Taboo on the dead

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The taboo on the dead includes the taboo against touching of the dead and those surrounding them; the taboo against mourners of the dead; and the taboo against anything associated with the dead.

The taboo on mourners[edit]

Among the Shuswaps of British Columbia widows and widowers in mourning are secluded and forbidden to touch their own head or body; the cups and cooking vessels which they use may be used by no one else. [...] No hunter would come near such mourners, for their presence is unlucky. If their shadow were to fall on anyone, he would be taken ill at once. They employ thorn-bushes for bed and pillow, in order to keep away the ghost of the deceased; and thorn bushes are also laid all around their beds.[1]

Among the Agutainos, who inhabit Palawan, the Philippines, a widow may not leave her hut for seven or eight days after the death; and even then she may only go out at an hour when is not likely to meet anybody, for whoever looks upon her dies a sudden death. To prevent this fatal catastrophe, the widow knocks with a wooden peg on the trees as she goes along, thus warning people of her dangerous proximity; and the very trees on which she knocks soon die."[2]

The taboo against naming the dead[edit]

A taboo against naming the dead is a kind of word taboo whereby the name of a recently deceased person, and any other words similar to it in sound, may not be uttered. It is observed by peoples from all over the world, including Australia,[3] Siberia, Southern India, the Sahara, and the Americas.[4]


Among the Guaycurus of Paraguay, when a death had taken place, the chief used to change the name of every member of the tribe; and from that moment everybody remembered his new name just as if he had borne it all his life.[5]

After a Yolngu man named Bitjingu died, the word bithiwul "no; nothing" was avoided.[6] In its place, a synonym or a loanword from another language would be used for a certain period, after which the original word could be used again; but in some cases the replacement word would continue to be used.

In some Australian Aboriginal cultural practices, the dead are not referred to by their name directly as a mark of respect. In Pitjantjatjara, for instance, it is common to refer to a recently deceased person as 'kunmanara', which means "what's his name". Often, the person's last name can still be used. The avoidance period may last anywhere from 12 months to several years, depending on how important or famous the person was. The person can still be referred to in a roundabout way, such as "that old lady" or by generic skin type but not by first name. Other reasons may include not making mockery of that person and keeping respect with regard to them.[3] For this reason, the names of many notable Aboriginal people were only recorded by Westerners and may have been incorrectly transliterated.


The Maasai of East Africa resort to the device of changing the dead person's name immediately after their death; the person may then be mentioned freely under the new name while all the restrictions remain attached to the old one. They assume that the dead person will not know their new name, and so will not answer to it when hearing it pronounced.[7]

Among the Kaurna and Ramindjeri tribes of South Australia, the repugnance to mentioning the names of those who have died lately is carried so far that persons who bear the same name as the deceased abandon it, and either adopt temporary names or are known by any others that happen to belong to them.[8]


The taboo had been enforced with extreme severity in some cultures.

Among the Guajiro of Colombia to mention the dead before their kin is a dreadful offence, which is often punished with death; for if it happens on the rancho of the deceased, in presence of a nephew or uncle, they will assuredly kill the offender on the spot if they can. But if they escape, the penalty resolves itself into a heavy fine, usually of two or more oxen.[9]

Effects on language[edit]

R. M. W. Dixon has suggested, in reference to Australian Aboriginal languages, that the substitution of loanwords for tabooed words results in significant vocabulary replacement, hindering the application of the comparative method.[6] Other linguists find the effects of the taboo on vocabulary replacement to be insignificant.[10][11][12]

Goddard (1979) also suggests upon finding evidence of name-taboos of the deceased in Tonkawa similar to Australian languages, the languages of the North American Southeast may have resisted classification into language families so far due in part to vocabulary replacement (in addition to their already sparse documentation).

Origins and causes[edit]

Sigmund Freud explains that the fundamental reason for the existence of such taboos is the fear of the presence or of the return of the dead person's ghost. It is exactly this fear that leads to a great number of ceremonies aimed at keeping the ghost at a distance or driving him off.[13]

The Tuaregs of the Sahara, for example, dread the return of the dead man's spirit so much that "[they] do all they can to avoid it by shifting their camp after a death, ceasing for ever to pronounce the name of the departed, and eschewing everything that might be regarded as an evocation or recall of his soul. Hence they do not, like the Arabs, designate individuals by adding to their personal names the names of their fathers. [...] they give to every man a name which will live and die with him."[4] In many cases the taboo remains intact until the body of the dead has completely decayed,[14] but until then the community must disguise itself so that the ghost shall not recognize them. For example, the Nicobar Islanders try to disguise themselves by shaving their heads.[15]

Psychologist Wilhelm Wundt associates the taboo to a fear that the dead man's soul has become a demon.[16] Moreover, many cases show a hostility toward the dead and their representation as malevolent figures.[17] Edward Westermarck notes that "Death is commonly regarded as the gravest of all misfortunes; hence the dead are believed to be exceedingly dissatisfied with their fate [...] such a death naturally tends to make the soul revengeful and ill-tempered. It is envious of the living and is longing for the company of its old friend."[18]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Frazer (1990, 142), quoting Boas (1890 [643f.]).
  2. ^ Frazer (1990, 144), quoting Blumentritt (1891, 182).
  3. ^ a b McGrath, Pam; Phillips, Emma (2008). "Australian findings on Aboriginal cultural practices associated with clothing, hair, possessions and use of name of deceased persons". International Journal of Nursing Practice. 14 (1): 57–66. doi:10.1111/j.1440-172X.2007.00667.x. PMID 18190485.
  4. ^ a b Frazer (1922, 3).
  5. ^ Frazer (1990, 357).
  6. ^ a b Dixon (2002, 27).
  7. ^ Frazer (1990, 354–355).
  8. ^ Frazer (1922, 4).
  9. ^ Frazer (1922, 2).
  10. ^ Alpher & Nash (1991)
  11. ^ Evans (June 2005, 258–261).
  12. ^ McGregor (2004, 34).
  13. ^ Freud (1950, 57).
  14. ^ Freud (1990, 372).
  15. ^ Frazer (1922, 5).
  16. ^ Freud (1950, 58), quoting Wundt (1906, 49).
  17. ^ Freud (1950, 58).
  18. ^ Freud (1950, 59), quoting Westermarck (1906–8, 2, 534f.).