order is not known. Here we are, at any rate, surrounded by war, colonisation, murder and suicide. Society, indeed, stricken in the very principle of its social life.
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