- Death Is a Festival: Funeral Rites and Rebellion in Nineteenth-Century Brazil
Death is a festival. Death is the hereafter. Death is faith. Death is omnipresent. Death is a will. Death is a good end. Death is a passing. Death is family unity. Death is a funeral. Death is religious solidarity. Death is a tomb. Death affirms social distinctions. Death confirms cultural traditions. Death causes medical and cultural innovation. Death is so important that meddling with its meanings can incite riot.
The above litany presents the principal findings of João José Reis's study—revised from the original, Portuguese-language edition of 1991—of death in the Brazilian city of Salvador da Bahia (inhabited mainly by people of African descent) in the early nineteenth century. The book shows how dramatically and drastically death has been banished from contemporary culture. For us the only [End Page 370] legitimate cause for dying is extreme old age. In Salvador, as Reis points out, social, economic, and health conditions made death all too intrusive. It struck down the most vulnerable, who were often the most cherished. In 1836, 30% of the freeborn and at least 47% of the slaves who died in the city were aged ten and under. Orthodox medicine availed little against death. it was inept even at identifying the diseases causing death.
The intrusiveness of death meant that, to be made emotionally bearable, it had to be ritualized and that ritual incorporated, as the study shows, into every aspect of life. The most powerful vehicle in this process was religion, which provided formularies for dying, burial, and remembrance and which also linked the living to the departed and supplied the means to aid the dead in the hereafter. Both the ceremonies and the doctrines of Catholicism, the state religion of Brazil, served all these ends most effectively. João José Reis, the leading authority on the culture and lives of the African slaves in Brazil, argues that, for many, the indigenous religions of Africa served the same purpose. Since over 40% of Salvador's inhabitants were slaves (most from Africa), the author's contention is very probable, but it is not, from the evidence he gives, proven. His analysis and arguments would be stronger if he had kept Tridentine Catholicism and what may be termed "folk" (pre-Tridentine) Catholicism distinct in his analysis, instead of conflating them as "baroque Catholicism."
In the ritualization of death the irmandades (the confraternities and third orders) of Salvador played a key role, in part because specific irmandades acted as religious and social centers for different racial groups, such as that of Our Lady of the Rosary for African slaves. Members of an irmandade were assured of a funeral and interment with due ceremony and reverence. They could be, and often specifically requested to be interred in the irmandade's church. Such practice united the dead and the living, a union intensified by the celebration of Masses for the deceased's soul. Burial in church may promote unity but rotting corpses stink. The medical profession in the nineteenth century was increasingly convinced that eliminating "miasmas" (gases), including the stench of corpses, would reduce the death rate. Physicians advocated the construction of cemeteries isolated from residential areas. One third of Reis's book is devoted to the crisis that exploded at Salvador in 1836, when a law banned interment in church and granted a monopoly of burials to a company that constructed a new-style cemetery. The popular riot that followed left the cemetery in ruins and the law unenforceable. Not until the cholera epidemic of 1855 was the ban reinstated.
Death Is a Festival is, in sum, an admirable study, stimulating in approach and thorough in its research. It is a pity that the translation is often clumsy and on occasion misleading. The illustrations are excellent, although those from Debret's Voyage pittoresque show life and death in Rio de Janeiro...