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Celebrating Death as a Part of Life

Story by
Nancy Joseph
A Day of the Dead altar in the Oaxacan style, created for the Burke Museum exhibit

A Day of the Dead altar in the Oaxacan style, created for the Burke Museum exhibit. Media credit: Andrew Whiteman

The Burke exhibit includes a traditional Oaxacan altar as well as a Latino altar from the Northwest, with—among other things—paper decorations, food, and candles. These items represent wind, earth, and fire. Marigolds, the flower of the dead, also grace the altars along with sugar skulls, skeletons, and other adornments. “The marigolds’ bright color and aroma guide the dead home for a visit,” says Nason. To ensure authenticity, the Burke sought guidance from Casa Des Artes, a Seattle organization that has been sponsoring local Day of the Dead celebrations for the past decade.

Collecting materials for the Day of the Dead exhibit was great fun for Nason. “The Day of the Dead is becoming a very commercial enterprise in many places,” he says. “There are so many materials being produced, many of them of very high quality. The objects themselves are so much fun—ironic, satirical, playful—especially the new folk art objects.”

Day of the Dead materials always include skeletons; some altars have skeletons in depictions of daily life. “In the afterlife you are doing the same kinds of things you did in life,” explains Nason. “A lot of imagery reflects that idea—dancing, weddings, even a skeleton with a briefcase and cell phone. Many are humorous, but they do have a serious purpose: to remind us of our vanities and foibles and of our ultimate mortality.”


Facing Osiris in Ancient Egypt

In Ancient Egypt there was also a strong belief in an afterlife. But not for everyone. Only people who had lived a just life were given access to an afterlife. This idea is explored in the Egyptian section of the Burke exhibit, which includes funerary objects such as a canopic jar, Shabtis (figurines to perform labor for the deceased in the afterlife), a mummified parrot, and—of course—the Burke’s very own 2,100-year-old mummy and 3,000-year-old coffin. 

Egyptian Drawing

“All of the items for the Egyptian display are from the Burke’s collection,” says Nason. “The coffin has been found to be much more important than originally thought. The mummy is from the time of Cleopatra, using a Hellenic style of mummification with a painted mask covering the face.”

People tend to associate mummification with kings and pharaohs. But Nason explains that in later periods of ancient Egypt, everyone might be mummified regardless of position. And everyone had to face Osiris—often depicted holding a scale—who presided over the judgment of the dead. 

Osiris used his scale to weigh the deceased person’s heart, explains Nason. Hearts that were heavy with sin were immediately devoured by Ammut, the devourer of the dead, leaving no possibility for an afterlife. 

“Egyptians had a strong belief in a world of justice and order—the way in which life should be lived,” says Nason. “Osiris reflects this.”


Spirits in the Bones

From ancient Egypt, the exhibit turns to modern Indonesia. Two regions are highlighted: Tana Toraja, in the mountains of central Sulawesi, and Sumba, an island east of Bali. In both places, funerals and ceremonies for remembering the dead are among the most important parts of a person’s life. 

“In Sumba, a man’s most important task in life is to prepare for his own death,” says Peter Lape, assistant professor of anthropology and curator of archaeology at the Burke Museum, who curated the Indonesian portion of the exhibit. “A man must build his own tomb (in which his wife and children are also buried) and save money for a big funeral celebration. The tomb is traditionally made of giant stones that must be hauled from distant quarries.” 

If the tomb is not finished before a man dies, his wife and children must finish it. “There cannot be a burial until the tomb is finished,” says Lape. “The body will sit in the house until then, even if it takes years. Eventually the body will begin to mummify, but in those first few weeks… the family will burn a lot of incense.” 

A tau-tau from Tana Toraja, Indonesia.

A tau-tau from Tana Toraja, Indonesia. Media credit: Burke Museum

In Tana Toraja, tombs are carved by specialized crypt carvers in limestone cliffs that surround the villages. Wealthy families hang wooden figures called “tau-tau”—carved to be a likeness of the deceased person—at the portal of the crypt.

Annual rituals to remember the dead are held in both Sumba and Tana Toraja. Sumba’s “Pasola Festival” remembers the dead primarily through a reenactment of old battles, complete with real weapons. “The government has tried to stop these battles for years,” says Lape, “but they still go on.”

In Tana Toraja, families open the crypt each year, replacing the cloth the bodies are wrapped in and washing their relatives’ bones, in which they believe their spirit lives on. “When the bones are too fragmentary to clean and re-wrap, they are left to decay,” says Lape. “That’s when the relatives become anonymous ancestors.”

The Burke exhibit includes a carved tau-tau, special cloths used to wrap bodies, and other items collected by Leonardus Nahak, an alumnus of the UW’s museology program who is now a curator at a museum in West Timor.
For those who recoil at the thought of opening crypts and washing bones, Lape offers a bit of perspective.

“We might cringe at the idea of cleaning our dead relatives’ bones,” he says, “but the people of Tana Toraja say they don’t understand how other cultures can bury the body so quickly. The exhibit is about remembering— how different cultures have solved the problem of remembering the dead. Washing bones, carving effigies, and building massive tombs are just some of the ways we try to counteract the ephemeral nature of life.”