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Releasing Body and Soul: Double Burial Among the Tetum


Article # : 15027 

Section : CULTURE
Issue Date : 3 / 1996  2,623 Words
Author : David Hicks

       The deceased's lengthy presence in soul form is interpreted in Tetum religion as a gradual but progressive weakening of kinship ties as he becomes increasingly "more dead." Kinsfolk provide rice and palm wine to sustain the deceased-as-soul while he awaits his final interment.
       
       The Tetum believe that death, far from being an instantaneous act, is a process that can be defined by stages of "deadness." For example, someone whose cessation of essential bodily functions would, in a Western sense, define him as dead is regarded by the Tetum as "more dead" or "less dead" depending upon the time that has lapsed since their cessation. One result of this belief is that death lacks the finality westerners attribute to it. The deceased is not considered to be a body that has been abruptly deprived of all human qualities but rather a being that has taken the first step toward the world of the spirit. Only in time--and by ritual transformation--will the final step be taken through the portals of that unseen domain.
       
       The initial step consists of a precursory burial of the corpse; the culminating step involves the soul that once animated it. This practice, an example of what anthropologists refer to as "double burial," has underlying psychological and sociological justifications. The lack of finality psychologically cushions the shock of losing a loved one and aids the grieving relatives to become reconciled to their loss. At the same time, double burial helps society adjust itself to the removal of one of its members.
       
       The Tetum double burial
       
       The Tetum view their cosmos as consisting of two worlds. The underworld is home to dead souls, ghosts of the ancestors, and nature spirits. This spiritual world is regarded as the womb of the earth goddess, from which it is thought the original three human beings were born in mythological times. It is also the place to which their bodies were returned at death and to which their dead souls went. In the upperworld, the human world, this spiritual domain is symbolically represented by the jungle.
       
       Existing as a soul, the deceased is thought to flutter, unseen, between these two halves of the cosmos for one year after the body has received burial. During this time, the soul's surviving kin claim to feel its presence and make sure they keep it conversant with happenings in the community. The deceased is still spoken of as though he were participating in some ill-defined way in social life. A shaman, who enters into trances for the purpose, provides the conduit for their mutual communication.
       
       As the months slip away and the soul pines for permanent entry into the spiritual world of its ancestors, its impatient frustration drives the soul to inflict crop failures, nightmares, sickness, and other misfortunes upon its erstwhile loved ones. As the soul increasingly becomes an object of apprehension, the kin's sense of loss fades. By the time of the second burial--that of the soul--they are thankful to get rid of it.
       
       The Tetum merge the psychological benefits of a protracted death with their need as a society to reassert themselves against the external power of nature, which, by destroying their creation, threatens their social integrity. Anthropologists note that society furnishes the human organism with its language, habits of
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