Death, Ritual and Belief

The Rhetoric of Funerary Rites

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Douglas Davies
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , November
     320 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The interest in studying death has grown since the first edition of Douglas Davies’s 1997 Death, Ritual and Belief. The original volume provided a survey of theory and ritual that oriented the still-emerging field of death studies. In its second edition, published in 2002, Davies added the subtitle, “The Rhetoric of Funerary Rites” to emphasize his theory of “words against death” according to which words used in funeral rites, liturgies, seances, and bereavement are critical to transcending death. In the latest edition, published 2017, Davies adds an examination of modern ritual practices including death rituals in secular spaces. 

Davies argues that death severs emotional and physical attachments, but it also poses a fundamental paradox because humans cannot comprehend their own nonexistence (251). Human self-consciousness creates an environment in which we are aware of our own death. To combat the uncertainty and fear of death, death rituals are constructed as part of an evolutionary adaptation. The verbal component of death rituals is most important because language is our mechanism for self-consciousness. Davies acknowledges that there are many other elements of ritual that do not involve language but asserts that words are central. Successfully overcoming the death of a loved one using ritualized “words against death” transforms people in a way that makes them better adapted for both individual and societal survival.

In the first several chapters, Davies summarizes major theories in sociology, anthropology, and psychology that approach death from the themes of embodiment, social status, and identity. A key aspect of Davies’s theory of death ritual is Maurice Bloch’s concept of “rebounding conquest.” Bloch describes initiation rituals in which participants transition from one level of meaning to a higher level and, subsequently, gain power and social influence. Davies applies this dimension of power to death, claiming that those who participate in death ritual overcome bereavement through ritual empowerment. The participant’s personal power is a driving force for the evolutionary advantage of death ritual. 

The middle section features descriptions of death rituals divided into chapters for Eastern traditions, ancestors, cemeteries, and local identities (spanning from ancient Chile and Egypt to modern woodland burial in the United Kingdom), Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. The last seven chapters feature more general themes, examining the location of death and death memorials, afterlife beliefs, pet and animal death, death in popular culture and art, and secular death. In the latter chapters, Davies examines secular beliefs, using examples from civil rituals to cremation and cryogenics to illustrate how death practices are changing. He uses non-theological cases to show how “words against death” have transitioned from religious into secular spaces. Interesting examples of this growth in secular rites are the advent of pet cemeteries, the medicalization of death, and debates surrounding euthanasia. However, Davies maintains that secularization does not mean a shift away from death ritual. “Words against death” can be poetic or therapeutic rather than theological and will remain equally relevant in both religious and secular settings. 

Davies’ “words against death” theory is more suited for traditions grounded in written theologies and liturgies because language seems more central. As a result, he seems complicit with one of the underlying assumptions of the world religions paradigm. Tomoko Masuzawa argues that one of the biases underlying the world religion category is a separation between literate and preliterate societies (The Invention of World Religions, University of Chicago Press, 2005, 4). Davies’s chapter titles reflect the standard categorization of religions, with complete chapters dedicated to Eastern traditions, Judaism and Islam, and Christianity while only providing a combined chapter for many indigenous traditions. However, he acknowledges that pre- or nonliterate societies have developed oral myths that address death and consciousness. Davies tries to show a breadth of groups and include smaller traditions, but ultimately it is easier to argue for a theory of “words against death” using societies in which words are recorded and appear to have greater significance. 

Davies’s blend of personal theories about processes of grief and his survey of others’ research offers important contributions in death studies. However, this volume lacks depth in individual theories and practices and would benefit from pairing with works that offer greater detail such as Philippe Aries’s 2008 The Hour of Our Death (2d ed., Vintage Books)for Western death history. While this edition has an extensive bibliography, it contains few twenty-first century titles. For instance, Kathleen Garces-Foley’s 2005 Death and Religion in a Changing World(Routledge) would likely be a better choice for a course on modern death practices because it focuses more narrowly on the twenty-first century. If paired with volumes that expand on specific areas, Death, Ritual, and Beliefcan be useful at both the undergraduate level in an introduction to death and dying course and at the graduate level for advanced study.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Courtney Applewhite is a doctoral student in Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Date of Review: 
April 27, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Douglas Davies is Professor in the Study of Religion and Director of the Centre for Death and Life Studies at Durham University, UK. He is the author of Natural Burial (2012), The Theology of Death (2008) and A Brief History of Death (2004). He is also the editor, along with Lewis Mates, of The Encyclopedia of Cremation (2005). Professor Davies is a Fellow of the British Academy, as well as a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences and of the Learned Society of Wales.


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