Using tombstones as ethnographic sources, this article examines the introduction of writing into the field of death ritual in an Yi community in Yunnan Province, China. Most Tibeto-Burman-speaking peoples in Southwest China abandoned cremation in favor of burial in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, following a loss of political autonomy and a massive influx of immigrants from the interior. Inscriptions on stones, erected over buried corpses, shifted textual agency from skilled readers to knowledgeable or powerful writers and created links between state authority and the bodies of the dead. Stones became replacements for corpses, doors to the underworld, narratives of lives, and textual diagrams of kinship relations. Yi used stones to create new ways of conceptualizing and reaffirming social relations among living descendants. And they made much of the connection of writing with state authority, inserting their dead into the national time of revolution as the state's beneficiaries or victims.

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