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Understanding mortality and the life of the ancestors in rural Madagascar

Astuti, Rita ORCID: 0000-0002-8399-0753 and Harris, Paul L. (2008) Understanding mortality and the life of the ancestors in rural Madagascar. Cognitive Science, 32 (4). pp. 713-740. ISSN 0364-0213

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Identification Number: 10.1080/03640210802066907


Across two studies, a wide age range of participants was interviewed about the nature of death. All participants were living in rural Madagascar in a community where ancestral beliefs and practices are widespread. In Study 1, children (8–17 years) and adults (19–71 years) were asked whether bodily and mental processes continue after death. The death in question was presented in the context of a narrative that focused either on the corpse or on the ancestral practices associated with the afterlife. Participants aged 8 years and older claimed that death brings an end to most bodily and mental processes. Nevertheless, particularly in the context of the religious narrative, they claimed that certain mental processes continue even after death. This assertion of an afterlife was more evident among adults than children, especially with respect to cognitive processes, such as knowing and remembering. In Study 2, 5- and 7-year-olds were asked similar questions in connection with the death of a bird and a person. Seven-year-olds consistently claimed that bodily and mental processes cease at death, whereas 5-year-olds were unsystematic in their replies. Together, the two studies replicate and extend findings obtained with Western children showing that, in the course of development, different conceptions of death are elaborated—a biological conception in which death terminates living processes and a religious conception in which death marks the beginning of a new form of spiritual existence.

Item Type: Article
Official URL:
Additional Information: © 2008 Cognitive Science Society
Divisions: Anthropology
Subjects: G Geography. Anthropology. Recreation > GR Folklore
G Geography. Anthropology. Recreation > GN Anthropology
D History General and Old World > DT Africa
G Geography. Anthropology. Recreation > GT Manners and customs
Date Deposited: 18 Nov 2008 15:42
Last Modified: 20 Sep 2021 00:45

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