Arnold van Gennep’s “Rites of Passage” and the ritual of death in Judaism
Rites of Passage are ceremonies which symbolize transmission from one status to some other. Arnold van Gennep, a famous anthropologist defined five stages of human life: birth, puberty, marriage and finally death. In my research paper I’m going to consider the last one. There are various views on death in religions. I’m going to compare Jewish understanding of it with other religions, in order to find out differences and common features. It is necessary to compare funeral rituals in different religions. Besides, I consider it important to explain the concept of famadihana ceremony and the idea of kinship.
Jewish understanding of death differs from that of Christians. They don’t consider it so tragic, but on the other hand make no illusions concerning Heaven with Angels and Hell and Devils. Death is an evil not only because it ends our lives, but also because it still remains an unsolved mystery. In this way Judaism has rather rational understanding of death. What about life beyond the grave? Human life has a horrible and unfair result, without taking into account people’s merits and achievements. That’s why it is the greatest evil, which breaks human existence unpredictably and thoughtlessly.
According to Eastern religions human life is only one of numerous other (previous) lives. In this way one should be responsible not only for today’s life, but other lives as well. Today’s life is only a new incorporation. Judaism however rejects such an idea, although transformation seems to be quite possible. Judaism along with Christianity and Islam has a specific understanding of death. It proclaims that after the Earth life, soul continues to live “beyond the grave”. This new life lasts for an unknown period of time. According to Judaism there is some other world where people find themselves after death. A righteous person gets retribution for his virtue; a sinful one is caught up with punishment. As for Islam, it also gives a detailed explanation of human life after death. Jewish doctrine can be found in Talmud.
Arnold van Gennep proved that every society has a great number of separate communities. Modern society consists of upper and lower groups. In order to transmit from one group to another one should perform a number of “rites”. It depends on different factors. Ceremonies are specific actions, related to certain feelings and mental orientation of society. Spiritual transformation is so hard that it can’t take place without middle period - liminal phase, which is similar to death. This is a temporal period of uncertainty. All the rituals obey one common scheme. Arnold van Gennep mentions the rites of unification with a deity or a group of them. Jewish Easter (the very word means “passage”) for example, is also a special ceremony. There is a simple interpretation of the ritual sequence during the Jewish Easter. Ideas of death and reborn were later included into the Christian Easter. Originally it was a ceremony of passage, because this holiday combined cultural elements of different nations.
Speaking about religion and death I can’t help saying about the funeral rituals. Every nation has different and sometimes contradictory image of life after death. It always deals with special ceremonies. One of them is mourning. It is especially long-lasting for widows (Gennep, 1960). For a widow the period may last until the pregnancy is visible, for example. Jewish idea of respect to dead people doesn’t special rituals and ceremonies. But still there are some aspects which should be taken into consideration when speaking about rite of burial. It should be done as soon as possible in a simple way. A dead body is put into a wooden coffin without bottom – in this way the body should touch the ground. Friends and relatives should accompany it till the very place of “last relief”. The end of funeral means the beginning of mourning.
The first 7 days of mourning (shiwa): people don’t leave their homes. Their attention is distracted from sorrow by constant visitors who offer their condolences.
The next period lasts for 30 days and is called (shloshim). People, who lost their nearest start doing usual things, but avoid entertainments and continue to pray. The mourning may last for a year, in case of parental death.
The next step would be reintegration into the social life.
Rites of passage can be found in the rituals of reborn and reincarnation. If the soul can leave this world and join to the world of dead, it can later return either on its own or forcedly. Such ideas are popular with different religions, including Judaism.
Speaking about funeral rituals I’d like to mention the ceremony of famadihana. Ancestors are taken out of the graves, rewashed and wrapped up in a new shroud. Then they are sat on a respectable place and supposed to celebrate temporary reborn together with living people. I think that it shows that people don’t want to put up with natural death, and try to bring dead people to life even artificially. “A person lives until he is remembered”. After the ceremony the corpse is reburied in a new place in the tomb. Such a ceremony takes place in different corners of the world and people, who participate in it, don’t see anything unnatural. On the contrary it is a reason for a joyful holiday. Being somber and sorrowful is considered to be indecent. Everybody is sincerely glad to “communicate” with ancestors and honor them. The idea of kinship is also important here. The day for famadihana is defined by the head of family (different nations choose different members of it according to complex family relationships). The member of the family should consult the deity, and only after the most favorable day for the ceremony is finally established. In this way people live in chime with the spirit of dead ancestors.
Human life is the highest value in Judaism. People should live and be joyful, but sooner or later they die and should be buried according to national and religious traditions. Jewish tradition has a realistic attitude to death which is not a tragedy. Dead person just passes to another world. Judaism proclaims faith in afterlife. But on the other hand death of a person is sorrowful for his relatives and friends. The meaning of Jewish funeral rituals is to honor the memory of dead people decently. According to religious principles a funeral must be arranged during the day of death. Only some exceptional reasons can postpone the funeral. After ablution, the corpse is covered in white clothes. The tradition to dress dead people in simple white clothes was introduced in ancient times, in order to emphasize the equality between rich and poor. If a person perished in an accident and his clothes are prodded with blood, he should be buried in the same clothes, because human blood is especially valued. It is as sacred as life, and is worth decent burial. It is prohibited to embalm or cremate the corpse. Unlike Christian tradition it is indecent to show off the dead body in an open coffin, because enemies can come and be pleased with his death. Before the funeral the rite of torn clothes should be performed. It means that Rabin should rupture the clothes of several relatives. It would symbolize broken heart. As for the idea of kinship, the mourning concerns only seven close relatives: husband (wife), parents, daughter, son, sister, brother.
On the whole if to compare Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Buddhism one may see differences mainly between Eastern and Western religions. Eastern outlook is based on the concepts of karma, reincarnation and release; Western views follow the ideas of single life of soul, which is followed by reward or punishment. Judaism, Christianity and Islam have common rout in the person of Abraham, that’s why they are sometimes called Abrahamic.
In conclusion I’d like to say that investigation of Arnold van Gennep explains author’s idea concerning individual’s life and phenomenon of death. Our life consists of several changes - transition from one condition into another. The author gives a detailed explanation of his ideas and proves their universal meaning, as they probably concern any nationality and can be found in any religion. My research paper explains the ritual of death in Judaism as well as its expression in other religions.
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