'A Fundamental Part of Being Human' - UConn Expert on the Ritual of Caring for the Dead

'A Fundamental Part of Being Human' - UConn Expert on the Ritual of Caring for the Dead

April 28, 20222 min read

The War in Ukraine has brought images of death and mourning onto screens across the globe and directly into public consciousness. 

Funerary rights, explains UConn expert Dimitris Xygalatas, are among the traits that archeologists find distinguishing between humans and other species. While ostensibly those rituals are about the dead, their importance, he writes in a new essay published in The Conversation, lies in the roles they play for those still living:

They allow them to grieve, seek comfort, face the reality of death and find the strength to move on. They are deeply human acts, which is why being deprived of them can feel devastating and dehumanizing.

This is what is happening in Ukraine.

In besieged cities, people cannot retrieve the bodies of their loves ones from the streets out of fear of being killed. In other cases, Ukrainian officials have accused the Russian army of burying victims in mass graves to hide war crimes. Even when they are retrieved, many of the corpses have been mutilated, making them difficult to identify. To people who have lost their loved ones, the lack of a proper send-off can feel like a second loss.

The need for closure is widely recognized to be indispensable – not only by anthropologists and psychologists, but also first responders, governments and international organizations. This is why armies go to great lengths to return the remains of fallen soldiers to their families, even if that takes decades.

The right to a burial is acknowledged even for one’s foes. The Geneva Convention stipulates that belligerents must ensure that the bodies of enemies are “honorably interred” and that their graves are respected and “properly maintained and marked so that they may always be found.”

Given the importance of those rites, it is also striking that the Russian defense ministry has reportedly been reluctant to bring their own dead back home, because they are concerned with covering up the scale of the losses. This seeming indifference to the suffering of Russia’s own people and their need for closure may be yet another act of dehumanization.

Professor Xygalatas is an anthropologist and cognitive scientist at the University of Connecticut who specializes in some of the things that make us human, including ritual, music, cooperation, and the interaction between cognition and culture.

He is available to speak with media, simply click on his icon to arrange an interview today.

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  • Dimitris  Xygalatas, Ph.D.
    Dimitris Xygalatas, Ph.D. Assistant Professor, Anthropology

    Dr. Xygalatas' research focuses on ritual, sports, bonding, and the things that make us human.

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