Written by Roger McCredie
Warning: This article addresses some topics that are mostly avoided in polite conversation and often regarded as morbid. If you are uncomfortable with this corporeal reality, then we suggest you skip on to find stories with a bit more… life.
Death is the central fact of life. (Damn, that was profound, wasn’t it?)
Other animals know about pain and danger, and they spend much of their existence taking steps to avoid them. But humans, we are told, are the only creatures who actually know there’s such a thing as death, that it happens to everybody and is inevitable; but – and here’s the kicker – humans have no empirical knowledge of what happens after one of us shuffles off this mortal coil. Buys the farm. Kicks the bucket. Dies.
From our youngest understandings of the world around us, we start trying to come to terms with this greatest of all mysteries. As children we shelve it, except for Halloween (read on) which equals dressing up and begging for candy, or for constant exposure to violence in the movies or on television, where death has little impact or consequence except to help advance the plot and comes across as a sort of temporary inconvenience that the bad guys have to put up with if they’re going to behave that way. As adolescents, of course, we think the concept of death doesn’t apply to us; we’re immortal. By the time we’re young adults, perhaps parents in our own right, we become more aware that someday this all will end, and we may even be prompted by a sense of responsibility to take out insurance policies. By middle age, we feel the occasional cold breath of mortality on the backs of our necks, and this prompts us to think in terms of legacies, material and otherwise. We draft wills; we may even draw up last instructions – and then we quickly shut and lock the desk drawer (no sense tempting fate). By the time we’re “seniors” we have seen and been touched by our fair share of death, realize that it’s closer to us than it once was, and have either come to terms with it or become preoccupied by it. In either case, by the time we reach the doddering stage, the odds are we have made the acquaintance of the people whose business it is to take care of these things. Those who will ensure our dignified and orderly passage from this world to the next and (as the business of living has become infinitely more complicated than it once was) clean up after us.
When we die we’re dead. Whatever’s ‘Over There’, we’ve gone to it. But we leave behind our bodies, which will need to be attended to, and a number of people who, at our departure, may experience the package of emotions known as grief. They’re going to need comforting and reassuring, and maybe also practical guidance and assistance. Grief, after all, is a two-parter: The mourner mourns not only the departed but him or herself. There’s nothing like the death of somebody, particularly somebody close to us, to remind us that we really are all in this fragile and transitory web of life together. John Donne, priest and poet, hit the coffin nail on the head: None of us is an island, so forget asking “for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee,” for all of us.
So we are driven by this two-sided mourning to memorialize our dead, not least because, in the back of our minds, we hope somebody will do as much for us someday.
We have done it from early on in our human history, before even the oldest established religions got their acts together and incorporated veneration of the departed into their doctrines. Various types of veneration for those who have passed from this corporeal plain evolved in a myriad of ways throughout the world. The dead were set apart in places that were considered sacred, or special anyway. In earthen mounds, on platforms away from (most) scavengers, under cairns of piled stones. Alternatively, they were burned, whether atop massive wooden pyres or on boats or barges set alight, and allowed to drift with the current into the great beyond. Some kind of ceremony, however simple, accompanied these acts because, also from earliest times, there had developed the concept of a soul – some intangible but inextinguishable essence of the self that survived death and needed to be pacified and provided for.
Whereas your lowest-class Egyptian was eviscerated, salt-cured for seventy days, and then buried in the sand, his pharaoh was painstakingly mummified, outfitted in a golden coffin set with precious stones, and installed in a beyond-magnificent tomb exquisitely appointed with everything from furniture to eating utensils, personal touches to his otherworldly condo.
Elaborate burial had a different meaning in the Scottish Highlands, where life, like the terrain, was hard. Pomp and circumstance was a relative thing. The old Highland chiefs were usually placed in a simple wooden coffin and the family and clansmen, led by a piper, slogged through the wet heather to an appropriate spot, where the clan’s Seannachie or bard, recited the old boy’s lineage and accomplishments for a very long time while everybody pulled their plaids over their heads because some form of precipitation was doubtless falling. (One MacDonald chieftain, on his deathbed, gave specific instructions for his interment:“When it shall be death to me,” he directed, “strike a blow of the dirk in my back and put me across the piebald mare and she shall carry me to Loch Linnhe. Bury me with a sword in my fist and my face to the Camerons; I have never turned my back on them.”)
The rise of settlements, particularly in Western Europe and the British Isles, gave rise to common burial grounds, often centered around a place of worship, which was a common feature of nearly every hamlet; but often in spaces of common ground set aside for the purpose – the beginnings of public cemeteries. First by custom and later by arrangement, individual families came to be grouped together in a particular area or plot. (In the grounds of medieval manors and later on colonial plantations, which were often far from town, family cemeteries near the home became common.) The custom had arisen of burying remains in one-to-a-customer graves, which launched the occupation of professional gravedigging, though this duty, in church settings, was often assigned to the sexton or the verger. Moreover, these individual graves were adorned with memorial markers, usually of stone, which could be inscribed with the inhabitant’s name and dates, ensuring at least a modicum of immortality. Family pride and budget led to varying degrees of elaborateness in both the coffin and the marker; and thus were born the artisan stonecutter, who specialized in tombstones, and a whole new field of carpentry, coffin (or casket) making.*
*Semantics aside: The terms “coffin” and “casket” are often used interchangeably to describe the container used to house the remains. Actually, the two aren’t synonyms; they refer to shape. A coffin is roughly person-shaped, having six sides: a headboard and footboard, plus “shoulders and body panels, and is almost always wooden and the interior is usually fitted with a simple cloth lining.” This is the version still commonly used in Britain and much of Europe. A casket – which can actually mean any sort of chest, from a jewelry box on up— is shaped like an elongated box, usually with rounded sides and a slightly convex lid, and may be of wood or metal, often with elaborate interior furnishings such as pillows and cushioning— a sort of eternal Beautyrest.
Embalming – the practice of treating a corpse with various substances to delay decomposition – arose from the very human reluctance, fueled by grief and loss, to say goodbye, to keep the deceased in decent shape long enough for everybody to have one last look and see him or her off with a parting glass of strong drink. The practice made a party of the old custom of “sitting up” with the body the night after death and became known as “the wake,” which as we know reached its apotheosis in Ireland, with most of the viewers being as embalmed as the honoree. Anyhow, mummification, as practiced by the Egyptians, the Incas and Aztecs, and the Chinese, was practiced successfully thousands of years ago, but other methods have also been used, employing various solutions and aromatic herbs. (The very word “embalm” means to infuse with “balm,” a healing or preservative substance allegedly found in Gilead.) But it wasn’t until the later Middle Ages that a group of European scientists known as The Anatomists (what else?) conceived the idea of preserving a body from within, by draining the blood and replacing it in the vascular system with a preservative substance. One of these Anatomists was none other than Leonardo da Vinci, a fact which gave rise to a legend that “La Giaconda” (a.k.a. Mona Lisa) is the portrait of a corpse, one of Leonardo’s specimens, and that her enigmatic smirk is the remains of rictus sardonicus, the expression produced by the tightening of the cheek muscles during rigor mortis.
But the largely unsung hero of embalming-as-we-know-it was a Scottish surgeon, William Hunter, who wrote a paper on the subject that became a must-read for those in the burgeoning funerary trade. Hunter’s brother, John, took things a step further and began actually applying these methods. One fine day in 1775, he displayed a particularly fine example of his handiwork, the corpse of Mary Butchell, wife of a London dentist, in his window. Mrs. Butchell, embalmed, rouged, fitted with glass eyes, and dressed in a becoming frock, was a sensation. Oh, some detractors called John Hunter’s work ghoulish but the majority considered it marvelous; here was a way, for a modest fee, to guarantee that the deceased could be allowed to stick around long enough for a proper send-off without the malodorous consequences of running out of ice.
So with funeral customs codified, professional casket makers in business, and increasingly sophisticated embaming techniques available to the general public, the stage was set for the master of mortuary ceremonies.
Or, to use the preferred term, the funeral director. “Undertaker,” you see, is not a bad pun; it comes from the perfectly innocuous verb “undertake”: to commit to doing a task – in this case, arranging the details of preparing a body for burial. But the euphemism was eventually insufficient to describe the role of the mortician, which came to include everything involved with laying someone to rest (except for any religious rites, that was the clergy’s department).
“Director” seemed to imbue the mortician’s professional title with more – er – gravitas and was also more accurate; it included not only preparation of the body for burial but also the coordination of all the elements of the funeral itself: getting the remains where they needed to be and when, coordinating with religious officiants, and overseeing the preparation of the grave itself beforehand and the infilling of it afterwards. As time went by the funeral director not only orchestrated these duties but provided them in-house. He would set up inside a house or building with coffin displays, rooms for viewing the corpse and receiving visitors, and chapel-like areas where services could be conducted. The funeral home with a package-deal service was born, giving rise to a well-known stereotype, the unctuous undertaker. He helped the newly bereaved through their time of sorrow as he helped himself to their money by providing more and more finishing touches to inflate the bottom line.
In the late 1940s the British novelist Evelyn Waugh published his savagely funny book The Loved One, a merciless satire of morticians and the industry in general. In 1963 Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death used investigative journalism to lay bare the hypocritical greed of funeral directors as “grief counselors” under whose guidance the cost of an average funeral had risen to a family’s third-largest purchase, after a house and a car.
Obviously they’re not all like that. Most funeral homes in the United States are, in fact, family-owned and operated, and continue to be so for generations. Many come to have ongoing, personal relationships with families. When the patriarch of one of the leading funeral homes in my hometown died, his funeral was a model of decorum and understated elegance. The casket, as I recall, was of burnished pecan wood with plain brass fittings. Shortly thereafter, a leading society matron on her own deathbed summed up her funeral directions by saying, “Just give me what Dick had.”
Ashes to ashes …
Cremation, once associated almost entirely with eastern cultures (India, notably, and Japan, where it’s mandatory) began gaining traction as a viable alternative to burial in the western hemisphere about a hundred years ago. The benefits are obvious. Cremation is quick, clean, has the blessing of most churches (fire purifies), and ashes in an urn take up little space, whether buried and marked in a cemetery, displayed on the mantel, or used as a tasteful doorstop. In fact, it’s not necessary to keep ashes around at all. Many people leave instructions to have their ashes scattered someplace that has particular significance to the family, or loved ones may elect to do this on their own.[quote float=”right”]In New Orleans on Ash Wednesday, the day after Mardi Gras, people gather at a certain spot on the bank of the Mississippi River and scatter the ashes of loved ones in the water.[/quote]When legendary folk singer Woody Guthrie died, his widow and his son, Arlo, dumped Woody’s ashes casually in the water at Coney Island, and the new widow said, “Let’s go to Nathan’s and get some hot dogs.” Woody would have approved.
This writer’s maternal grandmother, who died five days before Christmas in 1968, was the first of our family to be cremated, done at her request. It was not because she had become forward-thinking in her old age, but because she was notoriously thrifty; with a pencil, some graph paper, and a copy of the family plot in Oakwood Cemetery, she had concluded that if we all henceforth followed her example there would be room for several more generations before expansion would be necessary.
In those days there were no crematoria nearby; the local mortuaries shipped remains to a sort of regional facility in Atlanta, which converted the crematee to carbon flakes and sent the results back by regular parcel post. This being the height of the Christmas mail crunch, MaMa got hung up in transfer somewhere around Greenville, and we had to postpone her graveside service until Christmas Eve afternoon, when the rector could squeeze it in between the kids’ Nativity pageant and the pre-midnight mass wassail party. I’ve always felt that MaMa’s spirit must have been seriously annoyed; she was always a stickler for punctuality.
Green burials: The deceased as compost
Unless we’re cremated we eventually decay. Despite the best efforts of the embalmer and hermetically sealed casket makers, moisture and maggots will eventually have their way. This truth, along with a serious concern for the welfare of the planet and the burden of paying for delaying the biologically inevitable, is what drives the current upswing in “natural” burials. The proponents of green burial take seriously the Ash Wednesday admonition, “Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.” Go ahead and rot like every other creature. You won’t know the difference (or won’t care) and recycling yourself will enrich the soil and make a contribution instead of being one more burden a tired and used-up Earth has to bear.
The funeral observance may be traditional and elaborate or small and intimate; whichever, it’s the body preparation and the manner of interment that make the difference in natural burial. Those things are kept simple and, well, natural. No embalming fluid or disinfectant is used and the body is placed in an easily biodegradable coffin, usually of untreated wood, or even just in a cloth shroud, and committed to the ground. Not even the cemetery scene is necessary. Burial can take place almost anywhere— under a favorite tree, in a pretty patch of woods, down by the river— provided local and state regulations are followed. Both clergy and professionals have expressed approval of the green approach to burial, saying it has much to recommend it in terms of practicality and even spirituality.
Whistling in the graveyard: The Halloween industry
This isn’t the place for a detailed history of the origins and traditions of the one day of the year, in many western cultures, that by common custom has become a now cross-cultural acknowledgment of our mortality and a festival in honor of departed souls. In fact, direct your attention to p.38 if you want to talk seriously about that topic. But suffice to say that Halloween has now extended itself into an entire season, like Christmas, and in fact is now second only to Christmas (in America anyway) in terms of money spent on it. Furthermore, over the past 30 years or so, it’s the adults and not their kids, the trick-or-treaters, who are fueling the popularity of Halloween. Masked parties, where grownups can lose their inhibitions by concealing their identities, have generated a huge demand for costumes; adult-size costumes are right there next to the kids’ at Target and Wal-Mart, and costume rental shops now stock outfits and accessories that would rival the resources of many theatrical companies. Do you want to be Marie Antoinette? Napoleon? Caligula? No problem. Just be prepared to pay a couple of hundred bucks to express your inner self.
For the well-appointed All Hallows Eve house, there are artificial cobwebs, orange twinkly lights, creepy figurines, and enough special effects equipment to equip the same theater’s props department. And it all crops up, beginning about Labor Day, on the shelves of hardware and home furnishings stores.
Wiccans and Pagans, who have become established and recognized religious groups, take Halloween much more seriously. This is the feast of Samhain, the beginning of the Celtic New Year, dedicated to reflection, paying homage to one’s ancestors, and reaffirming our present place in the natural world and our eventual assumption of the place they’re saving for us on the other side of the veil.
Psychologists, theologists, anthropologists, and several other –ists are fond of pointing out that Halloween/Samhain celebrations simply provide a coping mechanism for dealing with the inevitability of death, and business analysts point out the marketing benefits of capitalizing on our tendency to pursue fun and humor as an antidote to our subconscious death-anxiety. The same, of course, can be said of the reverence and superstition that for millennia have surrounded our caring for the dead.
All those –ists probably whistle nervously in the graveyard, too.
The full article continues below. Click to open in fullscreen…