Connecting with the Dead
Religious Studies professor Amy Allocco examines death rituals in non-elite Hindu communities.
Many in the general public, regardless of faith, are familiar with the Hindu concept of reincarnation, in which the soul is reborn in a new body after death. Though reincarnation is widely accepted as central to Hinduism, some castes practice vastly different death rituals that are often overlooked in the academic literature.
Amy Allocco, associate professor of religious studies, dedicated her sabbatical during the 2015-16 academic year to the study of invitation and installation rituals in middle- and lower-caste Hindu communities in South India. Her findings bring to light lesser-known death rites that involve calling the spirits of deceased relatives back into the world to possess and communicate with living kin. As they navigate the complications and uncertainties of modern life, family members regard their dead as family deities and call on them to provide help, protection and blessings.
Allocco’s project, which was supported by a Fulbright-Nehru Academic and Professional Excellence fellowship and a National Endowment for the Humanities/American Institute of Indian Studies senior fellowship, explores everyday, lived practices that are not always discussed in religious texts. She spent a year conducting ethnographic research, living alongside the Tamil people in South India and immersing herself in their traditions. She observed and recorded invitation and installation rituals as well as other ceremonies to honor the dead and conducted nearly 100 interviews with the family members, ritual musicians and priests involved.
Before the rituals began, she drew a family tree so she could keep track of which relatives were speaking through the living family member during the ceremony. Her fieldwork relies on fostering long-term relationships and building trust with her participants, who often share their personal family histories and current aspirations during the rituals and interviews.
All of my fieldwork is built on relationships. It’s not about scooping up data and moving on—my research is informed by incredibly important long-term relationships with communities and individuals. I think sharing this commitment with students inspires them to think differently about study abroad, and to approach travel more as a learner than as a tourist.
Allocco’s work also addresses how these rituals relate to gender, migration and urbanization. Many of the dead worshipped in these rituals are female, yet when a woman marries, she is only supposed to worship her husband’s dead family members and not her own. These rituals are also traditionally performed in the home, but migration and urbanization is forcing them into more public spaces. Many who practice invitation and installation rituals believe the dead must be called from a source of water like a lake or a well, which can’t be achieved in an urban apartment. The rituals’ migration into public spaces enabled Allocco to encounter and study them.
Her research significantly contributes to the literature on Hindu traditions because it directly challenges some of the prevailing beliefs about death in Hindu culture. It enriches the collective understanding of a key tradition in the Hindu faith – life cycle transition rites – and demonstrates the diversity of these traditions on an everyday level.
Allocco is also writing a book about her previous research project, which examined snake goddess traditions in South India and rituals intended to diminish the harmful effects of a condition in a person’s horoscope called “snake blemish,” believed to result in late marriage and infertility. She will next deliver a keynote presentation at a conference in Estonia about her invitation and installation ritual research, which she plans to turn into a journal article. She intends to return to India in January along with her Lumen Scholar, where they will each carry out follow-up ethnographic research.
Joined Elon's Faculty:
- Ph.D. in West and South Asian Religions from Emory University
- M.T.S. in South Asian Religions from Harvard University
- B.A. in Philosophy and Religion and Asian Studies from Colgate University
“Amid Flowers and Flames: Decorations for the Dead in Domestic Tamil Ritual,” The Annual Conference on South Asia, Madison, Wisconsin (2017)
“Transacting with the Dead: Social and Ritual Possibilities in Tamil South India,” Seventh South and Southeast Asian Association for the Study of Culture and Religion Conference, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (2017)
“‘Protect Us! Support Us! You Are Our Family Deity!’: Ritual Relationships with the Dead in Tamil South India,” keynote for “Deities, Spirits, and Demons in Vernacular Beliefs and Rituals in Asia” conference, University of Tartu, Estonia (2017)