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The Roy A. Rappaport Lectures: Making the Dead Modern – “Songs for Dead Parents”

Friday, April 17, 2015
4:00 AM
Rackham Assembly Hall, 4th Floor Rackham

Two funeral rituals were abandoned in the 1950s and never revived. These events centered on a four to eight-hour long speech to the dead, rendered in poetic language, and conducted by a ritual specialist. The speech was divided into 48 “songs” and was reputed to tell of the origins of the world and all its beings and reveal the secrets of death and life. This lecture examines this speech, treating it as a massive construction project intended to build a world for the dead. After bringing sky, earth, and markets into being, these songs for dead parents alternate between two fates for the dead soul, connected to the 19th-century transition from cremation to burial, under pressure from the Qing state and Han immigrants. On the one hand, the soul hangs forever in the sky, swaddled together with its spouse, head to the west and feet to the stars. On the other hand, it lives forever beneath the tomb, subject to the Chinese-speaking bureaucracy of Mo´mi A`b?`/Yan Luowang ???/Yama, king of the underworld. Ultimately, the songs are about recomposing the corpse of the dead once again so that its contractual relations with the living might be rehearsed once again and finally severed. 



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.”