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Anthropology Of Death: We Are All Going to Die but How Is It Going to Be?

“Death brings union and memory, not separation and oblivion”

Pérez and Brian, 2012

Death is literally defined as the end of life.

And what would happen if humans were not aware of death? For good or bad, humans are the only living species with this knowledge and self-awareness about their limited existence on earth. There is no specific moment registered about when the conscience of death started, but it is associated with rituals that go along with the origins of the Homo Sapiens and it can also be seen through research that there was an increase of burials and cemeteries during the Upper Paleolithic. The earliest tombs show that the process of burial is not only related to the intention of covering the decomposition process from the living; it mostly has a ritual implication. All of this means that humans have not only have been aware of death but also gave a ritual for it. The treatment of dead bodies since early burials has always been the reflection of caring practices.

It must be addressed that almost every year, even more than once, the earliest tomb ever known is going to be divulged. It is not a competence, but the current advances in material dating have helped a lot with the task of archaeological analysis and interpretation. The following image belongs to the rendering from a burial of a 3-year-old (infant) discovered in Kenya this year, named Mtoto by the researchers:

burial, bones, death
Rendering of the burial (2.021) by González and Santos,

Once checked the latest finding about the earliest tomb, it must be reminded that such a phenomenon (the burial) only happens among humans, as the only species that have death rituals and believe in reincarnation, life after death, and even resurrection. Death has been reinterpreted more than once in our written history and general knowledge; under the influences of always: dominant religion, social transformation, globalization. One of the starting points on its analysis about meaning and rituals was made by anthropology at its conception.

It can be said that anthropology has always been related to the “death subject”, the link between gods, humans, and spirits has been attended since its beginning. Understanding what people do when they are alive, is also to understand the process of death.

For this discipline, death has two pillars on which it develops: One is related to the death in the physical matter, and on the other side, the symbolism; in other words, the physical body of the dead and the reality it creates among the living. For anthropology, death is a social and a biological event. The first one for the remaining living and the second one for the dead. At the beginning of publications related to death as a phenomenon attended by social sciences, it was impregnated by the unavoidable evolutionism of those days, on which anthropology was born. Before the XVIII century, the view that ruled science was essentialism, which on its conception and perspective does not give much room to transformation in general and even less to the perception of a human event as death. In the early stages of anthropology, death was understood in comparison with tribes, the belief system of the others, those exotic/different from occident others; always creating an analogy between what the author knew as “civilization” and understanding actors and dynamics from that point of view, a unique pair of glasses to watch and interpret the entire social phenomenon.

In the XIX century, Freud understood death from its pulsion, and with that, social sciences gained another perspective to observe the phenomenon. Basically, it was acknowledged that until death happens as a personal event, people tend to think of themselves far from death and closer to be an unlimited being around which the world revolves. Experimenting with a death pulsion brings humans back to their ordinary existence and the circumstantial life they live. Until then, death is something that happens to others. That also has to do a lot, again, with their behavior before and after such a pulsion. A later perspective of death can be resumed by giving a look to Malinowski’s work in the XX century, he saw death as a legal, functional process. Under his perception, death is surrounded by a group of social norms, rules that apply according to the status of the living, and especially in the case of modern societies, it is regulated by religion. At the same time, these rituals are a way to keep certain beliefs and inheriting those traditions to the following generations.

So far and according to the scientific tendency from occident, death passed to be seen as a phenomenon that “those other tribes” experienced different from occident, to be an experience that can only be truly acknowledged when it happens near, and early XX century giving leadership to the social representations a death ritual has for whom it is the living.

Death, corpse, art
The Dead Body of Christ (1.779) by Melchior Wyrsch.

In the late XX century, there was a recalibration of the way each culture understands death, thanks to cultural relativism, death is one of the representations of the cosmovision. Under the influence of cultural relativism, nothing can be really understood without cultural context: To understand what death means for a group, their history, cultural context, and power dynamics must be in consideration.

The dead is the first element considered by anthropology in its many representations, and even being physically (biologically) gone, it is alive in people´s memories. The dead can be seen as a punisher or as a protector of its remaining living close ones and its role only depends on the conception the living have. The dead conception is not built by itself, its individual memories, experiences, or conceptions. The dead is built in the memories and perspectives of the remaining living who met the individual during its life.

Decomposition is a process that evidences our limited existence that is why corpses are beautified through embalmment, mummification, necrophagy and the use of shrouds are ways to hide, deny or even somehow, fight the physical signs of death. In the order of the four existential elements, the body can be inhumated (earth), immersed (water), exposed (air), or burnt (fire). Going through the symbolic load of death, its most social side, death rituals are more for the remaining living than for the dead themselves. And it is a fundamental way of acceptance and attenuation; historically, death rituals are collective and public. Rituals that are not only full of symbolism but also materialism. With the complexation of societies, the burial rituals got very particular times and experiences according to the culture who is practicing it. In some non-occidental cultures, death can be part of a cycle, there are groups that consider the idea of rebirth in a different body after a certain amount of time. That is not convenient for certain production systems, those people who believe in rebirth are hard to convince about “earning a piece of heaven” by their sacrifice during life. How a population with an idea of cyclic existence can be threatened by hell and institutions?

In the following painting, it can be seen how dominant religion plays a fundamental role in death, being that Atahualpa was an Inca emperor, but because of current social transformations due to colonization, his body is surrounded by priests, keeping it away from the crowd.

death, Atahualpa, Inca, colonialism
The Funerals of Inca Atahualpa (1.867) by Luis Montero

According to Thomas (1993), the ways to “fight” or “relieve” death can be recognized precisely in religion and philosophy. Humans cannot predict or control what happens after death, and creating imagery about it, is a strongly spread practice: The Myth as a methodology to connect everything that is perceived and find relief through it. One circumstance that attempts to the dead and its ritual is the disappearance, there is no way to have grief and move on if there is nobody. When the disappearance has been forced, it is officially classified as a way of torture not only for the individual relatives, also to the social construct of transcendence, it gets broken.

Religion also is an important element that connects everything, the treatment the dead will receive, how the death ritual will be, because, how many grown-up humans can remember the moment they learned what death meant? How a child without any religious formation would see it? The idea of death can be so abstract to some people that they might not get that tense when exposing themselves to dangerous situations, death can become something that happens so much to other people that some do not care much about chronic diseases, maybe the strong belief that there is life after death can bring relief to each case. Religion is the tool of excellence used by humans to cope with the uncertainty of what happens after our body stops working when life is gone.

In current times, the dead and the death are not that much of a religious matter, or at least not religion as understood so far. Now medicalization of death and over supervision of the human body made conceptions and rituals transform once again. In Occident, after the XVI century, cemeteries are removed far from the urban centers and villages, and by the end of the XVII century, death passes from being a subject of religion to be a subject of occidental medicine. This situation is recognizable for the medicalization the life and its cycles have suffered, the disease is observed, diagnosed, followed under the false illusion of control. Death is going to happen to all no matter how long life can be extended. So slightly, humanity has passed from rejecting death by giving it a place outside the city, to nowadays make it somebody else or some institution to deal with it when no matter how much treatment, the end happens.

Doctor, Girl and Death (1.920) by Ivo Saliger

If good health is what keeps us from death, also does wealth. Health is about money, treatments cannot be paid for by everyone. In modern occidental societies, even when death happens, it is a situation to avoid, death happens in hospitals and the management of the body is made by funeral services, it becomes impersonal. In current times, death is still unavoidable but as said before, the way death is understood is going to mold the way people behave in life. It can be imagined openly, but nothing is going to be more shocking than when it passes near, there is when our behavior can mutate.

There is an important amount of medical advance in disease treatment, devices designed to diminish existent limitations, space travel, deeper understanding of the planet we inhabit but no one knows what happens after death. That uncertainty makes grief nothing but transformative.


  • Abt, A. (2006). El hombre ante la muerte: Una mirada antropológica.

  • Bustos, M. L. C. (2007). Filosofía de la mente y bioética. 2, 9.

  • Cernadas, L. C. C. (2001). Notas histórico-antropológicas sobre las representaciones de la muerte. 11.

  • Martínez, B. (2013). La muerte como proceso: Una perspectiva antropológica. Ciência & Saúde Coletiva, 18(9), 2681-2689.

  • Pérez, A. B. D. (2012). La antropología de la muerte: Autores, enfoques y períodos. 11.

  • Torres, D. (2006). Los rituales funerarios como estrategias simbólicas que regulan las relaciones entre las personas y las culturas. 13.

  • Jorge González (2021), University of South Florida, and Elena Santos, University Complutense of Madrid. Rendering,

  • Melchior Wyrsch (1779) The Dead Body of Christ Painting

  • Luis Montero, (1867) The Funerals of Inca Atahualpa painting at Lima Museum of Art

  • Ivo Saliger (1920) Doctor, Girl and Death, painting


Author Photo

Melisa Silva

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