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July 25, 2003

Reverent Remembrance: Honoring the Dead

Oct. 2, 2003 - Feb. 22, 2004

Seattle -- For tens of thousands of years, human communities around the world have honored their dead and prepared them for the afterlife. From Egyptian mummies to Indonesian cliff burials, our Halloween to the Mexican Day of the Dead, cultures around the world have engaged in community celebrations to acknowledge their continuing relationships with those who have passed on. The provocative new exhibit, Reverent Remembrance: Honoring the Dead invites Burke Museum visitors into some of the celebrations, funerary practices, and ancient rituals -- where "the dead are always welcomed, even if death itself is not."

Reverent Remembrance: Honoring the Dead opens October 2, 2003, and runs through Feb. 22, 2004, at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle. Focusing on five cultural traditions -- Mexico, Ancient Egypt, Indonesia, the Celtic roots of Halloween, and contemporary American memorials -- the exhibit contains imagery, relics, and personal stories of the ways in which communities collectively embrace and honor their departed. A lecture series, family events, teacher workshop, and other public programs will accompany the exhibition.

Cycles of Life

From ancient times, humans have witnessed the cycle of life reflected in the changing of the seasons: birth is mirrored in the new shoots of spring, growth in the emergence of summer fruit; fall's harvest echoes life's aging, and winter brings inevitable withering and death. For many cultures, the cycle begins again the following spring, when new buds represent rebirth.

Reflecting the cyclical nature of the seasons and of life itself, many cultural groups around the globe hold their annual celebrations for the dead near the time of the fall harvest. Our own Halloween and Mexico's Day of the Dead are among the many living traditions that associate the celebration of the dead with the solstice and the changing of the seasons.

El Dia de los Muertos

The vibrant, colorful, and historic "Day of the Dead" festivals in Mexico, Guatemala, and the American Southwest have their roots in ancient Aztec traditions. Meant to be a time to remember the dead as well as to honor the continuity of life, the community celebrations that occur during the first two days of November as part of the Day of the Dead holiday, are social and festive. Consisting of visits to the graves of loved ones, telling stories about the ancestors, preparing favorite foods, dancing, poetry, and the creation of elaborately decorated altars, these celebrations look humorously upon death and warmly welcome visits from the spirits of the departed.


Reverent Remembrance: Honoring the Dead showcases two different styles of Mexican altars, both laden with offerings and rich in tradition. Marigolds are draped over archways made from reeds that are positioned over the altar; "Bread of the Dead" is placed on the altar, as are skeletons and skulls made from sugar, and other novelty items with a death motif. The offerings and practices vary by region, and exhibit visitors will learn about some of the different ways that Mexican and Mexican-American communities interpret this most unique of holidays.

Ancient Egypt-The Journey Into Eternity

More than 4,000 years ago, ancient Egyptians believed that the journey to the underworld was possible only if the body of the deceased was well preserved. Bodies would be mummified to safeguard their spiritual life force and individual personality. Magical texts and images were then placed on the mummy and inside the tomb.

In the Ancient Egyptian component, visitors will learn about the history of ancient rituals and about the practice of mummification. "Nellie," the Egyptian mummy that was donated to the Burke Museum in 1902, will be on display. The mummy, which was unearthed at Fayum, Egypt, is the remains of an unknown young woman. The woman lived about 2000 years ago, during the period which ended with the reign of Cleopatra in 30 BC.

She wears a painted mask and chest covering made of linen soaked in plaster, typical of this period. Two Egyptian water lily bulbs were found wrapped in the outer linens of the mummy. To the Egyptians, the bulbs symbolized immortality, because of the life contained within the apparently dead bulb. These and other results of intensive forensic analysis on the mummy will be on display in the exhibit. The wooden sarcophagus, an elaborately decorated case which is older than the mummy itself, was found in a temple in the city of Thebes, and dates from about 3,000 years ago.

Indonesian Cliff Burials

In Tana Toraja, a mountainous region in the northern part of South Sulawesi, Indonesia, the Torajan people lay their dead to rest in elaborate ceremonies that often last for many days. Dancing and the sacrificing of animals precede the burials, which take place high above the villages in coffins placed within tombs which are chiseled out of steep cliffs. It is common to place an intricately carved wooden effigy of the deceased person (called a tautau) at the portal to the tomb. The Torajans, renowned for their seafaring traditions, decorate the inside walls of the burial caves with paintings telling stories of the sea. One of the most important ceremonies in Tana Toraja is Rambu Solo, held specifically to worship the souls of the dead.

Visitors to Reverent Remembrance: Honoring the Dead will see an example of a tautau from Tana Toraja, as well as photographs, film footage, and sound recordings of a typical burial ceremony. The process of creating a tautau can also be explored through photos and stories of contemporary Torajan people.

Trick or Treat?

When most of us think of festivals acknowledging the dead, we think of costumes and trick-or-treating, witches and jack-o-lanterns and the other iconic images of our annual Halloween celebrations. But where did these traditions originate? What is the significance of bobbing for apples, carving pumpkins, or dressing up like a demon?

In the 5th century BC, in Celtic Ireland, summer ended on October 31. The holiday was called Samhain, the Celtic New year. It was believed that, on this day, the spirits of the dead would return to their villages. Bonfires, feasts, omens for the future, and interaction with those from the Otherworld were all features of Samhain.

The Halloween component of Reverent Remembrance: Honoring the Dead, affords visitors an opportunity to learn about these ancient Celtic roots of Halloween; and how Irish immigrants actually brought this holiday to the New World in the 1840's as they fled the potato famine!

American Remembrance

Contemporary American culture has led us toward a more distanced experience of the process of aging, death, and remembrance. We no longer typically have direct relationships with the dead, and instead rely on nursing homes, hospitals, and mortuaries to remove us from the process. This creates a barrier between living and dead, an unfamiliarity, and sometimes, as represented in popular culture movies, books, and even the ghost stories told around a campfire, a powerful fear.

Today we have created national days of remembrance and reflection that mark the importance we give to fellow citizens who represent our country and its history. Memorial Day, Pearl Harbor Day, President's Day, Veteran's Day, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day often include parades, speeches, flags, decorations in cemeteries, and other demonstrations of homage to those who we see as having given their lives in the service of our country.

The same respect is shown in memorials created for family members, celebrities, and those lost in disasters: 9/11 remembrances, Princess Diana's place of death, Jim Morrison's grave in Paris, roadside memorials, the chain-link fence around Columbine highschool, the grave of Bruce Lee here in Seattle. Local memorials reflect grief, express respect, and create a place where people can gather together in mourning and to seek out larger meanings in the losses we have suffered.

Universal Reverence

Through these ancient and modern examples, we can gain insights into how communities have approached this most marked human event. Each is different, yet all are based in beliefs that we should honor our loved ones and transform that honor into community-wide observances. By understanding the ways in which different people and different cultural groups around the world express their reverence for the dead, we can better understand our own practices-where they came from, what they mean to us, and how they shape our continuing relationships with our ancestors, and with death as one part of the continuity of life.

Support for Reverent Remembrance: Honoring the Dead was provided by: the Microsoft Corporation; The Boeing Company; UW Walter Chapin Simpson Center for the Humanities; UW Southeast Asia Center at the University of Washington, the UW Jackson School of International Studies; American Research Center on Egypt, Northwest Chapter; Mary Gates Endowment for Students; La Casa de Artes; and Museum Negeri Propinsi Timor, Indonesia.

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The Burke is located at the corner of NE 45th St and 17th Ave NE on the UW campus. Hours are 10 am - 5 pm daily, and until 8 pm Thursday. The Museum Store and Museum Caf?are also open during these hours. Admission to the permanent exhibits is $6.50 general, $5 senior, $3 student/youth, FREE to Burke members, children 5 and under, UW faculty, students, and staff. Admission to the special exhibition Out of the Silence is $8 general, $6.50 senior, $5 student/youth.. Out of the Silence is FREE to Burke members, children 5 and under, UW faculty, students, and staff. For 24-hour information, please call 206-543-5590, or visit www.burkemuseum.org

(206) 543-9762; FAX (206) 616-1274