In a society that has seen epochal change over a few generations, what remains to hold people together and offer them a sense of continuity and meaning? In Songs for Dead Parents, Erik Mueggler shows how in contemporary China death and the practices surrounding it have become central to maintaining a connection with the world of ancestors, ghosts, and spirits that socialism explicitly disavowed.

Drawing on more than twenty years of fieldwork in a mountain community in Yunnan Province, Songs for Dead Parents shows how people view the dead as both material and immaterial, as effigies replace corpses, tombstones replace effigies, and texts eventually replace tombstones in a long process of disentangling the dead from the shared world of matter and memory. It is through these processes that people envision the cosmological underpinnings of the world and assess the social relations that make up their community. Thus, state interventions aimed at reforming death practices have been deeply consequential, and Mueggler traces the transformations they have wrought and their lasting effects.


What People Are Saying

Steve Sangren, Cornell University

“Like Mueggler’s earlier works, Songs for Dead Parents shapes engagingly detailed and intimate ethnography into an enviably imaginative narrative. Mortuary and commemorative practices, associated ritual and literary forms, and culturally manipulated bodies (both corporeal and otherwise materialized) combine complexly in what amounts to an implicit existential meditation, culturally specific, on how ‘the persons and bodies of the dead’ impact the personhood of the living. In the process, Mueggler advances any number of distinctive interpretive-cum-analytical propositions likely to provoke considerable emulation and productive debate for some time to come.”


Gillian Feeley-Harnik, emerita, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

“Working with villagers in north-central Yunnan over more than twenty years, Mueggler analyzes funeral rituals once banned as ‘superstition’ and now critical to sustaining rural communities serving as labor reserves in China’s new economy. Embodiments of the dead—corpses, stones, texts, chants—have disturbing counterparts in their living descendants whose prolonged absences as labor migrants from their natal communities threaten to extinguish them as social persons. This extraordinary study will be of vital interest to scholars within and beyond Asian Studies, including anthropologists and historians of religion, politics, kinship, and the political economy of health, and those integrating methods and theories from anthropology, history, and literature.”


Songs for Dead Parents, Chicago Press

Songs for Dead Parents on AMAZON