The Past as a Burden: Washers of the Dead between Merit and Stigma

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Abstract

In some parts of southwestern Central Asia, washing the deceased before burial was (and to some extent still is) traditionally undertaken by professional corpse washers, a low-status, marginalized group. Against the backdrop of a popular recourse to tradition and the past in these countries as a resource for identity formation after the demise of the Soviet Union, this article asks how people whose collective memory of the past does not fit in neatly with the current representation of a harmonic precolonial society negotiate their status in society. Historically, corpse washers formed endogamous groups in many larger Central Asian cities and were considered ritually polluting by the majority population. They were and are at the same time perceived as people with special powers who inhabit a liminal space between life and death. Corpse washers lived in their own residential quarters apart from other inhabitants and both parties followed certain rules of avoidance. Soviet policy officially abolished their stigmatization and discrimination. New professional pathways opened up and many corpse washers left their former profession and their living quarters to settle elsewhere. Today, corpse washers have to adopt new ways of justifying why they stick to a profession considered to be impure and base although alternatives are available. Representations of the profession as meritorious and God-sent sometimes
come into conflict with modernist, scripturalist interpretations of Islam that oppose traditional Central Asian burial customs
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)51-72
JournalAsien. The German Journal on Contemporary Asia
Volume129
Publication statusPublished - 2013

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