Chapter 2. Collective Burials and Community Memories: Interpreting the Placement of the Dead in the Southeastern and Mid-Atlantic United States with Reference to Ethnographic Cases from Indonesia



Burial, the ritual interment of the dead, is guided by cultural ideas and traditions concerning the “afterlife” and continued relationships of the living with ancestors. Mortuary rituals of several stages woven into lengthy ritual cycles are often practiced by societies in which kinship is the principal means of social organization and the sponsorship of feasts advances kin group status. We compare ethnographic examples from Indonesia with archaeological examples from the southeastern and Mid-Atlantic United States in order to reconsider some interpretations concerning the meaning of different burial formats and what they indicate about social stratification and religious ritual. Archaeologists should keep in mind that excavated burial formats are only a “snapshot” that may represent an intermediate moment in the mortuary process or “death cycle” rather than a final conclusion. These cycles are what keep the spaces and places of death in motion rather than fixed and final. Spaces of death also warrant more recognition for their often shifting claims about the status of the bereaved, rather than only the status of the deceased. By examining mortuary processes from several areas in Indonesia, where ethnographically documented death rituals are designed to move the recently deceased and their living descendants into a better afterlife location or status, we suggest further possibilities for interpreting Native American mortuary spaces used by people for whom death likely was more a process than a single event.