Mirrors of Passing

Unlocking the Mysteries of Death, Materiality, and Time

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Sophie Seebach, Rane Willerslev
  • Brooklyn, NY: 
    Berghahn Books
    , July
     326 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This collection of essays examines the interconnected questions related to death and time that were initially explored by the 2011-2015 University of Olso Museum of Cultural History’s exhibition, “Death, Materiality and the Origin of Time” organized by National Museum of Denmark Director and anthropologist Rane Willerslev. Mirrors of Passing: Unlocking the Mysteries of Death, Materiality, and Time, however, is not a museum catalogue and does not serve as a photographic record or scholarly exposition for the museum exhibition. Instead, it is a separate yet accompanying volume with the same focus—to explore the intersectionality of death, human conceptions of time, and their material expressions. 

The anthology consists of an introduction by the editors followed by fourteen discrete chapters that are connected through their exploratory questions of how each of the sources or cultures examined demonstrate a particular understanding of the interrelationship between death, time, and the material objects that bridge this divide. Readers expecting theological or philosophical inquiries into human conceptualizations of time, death, and materiality from within a “world religions” paradigm will be confronted with a series of essays that is distinctly Other. There is little here for the scholar interested in purely Western notions of death and the afterlife. In reading the collection of essays in order, this seeming weakness reveals instead an adept treatment of the central theme that human conceptions of death and time are deeply intertwined, and features innovative insights regarding the integral relationship of time and materiality to afterlife beliefs in diverse cultures across history and the world.

Written by a wide range of scholars, the fourteen essays are divided into four parts and form a cohesive interdisciplinary collection that includes both the humanities and social sciences’s approaches to the study of death. The first part, “Death’s Time,” consists of five chapters which consider the ways that death organizes human awareness of time and place, and the disruption of the two through tragedy. In the first three chapters, humanities approaches are engaged to offer anthropologists new lenses for examining the interconnectedness of time and death, while the fourth and fifth chapters use ethnographic studies of African cultures to consider the ways that accidental deaths and epidemic illnesses disrupt human conceptions of place and time. In the second part, “Materialities of Death,” a series of four essays explores the diverse materialities within mortuary rituals from the Siberian Chukchi people (chapter 6), the Iñupiat peoples (chapter 7), Mongolia’s stone cairns (ovoos) (chapter 8), and the Karitiana and Xukuru peoples of lowland Brazil (chapter 9) to examine the ways that materiality demarcates or relinquishes boundaries between the living and the dead. In part 3, “Life after Death,” the authors probe the ways that modern technologies intervene and reconfigure connections to the dead. A particularly poignant essay (chapter 10) describes how grieving parents use website memorials to maintain a relationship with their deceased child in support of their identities as parents, while the remaining essays (chapters 11-13) consider similar ways that various modalities of technology serve as material links for accessing or memorializing the dead. Finally, part 4 consists of only one chapter by cultural anthropologist, artist, and exhibition designer Alexandra Schüssler. Schüssler, one of the contributors to the original museum exhibition, narrates her experiences in conceptualizing a museum exhibition on the theme of death. This chapter, along with Susan Matland’s essay (chapter 11), will be of particular interest to students working in the area of religion and museums. The essayists raise critical questions regarding a museum’s potential as well as its limitations for assisting museum audiences in accessing other culture’s unique perspectives in an exhibition setting, while also noting the ethical implications of the museum’s role as caretakers of humanity’s material heritage. From historical investigations of afterlife views of ancient Egypt and Greece, to ethnographical studies of contemporary First Nations and indigenous cultures, to the Internet’s virtual worlds of contemporary Northern Europe, the essays in this volume navigate the varied and diverse forms through which people construct an awareness of death, and then create material technologies for maintaining either connections or separations between the worlds of the living and the realms of the dead.

The essays in Mirrors of Passing: Unlocking the Mysteries of Death, Materiality, and Time are geared toward an academic audience primarily in the field of anthropology as a historiographical knowledge of theoretical anthropology and anthropological methodologies is assumed. As such, the chapters are not written for a non-specialist readership as the editors claim, but for scholars. The bibliographies of each section consist of academic monographs or peer-reviewed journals and are a treasure-trove for the academic but of little interest to the non-specialist. This volume is especially relevant for scholars and students concerned with the ethical role of museums as caretakers of our religious material and physical (human) remains as well as for those interested in broader questions of how death, time, and materiality impact human conceptions of spirit and place. Its value for scholars of religious studies lies in its non-Western focus, as it provides—in one volume—a significant contribution to the scholarship on death and conceptions of the afterlife from contemporary indigenous cultures around the world.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Cynthia A. Hogan is Lecturer in Religious Studies and Jewish Studies at Ithaca College.

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

Sophie Seebach holds a doctorate from Aarhus University. Her recent publications include pieces in the edited collection Mortuary Rites, Memory, and Authority/Agency: The Anthropology of Death in the Early Twenty-First Century (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) and, with Lotte Meinert and Rane Willerslev, in the journal Africa.

Rane Willerslev holds a doctorate from the University of Cambridge. His numerous books and publications include On the Run in Siberia (University of Minnesota Press, 2012), Taming Time, Timing Death: Social Technologies and Ritual (edited with Dorthe R. Christensen, Ashgate, 2013), and Transcultural Montage (edited with Christian Suhr, Berghahn, 2013).


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