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X: Dying

In face of the supreme mystery of death primitive religion, from prehistoric times onwards, has by means of funeral rites given various expression to a steadfast faith in the reality of a future life. A certain conflict is to be noted between a fear of the contagion of death as represented by corpse or ghost and an affectionate desire to further the welfare of the departed in whatever abode he is supposed to dwell. On the whole, however, love prevails, and it is characteristic of the primitive community that it believes itself to be in friendly touch with ancestral spirits whose semi-divine powers are always at the disposal of the tribe if proper respect is paid to their wishes. Thus religion converts death itself into a source of hope and comfort.

Dying, when it comes to the point, may be none too dreadful an experience; and indeed in many, perhaps most, cases it has all the appearance of falling quietly asleep. Nevertheless, regarded in prospect, it figures as the King of Terrors, for all mankind in some degree, but more especially for the moral coward. No doubt it was contempt for the latter that moved Spinoza to lay down his famous proposition: homo liber de nulla re minus quam de morte cogitat et ejus sapientia non mortis sed vitae meditatio est; that is, ‘the free (or rational) man thinks about nothing so little as about death, his wisdom consisting in the contemplation, not of death, but of life’. In other words, Spinoza would have us embrace and affirm living for its positive worth, instead of clinging to it simply because one is afraid of dying. According to his view such a preoccupation with those eternal values which experience embodies, and as it were enshrines, carries us clean beyond the antithesis between self and others, and amounts to the love of God—the intellectual love of God, as he terms it, since, mystic as he is, he would yet at all costs imprison the Infinite without the four walls of a quasi-Euclidian demonstration. Such a philosophy, however, whether head or heart be called on to provide the grounds, is more encouraging than Hamlet's theory of a conscience that ‘doth make cowards of us all’, because of ‘the dread of something after death’—a dread hardly distinguishable, psychologically at any rate, from the fear of death as such.

We speak, no doubt, of ‘paying the debt to Nature’; but here two ‘natures’ would seem to be at strife, since a disinclination to pay the debt in question is so ingrained in our hereditary disposition that it is precisely the pick of the race—the ‘quality’ so to speak—who make it a point of honour to ignore the obligation, until the fatal day when the inevitable arrest cuts their liberty short. From such a point of view, which reveals Man as the typical aristocrat, who identifies value with the life that suits him best, and expects all the accommodation to come from the side of vulgar fact, immortality is our birthright, and mortality no better than an obsession. Moreover, all men stand together in this matter of behaving as if a moratorium with death were as good as arranged. Whereas deaths follow one on another without accumulating the agony, life is essentially cumulative in its effects; so that, whatever eventual bankruptcy may be in store for the species—a geological question in which the average man takes no interest—we positively flaunt the size of our national debt in the face of Nature in her capacity of future process-server. Nay, we positively take a pride in it as a proof of the unlimited confidence inspired by the no less indefinite sum-total of our prospects and plans. Thus, as a speculation in futures, life, rather than death, offers all the attractions; and the very creativeness of the life-force involves it in a gamble with a destiny that appears ready to hand over the gold, even though it is for ever raking in the small counters one by one.

Now it has been the purpose of the present course of lectures to show how religion in its primitive manifestations is entwined with one and all of the major interests that make life worth living. Throughout it was clear that the function of those various sacraments which seek to realize a transcendental, or infinite, good in one or another type of communion—doing so either by the positive widening and deepening of fellowship, or, negatively, by some process of excommunicating evil influences—is to enhance the capacity for a richer mode of conscious existence. It would therefore amount to a self-confutation if, by a final change of front, we were to abandon the principle that has served for a clue during nine-tenths of our investigation. Rather, at the risk of paradox, we must uphold the cause of consistency by contending that dying itself is a way of living at a higher level, if, and in so far as, a sacramental character is attributed to it. Here, where religion is being considered simply in the light of its history, it will suffice to show that men have seriously entertained such a view, and have found much consolation therein.

Disregarding modern attempts to establish what is known in America as a science of thanatology on these lines, let us go to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, as translated by Dr. Evans-Wentz,1 for a crucial illustration of how a regular technique of dying can be devised to promote living on all manner of new and better planes—short of that super-vital and super-personal liberation, or detachment, which is Nirvana. Between the moment of death and the moment of the next rebirth on earth stretches—or yawns—the Bardo, or intermediate state; and the very practical object of this manual of psychotherapy, or rather psychagogics, is to fortify the dying by suitable rites; so that the dream-like passage between one body and another may be traversed as safely and pleasantly as previous shortcomings allow, and instruction on the correct itinerary can secure.

It must be confessed, however, that to a Western mind this grandiose scheme of multiple existence seems fundamentally wrong-headed, in that it culminates in a complete inversion of Man's ordinary scale of vital values. For it is only for the benefit of the ‘average sensual man’ that the Wheel revolves. His is the exclusive privilege, or rather, burden, of undertaking the circumambulatory pilgrimage of the Bardo, with its temporary heavens and hells; all of them alike illusory after-images, as it were, evoked by the continuance of ‘life's fitful fever’ in one who, through the weakness of the flesh, is not prepared for the final illumination. Yet when this comes to the saint, not only is desire burnt right up, but will shrivels to nothing, and the very intellect is blinded by too much light; so that what Carlyle would have called the Everlasting Yea is sublimated to the point of utter extinction in the Everlasting No.

Temperamentally, then, the West is driven to reject this solution of the vital problem as being, unlike the Aristotelian conception of a changeless activity, a feeble and, so to say, defeatist rendering of the ultimate purpose and justification of this living universe. At the same time, such a theory of reincarnation offers an indefinite adjournment of the consummation that in the eyes of the world-weary East appears to spell spiritual blessedness. To that extent, then, it perhaps contrasts favourably with our accepted notion of a make-or-break risk taken on a single race, in which many of the runners do not even get a fair start. Such, for instance, are Virgil's infant souls flentes in limine primo—the hapless babes symbolically weeping on the threshold of a life that they were never fated to enjoy; whereas in savage Australia a bereaved mother could at least wish the untimely spirit-child a more fortunate re-embarkation on its next venture. Indeed, when one reflects that an Augustine was for consigning the unbaptized infant not only to hell, but to everlasting torment, and that the same eschatological nightmare likewise oppressed the imagination of a Dante, it would seem as if the greatest of our saints and poets might be the better for another cycle or two of moral experience, even as obtainable on this poor planet.

Now to survey, and thereupon to analyse, the vast array of facts constituting what might be called the necrological side of primitive religion would be quite impossible within the limits of a single hour. Nay, it would not befit me to try to do so, when Sir James Frazer, lecturing on the same Foundation to the same audience, has devoted a whole course to the subject of ‘The Belief in Immortality’. Even so, he drew on but a limited portion of the savage world for his illustrative matter; so that he will have many volumes to add before he completes his account on a like scale of thoroughness. My only chance, then, of lending a helping hand in a task so ample and so well advanced will be to suggest a line of approach which in reality can only be complementary to that adopted by Sir James Frazer; though at first sight it might seem to seek to reverse it altogether. Whereas his method is to argue from belief to practice, I propose to proceed the other way about.

No one, of course, could dream of denying that the human being must be credited in the last resort with initiating his own actions throughout his conscious life, up to the moment at which the problem of dying is, so to speak, taken out of his hands. The fact, then, that he is usually unwilling to die before his time, and none too willing then, undoubtedly makes an excellent point of departure for a treatise on the many consequences directly flowing from this attitude. We may assume it as a sort of inevitable corollary to the forward thrust of the life-force that, so far as a man thinks about it at all, he will want, if die he must, yet not to die so utterly as to cease altogether to exist for himself, or to be loved by his friends—as well as, if he be a savage, to be feared by his enemies. Dying, however, is not entirely a private affair between the individual and the dread power that snaps the thread of his existence; for there is also the third-party interest of the friends and enemies. These on their side may not be anxious for any sudden rupture of relations; and indeed they remain masters of the situation, so far as it can be stated in terms of purely human activity. Thus, even if the feelings of the deceased about his future were neither here nor there, the living might still have a good deal to say about it from their own point of view, whether this be amicable or hostile. Indeed, given no sympathy at all one way or the other, there would still be the disposal of the corpse to concern them.

Now gregarious animals of the subhuman order would seem to have an instinct leading them to abandon, or even to destroy, a sick or wounded member of the herd, such as would be liable to weaken their united strength; nor is senicide entirely unknown to savages of the more hard-pressed type. It would, however, be a libel on our race, as history reveals it, to declare it capable either of collectively turning its back on a companion, or even of forcibly ridding itself of its criminals, or of its alien foes, without mixed sentiments that at least imply certain hauntings of remorse—if angry ghosts can fairly be brought under that head. In other words, the human mind is visited with memories, whether of kindly acts or of black looks, that prevent it from recognizing in the dead body of a man, woman, or child, its ‘cold obstruction’ and nothing more. Intolerable in itself, at any rate as soon as decay sets in, the corpse acts as a natural focus of hopes and fears relating partly to the object as such, and partly to the being to which a while ago it belonged. Correspondingly, then, with the physical aspect of funeral proceedings there is bound up a moral aspect, the two having the most subtle reactions on one another.

A simple way of securing that mortuary rites shall be viewed primarily in the light of the practical operations thereby entailed is to glance at the data furnished by prehistory, since the accompanying doctrine can be gathered only by deduction; though of course this is not to say that the ratio cognoscendi therefore amounts to the ratio causandi. Nevertheless it is fairly safe to suppose that Neanderthal man theologized mostly with his hands, which for the rest were mostly controlled by his five senses. At La Ferrassie, or at Spy, the bodies seem to lie just as they lapsed into their death-sleep; but earth was evidently thrown over them, and in the first-mentioned case a flat stone designedly protects the head. Thus, even if his mates slunk off leaving the dead man in possession, at least they did something for him; though whether it was to ward off the hyenas, or simply to facilitate their own return, one cannot be sure.

At Le Moustier, however, the buried youth has been laid out with intention; the legs being more bent than is usual with the so-called ‘crouched’ position, so that perhaps they were tied to prevent ‘walking’. The beef-bones, charred and split, imply a funeral feast; and, since they are actually in the grave, it presumably was a feast common to living and dead. Flint chips abound, forming a regular pillow under the head; but, most striking feature of all, a fine Acheulean hand-axe, seemingly a relic of former ages that had acquired ceremonial value as a vade mecum, lies convenient to the left hand, while the right supports the head. At La Chapelle-aux-Saints a grave of goodly size has been scooped out in the hard floor of a low-vaulted cavern, which could be of no use to Man except as a sepulchral chamber. One hand is beneath the head, as before, and the legs are tightly flexed. As before, too, there are worked flints and ox-bones. A single rhinoceros horn close by is possibly a ceremonial object, such as a man who had lived to sixty might well own in his capacity of tribal wonder-worker. Altogether, then, this brutish precursor of Homo sapiens, though we can hardly think of him as a philosopher meditating a hereafter on ‘high priori grounds’, had by dint of getting busy with the bodies of his dead come to offer them a genuine tendance. By so doing he gave obscure memories, with hopes and fears competing and commingling at their fringe, a chance to build up a tradition of mutual service, as between the sleeping and the waking partners of an existence that was bravely maintained through a whole aeon of time; though with nothing but shadows and half-lights to encourage the sentiment of home and communion.

The later cave-period introduces us to a humanity a degree less raw, and, while living roughly, yet possessed of a singular passion for beauty. This could not fail to react on their funeral custom, though with what moral effects we can only guess. Whether the two undersized skeletons, from the Grotte des Enfants at Mentone, sometimes assigned to a separate Grimaldi race, were connected in blood with the giant Cro-Magnons, one of whose women is even smaller, is more debatable than the fact that both had the same love for head-gear and bracelets ornamented with perforated shells. Such finery they took with them to the grave, no doubt in the form in which it was worn in life, since there would be no time to prepare such elaborate trimmings after their decease. Professor Elliot Smith strives hard to make out a case for the shell as a symbol of vitality that was originally suggested by the shape of the cowrie. Possibly this secondary meaning might, by the play of association, be extended to numberless other kinds of shells, or even by a further stretching of analogy to the vertebrae of fishes. Yet when both classes of such objects are combined with pierced deer's teeth in one necklace of rich, not to say sumptuous, appearance, as in the neighbouring cave of Barma Grande, one cannot resist the impression that the amuletic and the ornamental have come to a compromise.

Again, starting with the Aurignacians, and going on to Magdalenian and even Azilian times, is the custom of embedding the dead in red ochre. This almost without question is a ceremonial substitute for the real blood which living peoples at the Stone Age level of culture, such as the Australians, shed freely on the corpse. Doubtless, indeed, they may have already done so for the benefit of the owner while he was still alive, if, through old age or disease, he stood in need of such half-physical, half-symbolic aid from his blood brothers. Meanwhile, it is a disputable point how far the ruddled bones of these ancient burials have merely taken on the stain from their surroundings. For they may have been deliberately coloured at a second or ‘dry’ funeral, such as, with many modern savages, concludes the time of mourning; when the dead man's spirit is bidden to depart to the after-world or, maybe, to go on to be reborn. There seems no doubt, in any case, that at Les Hoteaux the skeleton has been rearranged with a sense of pattern that overrides mere considerations of anatomy.

From Professor Macalister, whose Text-book of European Archaeology is particularly full and illuminating in regard to these early examples of funerary customs, I borrow the word ‘cephalotaphy’ to describe that preservation of the head by itself which, apart from a possible single case from the Langwith cave in Derbyshire, is represented by the spectacular find at Ofnet, on the German side of the Jura.2 Here an ochre-lined pit less than a yard in diameter contained twenty-seven skulls, all facing west, while hard by was a similar pit containing another six. The heads of the women and children, it is to be noted, are decorated with shell ornaments, but none of the males have them—a fact tending to show that these Azilians at any rate did not value their shells exclusively for passport purposes. Such lavishness, also—for there are some four thousand shells, as well as over two hundred deer's teeth—goes far to prove that we are not dealing here with the heads of enemies. The half-skulls of Placard, however, so suggestive of drinking cups, might well be trophies.3 Thus, right through the Upper Palaeolithic up to the Epipalaeolithic, we find a sedulous tendance of the dead, accompanied by who knows what notions of a future welfare depending on the attentions of those left behind. All are interments, it will be noted, with the single exception of a cremation reported from Barma Grande, where its presence amid burials of the usual type suggests a special reason for dealing with some abnormal death, perhaps a suicide; just as the tightly constricted limbs of the dwarf-like Chancelade skeleton may also indicate a desire to restrict the movements of so uncanny a customer.4

There would be less point in pursuing this line of research into the Neolithic and Bronze Ages because, although we know just as little about the mental life of the dolmen-builders and their contemporaries, we are obviously reaching a stage of far more complex economic life than that of the ancient hunters. Hence we may fairly infer a religion correspondingly richer in ideas that were clear and forcible enough to dictate to practice, instead of simply borrowing therefrom a meaning too inert to be capable of extending itself to fresh contexts. The cavemen of Europe, however, are as primitive, in every sense of the word, as one can wish to study. No one is in a position to prove, or even to pretend to prove, that they were but masquerading in the cast-off garments of some archaic civilization.

Being, then, self-made men, these Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons can be supposed to have taken to burying their friends—of what they did with their enemies we cannot be so sure, and there are at least straws pointing to Mousterian cannibalism—for some fairly simple and straightforward reason. Such a reason, for instance, would be that a dead body is unpleasant to live with. To evacuate a cave with the wrong smell, at any rate until the next season, would be an obvious step to take; and yet, given the dimmest sense of group-loyalty, it might well be done apologetically. This would be all the more likely to happen if a comrade, who was wounded, or sick to death, had to be left behind in his shelter, together with whatever could be spared to comfort or prolong his last moments. Certainly there seems but little theoretical difficulty in reconstructing some such ascent from almost subconscious reactions of rude piety towards an established tradition of behaviour; and this in its turn would necessitate rationalization, if only because the young must be taught to do just so—and the collective name of the young is Why-why. Nay, the very ‘Hush!’ with which juvenile indiscretions must be reprimanded would soon evolve into a great taboo, about which those in authority would whisper, alike to their own edification and to the dire mystification of the uninitiated.

These particular mysteries, however, unlike others, would scarcely serve to further the subjection of Woman, even if we suppose that male idealists already had that consummation in view. For, though the theory that ‘men must work and women must weep’ seems to leave out of sight the fact that women are expected to work into the bargain, they are certainly as mothers, and less certainly, according to primal law, as wives, constitutionally fitted to share, nay, to lead, in the keening; and this, in its inarticulate expressiveness, may well be the earliest organized attempt to react at once physically and mentally to a felt bereavement. Those frantic demonstrations of the Australians, conventional as they may have become, serve as outlets of communal emotion, which constitute a very sacrament in their power of drawing the living together. Therein, too, in his turn the dead man participates, at least passively, as constituting the very occasion and focus of all this convulsive, but ultimately sedative, excitement. It was no medicine-man versed in all the further implications of animistic theory, and with a turn for pageantry, who devised these orgiastic transports of self-pity, with their contagious display of wild howling, gnashing teeth, torn hair, lacerated faces, bodies rolled in filth, property destroyed, blows struck at random. As well argue that it is the priest who is responsible for the emotional extravagances of an Irish wake. As for directive thought, it was at first a quite rudderless bark which carried its hapless crew along that flood of despond—a mere drifting log, to which their one conscious desire was to cling, until the spate of bitter waters had flushed itself out.

So much, then, for the far past as it throws a light on a treatment of the dead which reveals some of the most permanent traits of the human character. For, details apart—and even these have their close parallels—the lapse of twenty thousand years or more has left our race very much where it was in respect to its attitude towards the problem of death. We still celebrate what are essentially the same rites; and we remain in much the same state of ignorance concerning their results, when one of our number is overtaken by his fate. This is no closed chapter of history, abandoned to the anthropologist for postmortem examination. Solicitude for the dead is a cultural habit, sub-rational or super-rational as we choose to reckon it, but at all events fixed—in fact, so permanent a part of our second nature that it might almost seem to be given with our first.

Nor can it be said, as may be asserted with much truth of so many other human institutions, that something which at the start was almost wholly lacking in moral value has in the long run been invested with a specifically new as well as higher meaning. I have indeed heard of simple but well-meaning people who thought it necessary to re-inter in a Christian graveyard prehistoric bones that had lain for thousands of years in the safekeeping of a dolmen, far more imposing in its rude magnificence than any modern tomb. The sympathetic historian, however, must be prepared to uncover reverently when assisting at either stage of this double funeral; viewing it as he is bound to do from the terrestrial end of the process. For, humanly speaking, any ritual of the grave bespeaks a moral intention which is entirely creditable to those who take part in it, whether the grade of their culture be otherwise high or low. Death, the leveller, makes even doctrinal differences seem irrelevant and petty when, in this supreme sacrament between the living and the dead, a last pledge is given, and, for all we know, is taken as well.

Now there is only one line of argument whereby the sacramental character of early funeral rites can be impugned, namely, by insisting that their psychological basis is by no means love and hope, but rather fear pure and simple. No doubt a very formidable mass of instances could be compiled by ignoring the moral context, and listing under one head all the precautions taken by all manner of persons under all sorts of circumstances to avoid the dead, or to make them keep their distance. But no one with a critical mind could suppose that a generalization founded on such a misuse of evidence could truly represent the normal attitude of the savage towards his own dead. For, if we would be fair to him, it is this domestic relation, as it might be termed, on which we must concentrate our attention. In primitive society a funeral is always primarily, and often wholly, the concern of the kin affected by the death. In the eyes of outsiders they are thereby rendered taboo in a body. So far are they from fearing, that they are rather feared. They and the corpse are in the same predicament—all unclean together.

Now if this enforced, yet doubtless in part also voluntary, withdrawal from public life, were to last for ever, society must come to an end: which is unthinkable. On the other hand, very various customs prevail as to the due length to be assigned to the season of mourning. One very practical reason why the rest of the community may shy off intercourse with the relatives for a reasonable while is that the latter may feel it their duty to prosecute a vendetta on any neighbour suspected of evil magic; and, until such an affair is somehow settled, they are better left to what is in some sense a corporate fit of the dumps. In the meantime, their association with their deceased kinsman in a common pollution positively neutralizes the dangers of the closest contact; so much so that the very corruption of the dead body often proves no bar to physically revolting, if morally satisfying, assimilation of its virtues as communicable through the actual flesh; while to eat, sleep, or watch by the side of the corpse may figure prominently among their ritual duties.

As for the ghost, it is expected during the taboo period to haunt the grave or its neighbourhood. Nay, in a general way the mourners might be said to hob-nob with it, rather than to take any steps to rid themselves of its presence. On the other hand, there is a time for all things, even for grieving. Hence it is quite natural, and even proper, that the return to ordinary avocations should be marked by a ceremonial dismissal of the dead man's spirit—hardly a ghost any longer in the spectral sense, at least if there were nothing wrong about the death, or the funeral, so as to cause it to be earthbound—in order that, on the lifting of the common ban, it in its turn may join in the ordinary avocations of the spirit-world. Thus, though the main point of the second, or ‘dry’, funeral is undoubtedly to symbolize a parting of the ways between living and dead, no ill feeling attaches to it. There is no fear of the dead man, but at most fear for him, lest he hang about irresolutely; instead of attending to his new duties, such as taking his place among the ancestors, or, perhaps, making ready to be reborn.

So much, then, for the point of view of those immediately concerned with the death, namely the kinsmen. Other people, however, even if members of the same tribe, may well entertain a fear of an alien ghost. Indeed, wherever blood-revenge flourishes, an inevitable association of ideas must connect a death in the next kin with a probable murder to follow in one's own; and one can hardly love the tiresome cause of so much unnecessary trouble. At the same time, the vendetta has its salutary side, in that it undoubtedly promotes a tendency to leave other people's dead undisturbed. The custom of damaging grave-goods, although sometimes meant to kill them so that they may be the better adapted for use in the world of spirits, may also, as some think, be largely intended to ensure them against theft at the hands of enemies. Even so, such an enemy would have to be very much out of sympathy—one might almost say, at a different stage of culture—if such an act of desecration was to have no effect on his nerves. Cave-burials, we may guess, were designed chiefly against hyenas rather than against the men of the next group. No doubt punitive war may involve cannibalism, but that is, so to speak, an affair of hot blood. A savage triumph is apt to end rather lugubriously with purifications most damping to the enthusiasm of the returning braves; and we may suspect that cannibalism itself, in the form practised on the foe, came in the end to lose its zest, because of the spiritual indigestion that it brought in its train.

Angry ghosts, then, are to be feared for obvious reasons. Enemies are unpleasant customers alive or dead, and from this point of view Man desires a ritual that will at least neutralize them, and, as far as possible, abolish them utterly. Yet the whole matter falls within that outer circle of human relations wherein up to the present day charity struggles hard to find a place. Only the home circle will yield a pattern of those fundamental humanities which moral evolution gradually extends, by what is essentially an analogous enlargement of its love-creating function. Unless, then, it can be shown that their own folk mourn the dead simply and solely because it is the only way of dealing with that fearsome thing, the ghost, the whole case for the predominance of the fear-motive goes by the board.

But it will be objected that ghosts are really fearsome. Possibly they are for those who only see them occasionally, and are otherwise not provided with the strongest nerves. But the vast majority of us are totally insensitive to them; while the experts who claim to be on familiar terms with them do not seem to be overwhelmed by the experience. Now there is not the slightest evidence to show that the normal savage is constitutionally a ghost-seer; though no doubt he can be frightened almost out of his wits by a séance contrived by those who know how. As a matter of fact, when the rather appalling process of decarnation is completed, often with the active assistance of the mourners, who thereby may be expediting the period of their taboo, primitive humanity shows a decided predilection for including amongst its domestic furniture such grisly relics as the skulls or other bones of its late relations. Indeed, those of us who nowadays suffer from ghostly visitations might try the effects of a counter-irritant in the shape of a grinning mask of death, set off with paint and feathers; for the timorous savage so called appears to find no small solace in such a bedside companion. We are not now considering the case of the head-hunter who gloats over the possession of a trophy, but that of one who piously treasures these visible remains of a relative, with whom he would fain be united by physical contact no less than in memory. To dismiss such customs contemptuously under the head of ‘preservation for magical purposes’ is entirely to overlook the sanctity of the kinship tie; which leads a man to expect that such an associate will help and protect him, with all those larger powers that it is the privilege of the dead to exercise for the benefit of their successors.

It remains to be added that, even from among the members of one's own home circle, some are to be feared after they have left this life, because the manner of their going was in some way abnormal. Those, for instance, who have excommunicated themselves by their own sin and folly are clearly such stuff as evil ghosts are made of. More unfortunate are they who through some accident, such as drowning at sea, have been deprived of a proper funeral. Their case, however, can be met by a purely symbolic rite, more especially if the spirit is obliging enough to pass into some object, a rag, a handful of earth, a grasshopper, which thereupon can be treated as the principal in the affair.5 But, from our point of view, the most unsatisfactory reason for placing a ghost in the class of outlaws, though it is one that prevails throughout the primitive world, is that anybody who dies a violent death will not only be restless, but will be more or less maleficent, in his future existence. It looks on the face of it as if mere play of association brought bad luck and bad temper together as cause and effect. Underlying such a notion, however, there may often be a half-conscious feeling that such accidents occur only to those that deserve them; so that the criminal type of ghost is really in question. Be this as it may, all such cases alike are but the exceptions that prove the rule establishing the prevailing amity of the communion wherein all kinsmen, alive or dead, are as it were immortally the co-partners, duly pledged as such to mutual service.

Now it should be noted that in the static type of community such an equilibrium of relations between the present and the former lifetimes of men is easier to conceive than it would be with us, who move so rapidly onwards, and presumably forwards, that some of our known ancestors, much esteemed as freebooters or what not in their time, would prove odd company, were we obliged to foregather with them. But a society that behaves like a merry-go-round can afford to be quite indifferent as to which generation is passing a given point at a given moment. In fact, the logic of the political situation almost demands a theory of reincarnation; not one of the Buddhist type where stress is laid on personal ups and downs, but a more democratic system, providing vital redintegration for whole age-grades at a time. Incidentally the metaphysical difficulty of an infinite supply of souls is avoided, and the recurring number of those who will need names can be calculated, so as to fit them with ready-made ones out of the old stock. Not only will Grandfather's features be inherited for all to recognize, but, as his own grandchild, he will find himself under no necessity to forgo his ancient habits.

It is to be noted in the same connexion how migratory peoples, with customs perforce readapted to a new habitat, have far less hold on the allegiance of their predecessors; so that the soul that would unite with the ancestral ghosts must leave his familiar abode, and in his canoe-coffin fare a long way back to some dim parent-island away towards the setting sun. No wonder that, in such a stress of sentimental cross-influences, souls should, as it were, split, so that, while one part sets forth to the distant spirit land, the other should abide with the living in their new home.6 On the other hand, it amounts in itself to a proof of an age-long occupation when, as among the Arunta, every stock and stone is the perennial source of particular groups of totemic spirits eager to be born; so that one could construct a chart, as indeed Sir Baldwin Spencer has done, showing exactly where a mother might procure the offspring most to her fancy.

Thus, when the wheel of reproductive life at once physical and social turns on itself so smoothly, the passage between death and the new life covered by the mourning ceremonies is like the blurred interval of a transformation scene, a temporary shifting of focus. Indeed, it is not dissimilar in principle to any other half-way stage, infancy, initiation, betrothal; when the subject, feeling that he is neither the one thing nor the other, wisely lies low, and allows the emotional sediment to settle. So, too, the dead man whose body is neither clean flesh nor clean bone, but something between and betwixt, remains caught between the desire to stay and the desire to go on. Hence, together with his mourners, who are likewise desirous neither to leave him nor to follow him, he remains wrapped in the twilight stupor of taboo, until the ceremonial exeat is awarded him as a full-fledged spirit.

At this point, however, the communion is so far dissolved that, whereas all parties were hitherto unable to reckon themselves more than half-alive in their several ways, henceforth each, restored to such full vigour as comports with their several conditions, can exchange their previous passivity for active co-operation on a two-world basis. Between states the dead man was more or less solitary; for, whatever his friends do by way of supporting him in his affliction, every man dies by himself, so far at any rate as the process is entirely at the expense of his own body. For the savage, then, who cannot bear to be alone, he becomes himself again only when he is fairly enrolled in the company of the departed. Thenceforth, whatever they do, whether they go back to life, or simply aid their fellows from another sphere, he must do likewise with all his might; for the common will of the communion of spirits is his also.

The foregoing sketch has attempted, at the expense of much else that might prove interesting, to concentrate on the sacramental idea involved in the notion of the death-rite, as a handing over from and by his own people to his own people of one who suffers a change of status—who in the due course of things has got his promotion. Such a generalized account will, perhaps, be found to accord well enough with what we know about those simple folk whose social organization consists in a more or less unconsolidated clan-system—a form of society which the prehistoric man of Europe might well have reached, but scarcely could have overstepped. Had we the time to pass on to more advanced conditions of culture, we should have to take note of a considerable alteration of outlook, such as possibly is not always for the better.

For one thing, a closer connexion is established between the dead and various gods that preside over their fate. The really primitive after-world on the other hand tends to be self-governed and self-contained. Indeed, it is for the most part very dimly conceived as a place, and that largely in story; which, being either aetiological in character, or else pure wonder-tale, has very little effect on grave-ritual and its immediate suggestions. Death is rather a state, not to say a status, a sort of rather painful mutation incidental to development, very much like cutting one's new teeth; the taboo period of mourning representing the uncomfortable interlude of the actual teething. Even when a full-blown ancestor-worship is well on its way, the dead remain somewhat self-sufficient in their quasi-divine role of moral influences; such as belong to the scheme of Nature, instead of controlling it from above, as does a veritable sky-god. Very rarely, indeed, unless they are ‘children of the Sun’, in other words a very presumptuous kind of aristocrat, do they repair to the celestial region, or otherwise consort closely with powers that would either eclipse their homely lineaments utterly, or else cause them to shine too unbearably for recognition from below.

Next, one observes in comparing these later versions of the fate of the soul with the earliest, that increasing stress is laid on the differentiation of good from bad; so that in the end the average man, with his mixed record, becomes woefully uncertain about his latter end, and correspondingly inclined to take out an insurance premium with companies of more or less doubtful standing. It is, at any rate, a symptom of religious aberration when, as in Polynesia, the best places in Heaven are reserved for the rich, while in some cases it-is supposed to be closed to commoners altogether. Now, as we have seen, the less sophisticated kind of savage has to admit that a few may be excommunicated once and for all; so that for these lost souls there remains nothing but a dismal, unbefriended existence, whether on the confines of their former home on earth, or in some separate limbo. He may even conceive some scrutineer of those ghosts whose passes are good. Yet this mythological being will amount to no formal Judge who distributes eternal life or death in cold impartiality—an idea which reflects the institutions of the centralized state; but will rather be like some headman of his group who simply confirms the public decision to exile those who have not observed the customs. There is certainly no plus-quam-academic projection of the examination-fetish to frighten prospective candidates out of their senses, and incidentally to make the fortunes of their coaches. In fact, it is not to the savagery of the Stone Age, but rather to the enlightened barbarism of our own Middle Ages, that we must look for a thorough-going exploitation of the doctrine of a Hell.

Lastly, advancing civilization stands for the evolution of the individual; whose relation to his more complex type of society becomes correspondingly less intimate, unless through moral education his grasp of the common purpose is in like degree broadened and deepened. In our modern world, in which the voice of kindliness is in danger of being stifled amid the roar of machinery, it is fatally easy to cultivate a private other-worldliness, as a palliative for a self-indulgent indisposition to endeavour to render public service here and now. The modern man tends to have no ancestors, and but few friends, to keep him up to the mark. Hence, unless he can participate in some ideal communion, he is likely to find himself dead before his time is up. Nay, he can be chief mourner at the funeral of his own hopes; since, unless they can be universalized, they can have no divine, just as they have no truly human, meaning. At the same time, it is infinitely harder to-day to realize one's place and mission in so populous a world; whereas the little savage community is as small and close-knit a body as a ship's crew. Little wonder then that all are equally alive to the peril that forces each to lend a hand in steering a course between the devil and the deep sea, with no other compass than their united willingness to keep afloat at all costs.

Yet if our precursors of the Stone Age had all of them suffered shipwreck, we ourselves would certainly not be here. Wherefore let these lectures be dedicated to the memory of our savage Founders and Benefactors. One trusts, indeed, that they may have found some appropriate Paradise of their own. Or perhaps, in accordance with their prevailing fancy, they may be going round and round in us; though, if so, with what a shock to their conservative feelings, if any memory persists from incarnation to incarnation. Well, who knows the truth? Here I speak, with all humility, in the name of Science; and the last word of mere science upon this tremendous subject can but be: de mortuis nil nisi incertum. Faith is another matter; and I would end these lectures as I began by suggesting, on the strength of the historical evidence, that the religious faith which appears to have survival-value for the human race has ever tended to embrace hope, as steadily as it has defied intimidation, whether by the bogy of a physical necessity, or even by the sense of sin itself.

  • 1.

    See W. Y. Evans-Wentz, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, with Sir John Woodroffe's Foreword.

  • 2.

    R. A. S. Macalister, A Text-book of European Archaeology, i. 433, 539 f; see also 293, 295, 296, 298, 353 f., 381.

  • 3.

    Macalister, op. cit. 400.

  • 4.

    Ibid. 358, 381.

  • 5.

    Cf. Rosalind Moss, The Life after Death in Oceania, 107–8.

  • 6.

    Moss, op. cit. 63.