An Anthropologist at the Funeral

My title pays homage to Margery Allingham whose fictional detective Albert Campion, though born to the highest social rank, could pass happily in any station of the class-stratified streets of fictional pre-2WW Britain.

I write this to present a context for some of my own fieldnotes, and the conclusions based thereon, which I am making available as part of the HEFCE ERA project. The topic is death, and my presence at funerals has made me think repeatedly about the moral, ethical and emotional problems that face an anthropological researcher, particularly one conducting research in a culture not their own (however that may be understood).

Biographical background; Biography and fieldwork

Part of the context must include who I am. A white male from the privileged classes of late C20th Britain. For the purposes of this essay such will suffice as an introduction. More important here is my experience of bereavement and fieldwork in Cameroon, and the way the two are related.

My father died, aged 56, when I was at college aged 19. Among my peer group I was unusual at having had this loss. Even before I started to study anthropology I realised this experience had changed me, and had made me grow up in ways at least as significant as reaching my majority and leaving home. This rebounded upon me later in the field. When I was talking to Boeboe Savie about his family history, during my first period of fieldwork he turned the tables on me, as people often do. So he asked the names and ages of my family. I explained that my father had died and mentioned something of the circumstances of the accident. Then I asked him how old his father had been at death. He said `old, a grey haired old man' and I made noises that basically said `well that's all right then'. At this Boeboe got angry. `How dare you say that. Don't you think that every day that passes I want to talk to my father.' I was shocked by his vehemence, and realised my mistake. Boeboe died during one of my absences in UK and I regret not having been at his funeral.

My brother died, aged 42, on 4 January 1995. I was in Somié doing fieldwork and I only just received the news in time to get back for the funeral. I was actually on my way home and had already left the village, but I remember feeling relieved that I was not there when I heard. By then I knew the appropriate behaviour in those circumstances, and I did not want to do it. As I approach my fortieth birthday I continue to visit the same village where I have friends and a house to maintain. I know how I should behave even if I find it hard to act correctly. But I am ahead of myself.

Fieldwork and funerals

In 1985 when I first went to Somié village, the only funeral I had ever attended was that of my father. By the time I returned after a year I had been to seven more and had heard of and avoided others. Each time I return the first thing I am told is not who has married or had babies but which adults have died. I now go more willingly to funerals but find them increasingly upsetting as I know as friends the people, either the dead or the bereaved.

The Phenomenology of Mambila funerals - a summary

In the accompanying text there is description of the timing and organisation of Mambila funerals. What I attempt here is a summary of my understanding of why people go to funerals and what funerals achieve at an emotive level. I should stress that I have not asked people explicitly about this, and I am not sure that doing so would produce meaningful answers. This is rather an impressionistic summary which is why some of my biography needs to be taken into account when assessing it.

Company is important in Mambila society. To sit by oneself is a BAD thing. A common response to illness, and particularly for a serious illness, is for people to visit to sit with the sick person. As in sickness so in death. The bereaved are to be comforted by the presence of their kin, friends and neighbours who come to support them, to bear witness to the dead. You sit, and often in silence. As time goes on or if you are not closely related you chat with those near to you. You drink and you eat cola nuts. There is pressure to participate, at the very least, by eating a piece of cola. Some people come to the gathering, greet the bereaved, eat a piece of cola then leave. I have received the impression - though it is never recorded in my field notes - that to refuse to eat the cola could be seen as either an accusation that the deceased was a witch, or an admission that the person refusing had some involvement (typically through witchcraft) in the death. Commensality and witchcraft are closely related.

Neighbours and classificatory sisters cook so those closely involved do not have to. The community flexes its muscles: it sits together; it is together. The funeral is an object lesson in social consequences. The persistence and continuity of the community is demonstrated by the rituals, and just as powerfully by the social action of being together. This is what makes aspects of functionalism attractive to this day! By attending the funeral you make a social statement that you want the social good. By eating the cola and drinking the beer you implicitly deny any involvement in the death through nefarious means.

Stranger at the feast

For a long time I attended funerals, if at all, reluctantly - feeling very anglo saxon, full of English reserve, that `it wasn't my place', that I was intruding on other people's grief and so on... My documentation and photography of these events has suffered accordingly. Now I realise how inappropriate such reactions are. By attending I am NOT intruding; rather than not being my place, the only place a decent human being can be at such a time is at the funeral gathering. By staying aloof, I mark my difference far more than by going to the funeral and feeling uncomfortable.

And uncomfortable is how I feel (although the local maize beer helps). I have known far less bereavement than most of the locals attending the gatherings. Perhaps this is why I feel so upset (a luxury that I can indulge in?). The closing line of Dylan Thomas's poem `A refusal to mourn the death, by fire, of a child in London' is `after the first death there are no others'. At the risk of sounding pretentious, that is how I feel. All the funerals I go to evoke my father's death, and now my brother's too. I know that had the news of my brother's death arrived when I was still in the village that what I should have done was wail loudly so that everyone knew, so that everyone could come and sit with me. I would have found that impossible to deal with. So much the worse for me as an anthropologist?

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