Done to death

A waggish anthropologist unearths some weird and wonderful ways of dying. By Robert Winder Dancing on the Grave: Encounters with Death by Nigel Barley John Murray, pounds 19.99
In olden times, the West used to send zealous missionaries to the remotest corners of the earth. Sappers for an invasive commercial enterprise, they were also foreign correspondents, quick to regale the home front with weird and horrifying tales of the unexpected: strange cannibalistic rituals and every other kind of primitive heathen mumbo- jumbo. Today, instead of missionaries, we send anthropologists. And where their predecessors were seeking to document their own superiority over conquered peoples, modern emissaries carry a vague inferiority complex into the rivers and jungles. Their purpose seems to be to demonstrate how vital and suggestive are the rituals of faraway cultures, and how tepid and vacuous are our own.

This, at any rate, would appear to be the driving force behind Nigel Barley's lively guide to the way the world handles death. In Malaysia, Malacca, Africa and New Guinea he finds exorbitant rituals full of physical relish, bravery and fun. Here, he finds warm sherry, stale words, tacky furniture and an evasive shuffling of the feet. It is not hard to draw conclusions: the western approach to death is meagre and half-baked, compared to the robust sensual eruptions that occur elsewhere. It is a persuasive argument, and Barley, an unusually waggish scholar, has travelled widely and well. He mixes snippets of history with sharp travelogues and the occasional philosophical digression, and it is an appealing combination. But there is something in the way he lays aside his own cultural assumptions that gives the book an oddly throwaway tone.

Like many before him, he mentions the Melanesian Trobrianders, who believe that men play no part in the impregnation of women. This is a picturesque belief, appealing to matriarchal propagandists. But it is also - is it polite to mention this? - completely, provably wrong. Obviously it would be pointless for anthropologists to go round testing ancient beliefs scientifically: that is not the name of their game. But as the book proceeds, and as death follows death, it all comes to resemble a stroll through a zoo. Like some pious Victorian traveller, Barley has sailed the seven seas and brought home wondrous specimens in cages, to cheer up our grey lives. Here are a few of the more exotic beasts.

In Ancient Rome it was considered barbaric to execute virgins, a tricky ethical dilemma neatly solved by arranging for the women to be raped beforehand by the jailer. In Dusseldorf, it was recently argued from the careful analysis of ailing bodies on the point of death that the weight of a soul was 21 grammes. In order to make executions as impersonal as possible, Thailand hit upon a remarkable method of killing unwanted citizens. The victim was squeezed into a large ball with spikes pointing inwards, and the ball was kicked about by elephants. During the French revolution, fashionable ladies wore elegant little guillotines in their ears as jewellery. The New Guinea Highlanders came to believe, because of the frequency with which colonial administrators returned home and died, that they had looked up the dates of their own deaths in one of their many well-organised timetables.

Underlying these solid oddities is the premise that, when it comes to death, it is not what we feel that counts: it is what we do. Barley's premise is that death is not a subject for philosophy or soul-searching, but merely an event like any other. The way we die is above all an emblem of the the way we live. But can we wish away our uneasy relationship with the grave simply by comparing it unfavourably with the more wholesome- seeming, less anxious reflexes of far-off tribes or long-dead cultures? In any case, are they really less anxious - or do they just seem so to a tourist? Who knows: a Trobriander might find the English funeral well- judged and suggestive, not to say shocking - that steady-eyed decorum, that unbearably open acknowledgement of sadness and loss.

The book covers a lot of ground, with the result that some very big subjects, such as the Hindu practice of suttee - wives leaping onto the funeral pyres of their husbands - flash by in a single sentence. There are powerful feelings juddering under the surface, and in the end the World- of-Wonder tone, designed to embrace them all cheerfully, has kept them tucked out of sight, out of mind.