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The Roy A. Rappaport Lectures: Making the Dead Modern – “Playing with Corpses”

Monday, February 16, 2015
5:00 AM
Rackham Assembly Hall, 4th Floor Rackham

Before the Socialist era, most dead people in this community received four major funeral rituals and many minor ones. Between 1958 and the late 1970s, nearly all inherited techniques for working on the dead were abandoned, both here and throughout rural China. In the 1980s, two major funeral rites were revived, and their importance increased throughout the post-socialist period.  This lecture examines the mechanics of the first of these, a night vigil after which the corpse is buried. The work of this ritual was to form a fully human body for the dead, composed of a formal image of the social relations in which the person was suspended while alive. This body comes together in order to be divided. The body and the world of the dead are split into two worlds, immaterial separated from material, one to be inhabited by the dead, the other left to the living. This work is accomplished by operations on corpses — first the corpse of the dead, then the corpses of sacrificial animals, partitioned and distributed among the participants in the person’s social world.



Erik Mueggler is a cultural anthropologist who works in China with minority peoples of the Yi and Naxi nationalities. Mueggler’s work is on local histories of socialism and reform, histories of natural history, practices of death and dying, and endangered language documentation. His books include The Age of Wild Ghosts: Memory, Violence and Place in Southwest China (University of California Press 2001) and The Paper Road: Archive and Experience in the Botanical Exploration of West China and Tibet (University of California Press 2011). Mueggler is Professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.


The Roy A. Rappaport Lectures are a series of lectures on a work in progress, designed as a special course for advanced students to work closely with a faculty member in the Department of Anthropology on a topic in which the instructor has an intensive current interest. As the description written by Professor Roy “Skip” Rappaport in 1976 states, “…it offers the opportunity for other students and faculty to hear a colleague in an extended discussion of their own work.”