Birth and Death: Studying Ritual, Embodied Practices and Spirituality at the Start and End of Life

A special issue of Religions (ISSN 2077-1444). This special issue belongs to the section "Religions and Health/Psychology/Social Sciences".

Deadline for manuscript submissions: closed (22 November 2021) | Viewed by 54351

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Guest Editor
Department of Humanist Chaplaincy Studies, University of Humanistic Studies, 3512 HD Utrecht, The Netherlands
Interests: ritual; meaning making; spirituality; birth; death; spiritual care; secular; humanist chaplaincy

E-Mail Website
Guest Editor
Department of Comparative Study of Religion, University of Groningen, 9712 GK Groningen, The Netherlands
Interests: death; ritual; meaning-making; spiritual care; ecology; religious diversity

Special Issue Information

Dear Colleagues,

Birth and death are fundamental human experiences. Both life-transitions are meaningful and profound but can also lead to ambiguous feelings, negotiated in embodied, cultural, spiritual and symbolic practices (Hallam et al., 1999; Kaufman and Morgan, 2005; Mathijssen, 2018; Wojtkowiak, 2020). The study of birth and death as existential transitions, comparing and contrasting these two life-events from a ritual and embodied perspective, can reveal novel insights into spirituality and religiosity. In this Special Issue of Religions, we want to unravel these questions and explore new theoretical and empirical research on birth and death from multidisciplinary perspectives, such as cultural anthropology, religious studies, chaplaincy studies, medical and cultural psychology and psychology of religion and related disciplines.

The importance of studying birth and death from an embodied, ritualized and symbolic perspective relates to several observations. First of all, all humans are related to their own birth and death and often involved in the birth and death of others (Hennessey, 2019; Schües, 2008). However, entering the world, as well as saying farewell to loved ones, is not a linear transition. Liminal and ambiguous meanings accompany pregnancy and birth, as well as death and dying. Cultural, spiritual and ritual practices accompany this transition and accommodate possible ambiguous states. Secondly, both life transitions are related to spiritual and existential questioning, revealing what matters to us (Wojtkowiak and Crowther, 2018). Thirdly, rituals and embodied practices—varying from quotidian storytelling, performances, meditation and beautification practices to initiation rites and funerals—are grounded in the body, the senses and material culture. Gaining insights into the significance of embodiment, the physical and material dimension of spirituality has been underdeveloped in the literature (McGuire 2006). Fourthly, because of changing religious and cultural contexts, such as secularization, medicalization, migration and globalization, the way we frame and give meaning to birth and death are changing and leading to pluralistic and possibly conflicting meaning frames. Rituals at the start and end of life have also been changing (Grimes, 2002). What kind of challenges do we face in changing birth and death contexts? What can we learn about meaning making and spirituality by studying birth and death rituals? How is embodied spirituality negotiated in birth and death rituals and practices?

We invite scholars from different fields to submit papers on the following topics:

  • Rituals and ritualization of birth and/or death (such as pregnancy and birth, dying, death and mourning, commemoration, memorials, private, individual ritualizing);
  • Embodied spirituality at birth and/or death from theoretical and empirical perspectives (such as midwifery, chaplaincy or personal practices);
  • Social and cultural meanings and ambiguity surrounding personhood at birth or death from an embodied, ritualized perspective (when do we become a person/social being? And how is this manifested in embodied practices? See, for instance, Kaufman and Morgan, 2005);
  • Philosophical perspectives on ritual at birth and death (e.g., phenomenological approaches to ritualizing pregnancy, birth, death and dying).

References

Grimes, Ronald. L. 2002. Deeply into the bone: Re-inventing rites of passage. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hallam, Elizabeth, Jenny Hockey, and Glennys Howarth. 1999. Beyond the Body: Death and Social Identity. Abingdon: Routledge.

Hennessey, Anna. M. 2019. Imagery, ritual and birth: Ontology betwen the sacred and the secular. Lanham: Lexington Books.

Kaufman, Sharon R., and Lynn. M. Morgan. 2005. The Anthropology of the Beginnings and Ends of Life. Annual Review of Anthropology 34: 317–41.

Mathijssen, Brenda. 2018. Transforming bonds: Ritualising post-mortem relationships in the Netherlands. Mortality 23: 215–30. https://doi.org/10.1080/13576275.2017.1364228

Schües, Christina. 2008. Philisophie des Geborenseins. Freiburg im Breisgau: Verlag Karl Alber.

Wojtkowiak, Joanna, and Susan Crowther. 2018. An existential and spiritual discussion about childbirth: Contrasting spirituality at the beginning and end of life. Spirituality in Clinical Practice 5: 261–72. https://doi.org/10.1037/scp0000188

Wojtkowiak, Joanna. 2020. Ritualizing pregnancy and childbirth in secular societies: Exploring embodied spirituality at the start of life. Religions 11: 1–16. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel11090458

Dr. Joanna Wojtkowiak
Dr. Brenda Mathijssen
Guest Editors

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Keywords

  • ritual
  • ritualization
  • birth
  • death
  • spirituality
  • symbolic
  • embodiment

Published Papers (11 papers)

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Editorial

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6 pages, 207 KiB  
Editorial
Birth and Death: Studying Ritual, Embodied Practices and Spirituality at the Start and End of Life
by Joanna Wojtkowiak and Brenda Mathijssen
Religions 2022, 13(9), 820; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel13090820 - 04 Sep 2022
Viewed by 2399
Abstract
Birth and death are fundamental human experiences [...] Full article

Research

Jump to: Editorial

13 pages, 253 KiB  
Article
Ritualizing Abortion: A Qualitative Study on Ritual and Its Meanings in The Netherlands
by Kiki Biel, Arjan W. Braam and Joanna Wojtkowiak
Religions 2022, 13(7), 592; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel13070592 - 25 Jun 2022
Cited by 2 | Viewed by 2377
Abstract
The present study investigates ritualizing abortion in the Netherlands. Explorative, qualitative research was conducted with semi-structured interviews (n = 13) with women who looked for counseling and 43 online personal stories about the abortion from the website of a national care and expertise [...] Read more.
The present study investigates ritualizing abortion in the Netherlands. Explorative, qualitative research was conducted with semi-structured interviews (n = 13) with women who looked for counseling and 43 online personal stories about the abortion from the website of a national care and expertise center. The results reveal three main categories of ritualizing: (1) creating and using symbols privately and online, (2) remembering or honoring the experience and (3) embodied ritualizing. The data reveal that respondents find meaning in the ritualizing through sharing the experience with others, expressing various feelings through symbolic and ritual forms, fostering a connection with the child-to-be, showing respect, seeking closure and transforming the experience in a meaningful way. This research reveals types of ritualizing practices in relation to a meaningful life event such as abortion. For a specific group of women experiencing decision difficulty or existential concerns in relation to the abortion, ritualizing might be an interesting tool to be incorporated into post-abortion care practices. Full article
18 pages, 348 KiB  
Article
“I Want to Bury It, Will You Join Me?”: The Use of Ritual in Prenatal Loss among Women in Catalonia, Spain in the Early 21st Century
by Lynne McIntyre, Bruna Alvarez and Diana Marre
Religions 2022, 13(4), 336; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel13040336 - 09 Apr 2022
Cited by 2 | Viewed by 2678
Abstract
Prenatal loss, such as miscarriage and stillbirth, may be understood as the confluence of birth and death. The most significant of life’s transitions, these events are rarely if ever expected to coincide. Although human cultures have long recognized death through ritual, it has [...] Read more.
Prenatal loss, such as miscarriage and stillbirth, may be understood as the confluence of birth and death. The most significant of life’s transitions, these events are rarely if ever expected to coincide. Although human cultures have long recognized death through ritual, it has not typically been used in cases of pregnancy loss. Interest in prenatal losses in the fields of medicine and the social sciences, as well as among the general public, has grown significantly in recent years in many countries, including Spain, as evidenced by increasing numbers of clinical protocols, academic books and articles, public events and popular media coverage. Even with this growing attention, there are still no officially sanctioned or generally accepted ways of using ritual to respond to prenatal losses in Spain. However, despite a lack of public recognition or acceptance of the use of ritual, we found that women in the autonomous community of Catalonia, in Spain, are employing ritual in various fashions, both with and without the support and acceptance of their family, friends or community, to process their losses and integrate them into their lives. Full article
13 pages, 228 KiB  
Article
Dimasa Rituals of Death and Mourning in Contemporary Assam
by Pamidi Hagjer
Religions 2022, 13(1), 82; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel13010082 - 17 Jan 2022
Cited by 2 | Viewed by 3646
Abstract
Deaths provide an important setting for Dimasas in Assam to engage in collective ritual performance. These rituals not only allow the people to affirm their identities, but also provide a space to create strategies to adapt to the changing urban landscape. This paper [...] Read more.
Deaths provide an important setting for Dimasas in Assam to engage in collective ritual performance. These rituals not only allow the people to affirm their identities, but also provide a space to create strategies to adapt to the changing urban landscape. This paper is an attempt to understand the shift in Dimasa death ritual processes in contemporary Assam. The essay has traced how people mobilize resources as a community to ensure the smooth journey of the deceased from this world to the afterlife, within the constraints of an urban environment. A small but critical part of this process is engaging in bodily techniques that recreate the unique cultural practices of meser-moso and collective grieving, called grasimang. By using ethnographic methods, the paper highlights the perseverance of the people as a functioning collective, and the meanings and symbols that are shared to ensure a successful ritual. Full article
13 pages, 1370 KiB  
Article
In between Birth and Death, Past and Future, the Self and the Others: An Anthropological Insight on Commemorative and Celebrative Tattoos in Central Italy
by Federica Manfredi
Religions 2022, 13(1), 46; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel13010046 - 04 Jan 2022
Cited by 3 | Viewed by 5193
Abstract
European society has been described more than once as poor in shared rites of passage. The manipulation of skin seems to be an increasingly popular solution to fulfil perceived cultural gaps. Can contemporary tattoos be interpreted as tools of commemorating life events, especially [...] Read more.
European society has been described more than once as poor in shared rites of passage. The manipulation of skin seems to be an increasingly popular solution to fulfil perceived cultural gaps. Can contemporary tattoos be interpreted as tools of commemorating life events, especially in the occasion of births and deaths? This article analyses meanings associated with tattoos collected during two ethnographies in central Italy. Based on qualitative interviews and participant observation, the first fieldwork focuses on death-commemorative tattoos, while a 2020 (n)ethnography investigates birth-celebrative tattoos. Data confirm that the body is the mirror of the self and the skin works as the plastic stage where the embodiment of mourning and other emotions meets the social world. Tattoos are attempts of personalized spiritualities, where births and deaths become key-moments of existence that are elected pillars of the self. However, they are not (only) a private affair. This paper addresses the intersubjective valence of tattoos and their communicative purpose. In parallel with references related to both the self and the others, ethnographical data support an interpretation of tattoos as modern self-making strategies, applied to re-ordinate the past and to project a suitable self for the future. Full article
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12 pages, 234 KiB  
Article
Infrastructural Breaks on the Road from Birth to Death in Contemporary Russia
by Sergei Mokhov and Anastasia Andreevna Novkunskaya
Religions 2021, 12(12), 1115; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12121115 - 20 Dec 2021
Cited by 2 | Viewed by 2242
Abstract
This paper addresses the problem of infrastructural breaks in two systems—the funeral market and maternity care. The authors analytically problematize how dysfunctions in the operation of these infrastructures shape the experiences of funeral and childbirth in contemporary Russia. The authors propose the conceptual [...] Read more.
This paper addresses the problem of infrastructural breaks in two systems—the funeral market and maternity care. The authors analytically problematize how dysfunctions in the operation of these infrastructures shape the experiences of funeral and childbirth in contemporary Russia. The authors propose the conceptual model of the ‘rite of passage’, supplemented with the sociology of repair joint with the anthropology of infrastructures. Based on the ethnographic studies of the funeral market and maternity care (2015–2019), the authors uncover multiple infrastructural gaps and challenges that Russian families face while preparing for childbirth and funeral, especially in remote areas of the country. Empirical data of participant observations, in-depth and expert interviews demonstrated that continuous infrastructural failures can be considered to be an integral part of these life-cycle rituals, as both burial and maternity care arrangements never happen smoothly and unproblematically. In conclusion, the authors argue that necessity of “repairing” or patching the infrastructural gaps obtains self-sufficient symbolic meanings that possess ontological features. Full article
16 pages, 293 KiB  
Article
The Function of Ritualized Acts of Memory Making after Death in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit
by Inger Emilie Værland, Anne Beth Gilja Johansen and Marta Høyland Lavik
Religions 2021, 12(12), 1046; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12121046 - 25 Nov 2021
Cited by 1 | Viewed by 2086
Abstract
(1) Background: Some infants die shortly after birth, leaving both parents and nurses in grief. In the specific setting where the data were collected, the bereaved parents receive a scrapbook made by the nursing staff in the NICU, and a box made by [...] Read more.
(1) Background: Some infants die shortly after birth, leaving both parents and nurses in grief. In the specific setting where the data were collected, the bereaved parents receive a scrapbook made by the nursing staff in the NICU, and a box made by a local parent support group. Making a scrapbook and a box when an infant dies in the NICU can be regarded as ritualized acts. The aim of this study is to explore the functions of these ritualized acts of making a scrapbook and memory box when an infant dies in the NICU. (2) Methods: Focus group interviews were performed with experienced nurses in the NICU, and with members of a parent support group. Reflexive thematic analysis was used to interpret the data. (3) Three main themes were constructed: “Making memories”, “showing evidence of the infant’s life and of the parenthood”, and “controlling chaos”. (4) Conclusions: Through the ritualized acts of making scrapbooks and boxes, nurses and members of the parent support group collect and create memories and ascribe the infant with personhood, and the parents with the status of parenthood. In addition, the ritualizing functions to construct meaning, repair loss, relieve sorrow, and offer a sense of closure for the makers of these items. Full article
12 pages, 310 KiB  
Article
Rituals and Embodied Cultural Practices at the Beginning of Life: African Perspectives
by Magdalena Ohaja and Chinemerem Anyim
Religions 2021, 12(11), 1024; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12111024 - 22 Nov 2021
Cited by 5 | Viewed by 18080
Abstract
Cultural beliefs and practices find expression through rituals. Rites of initiation or passage are some of the most common rituals among the indigenous African societies. Pregnancy and Childbirth are not only biological events, but also socially and culturally constructed with associated symbols that [...] Read more.
Cultural beliefs and practices find expression through rituals. Rites of initiation or passage are some of the most common rituals among the indigenous African societies. Pregnancy and Childbirth are not only biological events, but also socially and culturally constructed with associated symbols that represent the social identities and cultural values of Africans. Birth is a rite of passage, and children are perceived as special gifts from the Supreme Being. As such, pregnancy and childbirth are special events cherished and celebrated through varied rituals. Drawing on empirical literature and relevant commentaries, this paper aims to discuss selected rituals and embodied practices surrounding the start of life (pregnancy, birth, and early motherhood). The paper will specifically focus on the following aspects: pregnancy rituals; birth songs and dancing; the omugwo (care after birth); the cord and placenta rituals; and the naming ceremony. Some of the pregnancy rituals are purificatory in nature and therefore beneficial for maternal and infant health. The celebrations surrounding the birth of a child are community events, marked with singing and dancing. Following childbirth, the new mothers are not expected to participate in house chores to allow them time to recuperate. In all, discourses concerning the beginning of life, i.e., pregnancy and the periods surrounding it, are filled with rituals which are embodiments or expressions of cultural values, customs, and beliefs. Full article
11 pages, 249 KiB  
Article
Reconciling the Uniquely Embodied Grief of Perinatal Death: A Narrative Approach
by Tamarin Norwood and John Boulton
Religions 2021, 12(11), 976; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12110976 - 08 Nov 2021
Cited by 2 | Viewed by 2529
Abstract
The death of a baby, stillborn or living only briefly after birth, is a moral affront to the cycle of life, leaving parents without the life stories and material objects that traditionally offer comfort to the bereaved, nor—in an increasingly secularized society—a religious [...] Read more.
The death of a baby, stillborn or living only briefly after birth, is a moral affront to the cycle of life, leaving parents without the life stories and material objects that traditionally offer comfort to the bereaved, nor—in an increasingly secularized society—a religious framework for making sense of their loss. For the grieving mother, it is also a physical affront, as her body continues to rehearse its part in its symbiotic relationship with a baby whose own body is disintegrating. Attempting to forge continuing bonds with her child after death makes special demands upon the notion of embodied spirituality, as she attempts to make sense of this tragedy in an embodied way. This paper, which reconciles the distinct perspectives of bereaved mothers and children’s doctors, proposes that the thoughtful re-presentation of medical insight into pregnancy and fetal development may assuage parents’ grief by adding precious detail to their baby’s life course, and by offering the mother a material basis to conceptualize her own body as part of the distributed personhood of her baby. Full article
15 pages, 1486 KiB  
Article
Religion, Nonreligion and the Sacred: Art and the Contemporary Rituals of Birth
by Anna M. Hennessey
Religions 2021, 12(11), 941; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12110941 - 29 Oct 2021
Cited by 3 | Viewed by 3363
Abstract
This paper looks at the role of art and material culture in the rituals of birth, first taking into consideration research on material culture in traditional rituals of birth and then turning to the primary topic, which is how art in the contemporary [...] Read more.
This paper looks at the role of art and material culture in the rituals of birth, first taking into consideration research on material culture in traditional rituals of birth and then turning to the primary topic, which is how art in the contemporary rituals of birth often holds sacred meaning even when the ritual is of a nonreligious nature. A discussion about the sacred in the context of a nonreligious ritual hinges upon an understanding of that which is “sacred”; thus, the paper looks at research on modern theology and the sacred to examine the term in the context of birth as a contemporary rite of passage. Giving examples of how material culture has been important in several traditional birth rituals from different cultures, the paper then traces a similar occurrence in which participants in contemporary nonreligious rituals of birth also uphold art and material culture as sacred elements of the rituals. The paper provides the reader with description of a rich array of art and material culture used across cultures in different rituals of birth. Taking into consideration the numerous contributions that scholars have made to the emerging field of birth and religion, including the interdisciplinary importance of theories related to birth as a rite of passage, the paper also presents new research on the materiality of the contemporary rituals of birth. Full article
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13 pages, 290 KiB  
Article
Modern Teachers of Ars moriendi
by Agnieszka Janiak and Marcin Gierczyk
Religions 2021, 12(9), 695; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12090695 - 30 Aug 2021
Cited by 2 | Viewed by 2088
Abstract
It is evident that a change is happening, a breakthrough, in perceptions of death; the next episode is being unveiled. After the stages Philippe Aries named death of the tame and then death of the wild, people today are finally experiencing the [...] Read more.
It is evident that a change is happening, a breakthrough, in perceptions of death; the next episode is being unveiled. After the stages Philippe Aries named death of the tame and then death of the wild, people today are finally experiencing the humanizing of death, which we call sharing death, whose influence is worth deep analysis. Our hypothesis is that today, Ars moriendi, meeting the needs of the dying, may be learned from the so-called death teachers, whose message is growing noticeably in society. This research shows a certain reversal of social roles that are worth noting and accepting. In the past, a priest was a guide and a teacher in the face of dying and death; today, he has the opportunity to learn Ars moriendi from contemporary teachers of dying, to imagine an empty chair standing by a dying person. Full article
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