Ruth E. Toulson

Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities

20142015 Forum on Color

Ruth E. Toulson

Cultural Anthropology

Ph.D., University of Cambridge, 2009

Ruth E. Toulson is a cultural anthropologist whose research focuses on overseas Chinese populations in Southeast Asia. Broadly, her research examines the relation between religion and politics in Southeast Asia, particularly in Singapore. She focuses on processes of religious transformation: why are some ritual practices discarded, seemingly without regret, while others become orthopraxy? And why do state measures designed to transform citizens’ religious beliefs so often fail? She addresses these questions in her book manuscript, Transforming Grief: Life and Death in a Chinese Funeral Parlor, which she will complete during her fellowship year at the Penn Humanities Forum.

The Color of Death: Ritual, Materiality, and the Corpse

In 2014–2015, Toulson will focus particularly on the role of color in funeral ritual. From the black of a widow’s weeds, to the sackcloth of a mourning gown, and the white of a shroud, death ritual is threaded with color. In the English language, sorrow is described as “the blues,” while in Chinese societies the events that surround death are referred to as “white through and through.” As much as the study of mortuary rites has been an enduring subject of humanistic inquiry, little consideration of color as a pivotal way death is codified. Moreover, the impact of color on mourning and memory is rarely discussed.

Drawing on perspectives from material culture studies—color understood as a property of things—Toulson interrogates how color structures grief, challenging current anthropological understandings of the connection between ritual, emotion, and materiality. Her examples come from her ethnographic fieldwork in the business of death among Chinese communities in Singapore—during which she worked as both an anthropologist and an embalmer. Her argument—that considering color is vital in order to understand the power of ritual—applies however to all human societies. To consider color, she argues, is to attend to the very matter of life and death.