This panel will seek to examine materiality as a constitutive aspect of self, namely, through the lens of death. The question we will be specifically raising is how to relate the materiality of death practices and traditions to understandings of personhood in Afro-Caribbean religions.
Anthropologists such as Maurice Bloch (1988) remind us that our ethnographic difficulties in grappling with themes relating to death in the different societies we study may owe more to Western 'punctual' understandings of death than to problems of translation. Underlying concepts of death and dying are not just specific views of growth, demise and renovation, but assumptions regarding the nature and constitution of persons. While in societies dominated by a notion of a self-enclosed individual the barrier between life and death is unambiguous, in others this separation is softened by radically alternative understandings of the person and the distribution of his or her agency in space and time. In this panel we are interested in examining the role of the material culture of death in expressing, mediating, and creating forms of personhood that subvert life/death boundaries, particularly in religious practices associated with African influences, such as Candomblé, Santería, and Vodoun. In many forms of Afro-Caribbean religion the category of 'death' or 'the dead' already implies a life, of sorts. The spirits of the deceased may be remembered and cared for via the manipulation of certain objects, representations or gifts, but may also become 'materialized' in and through these objects, gaining in presence or potency in the process. Matter is, to many such practitioners, creative of spirit forms, not simply reflective of them, which invites us to question purely representationalist views of the death 'object'.