Luke Fildler’s article “Impressions From The Face of a Corpse” talks about death masks, which, as Fildler states, is “something between a creepy portrait and a contact relic.” He discusses the idea of death mask and objects related to death. In this blog post, I am going to discuss taboos–what makes a taboo a taboo. Also, I am going to talk about “death,” how it is viewed in different cultures, and how death is relative in different cultures.
Merriam-Webster defines taboo as “banned on grounds of morality or taste,” so with this definition we note that taboo is something that is not talked about among a group of people. So what makes something a taboo compared to a normal, everyday act? Well, when looking at Collectors Weekly’s article about hair jewelry as “mourning jewelry,” we can notice how a trend can become a taboo. This taboo started as a trend; however, over time wearing jewelry that has parts that originate of humans is now considered a taboo, and, obviously, this is due to the “human” aspect of the accessory. Going back to the definition of a taboo, we note that it is not talked about because of “morality.” In Belk’s article, “Possessions and the Extended Self,” he talks about contamination with possessions and discusses that objects become contaminated when it is associated with a personal part of a person. For example, he states “secondhand clothing worn close to its former owner (e.g., underwear) does not sell and apparently enjoys a similar taboo against reuse to avoid contamination” (151). So, Belk would argue that, due to how personal this accessory is, people would be drawn away from it because it is”contaminated” (e.g., it was a part of another person’s body)–or is “banned on the grounds of morality and taste.” The human aspects draws people away from this because it represents a person giving themselves away through this product. The wearer of this jewelry would not feel as comfortable because it was “contaminated” with a personal part of another person.
So the “human” aspect is what makes this taboo; however, if we keep the hair aspect in the equation and takeout the human aspect, we can argue that it is not the “living being” that makes this object a taboo, but the “human.” Take the violin bow for an example. The string on the bows is made out of horse hair; however, many people accept this and view it as a beautiful aspect to the instrument. People are not uncomfortable that the bow has an animal’s hair; however imagine if the bow was made out of human hair instead of horse hair. Replacing the horse hair with human hair would then make it a taboo because we have contaminated due to the fact that it is coming from–as Belk says–the “formal owner.” The thing that draws people away from the hair jewelry is human aspect of it.
So, why would these items be collected and not worn? Well, to talk about this, I need to again refer to Belk’s article, “Possessions and the Extended Self,” because Belk specifically talks about collecting things when he states, “We may not be able to control much of the world about us, but the collection, whether dolls, “depression glasses,” or automobiles, allow us total control of our little world” (154). So when people begin to collect these things, they may recognize that it is a thing of the past that they are no longer able to experience, but having it in the possessions gives them that little moment in time and allows that fashion moment to be a part of the world. Belk would say that there would be a reason for a person to collect these specific items–maybe it was passed down to from mother to daughter and the daughter has memories of her mother wearing these items, so collecting them allows her to keep a little piece of her mother with her even after death. As the collection of this hair jewelry grows, so does the memory of her mother, which allows her mother to become stronger in her mind.
Next, let me talk about taboo and death. The topic of death varies from culture to culture, and how people mourn for their losses is experienced differently in different cultures. Karl Pilkington’s documentary “The Moaning of Life” goes over the idea of death and how it is viewed in different parts of the world.
In this documentary Karl goes to various cultures to discover how they celebrate or mourn their dead members. In Thailand, he sees professional mourners coming to add a sad tone to a funeral service; in Korea he goes to a ceremony where groups “perform” funerals to hear what their friends have to say about each other while they are alive laying in the casket. One of the more interesting parts of the documentary is when he goes to Ghana and attends a funeral where people are banging pots in the street, blowing whistles, and making as much noise as possible in a parade-like fashion to mourn their dead. They believe that the more people come out of their house, the better the funeral will be because more people will notice what is going on.
So, the thing that we learn from the documentary is that death is viewed differently in all parts of the world. In the United States, we have a bad relationship with death, we don’t like to talk about it; however, in this documentary we begin to see the shifting idea about how death is viewed in different cultures. Death is not viewed as a taboo, but as something to be a sad experience where everyone needs to mourn, or it can be a celebration of a persons life. What one person may consider a taboo, another night consider a norm, so many of these things just depend on where you are.
Another culture where we can study the shifting views of death is the country of Mexico and “El dia de muertos”.
According to the University of New Mexico this day is “when children dance with caricatures of death, eat skull sugar molds and learn to respect that life is brief, they learn there is a circle to life and to not fear death and then are free to enjoy and appreciate every moment.” On this day, Mexicans will celebrate death and the dead in the graveyard, while not to be scared of death. This holiday is celebrated around the same time as Halloween is celebrated in the United States. Just as I mentioned above, we can learn the shifting patterns regarding behavior towards dead things. We can see how even neighbors–US and Mexico–can have completely different relationships with death, despite being so close to each other. One way we can explain these differences is due to the history of the two countries. The two countries have different histories, so therefore they have different ideas about different topics.
Overall, topics such as hair jewelry and death are intricate topics. Why one person does something and other does something else are all relative. Understanding the history of the culture is the first step to uncovering why they do what they do. As I discussed in my article, certain “human” factors can make something a taboo. Taboos vary from culture to culture; however, they are ever prevalent in our world and learning about them can allow us to uncover more information about overselves.