Ultimate Ambiguities

Investigating Death and Liminality

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Peter Berger, Justin Kroesen
  • New York, NY: 
    Berghahn Books
    , November
     290 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Ultimate Ambiguities: Investing Death and Liminality is a valuable contribution to the often diffuse literature on religion and death/dying given that the widely varying case studies share a common focus on “liminality explicitly in the context of death” (2). Editors Peter Berger and Justin Kroesen draw together a wide-ranging set of eleven primarily anthropological chapters. These offer rich and contextualized examples of beliefs, especially ritualization, from various traditions. Yet the key measure of this book’s success is theoretical, given its explicit focus on liminality. 

The first section of the book is “Rituals.” The first three chapters offer ethnographic studies of different Indian tribal groups, making a very strong set of chapters that would be an excellent set for classroom work on ritualization and death. Different theoretical points emerge: “people attribute to the dead the authority to constitute essential social relationships … [a] prolonged mortuary process … serves not merely to regenerate social relationships, it allows for their reinterpretation” (34; Erik de Maaker); “postmortem liminality is not so much … a state but … a process … that is never separate from the ongoing concerns of the living” (53; Piers Vitebsky); the tripartite model of separation, liminality, and reintegration is only helpful if we recognize that the phases dynamic, often repeating or nested (Berger). However, Pieter Nanninga then argues that the same tripartite model works very well to make sense of Islamic Jihadist suicide attacks. This tension between views of the dominant conceptual model is just one example of where a more robust editorial frame would have been helpful.

The second section of the book is “Concepts.” Antonius Robben suggests that the concept of “biliminality” helps us to understand “disappeared” victims of the military dictatorship in Argentina: they are both “neither dead nor alive,” and “banished from civil society when alive or … deprived from a passage to the hereafter when dead” (103). Roland Hardenberg proposes a different tripartite approach to liminality based on his analysis of Kyrgyz death rituals: emotional, cognitive, and social “analytical realms” (140). Berger, in his second chapter, argues that death should be studied as both process and event. Echoing Robert Hertz, Berger distinguishes between rituals and events, and reassesses the value of Émile Durkheim’s “collective effervescence,” underlining its transformative potential and unpredictability, and linking it to the concepts of liminality and communitas. Berger’s distinction between the three forms of effervescence—systemic (ritually structured), negative (ritually avoided), and evenemential (a transitory and disruptive event)—supports his important argument that death is a particularly powerful site for the internalization of political paradigms and systems. This was the most valuable chapter in the book, from a theoretical perspective.

The third section of the book is “Imageries.” Nina Mirnig problematizes the tripartite model of liminality in the context of medieval Shaiva Tantric death rituals. The third phase, reintegration, is ambivalent in that it is accomplished both by initiation during life and “funerary initiation” after death. The strength of this chapter is its link between this conceptual critique and moments of recognition in the primary sources that “the underlying paradoxes are too pronounced to be ignored” (199). Kroesen and Jan Luth look at early modern Protestantism culture—sculpted tombs by Rombout Verhulst and Johann Sebastian Bach’s cantatas—as evidence of increasing emphasis on the idea that souls sleep from death to the Last Judgment. Jan Bremmer finds “a reflection of van Gennep’s famous rites de séparationde marge, and d’agrégation” in views of psychê and death rituals in archaic Greece (242). Yme Kuiper looks at themes of death and memory in Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel, The Leopard (Feltrinelli, 1958), arguing that they echo “Turnerian liminality” due to the author’s self-perceived marginality and proximity to death (266).

The focus on liminality gives Ultimate Ambiguities greater cohesion than most edited collections. However, engagement with the core concept ranges from superficial analogy, through straightforward application of the tripartite model and critiques of that model, to extensions of the line of thinking in novel directions. What is missing is an attempt to draw together and assess these threads. Berger’s short introduction does not review, compare, or attempt to synthesize the various theoretical points made throughout the book. Two pages on Turner lead directly to chapter summaries that are primarily descriptive. There is no summative final chapter. These would have helped underline the cumulative contributions of the chapter’s conceptual work.

The book is a valuable resource. Its chapters are too disparate to make the book very useful as a textbook—unless the goal were, in part, to lead students to themselves supply the missing comparison and contrast between the various conceptual contributions. Nonetheless, the editors deserve praise for putting together one of the most focused and valuable volumes in the death and dying sub-genre.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Steven Engler is Professor of Religious Studies at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Canada. He is co-editor of the journal Religion and of The Routledge Handbook of Research Methods in the Study of Religion (2011), Handbook of Contemporary Religions in Brazil  (Brill, 2016), and The Oxford Handbook of the Study of Religion (2016).

Date of Review: 
July 19, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Peter Berger is Associate Professor of Indian Religions and the Anthropology of Religion at the University of Groningen. His books include Feeding, Sharing and Devouring: Ritual and Society in Highland Odisha (de Gruyter, 2014) and The Modern Anthropology of India (co-ed with Frank Heidemann, Routledge, 2013).

Justin Kroesen is Assistant Professor of Art History of Christianity at the University of Groningen. His books include Staging the Liturgy: The Medieval Altarpiece in the Iberian Peninsula (Peeters, 2009), and Myths, Martyrs and Modernity: Studies in the History of Religions in Honour of Jan N. Bremmer (co-ed with Jitse Dijkstra and Yme Kuiper, Brill, 2010).



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