To read Subject to Death is to embark on an intimate journey of dying; one in which you will find yourself confronted with thoughts of your own mortality and the frailty of human existence. Beautifully written and arranged, it is filled with the rawest of human emotions and the sort of existential questions we find ourselves asking when our world crumbles in the face of loss. With the perfect balance of ethnographic vignettes woven through photographic images and deeply personal reflections, Robert Desjarlais offers a fresh perspective on the contingent nature of life and personhood through the analytic frame of poiesis; the creative potential that lies at the heart of human action, thought, memory, and relationships. In this way, Subject to Death is as much an ethnography of life as it is of death.
Beginning with the simple anecdotal account of “ama khoi?” where a young boy is teased about absence of his mother, Desjarlais traces the meaning of this utterance through Hyolmo engagements in the world. From life on the verge of death to life after death in Buddhist cosmology; from the dissolution of life to the creation and possibility of another, it is through this utterance that we are exposed to the cultural logic that weaves through the fabric of Hyolmo life. Here, now gone. Desjarlais returns full circle to this ethnographic moment that has haunted him, posing a number of important questions about the nature of these Hyolmo rituals: “Why is it that the rites so incessantly invoke images of the deceased, one after another, only to dissolve many of those same images within the next ritual moment?… And in what ways, if any, do these funeral processes work to assuage or transform the grief of those mourning a loss? How, in brief, does mourning proceed in a Buddhist world” (306)?
The answers to these questions hold relevance far beyond Buddhist lifeworlds but what applicability do they offer to the discipline as a whole? Or to answer the question Desjarlais raises, “can an anthropology of dying teach a consciousness, yours or mine, how to dissolve into emptiness, and thus how to live” (31)? What are the stakes of such an anthropology? I ask this because I often find, when I speak of my fieldwork and interests, a lurking assumption that an anthropology of death is a morbid preoccupation with endings and that it is meaningful only to those interested in death and dying. Desjarlais’s ethnography makes the case that an anthropology of death, by virtue of its concern with the uncertainties, mysteries, and limits of human experience, offers up far more than we have acknowledged; that just as mourning rituals are necessary for the living, the theoretical insights of an anthropology of death are essential to the project of anthropology as a whole.
The chronicling of mourning rituals, however, is not something new in the anthropology of death and dying. We have known from classics like Robert Hertz’s Death and the Right Hand that death is a social event and that mourning ceremonies and customs are as much (if not more) for the living as they are for the dead. While Desjarlais certainly demonstrates the ways in which Hyolmo funeral rites transform grief symbolically, there is a functionalist flavor to the analysis that raises other questions. Ultimately when Desjarlais asks how rituals work to transform grief, he is also asking a cognitive question. This, for me, remains largely unexplored throughout the book. For as Maurice Bloch (2012) correctly points out, anthropologists are involved in cognitive studies when they claim to tell us what people “are like” (7). So what does it mean to make the claim that Hyolmo funeral rites “spur the cognition that appearances are empty of inherent existence, that clinging to lost illusions is pointless” (224)? And how might this differ from, say, a cognition in “a world where mourners are left to go to their grief alone” (123)? The symbolism is but one layer of many in the assemblage of practices unpacked for us and so the question remains: between thought and ritual, where and how does the transformation of grief emerge?
Perhaps the most striking aspect of Desjarlais’ writing is the thoughtfulness that shines through not only in his mode of questioning but through the structure and arrangement of various themes. Each chapter ends with no definitive conclusion but rather dissolves seamlessly into the next. I imagine this is reflective of the fact that Hyolmo rituals resist closure, that they do not merely mark the end but also the beginning of something new. It also speaks to the theme of impermanence and transformation within the discipline and the creative possibilities in our labor and production of knowledge. “Rupture comes with creation. The pulse of life finds new channels” (75).
Bloch, M. (2012). Anthropology and the cognitive challenge. Cambridge University Press.
Hertz, R. (2013). Death and the right hand (Vol. 4). Routledge.
Summar Saad is a PhD student in medical anthropology at Wayne State University where she is currently in the planning stages of her dissertation project aiming to examine how various actors talk and think about brain death in a clinical context. Her research interests include end-of-life issues, personhood, cognition, and culturally-competent care.