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Songs for Dead Parents

"Songs for Dead Parents: Materializing and Dematerializing the Dead in Southwest China," presented by Professor Erik Mueggler, University of Michigan (co-sponsored by Anthropology, the Hightower Fund, Religion, REALC, and East Asian Studies, Emory University) 

April 6, 4:00pm - 6:00pm

Anthropology 303

This talk examines the ritualization of death in a "minority" community in mountainous Southwest China, where people are heir to an extraordinary range of resources for working on the dead, including abundant poetic language. The talk's focus is the central artifact of poetic heritage in this region, an eight‐hour‐long speech for the dead, abandoned in the 1950s. The speech, divided into 72 “songs”, is a massive construction project, which builds 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 a 19th‐century transition from cremation to burial. 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 Yan Luo Wang/Yama, king of the underworld. Ultimately the speech is a kind of anthropology: an attempt to sympathetically understand and describe a difficult and alien world of others, in this case dead others.

About the speaker

Erik Mueggler is a Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Michigan, afilliated with the University's Center for Chinese Studies and the Interdepartmental Doctoral Program in Anthropology and History. His research covers a variety of topics in social and cultural theory, focusing on the politics of ritual, religion, science and nature in the border regions of China.

See event flyer here.