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Why are funerary feasts important to the society/community?

What are the archaeological signatures of such feasting?

Illustrate your essay with specific examples from the historical, ethnographical and archaeological record to support your argument.

A funerary feast is any meal partaken with others before, at, or after burial; these feasts are often elaborate and prolonged affairs, providing an occasion to demonstrate extravagance and gluttony (Hastings, 2003: 803). Funerary feasts have persevered throughout the course of history around the world. Upon excavating the site of funeral feasts in Kerch [Ukraine], fragments of kylikes pottery dating back to 480-460BC, a painted askos from 400-375BC and a large fish-plate were found (Zinko in Tsetskhladze, 2001: 295). Animal bones in the forecourts of megalithic tombs in Western Europe indicate funerary feasting (McIntosh, 2006: 274); and in central and north-east England, scattered animal bones and broken pots at the timber façade of earthen barrows containing corpses suggest feasting (Dyer, 1997: 40-41).

Eating in general has a sacramental aspect - food is presented to the gods, the hearth used for preparing food is regarded as the seat of the ancestral spirit, and the partaking of a meal with others creates a bond amongst the people that is also shared with the gods (Hastings, 2003: 801). Furthermore, food has been identified as one of the primary spheres of social interaction (Bray, 2003: 9) and as a core source of deriving one's own identity as a social being (ibid.: 3). For example, for the hill tribes in Southeast Asia, ostentatious feasting reaffirms the social status of the dead and of his/her heirs (Kirsch, 1973: 15). Bray (2003: 9) highlights that food practices were an important feature of political strategies of early states, as well as a method of promoting allegiance and class distinction. Essentially, the act of sharing a meal is the epitome of 'commensal politics', whereby food and feasting are used to negotiate identity and power (Bray, 2003: 9). Taking the historical aspect of food-sharing in conjunction with ethnographical conduct towards the dead, the concept of the 'funerary feast' adopts a magnitude of significance. This essay explores historical, ethnographical and archaeological records to outline the importance of funerary feasting to the community.

Pearson (in Spriggs, 1984: 64) points out that the key aspect to studying the 'funerary feast' is that the dead do not bury themselves, hence the "pomp and ceremony" connected to the feast will reflect on the surviving relatives, and therefore it is their decision whether or not to use the funeral as a "platform for acting out the social beliefs which they believe in". For example, a king can be buried as a commoner to demonstrate that all men are equal before the deities, as was done in Saudi Arabia (ibid.). A more modern example is that a person may stipulate his burial wishes and bequeathed possessions in his will, but his family may choose not to follow them.

The irony inherent in the funerary feast is that all of the lavishness is done in the name of deceased individuals, who are incapable of conveying gratitude or reciprocating such displays for the ones who undertake the expense. Therein lies the essence of the funerary feast - if the dead cannot bear witness, then who is the feast for? It can be argued that the feast has very little to do with the dead, and much more to do with the community involved with the event. Hayden (2001: 3) draws a parallel between funerary feasting and ecology: ostentatious displays such as moose antlers, peacock tails and a fish's bright colours are disparate from subsistence purposes, and used solely to impress other animals for either mating or alliance purposes; similarly, the goal of ostentatious funerary feasting is the same: to attract other individuals into "relationships… beneficial to those with the displays". In conclusion, the funerary feast is much more than the superficial notion of honouring the dead. Any funeral, and the accompanying festivities, immediately summons an added quality of power: the power of the survivors to choose how to treat the dead, and the power of the deceased's family to use the event to manipulate public emotion in their favour.

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