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Deathways open doors to unexpected cultural practices
Date:10/8/2008

BUFFALO, N.Y. Cremation, "air burial," grave cairns, funeral mounds, mummification, belief in life after death death practices sacred to one culture are often considered "odd" or even terrifying by another.

The Greeks, for example, were fascinated with the historian Herodotus' description of the ancient Issedonians chopping up their dead into a mixed grill and devouring them in a communal barbeque, something entirely contrary to the Greeks' treatment of their own dead.

In every social group throughout history, the disposal of the dead has special significance, and ways of death always fascinate those on the outside looking in, says Erik Seeman, Ph.D., associate professor of history at the University at Buffalo, where he teaches "Death in American History." "Beyond that," he says, "deathways illuminate religious meaning and the social life of cultures about which we may know little else."

Seeman's work, which, unlike much in this field, focuses on the deathways of non-European peoples, primarily those of the eastern third of North America and the Caribbean, is being prepared for publication in a book with the working title "Death in the New World."

"Much of my research looks at how deathways marked cultural self-definition and the definition of 'other' in the New World," he says.

"Placing death at the center of an analysis of cross-cultural encounters among Africans, Europeans and Native Americans allows us, perhaps better than through the use of any other conceptual category, to see the world as the participants themselves viewed it."

In fact, Seeman says the examination of deathways is virtually unmatched for understanding cross-cultural encounters that took place centuries ago in the New World.

"For one thing," he says, "death was ubiquitous. Virgin soil epidemics devastated Indian populations; the mortality of slaves on New World plantations was appalling; unfamiliar disease environments decimated Europeans in the Chesapeake
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Contact: Patricia Donovan
pdonovan@buffalo.edu
716-645-5000 x1414
University at Buffalo
Source:Eurekalert

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