Colloques et journées d'étude | Archives 2008-2012

Mourning, intimacy and the special character of the conjugal relationship

Uncertainty and disquiet

Nanterre University, France

10/07/2012 – 13/07/2012

All Workshops HERE

Mourning, intimacy and the special character of the conjugal relationship

Location V310
Date and Start Time 12 Jul, 2012 at 11:30


Marika Moisseeff (CNRS) email
Margarita Valdovinos (Universidad nacional Autónoma de México - UNAM) email
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Short Abstract

This workshop reconsiders the status of the conjugal relationship in kinship systems, as distinct from both affinal and consanguinal ties, by studying the prescriptions applied to surviving spouses in the course of mortuary rituals.

Long Abstract

As early as 1908, Van Gennep observed that during periods of mourning, "the living and the dead constitute a special society, situated between the world of the living and the world of the dead, from which the living leave more or less quickly according to how closely they are related to the deceased". He further remarks that, in all cases, "as it should be", the widow or the widower "belongs longest to this special world". For Van Gennep, the distinct nature of the deceased's spouse's status is thus taken for granted. This "obvious" fact needs to be reconsidered.

While marriage partners may be classified as affines prior to marriage, it would appear that the physical intimacy they share assigns them to another category, yet different from that of consanguinal kin such as siblings and children, such that, in the course of mourning, they are subjected to more stringent prescriptions. This relationship of acquired intimacy between spouses, surely linked with the prolonged status occupied by the surviving spouse as intermediary between the living and the dead, may well constitute a pivotal feature in the organisation of kinship systems. In this respect, the management of the surviving spouses' emotional reactions would seem to be of crucial importance for the community's future.

This workshop aims to reconsider the status of the conjugal relationship by linking together features pertaining to kinship systems and to mortuary rites in various ethnographic settings.

This workshop is closed to new paper proposals.


Dealing with a dead spouse: a comparative cultural perspective

Author: Marika Moisseeff (CNRS)  email
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Short Abstract

By adopting a comparative perspective on the treatment of death that draws on a clinical practice in France and on fieldwork in an Australian Aboriginal community, I will try to account for funerary prescriptions that apply specifically to spouses in a number of societies.

Long Abstract

The event of "death" confronts the members of a community with three types of phenomena: (1) the presence of a corpse, (2) the emotional reactions of those close to the departed, and (3) collective expressions pertaining to loss, grieving and human mortality. In contemporary Western societies, these phenomena tend to be handled independently of each other. The corpse is taken in charge almost exclusively by medical institutions and funeral homes and the treatment it undergoes can be understood as a kind of physical decontamination. The emotional reactions of those close to the deceased falls to specialized practitioners - the "psy" - whose work can be interpreted as a process of relational decontmination. Collective expressions of loss, sorrow and grieving take the form of distanced, mediatised (literary, artistic, cinematographic, televised) representations.

By adopting a comparative perspective on the treatment of death in Western and other cultural contexts, drawing on material collected both within the framework of a clinical practice in France and in the course of ethnographic fieldwork in an Australian Aboriginal community, I will try to account for prescriptions that apply specifically to spouses in a number of societies. These prescriptions are organized around the requirement to at once physically and relationally decontaminate those whose identity has been transformed by a prolonged, close intimacy with the deceased. From this point of view, the separation of mothers and sons in traditional Arrernte initiation rites provides a revealing counterpart.

Sisters, wives, death and rebirth: some evidence from Central India

Author: Chris Gregory (Australian National University)  email
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Short Abstract

The conjugal relationship is a pivotal feature of North Indian kinship, but not for the Halbi speakers of Central India. They define their ‘kingdom of the brother and sister’ in opposition to the ‘kingdom of the divine husband’ of the north. Death in Central India is the rebirth of the sibling relationship.

Long Abstract

The Halbi speakers of the Bastar plateau in Central India refer to their region as the 'Kingdom of the brother and sister', a statement that begins to make sense when seen in the light of the behaviour of brothers and sisters in life-cycle rituals, especially those at the death of a brother or sister. Sibling intimacy is a remarkable feature of Indian kinship in general and presents a stark contrast to other regions of the world such as Melanesia and Polynesia where mutual respect and distance is the prevailing ideology. 'Avoidance' relations of the Oceanic kind have been seen as proof of the universality of the incest taboo but a potential wife in central India is a maina bahin, a marriageable (maina) sister (bahin). Halbi speakers define their 'kingdom of the brother and sister' in opposition to the 'kingdom of the divine husband' of the north. Death in Central India is the rebirth of the sibling relation which, of course, includes both marriageable and unmarriageable sisters.

The blood of my blood: the place of widows and widowers among Spanish Gypsies

Author: Nathalie Manrique (Laboratoire d'anthropologie sociale)  email
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Short Abstract

Among Gypsies, social organization is founded on a dichotomy between givers and receivers. And, the conjugal relationship is conceived of as a gift of "blood". When one spouse dies, various rituals are performed so that the surviving spouse does not accompany this close partner of gift into death.

Long Abstract

Among the Gypsies of San Juan and Morote (southern Spain), the links between individuals and groups are conceived of as gift relationships in which givers are superior to receivers. This dialectic orders groups and individuals into hierarchical categories inherited at birth. In this way, human beings are held to be superior to animals, men to women, etc. Within each category, statuses fluctuate and are periodically readjusted by means of material or symbolic reciprocal transactions (taking place notably on the occasion of marriages).

The relationship between spouses is consistent with this at once static and performative representation of social relations. During sexual intercourse, a man pours his "blood" into the body of women who becomes impregnated, such that, after several years of marriage, a women's body is deemed to have become very similar to that of her spouse; she and her husband become blood relatives. Following a person's death, his/her spouse remains in mourning for about four years. As the identity of the surviving spouse has become very similar to that of the deceased, he/she also runs the risk of being called to the world of the dead. The wearing of mourning for the death of parents or older siblings may also last four years. A comparison of the mourning practices (initiated in order to break relationships between relatives) undertaken in the case of these different consanguineous and affinal relationships will shed light on the fact that they entail similar periods of mourning.

Lions and widows on the path of mourning: náayeri practices surrounding the absence of intimate partners

Author: Margarita Valdovinos (Universidad nacional Autónoma de México - UNAM)  email
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Short Abstract

Based of ethnographic data, I will analyze the role played by widows in the mourning process of the rest of the kinship group. Despite their exclusion from ritual activities surrounding their spouse’s death, widows become the means whereby the relationship between their deceased partner and the larger community is mediated.

Long Abstract

Based on my ethnographic observations among the Náayeri of Western Mexico, I will analyze the role played by widows in the funerary rituals celebrated following their spouse's death.

Widows are excluded not only from operations centered on their husband's corpse, but also from any contact with objects relating to their husband's life. Exclusions of this kind are identical to those prescribed for the parents of a dead child. However, the role assigned to the surviving partner seems to trigger more complex processes. From the first negative prescriptions that appear immediately following the spouse's death, up until a ritual celebrated five years later in which the dead person's possessions are finally inherited, the deceased is made physically present to the residential group through the intentions and animosity attributed to his widow.

By comparing the widow's ritual transition (from the position of passive participant to that of active intermediary between the deceased and his kin group) with modern Náayeri narratives dealing with the absence of conjugal partners, I will explore the role played by the surviving spouse and other "dangerous" creatures in mediating the relationship between the deceased partner and the larger community.

Marriage with a deceased husband in North-Eastern Ghana

Author: Marko Veisson (University of Helsinki)  email
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Short Abstract

I will present an ethnographic description of Gurunsi widowhood rites and the status of a widow in the “ghost marriage” with her deceased husband. Leaning on ritual theory, I then discuss the possible interpretations of the ongoing debate about the acceptability of these customs in modern Ghana.

Long Abstract

Among the Gurunsi in North-Eastern Ghana there is an ongoing debate about widowhood rites and the low social status of widows both during the mourning period and afterwards. Critics (such as NGOs concerned about human rights and modern values, the state and Christian churches) claim that widowhood rites conducted during funerals humiliate the widows and contain moral and physical mistreatment and violence against them. The widows also remain married to their dead husband and are expected to stay in the dead man's compound after his death. Usually a relative of the deceased husband obtains rights for the sexuality of younger widows, but children born from this union are still considered to be those of the dead husband.

Apologetes of the traditional widowhood rites find them to be self evident and inevitable, because this practice is entwined with ancestor cult, rights obtained by the husband's family through bridewealth, with the traditional inheritance system and kinship system.

Widowhood rights can be seen in the vein of Van Gennep's theory of rites of passage. However, the continuation of the relationship between a widow and her dead husband speaks of a strong bond between the living and the dead after the funerary rites as well. It should also be noted that after the death of a wife, the rites for widowers are much less intense and there are practically no restrictions after the mourning period. This shows that the practice is connected to the patriarchal nature of the traditional Gurunsi society.

When death is dressed as Bride: burial garments among Tacuates

Author: Maria del Carmen Castillo (University of Barcelona)  email
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Short Abstract

From some ethnographic observations, I will analyze the dress code used by the deceased Tacuates in their own death rituals. As I will demonstrate, clothing attributed to the deceased reflects their marital status.

Long Abstract

In the community of Santa María Zacatepec, Oaxaca, when a tacuate woman dies after being engaged to a man, her body will be dressed during her funeral with her wedding garment. This fact shows that the alliance between her and her future man is sealed since the moment of their engagement. In this sense, the wedding garment becomes an index of their alliance even when the official wedding ceremony has not yet taken place at the time of the death.

In this paper I will analyze this and other ethnographic cases concerning different ethnographic groups of the state of Oaxaca among which the clothing worn during the funerary rituals is directly related to the marital status of the deceased.

Being married to a Spirit: Mourning Rituals for a Wedding in south Bioko (Equatorial Guinea)

Author: Nuria Fernández (UNED (Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia))  email
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Short Abstract

This paper examines the rituals that women undertake when they marry a spirit and take on a two-fold status: a legally married person and a widow. The previously enforced prescriptions, now ritualized and relegated to a symbolic plane, leaves the woman free to enter into new conjugal relations

Long Abstract

The Bubi from the south of Bioko Island distinguish between two types of marriage: commonlaw marriage ("estilo de país") and "traditional" marriage. In the latter, a spirit is attributed to a woman as a husband and as the legal pater of any children she may have. Present day "traditional" marriage ceremonies contain elements drawn both from the marriage ritual as it existed formally and from mourning practices for a deceased husband.

An analysis of these elements, as they occur in today's "traditional" wedding ceremony, reveals a series of interesting transitions in the concerned woman´s status. During a first phase of the ritual, in which the woman acquires her spirit-husband, she goes from being single to being married. During a second phase, she goes from being married to being a widow: the wedding takes on the appearance of a mourning ceremony for her new husband who has already become a spirit. As a result, the woman, all the while remaining legally married with her spirit-husband, is free to form new relations or to continue her conjugal life with her children's genitor with whom she can contract a commonlaw marriage.

This distinction between legal paternity (spirit-husband) and biological paternity (conjugal partner), has important implications for group membership and for the regulation of kinship relations. It is both fundamental to the reproduction of kinship system as a whole, and, by relegating previously enforced prescriptions relating to marriage and mourning to a symbolic plane, has greatly contributed to the improvement of the status of Bubi women.

Trees of conjugal remembrance: kinship, mourning and death in Japanese tree-burial

Author: Sebastien Boret Penmellen (Tohoku University)  email
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Short Abstract

This paper examines how the interrelationships between changing kinship patterns and novel funeral practices provide widows and widowers in Japan with new sense of agency and responsibility over the mourning, celebration and immortalisation of their departed spouses and conjugal relationships.

Long Abstract

In Japan, the conventional way of death is the ancestral grave system accompanied by Buddhist mortuary rituals. This system places emphasis on the identity and continuity of a household upon which the individual identity of the deceased is dependent and anonymised within a body of ancestors. In contrast to the ancestral grave, a proliferation of new non-ancestral funerals has taken place since the 1990s. One of the most innovative ways of celebrating death is tree burials (jumokusou). In jumokusou, the customary ancestral tombstone is replaced by a tree of remembrance and the graveyards become vast woodlands. Amid socio-demographic changes (birth-rate and marriage declines and the ageing of the society), the growing popularity of tree burials and other non-ancestral graves interrelate with a growing sense of uncertainty regarding the sustainability of family lines and their graves. Among tree burial subscribers, these renouncers of the ancestral grave system are frequently widows and widowers who purchase a grave for their departed spouse and themselves. Drawing on intensive research with a tree burial community, this paper unravels the social tensions around the trees of remembrance where widows and widowers grieve and memorialise their conjugal relationships while negotiating the expectations of family members, society and the dead. I argue that widows and widowers become conscious agents or ‘authors’ of the memorialisation of their conjugal relationships. In other words, the surviving spouse stands at the intersection of both society’s and the (deceased) individual’s response to death.

Wives of Palestinian life prisoners, between mourning and melancholia

Author: Lotte Buch Segal (University of Copenhagen)  email
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Short Abstract

With a point of departure in wives of life prisoners in the occupied Palestinian territories this paper seeks to flesh out some thoughts on the entanglement of intimacy, temporality and the possibilities of mourning in the case of a Palestinian husband being sentenced for life by the Israeli state

Long Abstract

Despite the recent prisoner's swap between Israel and the Palestinians there are at current approximately 5000 Palestinians serving sentences in prisons in Israel due to their activities of resistance against the Israeli state. Some of these men are sentenced to life. With a point of departure in wives of life prisoners in the occupied Palestinian territories this paper seeks to flesh out some thoughts on the entanglement of intimacy, temporality and the possibilities of mourning in the case of a Palestinian husband being sentenced for life by the Israeli state. In these instances the man in question is absent for the entire lifespan of his wife yet the paper will argue that in contrast to, for instance as-shuhada, the Palestinian martyrs, the detainees cannot be mourned since they are only absent but have not been lost. Whereas widows of as-shuhada have a claim to mourning wives of detainees might be thought of as confined within the space of melancholia. This, I argue is due to the fact that they supposedly still share the intimacy of a conjugal marriage even though the one part of the conjugate is utterly absent from the weave of everyday life -and will continue to be so. The paper thereby sheds light on the possibilities of mourning and the politics of affect surrounding the conjugate marked by confinement in one of the worlds most prolonged conflicts.

Who cares? Dealing with life after death of a spouse in Coastal Community, Tanzania

Author: Vendelin Simon Tarmo (University of Dar es salaam)  email
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Short Abstract

This paper examines how the elderly widows deal with the loss of their spouses in Coastal Community, Tanzania. The death not only marks loss of a spouse or an 'acquired intimacy' between the spouses but brings a new uncertainty by losing a conjugal relationship during old age.

Long Abstract

Drawing on my ethnographic research in Rufiji, after an elderly woman becomes a widow, her fate depends on the ties she has during the life course. Being aware of the heterogeneity, this is particularly true for the sixty years plus elderly in this community with ageing population.

Since it is considered to be a shame and too old to establish a new conjugal relationship, consanguinal ties become a cushion for the later life. Interestingly, with younger people flowing to the urban areas and the elderly and women in particular being reluctant to join them, the sibling's reunion during old age becomes a trend. This means, after the funeral and mourning period is over; the elderly abandon her place of residence where she spent life with a deceased husband and re-join her sister or brother. She has to fit into the domains of either sister or brother in law, depending to whom she is relocating.

By focusing on life after death of a spouse, the paper enhances the discussion on the kinship ties and brings forth relations that emerge after death.

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