The author of this piece, Thomas Lynch, is a poet, essayist, and undertaker. His latest collection of poetry is The Sin Eater: A Breviary (2011). He lives in Milford, Michigan.
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The dead are no longer welcome at their own funerals. So how can the living send them on their way?
by Thomas Lynch
Bearing the body: friends and family reach out at a funeral in New Orleans in 1993. Photo by Bob Sacha/Corbis
The first week of April 2005 was dominated by images of Pope John Paul II’s dead body vested in red, mitred and laid out among his people with bells and books and candles, blessed with water and incense, borne from one station to the next in what began to take shape as a final journey. The front pages of the world’s daily papers were uniform in their iconography: a corpse clothed in sumptuous vestments from head to toe, still as stone and horizontal. Such images, flickering across their ubiquitous screens no doubt gave pause to many Americans, for whom the presence of the dead at their own funerals had gone, strangely out of style.
For many bereaved Americans, the funeral has become instead a ‘celebration of life’. It has a guest list open to everyone except the actual corpse, which is often dismissed, disappeared without rubric or witness, buried or burned, out of sight, out of mind, by paid functionaries such as me — the undertaker. So the visible presence of the Pope’s body at the his funeral struck many as an oddity, a quaint relic of old customs. How ‘Catholic’ some predictably said, or how ‘Italian’, or ‘Polish’, or ‘traditional’; how ‘lavish’, ‘expensive’, or ‘barbaric’.
Instead, what happened in Rome that week followed a pattern as old as the species. It was ‘human’, this immediate focus on the dead and this sense that the living must go the distance with them. Most of nature does not stop for death. But we do. Wherever our spirits go, or don’t, ours is a species that down the millennia has learned to process grief by processing the objects of our grief, the bodies of the dead, from one place to the next. Whatever afterlife there is or isn’t, human beings have marked their ceasing to be by going with their dead — to the tomb or the fire or the grave, the holy tree or deep sea, whatever sacred space of oblivion we consign them to.
The formula for human funerals was fairly simple for most of our history: by getting the dead where they needed to go, the living got where they needed to be. By acting out the necessary tasks to rid ourselves of dead human bodies, we came to understand the meaning of death. The disposition of the dead inured us to the benefit of the living and so, unlike other living breathing, eating, breeding things that died and were ignored by others of their kind — cocker spaniels and rock bass, warblers and wombats — our kind has always felt somehow duty-bound to do something with, or for, or to, or about it. Even when it is not one of our own — a family dog, or pet rabbit, for instance — we construct sweet obsequies to make sense of those things we find hardest to put into words.
Ours is the species bound to the dirt, fashioned from it according to the Book of Genesis. Thus human and humus occupy the same page of our dictionaries because we are beings ‘of the soil’, of the earth. The lexicon and language is full of such wisdoms. Thus, our ‘humic density’, as the Dante scholar Robert Pogue Harrison calls it: the notion that everything human — our architecture and history, our monuments and cities, are all rooted in and rising from the humus, the earth, the ground in which our dead are buried — is what eventually defines us.
Years ago I took to trying to imagine the first human widow awakening to the dead lump of a fellow next to her, stone-still under the hides that covered and warmed them against the elements. This might have been 40,000 or 50,000 years ago, somewhere in the Urals, or Mesopotamia, or the Dordogne. Or maybe Lebanon, or Uganda, or the Congo, and 70,000 or 80,000 years ago. Our species’ history is a work in progress. Anyway — long before we had alphabets or agriculture, or any of the later-day civilizers. Our species evolved from upright foragers and carnivores to upright foragers and carnivores who start thinking in symbolic terms. They began to wonder. Symbol and image and icon and metaphor became part of their reality. What was it, I ask myself, that first vexed them into contemplations?
I always imagine a cave and primitive tools and art and artifacts. They have fire and some form of language and social orders. This first human widow wakes up to find the man she’s been sleeping with and cooking for and breeding with gone cold and quiet in a way she had not formerly considered. Depending on the weather, sooner or later she begins to sense that something about him has changed quite utterly and irreversibly. What makes her human is that she figures she’d better do something about it.
Perhaps she gathers her things together and follows the nomadic herd of her group elsewhere, leaving the cave to him, in which case we could call it his tomb. Or maybe she likes the decor of the place and decides that the now unresponsive and decomposing lump of matter next to her should be removed. She drags him out by the ankles and begins her search for a cliff to push him over or a ditch to push him into or maybe she digs a pit in the earth to bury him because she doesn’t want wild animals attracted to his odour. Or maybe she builds a fire, a large fire, around and atop his rotting body and feeds it with fuel until the body is consumed. Or let’s say she lives near a body of water and counts on the fish to cleanse his remains; or maybe she hoists him into a tree and figures the birds will pick him clean. Maybe she enlists the assistance of others of her kind in the performance of these duties – who do their part sensing that they might need exactly this kind of help in the future.
The bodiless obsequy has created an estrangement between the living and the dead that is unique in human history
It has to do with that momentary pause before she turns and leaves the cave, or the ditch or the pit or the fire or the pond or the tree or whatever she has chosen for him, and she stares into the oblivion she has consigned him to, and frames what are the signature questions of our species: Is that all there is? Why is he cold? Can this happen to me? What comes next? Of course, there are other questions, but all of them are uniquely human, because surely no other species ponders such things. This is when the first glimpse of a life before or beyond this one begins to flicker into our species’ consciousness, and questions about where we come from and where we go take up more and more of the moments not spent on rudimentary survival.
Contemplation of the existential mysteries, those around being and ceasing to be, is what separates humans from the rest of creation; our humanity is directly tied to how we respond to mortality. In short, how we deal with our dead in their physical reality and how we deal with death as an existential reality define and describe us in primary ways. This intimate connection between the mortal corpse and the concept of mortality is at the core of our religious, artistic, scientific and social impulses. As the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman writes in Mortality, Immortality and Other Life Strategies (1992):
No form of human life, however simple, has been found that failed to pattern the treatment of deceased bodies and their posthumous presence in the memory of the descendants. Indeed, the patterning has been found so universal that discovery of graves and cemeteries is generally accepted by the explorers of prehistory as the proof that a humanoid strain whose life was never observed directly had passed the threshold of humanhood.And this formula — dealing with death by dealing with the dead — defined and described and, by the way, helped humans for 40,000 or 50,000 years all over the planet, across every culture until we come to the most recent generations of North Americans who for the past 40 or 50 years have begun to avoid and outsource and ignore their obligations to deal with the dead. They are willing enough to keep ‘their presence in the memory of descendants’ (the idea of the thing), so long as they don’t have to deal with ‘the treatment of deceased bodies’ (the thing itself). A picture on the piano is fine but public wakes, bearing the dead to open graves, are strictly out of fashion.
While this estrangement is coincident with the increased use of cremation, and might be correlated to it, cremation is not the cause of this estrangement. Indeed, cremation is an ancient and honorable and effective method of body disposition, but in most cultures where it is practised it is done publicly in ceremonial and commemorative venues, whereas in North America very often it is consigned to an off-site, out-of-sight, industrial venue where everything is handled privately and efficiently. Only in North America has cremation lost its ancient connection to fire, because it is so rarely actually witnessed. In the past 50 years, cremation in North America has become synonymous with disappearance, not so much an alternative to burial or entombment, rather an alternative to having to bother with the dead body.
The bodiless obsequy, which has become a staple of available options for bereaved families in the past half century, has created an estrangement between the living and the dead that is unique in human history. Furthermore, this estrangement, this disconnect, this refusal to deal with our dead (their corpses), could be reasonably expected to handicap our ability to deal with death (the concept, the idea of it). And a failure to deal authentically with death might have something to do with an inability to deal authentically with life.