By: Peter A. Metcalf
This article compares our Western burial traditions to the Berawan’s. The Berawan think that our ritual is evil and because we embalm our dead so they can be shown in coffins, they said that we trap our dead in a suspended condition between life and death. The Berawan see America as a land with the potential for millions of zombies. Metcalf’s comparison is so thoroughly describes the Berawan’s practices in but in my ethnocentric world, it is easy to see why their beliefs are rejected as illogical. Berawan funerary customs are more natural than the American treatment of the dead, but are still way for exotic. The most exotic to me is that after storing the dead for several months some people would consume liquid decomposition mixed with rice.
The Berawan usually do not bury their dead at all, but when they do they use funeral rites, which consist of four stages. The first stage is performed immediately after death and lasts two to ten days. The is either stored in a large earthenware jar or a massive coffin from a single tree trunk. The second stage the family stores the dead in the longhouse in a glazed jar or in the coffin on a platform in the graveyard. The storage lasts a minimum of eight months and sometimes up to several years, because the final stages are expensive. Before the third stage the family may take out the bones and clean them as the body decomposed. The third stage is like a celebration for the deceased’s family and friends and is held in the longhouse. “Finally, the remains are removed to a final resting place, an impressively proportioned mausoleum.”
Berawan’s are against embalming and so disgusted by our practices because they believe, as secondary burialists, that in the afterlife the fate of the body provides a model for the fate of the soul. They belived that after death the soul is divorced from the body and cannot reanimate the already decaying corpse. However, the soul cannot go on to the spirit world just yet because it is not yet a perfect spirit. To become truly dead it must under go a metamorphosis. As the body decays and the bones dry the soul becomes a spirit. When the body is decayed the spirit is homeless and with a great feast the soul goes on to the land of the dead. The first explanation of the Berawan’s practices seemed so morbid, but once Metcalf asked them to elaborate why they do what they do it makes a lot of sense.