Approaching Death: Head-hunting your Grief

DailyDose2Welcome back to the Daily Dose, and to our special series, Approaching Death: grief rituals across cultures.

Death: regardless of where we live or who we are, we must make preparations for the end that awaits us all.

Though separated by culture, context and chronicity, all humans must face the coming of death in a way unique from our nearest mammal cousins. In witnessing death, we must grapple with  its finality, but also with our own mortality and the knowledge that we, too, must pass through the veil eventually.  In the last post of this series, I discussed sky burial, or the practice of feeding human remains to birds. Part of this ritual, I explained, ties to the problem of place (ground too frozen for burial)–but that is only one side of the story. Sky burial also has deep cultural and spiritual relevance for the Tibetan Buddhists who practice it. Today, I will be talking about a different kind of grief ritual–not one that involves the body of the dead, but rather the bodies (or heads) of other living people.


Among the Ilongot people of the Northern Philippines, it was common to headhunt during the “rage of bereavement.” Upon the loss of a loved one, the men of the Ilongot would hunt and kill other men. It seems unthinkable to us, especially as death in Western culture leads (or is meant to lead) to a contemplation of the sanctity of life. Furthermore, in a culture where we have euphemisms like “prostrate with grief” or “paralyzed by sadness,” it is hard to imagine the pull towards so war-like an activity, especially when there is no revenge involved. Given the unusual and unusually violent nature of this ritual, we naturally look for explanations. What causes this behavior?

Anthropologist Renato Rosaldo writes extensively about the Ilongot and their bereavement rage–and about his own cultural assumptions. When he asked the tribesmen what drove them to the practice, they claimed that severing and throwing away a head was the same as throwing away the anger at death. The head becomes something “to carry” their anger away, a vessel for grief-born rage. To Rosaldo, this description didn’t really solve the problem, though, or not at first. What caused the rage to begin with? Was it life-for-life?

In the end of his essay, Rosaldo explains that it took a tragedy in his own life to really understand the ritual of the Ilongot people. When he lost his wife, he did not feel only sad, but angry, and not only angry, but enraged. He did not therefore search out a head to hunt (and the tribesmen no longer do this, either), but he suddenly recognized the pain of a grief that could not be thrown away.

Where do you put it, incredible, all-consuming grief? We, too, have a need to vent, to put our grief somewhere, to do something. Casting ashes of the dead upon the waters–or commemorating them with a book or memoir, a photo album, a scholarship, a community center–these may, in their own way, be our vehicles for grief.  While we may never come to terms with murder-for-grief, we can begin to see the common plight of our human condition. Rituals, when embraced, can be the means to healing for the living, and may even be a mean of connection between disparate cultures.

Join me as I continue to explore grief rituals over the next few months.

[Note: this series is part of research for a book project called Death’s Summer Coat, by Brandy Schillace]


Rosaldo, Renato. “Grief and a Headhunter’s Rage.” Death, Mourning, and Burial. Ed. Antonius C. G. M. Robben. Blackwell, 2004.


One Reply to “Approaching Death: Head-hunting your Grief”

  1. Appropriate interpretation. I came to know that why there are various rituals about death, the rage is something not easily forgotten. Thanks for helping me to understand something beyond the classroom.

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