Not Just Dead Meat: An Evolutionary Account of Corpse Treatment in Mortuary Rituals

In: Journal of Cognition and Culture
Claire White * Corresponding author, e-mail:
Department of Religious Studies, California State University Northridge, 236 Santa Susana Hall, 18111 Nordhoff Street, ca 91330-8316 USA

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Maya Marin Institute of Cognition and Culture, Queen’s University 2–4 Fitzwilliam Street, Belfast BT7 1NN UK

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Daniel M.T. Fessler Center for Behavior, Evolution, and Culture, Department of Anthropology, UCLA 375 Portola Plaza, 341 Haines Hall, Box 951553, Los Angeles, ca 90095-1553 USA

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Comparing mortuary rituals across 57 representative cultures extracted from the Human Relations Area Files, this paper demonstrates that kin of the deceased engage in behaviours to prepare the deceased for disposal that entail close and often prolonged contact with the contaminating corpse. At first glance, such practices are costly and lack obvious payoffs. Building on prior functionalist approaches, we present an explanation of corpse treatment that takes account of the unique adaptive challenges entailed by the death of a loved one. We propose that intimate contact with the corpse provides the bereaved with extensive veridical cues of death, thereby facilitating acceleration of a grieving process that serves to recategorize the deceased as no longer a relationship partner, opening the door to relationship replacement and a return to social functioning. The benefits of exposure to such cues are tempered by the costs of exposure to cues of disease risk, a balance that in part explains the relative rarity of highly invasive mortuary practices that exacerbate the latter factor. We conclude by discussing implications of our model for contemporary mortuary practices in the developed world.

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