#3 The Day of Death: Restraining the Bereaved to Prevent Suicide
     (Jack Goody, 1962)

The stage is now set; kinsfolk and ritual specialists have completed their preparations, and the body of the dead man now rests upon the funeral stand, ready to receive a mourning tribute from all those dwelling in the neighborhood, as well as from other kinsfolk who live at greater distances. For the messengers have now set off to other villages, and the music of the xylophones has spread news of the death throughout the parish, and to nearby settlements as well. All those who hear the funereal notes, however faintly, have some obligation to attend. Indeed, such occasions are the most important times when members of the ritual area congregate together in any sizable number. And apart from the premium placed upon attendance, to stay away can be taken as a sign of possible complicity in the death….

While the xylophones are playing, the lineage “wives” and “sisters” of the dead man walk and run about the area in front of the house, crying lamentations and holding their hands behind the nape of the neck in the accepted attitude of grief. The close male kinsfolk act in a similar manner, though they are somewhat more subdued than the women. From time to time, one of the immediate mourners breaks into a trot, even a run, and a bystander either intercepts or chases after the bereaved and quietens him by seizing his wrist. Those continuing to display such violent grief are secured round the wrist by a length of fibre or hide, the other end of which is held by a companion or follower of the bereaved…. For the closest mourner the material form of restraint is more effective, and a strip of hide, usually cowhide (ganaa), is tied firmly to the wrist, around which a piece of cloth has first been wrapped.

These different methods of tying and restraining the bereaved are indices of the socially expected reactions to grief on the part of various categories of person and are therefore of particular value in elucidating certain general aspects of these roles. The modes of restraint employed for the different kinship positions are as follows:

Man’s funeral

Father. …… ………..Tied by hide

Mother. ….. .. …… .Tied by hide

Wife . …….. . ….. .. Tied by hide

Brother. …. . ……… Tied by fibre

Sister. ………………. Tied by fibre

Son … .. …. . . . ….. String tied around the ankle

Daughter ……….. …String tied around the ankle

Woman’s funeral

Husband …….. …Tied by hide and cloth; string around waist and ankle

Father ……… …. . Tied by hide (in the case of an unmarried daughter)

Mother ….. . …. . Tied by hide (in the case of an unmarried daughter)

Brother …. .. . . . Tied by fibre

Sister ….. .. …….. Tied by fibre

Son …. . ………… String tied around the ankle

Daughter… . …… String tied around the ankle

The use of hide is limited to the persons who are presumed to lose most by the death, and of these a husband suffers hardest of all. It is only within this first category of bereaved that ritual precautions are taken against suicide. The second category of close mourners includes those who are considered less likely to do themselves harm; not only the kinsfolk listed above, but any other close affinal, agnatic, or matrilateral relative who runs about in front of the stand may be caught and tied round the wrist with fibre. In the third category come the children of the deceased who, though they are usually followed by a companion, wear only a piece of string tied round the ankle and often another tied round the neck….

…A further means of protecting the living against the dead is revealed in the methods of restraining kin. …persons tied with hide and fibre are distinguished from the offspring of the deceased, who have only a string tied around the ankle. The string is not in fact an attempt to restrain them; this their companions do by seizing the mourner’s wrists. It is rather a protective device comparable to the disguises adopted to deceive the ghosts. Here the tying of string round the ankle is thought to prevent the bereaved’s soul from leaving his body. At the end of the therapeutic ritual known as “sweeping the soul,” during the course of which an errant soul is made to re-enter the body it has abandoned, a string is also tied around the patient’s ankle. In both cases the string binds the soul within the human frame. For outside the body it is an easy prey for the witches and other malevolent agencies, such as the ghost of the dead man, from whom at his funeral the danger is seen to come. Another reason given by the LoDagaa for performing this rite is to soothe the patient’s anxiety; it is done, they say,… “lest your heart jump.” If your heart is troubled, then your soul is likely to be in danger, for it may have left the body that houses it….

…the methods of restraining the close bereaved, who fall mainly within the dead man’s families of orientation and procreation, reflect the socially recognized attitudes toward him. In this respect the parental is sharply differentiated from the filial role. A man will be expected to display great grief at the death of a young son, one, that is, who is past infancy and has acquired a social personality. The older the son, the less pronounced will be the parental grief displayed. Nevertheless, the father is always more affected by the son’s death than the son by the father’s, and although the son has a funeral companion, he is not restrained in any other of the formal ways. Indeed, the son has to be protected from his father’s ghost and is even suspected of being responsible for his father’s death. The reverse never occurs; a father needs no protection against his dead son, nor to the best of my knowledge is he ever directly implicated in his son’s death.

Another indication of the same imbalance in the parent-child relationship is to be seen in the occurrence of suicide attempts, which are a standardized method of demonstrating grief at the loss of a relative. The following two examples will show the differences involved. When Duure, the wife of Wura (Tshaa, Birifu), returned home one day from fetching firewood, she was too tired to carry her large bundle up to the roof and then down again into her own courtyard. So she threw the wood over the high wall of the yard; unfortunately her young son was playing there and was killed on the spot. The distracted Duure stuck a poisoned arrow in the wall and ran toward it; but at the last moment her resolution failed and she turned aside.

Whereas it is recognized that a parent may threaten or attempt to kill himself at the death of a child, the opposite would be unthinkable. When Ziem’s father died, no precautions against suicide were taken on his behalf. However, when his young son died some time afterward, he tried to kill himself with a poisoned arrow, and his “father” from another lineage had to bring a pair of the tongs used by smiths, and Ziem was made to grasp these in his hands. The tools of the smith, and indeed the smithy itself, are closely associated with the Earth shrine. “The smithy is (the same in certain respects as) the Earth shrine” say the LoDagaa.

One aspect of this association, possibly the major one, lies in the common link with iron. Iron ore is dug from out of the earth, and throughout the Voltaic region all unclaimed objects made from that metal belong to the Earth shrine. In smelting ore and in forging iron, the smith is working with the earth itself, and his role is in some respects assimilated to that of the custodian of the Earth shrine. For the smith who makes the weapons of war can also act as a peacemaker; like the Earth priest, he can throw ashes and make hot things cold. Hence the tools of his trade are thought of as having the power to quieten a man inclined to self-violence, a theory that is supported by the belief that after holding the tongs any attempt at suicide would prove fruitless; the wound would only remain open for three (or four) years, causing great pain to the person who had tried to kill himself. Thus giving the bereaved the tongs to grasp is like giving a suspected witch some earth to swallow. Both acts are carried out under the threat of force and both invoke the Earth shrine. Strictly speaking, however, in the first case the bereaved is made to take a conditional, though silent, oath; whereas in the second he is submitted to an ordeal, a mystical test of guilt.

…why in the standardized procedures of the LoDagaa, members of the junior generation express less grief at the death of a member of the senior generation than the reverse. But there is a further aspect of parent-child relationships that an examination of the modes of restraining the bereaved brings out. The list of methods of restraint shows that in the case of the death of a married woman, the father and mother are not bound round the wrist with hide, as they are for an unmarried daughter or a son. The major loss involved is now regarded as falling upon the husband rather than upon the parents; for it is he who by the marriage has both acquired rights and accepted duties toward their daughter. Included in these is the right, and duty, of burying her in the cemetery of the settlement in which he lives….

The close mourners, those tied with hide, include not only parents but husbands and wives. The loss of a spouse is equated with that of a child. The survivor is restrained from self-violence not only by the strip of hide tied around the wrist, but also by being made to grasp the smith’s tongs and, after the burial, to drink water sacralized by association with the Earth shrine.

Let us consider an actual example:

Namoo was living at a new settlement, some fifty miles to the south of Birifu, where he had taken his family a few years before. His wife was back visiting her natal house when she died very suddenly. A false message was sent to Namoo to say that his father’s surviving brother, Batero, had fallen from the rooftop of his house in Naayiili, and had died; it was assumed that a man would react less violently to the news of his paternal uncle’s death than to that of his wife. Namoo boarded a passing lorry and came at once. On reaching the outskirts of Birifu, he was met by a joking partner from another patrilineage of the same clan (that is, from the funeral group), who first of all seized his arms and then told him that it was his wife for whom the xylophones were playing. Namoo broke loose from the grasp of the joking partner and ran at full speed to his “father’s” compound, to which the body of his wife had been carried. There he was at once caught and restrained by other persons present at the funeral. For the LoDagaa declare that it is better for a man in such a state to be with the crowd rather than on his own lest he try to do himself some harm. Moreover, attendance at the ceremony has another, less explicit, effect on the bereaved. As the funeral continues, their grief is lessened by the performance-both by themselves and by others-of the various formalized procedures. Quite apart from the specific content of the rituals, their actual performance has a purging effect. The LoDagaa, however, take additional precautions against the bereaved, and when Namoo arrived at the scene of the funeral, he was seized for the second time, and into his hands were pressed the smith’s tongs.

Although both husbands and wives are tied with hide when a spouse dies, it is expected that greater intensity of grief will be displayed by the man than the woman, and it is he who will be most carefully supervised. Wives are the actual or potential means by which the continuity of the lineage is maintained. The death, particularly of a young wife, entails a total loss of the reproductive powers that the lineage has acquired; for there is no return of the bridewealth in the case of her death, nor is a substitute provided as in the institution of the sororate. If a man has proved himself to be a good son-in-law, his affines may formally point out another girl as his “wife,” but he will still have to hand over the full bridewealth if he wants to marry her. On the other hand, the death of a husband entails no comparable loss to the widow nor to her descent group. By the operation of the levirate she automatically has another husband to provide for her, another man’s house in which to live, another sexual partner. If she is not satisfied with any of the possible inheritors, she can always try to find a husband elsewhere.

The tying of a piece of white cloth around the wrist of the widower but not of the widow, apparently to mitigate the chafing of the hide, indicates that the LoDagaa expect a greater display of violent grief from the man than the woman. To explain this only in terms of the difference in physical strength is hardly satisfactory, since a man is not ordinarily expected to give vent to his grief to the same extent as a woman. Our alternative interpretation of the relationship between the modes of restraint and the differences in conjugal roles is supported by an examination of the rites of widowhood, the whitewashing and testing of the surviving spouse. These rites also emphasize an aspect of conjugal bereavement that we have already encountered in discussing the concept of “dirt,” namely the element of hostility that is visualized as an intrinsic feature of marital relationships. But here we need only make the point that these differences reflect an explicit social situation; for whereas by the death of a spouse a man loses the sexual services of his wife, the widow merely exchanges the services of one man for those of another….

The burial of the body terminates for the time being the phase of public mourning. but the mortuary ceremony continues for another three days. For three days after a man’s burial, only women may sleep at the house where the death occurred, the male bereaved and those who come

from afar being led away to sleep in another compound. Every morning and evening the women burst into loud lamentations. At night they lie down outside the house, and if it rains, they go inside the long room, although they speak of this as the byre and therefore maintain the fiction of not entering the house to sleep. In Tom, I was told that formerly men would sleep for four days at the house where a woman had died, but so far as I know this is not done nowadays.

In respect of the bathing and whitewashing of the surviving spouse, the treatment of men and women is markedly different. The imbalance of the conjugal relationship, already noted in connection with the modes of restraining the bereaved, is again brought out in the procedures taken to prevent the widow or widower from committing suicide that are an intrinsic part of the bathing rituals. As in the earlier instances, the measures taken against the suicide of the widower are considerably more severe than in the case of the widow.

…the bathing of the widower, a rite that takes place outside the deceased’s compound on the day following the burial. A matriclan joking partner from within the husband’s own patriclan brings a knife, an arrow, and three stones seen as belonging to the Earth shrine. …three such stones are also buried under the entrance to the byre of a new compound, and should anyone die there during the next three years, it is thought that the site in question is unwilling to accept the new residents and that they would be wise to move elsewhere. The metaphorical association of three stones and three years occurs again in the present instance; for if a widower tries to kill himself after being made to drink water in which the arrow, knife, and stones are placed. it is said that his wound will remain open for three years. When he gives the water to the husband, the joking partner makes a speech, of which the following is an example:

In the water you drink, can you see the arrow, the knife and the three stones?

With the knife, a person can kill himself. With the arrow, he can do the same.

But look at these stones. Today I give you both the knife and the Arrow.

If you are thinking of killing yourself, of cutting your throat

with the knife, you won’t be able to do it. If you take an arrow

and say you’ll wound yourself, the poison can’t kill you.

People would say that the Earth shrine wishes it so,

and others would think you knew something about your wife’s death.

So today we give you these things to cool your anger.

In time you’ll follow your wife; but she can never return to you.

If you wound yourself, you’ll be sick three years without dying;

and when you recover, you’ll have to make a payment to the Earth shrine.

…The measures taken against the widower are an aspect of the sanctions against suicide that exist in most social systems; however honorable a solution suicide may provide for the individual, from the society’s standpoint the practice must be held in check. Here it is visualized as a heinous sin against the Earth. But the speech bears on the problem of social control in yet another way. For by drinking the water in which the stones of the Earth shrine have been placed, the widower is in effect taking a silent oath that he has had nothing to do with his wife’s death. If he has been involved, the Earth shrine would allow him to commit suicide or perhaps bring about his death in another way.

[#3] “Restraining the Bereaved to Prevent Suicide,” from Jack Goody, Death, Property and the Ancestors. A Study of the Mortuary Customs of the LoDagaa of West Africa, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1962, pp. 86-88. 90-92, 94-96, 183-185.

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