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  • Ancestors in Borneo Societies: Death, Transformation, and Social Immortality ed. by Pascal Couderc and Kenneth Sillander
  • Victor T. King
Ancestors in Borneo Societies: Death, Transformation, and Social Immortality Pascal Couderc and Kenneth Sillander (EDS) Copenhagen: NIAS Press, Nordic Institute of Asian Studies Studies in Asian Topics, No. 50, 2012 x, 390 pp., maps, illustrations, ISBN 978-87-7694-091-1 (Hbk), 978-87-7694-092-8 (Pbk)

Is there much more to say about death, death rituals and the afterlife in Borneo other than to continue to fill ethnographic gaps? The subject has already claimed an inordinate amount of attention, particularly as a result of the early fascination of European travellers, missionaries and colonial observers with the ritual practices and major ceremonial events associated with secondary treatment of the dead. In this regard Robert Hertz's famous essay 'A Contribution to the Study of the Collective Representation of Death', first published in French in 1907 and introduced to the English-speaking world in Rodney and Claudia Needham's translation of 1960 addressed secondary mortuary rituals using primarily ethnographic materials relating to Borneo. Hertz's precocious insights have also had a significant impact on more general theoretical discussions of the symbolism of death and rites of passage.

Yet in spite of this voluminous scholarly treatment of the eschatology and ritual of death, Couderc and Sillander suggest that 'ancestorship has been a neglected field in Borneo studies' with a lack of attention to 'the dead in a benevolent or authoritative capacity as ancestors' (p. 2). Therefore, their main purpose is to provide ethnographic detail and analysis on the roles, conceptions, relations, transformations, ritual and non-ritual expressions of ancestorship, and processes which underlie its construction and reproduction. 'Ancestorship' is the preferred term of the editors rather than the old-fashioned 'ancestor worship', in order to embrace not only the religious significance of ancestors but more especially to emphasize their 'positive social significance' (p. 7).

Nevertheless, I am not convinced about the claim of the scholarly neglect of the institution of ancestors when one notes some of the literature to which the editors themselves refer (pp. 12-18). It is my impression that a considerable level of attention has been devoted to ancestors in the literature on Borneo. But I would agree with Couderc and Sillander that the discussion of ancestorship has been unfortunately disparate, misleading, insufficiently focused and inadequately conceptualized. This is where the present volume makes an important advance in our understanding of what follows from death and how the dead relate to those [End Page 127] they have left behind. Another positive feature is the range of detailed casematerial: there are two chapters on the Sarawak Iban (Clifford Sather and Véronique Béguet), one on the Melanau of Sarawak (Ann Appleton), three chapters onWest Kalimantan (Pascal Couderc on the Uut [Ot] Danum; Christine Helliwell on the Gerai; and Christian Oesterheld on a range of groups in West, Central and East Kalimantan, but particularly the Ahe/Banyuke and the Kanayatn in the western province), and chapters on the Benuaq (Richard C. Payne) and Bentian (Kenneth Sillander), two closely related Luangan sub-groups of East Kalimantan.

In a long and well-argued editorial introduction Couderc and Sillander point to the comparative Austronesian dimension of ancestorship. The editors also refer to Hertz's heritage and how this might be re-thought in relation to more detailed and focused ethnographies of ancestorship (pp. 18-25). But, given the complexity of these mortuary rites, it is hardly surprising that Hertz, on the basis of secondary material, seized on particular dimensions of these rituals; in Durkheimian fashion he examined transition, separation, bodily symbolism and the ways in which the importance of the social collectivity are represented and confirmed. Bernard Sellato's work also plays an important part in this volume. His paper on 'Castrated Dead' with reference to Borneo has also served to trigger some of the debates with which the contributors engage; these include the definitional problems occasioned by the term 'ancestor', and whether or not we adopt a wider or narrower (as Sellato wishes to do) conception, its mode of construction in ritual or other contexts and its precise range of...


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