Death and Eternal Life: contrasting sensibilities in the face of corpses

Michael Roberts, 29 June 2011

When inserting Kalana Senaratne’s essay on “Killing Fields: Problems and Prospects” into my web site[1] I took the liberty of placing two photographs at the masthead, both centred on corpses from Eelam War IV (though one turned out to be an LTTE agit-prop trick utilizing dead bodies from a suicide strike at Anuradhapura). This measure was in keeping with Senaratne’s topic on the one hand and a market ploy on the other. One of the pictures was derived from web sites attached to the Tamil nationalist cause associated with the LTTE and seemed to display the horrible outcome of government shelling during the last stages of the war.[2] It is the type of image that would raise the hackles of both government apologists and Sinhala chauvinists. The other image, however, would anger Tiger supporters because it not only displayed the dead body of their talaivar, Pirapāharan, but also presented him in barren nudity, except for loin cloth.

 Pirapāharan after he was shot

 Karuna & Daya Master view Pirapāharan in sombre manner in identifying his corpse positiviely

It is not these likely reactions that interest me. Rather, my interest is in the distaste with which some people may regard this presentation, that is, their sensitivity to the reality of sudden and horrible death. Note that when Channel Four presented its blood and gore in the documentary (so-called) Killing Fields, it paved the way by a careful legitimization of its act.[3] That such an act of justification was deemed necessary is significant. It would not have entered the thoughts of an eighteenth century European publisher, if one is to rely on such works as Foucault’s Discipline and Punish besides more mundane history books. So this is a form of sensibility that is a product of “modernization” and the “civilizing process.”[4] It is also a form of sensibility, I suggest, that reposes today mostly in the West, though there are articulate voices in Sri Lanka informed by similar doctrines.

The “civilizing process” is a concept rendered familiar by the title of Norbert Elias’s famous book (1939) and marks the transformation of European society from medieval to modern. When linked to the arguments in Discipline and Punish (1977) relating to the major transformations in the way criminals and murderers were punished between the late eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries, we are moved into a consideration of significant differences between medieval life ways and modern life ways in the West.

Guided by his familiarity with English literary works, such as “The Unquiet Grave,” Godfrey Gunatilleke reminded me that “low life expectancy and high child and infant mortality rates [in medieval times] ensured that death was a frequent household visitor.” This meant that medieval European people grew up with an “intimate knowledge of death and dying of others around them;” and developed rituals of burial and mourning.”[5] What interests me here, however, is the modern West where there is an aversion to the sight and mention of death. Writing from within this Western space, the Swiss psychiatrist and scholar, Elizabeth Kübler-Ross put it succinctly: “It is difficult to accept death in this society because it is unfamiliar. In spite of the fact that it happens all the time, we never see it.”[6]

The focus here is on the broad contrast between the Modern West and the Rest, with the latter further narrowed to Sri Lankans an entry point for the non-West or Rest. I suggest, in broad generalization, with all the caveats attached to such generalizations, that this type of sensibility does not prevail as a dominant force in the Middle East and Asia. This is not because the latter spaces and its peoples are any less civilized, but because they are differently civilized. In broad sweep I suggest that they do not shy away from death, sanitize death, shroud corpses and refuse confrontation with a corpse and one’s mortality to the same degree as those in the West in recent times are wont to do.[7] The further suggestion is that the modernized and “civilized” West today is so immersed in its work of creating Eternal Life[8] that the disgust and shutting of eyes arising from the display of dead bodies is doubly magnified.

The issues I raise here focus on the “cultural conditioning” of people in these respective lands. More specifically, I am marking the concept of habitus deployed in different ways by such scholars as Norbert Elias, Marcel Mauss, Pierre Bourdieu and Loic Waquant, namely, the set of socially learnt dispositions and ways of acting that are often taken for granted — practices acquired through the experiences of everyday life.[9]

The Sri Lankan contrast with the Western ways of seeing and being has been brought home to me through exposure to life in the West. More recently, it was evoked by the drama surrounding the assassination of Osama bin Laden and the measured decision by President Obama not to display bin Laden’s disfigured body, an issue addressed in my article “Gruesome Bodies: Osama, Pirapāharan, Wijeweera.”[10] Photographs of Osama’s body were viewed by Obama himself and some high-ranking members of the administration for the practical purpose of establishing certainty that they had killed the right man. Having taken that step, they did not move further to display the body to the whole world in the manner of the Sri Lankan government with Pirapāharan’s corpse.

Since incorrigible cynics in the North American circuit would never be persuaded, Obama and his advisors felt that there was no point in a public display. But why, more fundamentally, was this form of theatre avoided? Obama told his people, the American people (and thus the world because what USA hears the world hears), that the disfigured face was “too gruesome to display” and that such a display was avoided because it would “inflame anti-American sentiment.”[11]

Thus, two reasons were explicitly emphasised. My interest is in the sentiments driving Reason One. In this reasoning mutilated bodies, even those of hated enemies, were not for seeing. Obama and his advisors were informed here by the sentiments and emotions of the educated middle class, those who stand forth as the epitome of civilisation. It was not proper to display a mutilated face. That would be against etiquette, sheer bad form.

One can take it that Obama, consummate American politician that he is, knows how to read his public and that this was good constituency politics both within USA and in relation to the European world that he was also addressing (for is that not what “international community,” that term so dear to human rights advocates addressing Sri Lanka, means?). But does he know how to read Arabs, Iranians, Chinese, Japanese, Malaysians, Thai, Vietnamese, Lankans, Bengalis et cetera? Does this understanding, that a mutilated body, however infamous, is much too horrible a phenomenon to view, hold true for these non-Western peoples? Since my expertise in the culture of the Middle East, South East Asia, East Asia and India is limited,[12] the exploration of this conditioning process within the non-West will be for the most part through my knowledge of Sri Lanka.

Let me present two contrasting scenarios in these respective contexts, West and Sri Lanka, interpreted in broad sweeping generalization subject to the qualifications associated with any such survey.

Scenario A: how do people in the West and Sri Lanka treat the body of a cyclist or pedestrian who has died in a road accident and lies in all its inert force in the open visible to passers-by? My understanding from a range of informants in the West today is that the corpse would be immediately shrouded by some cloth or screen, being thereby respected, but also kept out of chilling sight for those living. Though I have no recent experiences from Sri Lanka and am subject to correction, I suggest that there would be less alacrity towards such action in Sri Lanka; and that some people would go out of their way to gaze at the scene (as I did way back in 1958-59 as a young undergraduate when the train down to Colombo was halted by a man who placed his head on the track as means of suicide [13]).

As further anecdotal illustration I cite the example of a photograph which Paul Alexander, an anthropologist who had undertaken fieldwork in the Sri Lanka, had pinned on his desk in Sydney: it showed two bodies on the ground in some street in the Matara locality with two policemen nearby and a mass of people in the surrounds. When I sat down and saw the photo pinned on the wall next to me, I looked at it and said “A murder” – reading it immediately as the depiction of a man killed and the other body as that of a woman (logically a kinswoman or spouse) rolling on the ground in grief.[14] Now, the point here is that this was a photograph that had stymied the Australians, including anthropologists, who had sat in the same chair.

Take another incident that is of wider import, an illustration referred to in my previous article. One morning in the late 1960s I emerged on my scooter unto the main Peradeniya-Kandy road on my way to work and there, I saw the mangled body of a young Muslim boy under the wheel of a bus. When I returned for lunch at noon the corpse was still there under the same wheel. The bloody image remains indelible in my mind’s eye (and please do not conclude that it was “traumatic”).

Scenario B: what is the conventional practice in the viewing respect accorded to a good friend or kinsperson who has died? Do many people see the dead body in the course of paying their respects? And as an additional query can we provide an approximate statistic on how many dead bodies a thirty-year old person today in the West would have viewed as a result of this practice and how many bodies a 30-year old in Sri Lanka (excluding the theatres of war and insurgency) would have viewed?

Beginning with the tangential background statistic that I have sought, it would be fair to conjecture that, on average, the Sri Lankan thirty-year olds would have attended far more funerals because of the conventions guiding such practice. Thus, as teenagers they would have visited the homes of any classmate whose elder kin had died. As a young lecturer at Peradeniya I joined others in a bus to go some distance for the funeral of a departmental colleague’s father; and, on another occasion, to the funeral home of a young lecturer in another department whom I knew as acquaintance and who had died of cancer tragically young. Such visitations can be prolonged. Though I did not stay long at the funeral home off Colombo when one of my former historian colleagues, Tikiri Banda Abeyasinghe, died, I discovered that many other friends were far more dedicated and had remained in the household where the body lay for viewing for the best part of the day and sometimes the day before as well.

President Rajapaksa viewing the bodies of those killed at the Kebithigollewa massacre  carried out by the LTTE on June 15, 2006 when 60 people were killed as a result of claymore attack on a bus.

Jenny, a Tiger fighter who sacrificed her life by killing herself in the face of capture in 2008, thereby adhering to her oath of induction and becoming a maaveerar (“martyr”)

These practices are sustained by the influence of both the great religions that have shaped the island’s history for many centuries. In Hinduism life and death are two sides of the same coin and it is believed that “life is born out of death;”[15] so that “death is necessarily sacrificial, because, without it, no life can happen.”[16] Again, Buddhism presents life as suffering, dukkha, and encourages meditation and direction from this overwhelming fact. Even Christians in Sri Lanka are informed by this pervasive way of being,[17] the result of osmosis and cross-fertilisation in religious activity. The standard act of devotion to the Buddha and the Dhamma involves a devotee placing some flowers, usually araliya mal, at the feet of a statue or shrine and uttering words that acknowledge that their own bodies would wither away like the flower.

Indeed, Senaratne has reminded me that “Buddhism even encourages meditation on a dead corpse, with a view to furthering the realization of the true nature of suffering and impermanence of the body” and that the “very observation of [a] dead body should ideally be a meditative exercise on impermanence of the body.”[18] Obviously, the Buddhist belief in many births and in samsāra as a cycle of birth, death and rebirth influences the prevalence of such a perspective.  It is through such beliefs and a range of conventional practices, arguably, that a habitus of equanimity towards corpses has been nourished.

I use the term “nourishment” in considered fashion to indicate that we are not talking of insensitivity or primitive medievalism here. The contrast with the average Westerner’s exposure to the remains of friends/kin requires underlining. Inspired by a conversation with Helmut Kuzmics, I also mark the additional influence in contemporary times in the West of what he calls the drive towards Eternal Life. In his view this trend is a more recent development and the consequence of twentieth-century urban life because “the dead could be mourned publicly in the room in which they had died” till recent times in Europe.[19]

In Kuzmics’s understanding the remarkable achievements secured by medical science in beating disease[20] and promoting longevity have been a central force in this quest for endless life. These medical advancements are a great triumph. But they cannot deny mortality by natural decay; so that, sometimes, longevity is secured at the heavy price of awful suffering during the last stages of decay. Since my father and two sisters lived into the 90s, but endured wrenching pain during their last months I am only too conscious of this outcome.

It is towards the encouragement of reflexivity and an understanding of cultural difference that I presented the images in Senaratne’s entry. It is for the same reason that I have now backed it up with this exploration.

Postface: Velupillai Pirapāharan was not shot in the head as Pirapāharan, but as a Tiger soldier out there in dense swamp terrain. When the several photographs of his head and body were shown initially in May 2009, there were a few in Sri Lanka who suggested that he had been executed. A source with army links suggested to me that it was a sniper shot. But somewhere along the line (I forget where) I picked up the critical information that his body was found in the swamp areas bordering the western waterline of the Nandikadal Lagoon. To my thinking this ruled out a sniper shot and suggested that he was killed in some fire fight. Further, and critically, I surmised to myself that those army men behind the shooting would have been unaware that he was Pirapāharan; rather, that he was just another Tiger in a group of Tigers which included many LTTE leaders seeking to escape and fight another day. It was for this reason that I retrieved photographs of the swamp area from the Ministry of Defence web site and inserted two in my anthology Fire and Storm (Colombo, Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2010).[21]

This speculation on my part has recently been confirmed in an article by WLD Mahindapala which also displays images of the swamp area and vicinity.[22] Mahindapala is a government apologist and to my thinking a Sinhala chauvinist (I have been castigated by him in the past). But it is precisely this circumstance and his high-level connections that enabled him to gain entry to the specific locale of this last battle in the company of Lt. Col. Rohitha Aluvihare, Commanding Officer of the 4th Battalion of the Vijaya Infantry Regiment, the unit involved in this specific struggle. This fight had initially occurred in the dead of night between 3.30 and 6.30 a. m on the 18th May morning after a platoon led by Sgt Bandara had been surprised and nearly overwhelmed by this Tiger contingent’s move out of their last redoubt. Reinforcements and heavy fire had then been mounted against the area. The shooting is said to have lasted till 11.00 a.m. that 18th day, with the army losing 4 men and having 4 others injured. Later that day the army sent commandoes into the swamp area for a clearing operation, one that included the recovery of bodies.[23] This task had continued the next morning, that is, on the 19th May. The army men were suddenly confronted by a number of Tigers who had remained hidden. It was when this Tiger unit had been overcome that they discovered Pirapāharan’s body, with his probable identity being indicated by his identity card and a tag marked 001.

Final confirmation of this identification was reached by bringing the former LTTE Colonel, Karuna, as well as Daya Master, one of the political chiefs in the LTTE regime,[24] to the locality where Pirapāharan’s body had been laid out. The body had been stripped of clothes for this pragmatic task of identification. That is understandable. Pathologists examine bodies in their natural state. Even films of forensic science investigations, such as Waking the Dead, evoke realism by showing corpses stark nude with pubic hair on show (unlike Channel Four’s prurience[25]).

However, the question that arises at this point is the same as that which faced President Obama. Did President Rajapaksa and his advisors have to display body and face in their lurid state to the whole world through media outlets?

As I have argued in my previous essay, one did not need to be a rocket scientist to conclude that Rajapaksa’s regime would gain considerable popularity in the Sinhala-speaking world at home and abroad by revealing this final nail in the LTTE military coffin. So, for him, it was good populist politics, besides being a pragmatic way of confirming to everyone everywhere that Pirapāharan had been killed.[26] However, the further point to note is that issues of sensibility would not have arisen because the habitus of most Sri Lankans precluded them from reading the world in this manner and seeing the disfigured head as a repulsive sight. After all, when President Premadasa was decimated by a LTTE suicide bomber on May Day in 1993, his remains in the form of corpse charred to cinder were displayed in all the newspapers, including government-run ones. This, too, was probably good politics because it served to present the LTTE as a terrible force. But conditioning such practices is the fact that to most Sri Lankans death in whatever form is an integral part of this world of suffering, a universe where pain is mixed with pleasure. The contrast with much of Western society today is stark: “It is difficult to accept death in this society because it is unfamiliar. In spite of the fact that it happens all the time, we never see it” (Elizabeth Kübler-Ross)


Bishop, Stephanie 2006 Review of Pat Jalland’s Changing Way of Death in Twentieth Century Australia, Network Review of Books online.

Bourdieu, Pierre1977 Outline of a Theory of Practice,CambridgeUniversity Press.

Bourdieu, Pierre and Loïc J. D. Wacquant 1992 An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology, TheUniversity ofChicago Press.

Bowker, John 1991 The Meaning of Death,Cambridge,CambridgeUniversity Press.

Elias, Norbert 2000 The Civilizing Process,Oxford, Blackwell. [Orig. 1939].

Foucault, Michel 1977 Discipline and Punish. The Birth of the Prison,New York, Pantheon.

Frank, Arthur, 2010 Review of “Loneliness of the Dying” by N. Elias in Canadian Journal of   Sociology,

Gill, A. A. 2011 “Channel Four’s Shoddy Sensationalism exposed,” world/sri-lanka/TRTFUQMJ6JFOM7CKS.

Mauss, Marcel. 1934. “Les Techniques du corps,” Journal de Psychologie 32 (3-4).

Roberts, Michael 2007 “Suicide Missions as Witnessing: Expansions, Contrasts,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 30:  857-88.

Roberts, Michael 2010 “Sacrificial Devotion in Comparative Scope: Kamikaze, Mujahid, Tiger,” in Roberts, Fire and Storm. Essays in Sri Lankan Politics,Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications, pp. 132-39.

Roberts, Michael & Arthur Saniotis 2006 “Empowering the Body and Noble Death,” Social Analysis 50: 7-24.

Shulman, David 1980 Tamil Temple Myths: Sacrifice and Divine Marriage in the South Indian Saiva Tradition, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 

 Stirrat, R. L. 1992 Power and Religiosity in a Post-colonial Setting. Sinhala Catholics in Contemporary Sri Lanka, Cambridge University Press.

[2] It has since been proven that this image displays persons killed in an LTTE bomb attack on Janaka Perera atAnuradhapura though it was sent to me by some Tamil propagandist as an example of a government atrocity. However, a visit to in the fist five months of 2009 will reveal other propaganda images, some of which are probably authentic.

[4] Note, here, the pertinence in various ways of the book, The Civilizing Process by Norbert Elias.

[5] Email communication from Gunatilleke, 27 June 2011.

[6] I am indebted to Gunatilleke for this quotation. Kubler-Ross was a psychiatrist and a pioneer in near-death studies who authored On Death and Dying (1969).

[7] So, too, those Lankans, Indians, Arabs, Iranians and others who are thoroughly Westernised.

[8] My thanks to Helmut Kuzmics for this idea (see text below for elaboration).

[9] See Elias, 1939; Mauss 1934;  Bourdieu  1977; Bourdieu & Wacquant 1992.

[12] As a caveat let me note that I have worked on “communal violence” inIndia and pursued research on sacrificial devotion inIndia,Japan and theMiddle East through secondary reading and conversations with such specialists as Riaz Hassan, David Cook, Brian Victoria and Shoko Yoneyama. See Roberts & Saniotis 2006; Roberts 2007 & 2010 as well as my other web site

[13] Also note the example of bus ‘pilgrimages’ to the mountain ranges around Mousakelle to view the remains of a KLM plane  that crashed there at some point in the early 1970s ( 05/10/gruesome-bodies-osama-pirapaharan-wijeweera/).

[14] Alexander laughed and said “you are the first person to read that picture.” He stressed that Australian visitors had been puzzled. This difference, then, was the outcome of cultural conditioning.

[15] David Shulman 1980: 90.

[16] Bowker 1991: 157–158.

[17] R. L. Stirrat, Power and Religiosity in a Post-colonial Setting. Sinhala Catholics in Contemporary Sri Lanka,CambridgeUniversity Press, 1992.

[18] Email from Senaratne, 27 June 2011.

[19] Email from Kuzmics, 27 June 2011.

[20] Pat Jalland’s work, it seems, also stresses this important, if obvious, fact (Bishop 2006); but Jalland’s argument that Australians have moved from “a state of death denial to a greater acceptance of both dying and bereavement” (Bishop 2006) seems to go against the contention postulated by Kuzmics.

[21] They have been given the caption “Pirapāharan’s last homeland.”

[22] Mahindapala, “No peace offering from Prabhakaran – only war,” in The Island 11 June 2011 and http://

[23] It was, perhaps, because they thought the battle was over that Murali Reddy and Kanchan Prasad left the last redoubt on the 18th May and then returned to Colombo on the 19th – thereby missing the recovery and identification of Pirapāharan’s corpse. However, see images of the last redoubt.

[24] Daya Master, in fact, had been in the last redoubt till 19-23 April when the army rescued some 120,000 Tamil civilians and LTTE fighters who streamed across Nandikadal Lagoon in their thousands.

[25] Note Gill’s sharp commentary on this pointing Gill 2010.

[26] In actual fact some Tamils (mostly abroad?) continued to deny his demise. One Tamil web site thought they were clever in concocting a photograph of Pirapāharan seated in a chair and reading a newspaper, bearing a date in late May or thereabouts, looking with glee at a television screen with images of government ministers. Since the dead Pirapāharan could not reveal himself in subsequent weeks and no one could produce him, this short-term gimmick was quite imbecile. It suggests that the psy-ops technicians behind it were still convinced he was alive.


Filed under cultural transmission, historical interpretation, life stories, LTTE, Rajapaksa regime, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, suicide bombing, world events & processes

49 responses to “Death and Eternal Life: contrasting sensibilities in the face of corpses

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  2. padraigcolman

    From an early age I was conscious of death. Sister Theresa kept telling us eight-year-olds: “The only thing certain in this life is that you are going to die”.

    Check this out:

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  49. John Richardson

    For sharing this richly textured, many faceted contribution. You took your task seriously even though you knew your reflections would be, for many intermingled with ones daily email regimen. I think this to be a contribution that would be worth saving and a format that lends itself more readily to future pondering reflection and publication.

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