Passages and Afterworlds

Anthropological Perspectives on Death in the Caribbean

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Editor(s): 
Maarit Forde, Yanique Hume
Religious Cultures of African and African Diaspora People
  • Durham, NC: 
    Duke University Press
    , December
     2018.
     312 pages.
     $26.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781478000143.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The dead move the living and are also, in turn, moved by them. In Passages and Afterworlds: Anthropological Perspectives on Death in the Caribbean, editors Yanique Hume and Maarit Forde have assembled a compelling set of essays on Caribbean deathways—mortuary ritual, memorialization, and the colonial and postcolonial management of beings alive and dead in the Greater Caribbean world. Across diverse contexts, the chapters do an excellent job of examining the ways in which communities use separations between those dead and alive to come closer together, making new life from death (including living well with the dead).

This book is composed of an introduction, nine chapters, and an afterword. Forde, in the introduction, situates the chapters of the book in the longer history of the anthropology of death in the Caribbean up to the present. Part 1 of the book, “Relations,” features chapters on the ways in which the living cohabitate with the dead. In his chapter, Paul Johnson compares differing ritual modes through which practitioners make the ancestors present in Afro-Atlantic traditions. This chapter focuses on ancestor practices among the Garifuna on the Caribbean coast of Honduras. He provides an analysis of forms of “possession” or “transduction” among Afro-Atlantic religions and compares these to the manifestation of the ancestors among the Garifuna. In the second chapter, George Mentore examines Amerindian ontologies of the life of the dead in the Greater Caribbean as well as the complex entanglements between the living and the dead. Mentore urges scholars to consider, not simply descriptions of Amerindian life in the Caribbean, but the challenges of Indigenous Caribbean conceptions of their worlds, including worlds of the dead, to the scholars’ often unquestioned “modern” concepts of self and truth.

In chapter 3, Wilhelmina van Wetering and Thoden van Velzen analyze the daily interactions between the Ndyuka Maroons of Suriname and their ancestors. They focus on examples where tensions between younger women and male elders came to the surface, such as challenges to corpse divination, menstrual sequestration, and other protests of and revolts against the geronto-patriarchy. Hume, in chapter 4, examines the role of the Nine Night, the mortuary ritual of a wake on family land, in the recreation of social bonds and sense of community and emplacement in rural, working-class Jamaica. Hume situates mortuary practices on family land within the longer history of post-emancipation peasant family land tenure as an assertion of new freedom and autonomy in the face of colonial rule. In the fifth chapter, Karen Richman discusses rural Haitians’ interactions with ancestors as part of service to the lwa. In secondary funerary rites, during the ritual “retrieval” of ancestors, the dead speak to the living about the circumstances of their deaths. The address of the living by the dead opens a curtain onto a stage upon which the living can hash out their concerns and grievances, mediate social conflicts, and reproduce social relations.

The chapters of part 2, “Transformations,” focus on the ways in which sudden or violent changes in context—including colonization, natural and human-made disasters, and economic revolution—lead to changes in the ways in which people deal with and understand death and the dead. Donald Cosentino’s chapter looks at the changing fortunes of the Gedes, mischievous spirits of the dead in Haitian Vodou, over the 20th and 21st centuries through an examination of both ritual and art. His examples are surveyed in light of the mass deaths following the earthquake in 2010. In chapter 7, Forde tracks the history of the legal regulation and policing of mortuary ritual and the ways in which the dead have figured in debates over modernity and civilization in Trinidad and Tobago. In chapter 8, Keith McNeal traces the transition from burial to cremation as part of an analysis of the rise in prestige of cremation, and the ethnicization of Hinduism, during the oil boom and its aftermaths in late 20th century Trinidad. Finally, Richard Price explores the ways in which—in the Americas—mortuary rituals were important sites for the creation of African diasporic cultures, focusing on the Saamaka maroons as his example.

This book will be of interest to those in anthropology, religious studies, ritual studies, and Caribbean studies. Although generally about death in the Caribbean, many chapters deal with spirits and their influences. Other recently edited volumes on related topics (spirits, their agency, and their materiality) have leaned more towards Latin America for their examples. This volume does a good job of representing the diversity of the Greater Caribbean, including Indigenous and Afro-Indigenous traditions, Anglophone Caribbean religions, and Hinduism, among others. The essays are at their most interesting when they zoom in on the cultural politics of death and remembrance, contestations of gendered hierarchies, theorization of possession, and bio and thanatopolitics of colonization and the postcolony. Passages and Afterworlds emerged from a workshop held in Barbados in 2011. This is occasionally evident, as a few of the chapters can, at times, read like workshop talks. Furthermore, several of the chapters, such as Richman’s and Price’s, feature material and examples likely familiar to those who have read their authors’ other work. However, these aspects make the chapters shorter and accessible, making them useful in both graduate and undergrad courses. The book would fit well into courses such as religion and death, religion in the Caribbean, anthropology of religion, or ghost, zombies, and the unquiet dead (a course I recently taught). As Aisha Khan argues in her afterword, the chapters in this book do a great job of demonstrating the ways in which the Caribbean, although defined in part by histories of slavery and genocide, is still lively with both the living and the dead.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Alexander Rocklin is Assistant Professor of Religion at Otterbein University.

Date of Review: 
June 21, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Maarit Forde is the Head of the Department of Literary, Cultural, and Communication Studies at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, and coeditor of Obeah and Other Powers: The Politics of Caribbean Religion and Healing, also published by Duke University Press.

Yanique Hume is Lecturer in Cultural Studies at the University of the West Indies at Cave Hill, Barbados, and coeditor of Caribbean Popular Culture: Power, Politics, and Performance.

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