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Book: Religion and Touch

Chapter: 10. Religion, Touch and Death; Ritual and the Human Corpse

DOI: 10.1558/equinox.42178


Eve Sedgwick in Touching Feeling (2003) states that touch provides understanding, and this chapter premises the notion that in regard to death, touch helps the living understand that someone has become a lifeless corpse. Death is perhaps the biggest challenge the living have to face and whilst touching the dead can be highly problematic in some cultures, it is not so in others, and how different religions deal with the dead is the subject of this chapter. The dead are religiously ambiguous; physically gone yet often spiritually still sentient, and as such a huge variety of rituals have developed to help the living cope with this ambiguity. To explore the ambiguity of the dead, and socio-religious norms of death, this chapter explores some theories around death before moving to examine a range of religious traditions and spiritual lifeways from a variety of time periods, to provide an overview of death and touch. The chapter is arranged into three sections. The first section explores touch and the wet corpse (the still enfleshed dead) in the context of a socially-good death (i.e.: end of natural life); the second section explores touch and the wet corpse in the context of a socially-bad death (i.e.: death from disease, suicide, murder); and thirdly section explores contact with the dry skeletal remains of the human body.

Chapter Contributors

  • Christina Welch ( - christina_welch) 'University of Winchester'