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Discussion of The Rite of Passage of Women and Death

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When I was grade 1, our teacher told us to pick a Hero, and to explain our choice to the class. As many other little girls, I chose my mother, so I drew my picture of the two of us and presented the class with stories about this wonderful woman, I called “the best mom ever”, I meant it, and I still do. Back then I described what it meant to be the woman of our house as beast as my little seven-year-old self could. But now as a student I chose to revisit that proud speech I gave, questioning what it means to become a woman, but more importantly what Anthropological ritual known as the rite of passage did she go through to earn this title. I will prove or challenge this rite of passage by mainly referring to Victor Turners Anthropological writings and believes.

A rite of passage is defined as moving between two structures in society. The two structures in my example is of my mother being a child, to becoming a woman. Unlike other girls my mothers’ journey into womanhood wasn’t marked by a day in white, a Quinceanera, or a special birthday etc. Instead she found herself on the other side of the spectrum clothed in black, mourning the loss of her mother and mentor. Its never a good time to lose a loved one, but for a sixteen-year-old girl it’s an especially difficult time to go through a loss like this. Not only did she lose her mother but the person who was meant to guide her through the changes a teenager faces at sixteen.

This rite of passage she experienced is marked by three stages as explained by Arnold van Gennep (1909):

Separation is the first stage in the rite of passage, and marks the loss of identity, as well as the end of your status in society, so the road to a new one can begin. The death of her mother in a car accident, to having woken up in a hospital without her, and attending the funeral marks the separation of her being only a child in the house and begins her journey to a new role in life. The funeral is there to assist the members of the family and friends through a time of change, and to say good bye (to the person and the stage of life). It’s also where I found the most symbols coming into play (symbols as seen in the reading about “Original Venda Hustler” form a big part of the rite of passage, as it brands the stage of life a person is going through (McNeill, 2016: 197)). During the Church ceremony a candle was lit to symbolize her life as a light and left to burn as family and friends recalled stories about her, and the life she led. Towards the end as the casket was being carried out the candle was extinguished to show her life has come to an end. Another significant symbol was the shoveling of dirt onto the lowered casket. Here the family literally forms part of the burial process and is physically and emotionally (the symbolic meaning) saying good bye.

The liminality stage is where you don’t belong to any group in the social structure (Turner, 1996: 94). But it can be seen as a time where you learn what the rules and obligations of your new role is and how to fill them (If you don’t learn the rules of your new status you can cause conflict in a society). This for her was after having said good bye at the funeral and having to assume the new role at the wake (where she learnt how to be a woman, a caring, feminine figure). At the funeral she was no longer just the daughter of the deceased, but she wasn’t yet the woman of her house either. It’s only at the wake where she learns how to interact with people of her community as a young adult, now that she starts to learn what is expected of her in the fulfillment of this new role and how to do it, she can move on to the final stage, to claim her new status in society. Here she also experienced what Turner calls ‘communitas’, it’s used to make everyone look the same, to show that they are equals (Turner, 1969: 100). The only communitas I found in this phase was the black funeral clothing. It separates people in mourning from the rest of society, and it states what they are going through together. (The type of funeral clothing can also show that you are part of a certain religion or culture, as many of them differ from one another. Proving that communitas brings people together but can also have a negative impact as it creates a rift in groups, or “cultures” in a society)

The reincorporation into society means that the individual is now in a more stable state and has assumed their new role in society along with their clearly defined rights and obligations that go with it (Turner, 1969: 95). I believe the reincorporation started taking place as soon as the worst of the grieving process was over, and the family could start settling in with their new routine. But I think that because this rite of passage was marked by a sudden loss, and of violent nature it doesn’t have a specific time for when the reincorporation ended (unlike what were told in the writings of Arnold van Gennep and Victor Turner) Because the loss of a life never stops altering yours. Thirteen years after her mother’s death I was born as my mothers first child, she’s told me over and over about how scared she was. That she believed not having a mother all her life meant that she didn’t have the knowledge to fulfill her own role as a mother, showing that the rite of passage she experienced has never truly solidified, its ever evolving, and it will always change how she acts in her role as a woman.

Power: A recurring theme in the readings, is about who holds the power during a ritual and how is it enforced in a rite of passage? In some rituals all the power and rights are stripped from the initiates, usually by the Elders or a Chief. But in other cases the ritual itself is given all the power and can even take it away from the ones who usually wield it, an example of this is form the Ndembu of Zambia in which their Chief has to sit in a posture of shame, while he’s washed with medicines in the ritual (Turner, 1969: .100). Another example of this is when a ‘system’ in a society is given the power. It’s perfectly described in ‘Waiting in liminal space: Migrants’ queuing for home affairs in South Africa’ here it talks about how people are left waiting for a visa (like being stuck in limbo/the transition) to go to a better country, and how those privileged enough to come from better places/situations get to become a citizen faster than the ones from “bad” countries (Sutton et al., 2011: 30). At first, I thought the priest at a funeral might have power over the ritual, as they are the ones who lead the funeral liturgy. But how can they have any type of power over the people at a funeral? They don’t make a difference in the situation, if a person is dead, they can’t do anything. I believe that in this rite of passage the only one with the power over life is Death.

At a funeral Death reminds us that it holds the power over the true rite of passage: Life. (This is a part in the rite of passage where I found it to be different from the writings of Victor Turner (1969), he believed that a rite of passage reinforces the power of the one conducting it, but its not true in every ritual).

In conclusion I believe Turner and van Gennep are right about what they define as a rite of passage, and that all three stages must take place for it to be one. But that every ritual is subjective, and that no two experiences, methods or outcomes have to be the same. This is also part of the reason why I chose my mothers rite of passage, her way of becoming a woman is not the most common one but its still a rite of passage (meets all the requirements) and the end goal, however sad, was reached.

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