Early in the morning of August 16 (the day I’m writing this), my stepdad’s mother passed away after a lengthy and increasingly tiresome battle with Alzheimer’s. This post isn’t a eulogy; for various reasons, I don’t feel like I’m the right person for such a job. Instead, I’m using it as a learning experience, as I have the past few years during her slow decline. So this post is about death, a morbid topic in any event. It’s not about the simple fact of death, however, but how a culture perceives that fact.
Weight of history
Burial ceremonies are some of the oldest evidence of true culture and civilization that we have. The idea of burying the dead with mementos even extends across species boundaries: Neanderthal remains have been found with tools. And the dead, our dead, are numerous, as the rising terrain levels in parts of Europe (caused by increasing numbers of burials throughout the ages) can attest. Death’s traditions are evident from the mummies of Egypt and Peru, the mausoleums of medieval Europe or the classical world, and the Terracotta Army of China. All societies have death, and they all must confront it, so let’s see how they do it.
The role of religion
Religion, in a very real sense, is ultimately an attempt to make sense of death’s finality. The most ancient religious practices we know deal with two main topics: the creation of the world, and the existence and form of an afterlife. Every faith has its own way of answering those two core mysteries. Once you wade through all the commandments and prohibitions and stories and revelations, that’s really all you’re left with.
One of the oldest and most enduring ideas is the return to the earth. This one is common in “pagan” beliefs, but it’s also a central concept in the Abrahamic religions of the modern West. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” is one popular variation of the statement. And it fits the biological “circle of life”, too. The body of the deceased does return to the earth (whether in whole or as ashes), and that provides sustenance, allowing new life to bloom.
More organized religion, though, needs more, and that is where we get into the murky waters of the soul. What that is, nobody truly knows, and that’s not even a metaphor: the notion of “soul” is different for different peoples. Is it the essence of humanity that separates us from lower animals? Is it intelligence and self-awareness? A spark of the divine?
In truth, it doesn’t really matter. Once religion offers the idea of a soul that is separate from the body, it must then explain what happens to that soul once the body can no longer support it. Thousands of years worth of theologians have argued that point, up to—and including—starting wars in the name of their own interpretation. The reason they can do that is simple: all the ideas are variations on the same basic theme.
That basic them is thus: people die. That much can’t be argued. What happens next is the realm of God or gods, but it usually follows a general pattern. Souls are judged based on some subset of their actions in life, such as good deeds versus bad, adherence to custom or precept, or general faithfulness. Their form of afterlife then depends on the outcome. “Good” souls (whatever that is decided to mean) are awarded in some way, while “bad” souls are condemned. The harsher faiths make this condemnation last forever, but it’s most often (and more justly, in my opinion) for a period of time proportional to the evils committed in life.
The award, in general, is a second, usually eternal life spent in a utopia, however that would be defined by the religion in question. Christianity, for example, really only specifies that souls in heaven are in the presence of God, but popular thought has transformed that to the life of delights among the clouds that we see portrayed in media; early Church thought was an earthly heaven instead. Islam, popularly, has the “72 eternal virgins” presented to the faithful in heaven. In Norse mythology, valiant souls are allowed to dine with the gods and heroes in Valhalla, but they must then fight the final battle, Ragnarök (which they are destined to lose, strangely enough). In even these three disparate cases, you can see the similarities: the good receive an idyllic life, something they could only dream of in the confines of their body.
Ceremonies of death
Religion, then, tells us what happens to the soul, but there is still the matter of the body. It must be disposed of, and even early cultures understood this. But how do we dispose of something that was once human while retaining the dignity of the person once inhabited it?
Ceremonial burial is the oldest trick in the book, so to speak. It’s one of the markers of intelligence and organization in the archaeological record, and it dates back to long before our idea of civilization. And it’s still practiced on a wide scale today; my stepdad’s mother, the ultimate cause of this post, will be buried in the coming days.
Burial takes different forms for different peoples, but it’s always a ceremony. The dead are often buried with some of their possessions, and this may be the result of some primal belief that they’ll need them in the hereafter. We don’t know for sure about the rites and rituals of ancient cultures, but we can easily imagine that they were not much different from our own. We in the modern world say a few words, remember the deeds of the deceased, lower the body into the ground, leave a marker, and promise to come back soon. Some people have more elaborate shrines, others have only a bare stone inscribed with their name. Some families plant flowers or leave baubles (my cousin, who passed away at the beginning of last year, has a large and frankly gaudy array of such things adorning his grave, including solar-powered lights, wind chimes, and pictures).
Anywhere the dead are buried, it’s pretty much the same. They’re placed in the ground in a special, reserved place (a cemetery). The graves are marked, both for ease of remembrance and as a helpful reminder of where not to bury another. The body is left in some enclosure to protect it from prying eyes, and keepsakes are typically beside it.
Burial isn’t the only option, though, not even in the modern world. Cremation, where the body is burned and rendered into ash, is still popular. (A local scandal some years ago involved a crematorium whose owner was, in fact, dumping the bodies in a pond behind the place and filling the urns with things like cement or ground bones.) Today, cremation is seen as an alternative to burial, but some cultures did (and do) see it or something similar as the primary method of disposing of a person’s earthly remains. The Viking pyre is fixed in our imagination, and television sitcoms almost always have a dead relative’s ashes sitting somewhere vulnerable.
I’ll admit that I don’t see the purpose of cremation. If you believe in the resurrection of souls into their reformed earthly bodies, as in some varieties of Christianity and Judaism, then you’d have to view the idea of burning the body to ash as something akin to blasphemy. On the other hand, I can see the allure. The key component of a cremation is fire, and fire is the ultimate in human tools. The story of human civilization, in a very real sense, is the story of how we have tamed fire. So it’s easy to see how powerful a statement cremation or a funeral pyre can make.
Burying and burning were the two main ways of disposing of remains for the vast majority of humanity’s history. Nowadays, we have a few other options: donating to science, dissection for organs, cryogenic freezing, etc. Notice, though, that these all have a “technological” connotation. Cryogenics is the realm of sci-fi; organ donation is modern medicine. There’s still a ceremony, but the final result is much different.
Death in a culture brings together a lot of things: religion, ritual, the idea of family. Even the legal system gets involved these days, because of things like life insurance, death certificates, and the like. It’s more than just the end of life, and there’s a reason why the most powerful, most immersive stories are often those that deal with death in a realisic way. People mourn, they weep, they celebrate the life and times of the deceased.
We have funerals and wakes and obituaries because no man is an island. Everyone is connected, everyone has family and friends. The living are affected by death, and far more than the deceased. We’re the ones who feel it, who have to carry on, and the elaborate ceremonies of death are our oldest, most human way of coping.
We honor the fallen because we knew them in life, and we hope to know them again in an afterlife, whatever form that may take. But, curiously, death has a dichotomy. Religion clashes with ancient tradition, and the two have become nearly inseparable. A couple of days from now, my stepdad might be sitting in the local funeral home’s chapel, listening to a service for his mother that invokes Christ and resurrection and other theology, but he’ll be looking at a casket that is filled with tiny treasures, a way of honoring the dead that has continued, unbroken, for tens of thousands of years. And that is the truth of culture.