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Subject to Death

Life and Loss in a Buddhist World

If any anthropologist living today can illuminate our dim understanding of death’s enigma, it is Robert Desjarlais. With Subject to Death, Desjarlais provides an intimate, philosophical account of death and mourning practices among Hyolmo Buddhists, an ethnically Tibetan Buddhist people from Nepal. He studies the death preparations of the Hyolmo, their specific rituals of grieving, and the practices they use to heal the psychological trauma of loss. Desjarlais’s research marks a major advance in the ethnographic study of death, dying, and grief, one with broad implications. Ethnologically nuanced, beautifully written, and twenty-five years in the making, Subject to Death is an insightful study of how fundamental aspects of human existence—identity, memory, agency, longing, bodiliness—are enacted and eventually dissolved through social and communicative practices.

304 pages | 39 halftones, 1 table | 6 x 9 | © 2016

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

Asian Studies: General Asian Studies

Religion: Religion and Society, South and East Asian Religions


"A detailed, insightful, and at times moving ethnography of rituals around death and dying among ethnically Tibetan Hyolmo Buddhists in Nepal. Desjarlais provides rich descriptions of the Hyolmo's multistage approach to dying, from the prayers and presence of lamas around a dying individual to help the person leave the world without any attachments to the construction of the funeral pyre and search for sacred relics or images among the bones. As he describes each stage of this intricate rite, Desjarlais reflects on the meaning of the ritual, which connects individuals facing loss to universal human emotions. In addition, he looks at the ways in which the rites and rituals around dying reflect the Buddhist world view of impermanence and rebirth. This balance between attention to the particular and reflection on the universal is what makes this book so rich."


"Desjarlais’s Subject to Death is like stepping onto a train already in motion. Its momentum isn’t fierce but there’s no time to ease in––from its first pages, as readers we find ourselves in the midst of death and life and loss as they take and are given form. At the risk of overusing the term, there is great care in this book...not owing to an expected attitude or comportment towards life and death, but attending to what is required by the invitation Desjarlais makes to readers, made between author and subject and reader, as we are brought into a conversation rather than relegated only to eavesdrop."


Subject to Death is such an extraordinary achievement that I stopped breathing for a moment as I finished reading it. When something like Desjarlais’s book comes our way, we should recognize its originality and uniqueness, for so few people in anthropology can write in this way. Twenty years from now, when many of us have faded from memory, new generations on their quests to learn more about life and death than academia’s disciplinary machines can offer will find this book and be astonished by its simplicity and integrity in the midst of its brilliance.”

Veena Das, Johns Hopkins University

“Desjarlais writes powerfully from a position that seamlessly integrates Hyolmo views and feelings, a scholar’s knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism in the Himalayas, the struggles of contemporary philosophers like Blanchot and Ricouer to understand death, and his own human yearning to come to terms with it.  Subject to Death is a moving ethnographic account that lifts out of its genre, becoming most of all a hard and honest look at the reality of the human condition.”

Janet Gyatso, Harvard University

“Subject to Death is an elegantly written, richly detailed, and absolutely unique ethnographic contribution to the study of death, dying, and grief. Its nuanced and rich material unfolds in a patchwork of glimpses, squints, and sideways glances at death and its existential entailments. A mature work by one of our discipline’s very best ethnographers, Subject to Death is the culminating achievement of a career-long engagement with Hyolmo communities, and it is a must-read for any scholar working on issues related to aging, death, dying, or the grieving process.”

Jason Throop, University of California, Los Angeles

"I gained much from reading Subject to Death, less as an ethnography of a group, and more as an insight into people, into persons. It is beautifully written and a necessary balance to its more ethnographically and socially-focused counterparts, and should fruitfully be read alongside them. It gives insight, in particular, into how people feel about death and dying, and how such feelings inform what they make of the rich complexities of Buddhist funeral practices and the fate that awaits us all. It is in this last regard, above all, that this work makes its sustained contribution, and one that will make it a powerful work to present to students still prone to the Orientalism of emotional distance from those they read about."

South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies

Table of Contents

Note on Transliteration

     “Ama, khoi?”
     Poiesis in life and death
     Theorizing death

I. The Impermanence of Life
     A good death, recorded
     Impossibly and intensively
     Creative subtraction
     This life
     An ethics of care
     Oral wills are harder than stone
     Seeing the face
     Liberation upon hearing
     The pulse of life

II. Passing from the Body
    Death, impermanence has arisen
    Transference of consciousness
    Field of apparitions
   Shifting, Not Dying
   “Yes, it’s death”
   Corpses, fashioned
   Bodies that wound
   The five sensual pleasures
   Consoling mourners
   Alternate rhythms

III. Dissolution
   Eliminating the corpse
   Burnt offerings
   Ashes, burnt bones

IV. Transmutations
   Resting place
   Ritual poiesis, in time
   Dragging, hooking, naming
   Explanations, face to face
   “No form, no sound . . .”
   Generating merit
   Blank white
   Showing the way
   Those dangerous supplements

V. After Life
   Made for forgetting
   The enigma of mourning
   Staring into the sun


Society for Humanistic Anthropology: Victor Turner Prize for Ethnographic Writing

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