Projects RDD

Unfinished Business: The Politico-Religious Lives of (Missing) Human Remains in Vietnam and China and their Diasporas in Europe (1.0 FTE)

Tam Ngo
Eric Venbrux (Radboud University, Nijmegen)


What does one do with the dead? Burial, entombment, mummification or cremation hint at creative ritual possibilities that tell us how we care for the dead. In several contexts the dead form an unquestionable social good that encompasses a number of possibilities, such as designating ancestors for a family, configuring the nation-state through memorials and mortal remains, and meditating on death as part of ethical self-formation. Added to this, is the whole range of beliefs in souls, spirits, ghosts, zombies, saints and shamans that anthropologists routinely encounter, which testifies to the idea of a vibrant afterlife and puts into serious doubt any conceptualization of death as finitude or cessation. Conversely, the dead and especially mortal remains also entail vital registers of forgetting, of ostracism and of obliteration. To touch upon these registers, whether in our personal or communal lives, is impossible without touching simultaneously on politico-religious issues of the most perplexing kind. Also, there is much that remains enigmatic in the evolving technologies of burial, cremation or preservation of corpses. The professionalization of mortuary specialists, once considered ritual and traditional, has taken on industrial and commercial connotations. Moreover, scarcity of space has made cemeteries an important element of city planning.

This research program reflects on the meanings, forms and effects of practices of bodily disposal and handling of mortal remains. It aims to bring together a diversity of perspectives on the body and its disposal alongside the lingering presence of ancestors, ghosts, shamans, and the like, which tell the story of a persistent afterlife. Through ethnographically situated studies the program will critically engage with current theory, comparative ethnography and historical inquiry to explore what analytical convergence can be there in the relations between the living and the dead.

The research may focus around three conceptual areas: the material and the spiritual in bodily disposal, the political lives of dead bodies, and communication between the living and the dead.

(1) Who deals with the dead body? Who makes the transition possible from death to the afterlife? This concerns the domain of ritual specialists and death in everyday life. It opens up the question of how different religious traditions cope with the dead and with mortal remains. Practices of disposal of the body and handling of mortal remains are widely variable and reveal intricate cosmologies, religious ideologies, status hierarchies, and political economies. Notwithstanding the great diversity, there are some key points for reflection cross-culturally. For instance, distinctions of “good” death and “bad” death, the preoccupation with afterlife, individual deaths as events of cosmic renewal, shamanistic connections with the world of spirits through trance are some of these comparative issues.

(2) The role of violence, memory and state control in the contestation over mortal remains and the world of the spirits. Locating mortal remains is one of the sources of conflict after warfare, especially after civil wars. The control over the bones and over their potential to reignite violence is part of the politics of memory and official history. Another part is the use of embalmed bodies as well as the monumental celebration of the remains of the Unknown Soldier to create state cults of commemoration.

(3) Everywhere in the world people try to communicate with the deceased. These practices have local histories, but are increasingly tied up with globalized traditions of spirituality. The interaction of the local and the global as well as the role of science in these interactions create different historical pathways of dealing with death and the afterlife that ask for reflection.

Research areas and populations

The research will focus on Vietnam, China, and the European diasporas originating from these two countries. It will therefore deal with the communist transformation of death-related practices, with a history of war, violence, and state repression that are among the causes of migration, and with the intricacies of burial in foreign places. Given the fact that diasporas continue to have network-shaped relations with their countries of origin the question is how this affects death-related practices.