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.

Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Arts and Entertainment
Drake continues to tease ahead of the release of his new album
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003
    Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

    Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

    Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

    Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
    Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

    Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

    Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
    New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

    Dinner through the decades

    A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
    Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

    Philippa Perry interview

    The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

    Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

    Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
    Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

    Harry Kane interview

    The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
    The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?