Saturday, January 21, 2006

Open Casket

I’ve been reading Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying today*. It’s not an easy book to read as in this book William Faulkner deployed all the literary techniques that are the bane of the lazy English student. I’m talking about stream of consciousness passages, weirdly named characters*2, a disjointed sense of time and multiple, often contradictory, narrative voices.

As I lay Dying, as you can probably tell from the title, is about someone dying, the matriarch of a clan of missisippissippi*3 hill farmers and the family’s attempts to transport her coffin to her home town many miles away for burial. That’s a pretty simplified summary, but I’m not writing an essay here. This got me thinking about how people deal with their dead, which isn’t that much of a jump considering my attention tends to drift away like a pair of loose swimming shorts on a beach holiday when I’m trying to do something constructive.

With the exception of elephants, no other creature I can think of seems remotely interested in their dead beyond a “let’s eat him before he starts to smell” sort of way, so why are people so interested in cadavers beyond their use in traumatising practical jokes? I suppose it’s a sort of decorous waste disposal, all this ashes to ashes stuff to disguise the more real, pragmatic reasons for sticking a decomposing body away from people and water supplies. Each culture goes for a different approach to this though, in the west it’s a matter of “stick the bugger in the ground once we’ve talked about him for a while” but other countries have different methods: from the uber cool Viking method “stick the bloke in his boat, set fire to it and push it out to sea” to the downright icky ancient Egyptian “do strange things to his innards and then put him in a pyramid, oh, and stick all his servants in there too” to the strange Tibetan method of “leave the guy on top of a mountain until the creatures of the air and land have eaten all the nasty bits”*4.

With Christian funerals, the thing that interests me is the fact that there is such a reliance on the body, making it the centre of all ceremonies, almost a religious idol of some kind. Just think of all the funerals you’ve been to (however many that may be, I hope it’s quite few) with the coffin placed centre stage at the front of the church all eyes on it. The people aren’t up in the pulpit talking about that body, they are talking about the person whom that body used to convey. Whether you believe in an omnipotent big daddy or not, the fact is that the body in the coffin has already gone from living person to cooling meat. Whatever it was that made them them, so to speak, whether that is an immortal soul or just the fact that their brain was plugged in, has departed.

Christian theology is always body bashing, talking about how the body is weak and inconsequential compared to the soul. Yet when it comes to the actual time when the separation of the soul and body takes place society seems extremely unwilling to acknowledge this. Instead it prefers to continue to deal with the two as if they are one, unable to shake the habit of a lifetime, despite all the embalming fluid and general lack of comment from the deceased that would suggest otherwise.

This is especially pronounced in America where it seems common practice to have some kind of wake or open casket staring session with the body on view for all to see. The purpose of this evades me completely, are you supposed to talk to it, or poke with sticks or try and revive it? Mankind is intrinsically afraid of death; the primary purpose of religion seems to me to be to make people less scared of death, usually by giving people the concept of the immortal soul to take comfort from. If you are shown the open casket you do not see an immortal soul, you see a dead person, the soul, even to the devout, does not show up and tell you everything is all right. The open casket thus serves to disturb both the religious, by distracting them from the contemplation of the eternal paradise, and the godless heathens like myself, by making us see the inert cadaver of someone close to us, intruding on our memories of them when they moved and made noises.

I think that the most sane funeral practice*5 I’ve encountered is that practiced by Muslims. According to Sharia law the stiff must be buried as quick as possible – for example recently the king of Kuwait was buried a couple of hours after he died – no fuss, no elaborate service, just put him in the ground facing Mecca. They do have memorial services for people to grieve and remember but in Islamic nations these ceremonies do not require the inexplicable attendance of a corpse and usually take place some time after the person is buried. This shows a sensible separation of the two functions of a funeral, commemorating the life of the deceased and getting them out of way of water supplies.

I don’t understand why the two should take place at that same time.


*yes I know that seems like pointless intellectual namedropping but it has some relevance to what I’m saying

*2. Have you ever met a man called Jewel? Or Vardaman? Or a woman called Dewey? Eh?

*3. I never know when I’m supposed to stop that word, like when I try to write bananananana – I tend to get a little carried away.

*4. This piece of information is from Seven years in Tibet so I take it with a pinch of salt because I get the impression that as a narrator, Heinrich Harrer was full of shit. The other two are from Terry Deary’s Horrible Histories series, which I trust completely.

*5. I mean sane as opposed to fun, the Taiwanese ones with all the firecrackers and noise are good, but don’t make a great deal more sense