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Oct 13 2012

Popular Culture 20121012: Rituals for the Deceased

I originally was going to write about the new Dark Shadows motion picture, but circumstances have intervened.  It turns out that my dear friend’s mum’s twin brother died either late Wednesday night or early Thursday morning, alone except for his little dog.  My friend called me around 9:30 Thursday morning to go next door and try to comfort her mum, and I was honored to do so.

Her mum was a basket case.  She and her brother were Christmas Day babies, 65 years ago Christmas past.  I have a brother, but not a twin, and my brother and I are separated by 14 years.  She and her brother were separated by fewer than 14 minutes, so they grew up together.

I did comfort her, and she cried in my arms.  I could not do much except to try to let her know that I really care, and she appreciated that.  Now for the culture part.

Funerary rituals are pretty much without exception reserved for social animals, and even amongst them are rare.  Insects have none, even though they are highly social.  Dogs, both social and intelligent (according to some, but I am not sure that I concur about that, have none) have none even though evidence indicates that dogs go grieve when a loved one, usually a human, becomes deceased.

Elephants seem to have them, and so do the great ocean mammals.  But none are as elaborate as those that we humans seems to have.  This is likely because that no other creature seems to have a) the language abilities of humans, b) the imagination capabilities that humans have, and c) the ability to anticipate ones’ own demise.  I have been thinking about c) for a long time the past 36 hours.

Now, reverence for the dead is not universally observed in all human cultures, but in some form it is in most.  Lots of it depends on the culture, the circumstances, and unique familial relationships.

For example, it seems that Neanderthals did observe some rites for the dead, but they often ate them as well.  I suspect that if you were freezing and that the only food was the dear departed, you might alter your attitude.  This is not unknown in more modern sapiens cultures, sometime with deadly results for the living.  Consider the prion mediated disorder kuru.

Until very recently (and I am not quite sure that the practice is completely abandoned), certain tribes in what is now Papua New Guinea had a practice of honoring their dear departed by eating their brains, purportedly gaining the strength and wisdom of them by doing so.  The results were not good.  Instead of gaining strength, they gained prions that cause some of the proteins in the brains of the consumer to fold (technically, the quaternary structure of the proteins) to fold in a way that is not properly functional.  Because of their misguided practice of honoring the dead, they were sealing their own fate.  Kuru is the uniquely human form of a malady similar to Mad Cow Disease, and it can not be reversed once a prion is introduced.  By the way, except for complete incineration, prions are very resilient and, since they are not living, need no substrate to survive until time to invade.  But I digress.

Modern humans observe rites for the dearly departed for many reasons.  In the family unit, the rites are done because of true love and the missing piece in the soul for some one that never can be part of ones’ life again, except for memories.  That is why photography is so important now.  The photographs reinforce the memories of the person, and as long as someone is truly remembered, they never are not quite dead, just away.  I really believe in memories, with respect to Sir Paul.

Since Greek, and likely earlier, times, state funerals were held for highly esteemed members of society.  Those were not very personal, but a way for the subjects of a ruler or great warrior to pay respects for whatever he (almost always male) did for them, but often that warrior did things TO them and hanging the body in a most obscene manner was not uncommon.  Mussolini comes to mind.

But let us examine our Western rites now, because that is what has gotten be so reflective.  If you do not want to continue, I understand.

Since the days of the Sin Eaters, our funeral practices tend to respect the shell of the soul (I am not a person of faith, but I DO believe that the soul is the unique thing that makes a person an individual) once housed in the body.  Thus, respect for the body is important.  Modern practice is to embalm the body, for some strange reason.  I find it to be quite offensive, because in the Christian tradition,

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust

is pretty much abrogated with embalming.  But that is the custom these days, even when cremation is in order.  I sort of agree with the Islamic idea of taking the body and burying it as soon as possible, with as little interference with it as can be had, but that is more of a practical than a religious thought of mine.  But embalm we do, and many states require it.  I call bull on that!

In the Roman Catholic tradition, there is usually a wake where friends and family come together either at the home of the dearly departed or at a common hall to celebrate the life of the person.  It is a party, but a reserved one in most cases.  In most Protestant traditions, it is a little more formal.  

They call it the visitation, where friends and family meet, usually at a funeral home, to reconnect with other family members and friends, often with the body of the dearly departed in view in the open casket if the condition of the body permits.  People sign a book to let the other family members that they were there, the mortician, bloodsuckers, profit from it.  See, in a home or in a common area, profit is not a motive, but community is.  In the funeral home, those evil people calculate how to maximize profit by scheduling the viewings to maximize the dead bodies that they can process in a given time period.

Do I sound like I criticize that?  As Fred Rodgers would say, “Sure I do”.  I find it evil to profit on the bereavement of others.  But that is Popular Culture these days.  I am invited to the visitation for the man this evening, and I shall go.  I never met him, and only really know my friend and her mum.  It is not improper for me to impinge on the family for such a personal activity, because I am treated like family now.  I DO appreciate her mum for inviting me.

Generally the funeral service follows the next day, or the day after.  I am going the the funeral service, because it is to show support and solidarity with the family.  Even though I did not ever meet the man, I DO know a few of his family, and a couple of them are very dear to me.  The actual funeral service is to show the living that closure is possible, and that there are lots of friends (the best I can be, at least for now) and family to support them.

The actual funeral service IS NOT for the dead, but for the living.  I have not been to a funeral since my father died, may years ago.  And now I am going to one for a man whom I never met.  But it is important, for me to express my sorrow to the family and to let them know that I respect them.  Does that sound silly?  I hope not, because in many respects they are the only family that I have.  I screwed up and alienated my real family long ago, although we still talk.  But I never see them every day like I do the new one.

With all of that said, I should tell you how I want to go.  This might get a bit poignant, but please bear with me.

First, I do NOT want to die alone.  I can only imagine his horror in his last few minutes as his life was slipping away.  I am told that he tried to get out of bed, but only his foot made contact with the floor.  That would be horrible!

Second, I do NOT want my body to be wasted.  Putting in the ground is a waste of good ground and my body.  I want to donate it to science, and I am preparing the papers to do so.  If they need to embalm it for that, OK.  Ashley is horrified with that thought, but when my soul has departed, what good is the shell except to help young medical students and scientists?  Perhaps they might find out what is unique in my DNA that has kept me alive for so long even though I have abused my body with smoke and drink for so long.

Third, I do NOT want a sad funeral.  I would prefer a joyous memorial where all of the friends and family, what few I have, can come and be together.  Actually, the Roman Catholic wake is appealing to me.  However, I realize that a somber service is necessary for departure and I will not think badly of that.

Finally, I want to be with my loved ones for a long, long time so that they will know my thoughts and wishes better.  That is important.

As I said, I shall attend the service Saturday for him, just to show folks dear to me how much they mean.  My charcoal grey suit is ready to wear (the black one is way, way too big for me now), I shall polish my shoes this evening, (and, at my friend’s request, get three roses, one for his grave, one from her for her real mum’s grave, and one for my darling Little Girl for her real grandmum’s grave) and be ready to go Saturday around noon.

This will be complicated Saturday, because of the relationship.  I shall say no more, but you are free to ask.  I might answer or not.

I suppose that this is not what anyone expected from me tonight, but what can I say?  Visitation will be over at 8:00 PM Eastern, and it will take an hour or so for me to get back home, and I expect them to stay a bit longer.  It is likely that I will be around for a while for comments, at least for a while, and I promise to check in again tonight, unless I am occupied comforting them.

This reminds me of one of the great poems of the English language, written by William Cullen Bryant, an American poet who was born 17941103 and died 18780612, called “Thanatopsis”.  Am I getting too self reflective?  Perhaps I am doing so, but this says a whole lot of things about pondering ones’ own death.  I have WAY TOO MANY things to do for Death to find me in the next few decades! I have a someone with whom to be close.   But here is the poem.  Please read and consider it carefully!

TO HIM who in the love of Nature holds

Communion with her visible forms, she speaks

A various language; for his gayer hours

She has a voice of gladness, and a smile

And eloquence of beauty, and she glides         5

Into his darker musings, with a mild

And healing sympathy, that steals away

Their sharpness, ere he is aware. When thoughts

Of the last bitter hour come like a blight

Over thy spirit, and sad images  10

Of the stern agony, and shroud, and pall,

And breathless darkness, and the narrow house,

Make thee to shudder, and grow sick at heart;-

Go forth under the open sky, and list

To Nature’s teachings, while from all around-  15

Earth and her waters, and the depths of air-

Comes a still voice-Yet a few days, and thee

The all-beholding sun shall see no more

In all his course; nor yet in the cold ground,

Where thy pale form was laid, with many tears,  20

Nor in the embrace of ocean, shall exist

Thy image. Earth, that nourished thee, shall claim

Thy growth, to be resolved to earth again,

And, lost each human trace, surrendering up

Thine individual being, shalt thou go  25

To mix forever with the elements;

To be a brother to the insensible rock,

And to the sluggish clod, which the rude swain

Turns with his share, and treads upon. The oak

Shall send his roots abroad, and pierce thy mould.  30

 Yet not to thine eternal resting-place

Shalt thou retire alone, nor couldst thou wish

Couch more magnificent. Thou shalt lie down

With patriarchs of the infant world,-with kings,

The powerful of the earth,-the wise, the good,  35

Fair forms, and hoary seers of ages past,

All in one mighty sepulchre. The hills

Rock-ribbed and ancient as the sun; the vales

Stretching in pensive quietness between;

The venerable woods-rivers that move  40

In majesty, and the complaining brooks

That make the meadows green; and, poured round all,

Old Ocean’s gray and melancholy waste,-

Are but the solemn decorations all

Of the great tomb of man! The golden sun,  45

The planets, all the infinite host of heaven,

Are shining on the sad abodes of death,

Through the still lapse of ages. All that tread

The globe are but a handful to the tribes

That slumber in its bosom.-Take the wings  50

Of morning, pierce the Barcan wilderness,

Or lose thyself in the continuous woods

Where rolls the Oregon, and hears no sound,

Save his own dashings,-yet the dead are there:

And millions in those solitudes, since first  55

The flight of years began, have laid them down

In their last sleep-the dead reign there alone.

So shalt thou rest; and what if thou withdraw

In silence from the living, and no friend

Take note of thy departure? All that breathe  60

Will share thy destiny. The gay will laugh

When thou art gone, the solemn brood of care

Plod on, and each one as before will chase

His favorite phantom; yet all these shall leave

Their mirth and their employments, and shall come  65

And make their bed with thee. As the long train

Of ages glide away, the sons of men,

The youth in life’s green spring, and he who goes

In the full strength of years, matron and maid,

The speechless babe, and the gray-headed man-  70

Shall one by one be gathered to thy side

By those, who in their turn shall follow them.

So live, that when thy summons comes to join

The innumerable caravan which moves

To that mysterious realm, where each shall take  75

His chamber in the silent halls of death,

Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,

Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed

By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave

Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch  80

About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.

Well, time to go for now.  Please consider my words very closely!

IF there is someone that you have neglected to call, write, or visit, DO SO NOW!!!!!!!!!  Do NOT wait!  Life is way, way too short to wait until tomorrow, because you never know who might not be with us then, and that someone might just be YOU.

Here is a very interesting footnote to the paragraph just above this one.  Second Eldest Son called me this afternoon (I wrote the rest of the blog yesterday) and announced that he and his fiance eloped yesterday!  It is ironic that even before he read my admonition to tell people that you love them that the two of them took the ultimate step towards that end.  Please join me in wishing them nothing but the best of luck and the greatest happiness that a couple can have.  They have been together for years, and I am delighted that they chose to express their dedication to each other.

I told my friend’s family that I probably was the only one in the building this evening with good news.  They all wished them well.

Note:  In compliance with the standards of this site, I have attempted to remove the identifiers of any living person except mine.  I offer my deep apologies for any offense that I might have committed.  If I missed any, please correct them.  I assure you that this will not EVER happen again.



Warmest regards,

Doc, aka Dr. David W. Smith

Crossposted at

Daily Kos,

Docudharma, and

firefly-dreaming

1 comment

  1. Translator, aka Dr. David W. Smith

    dealing with things that one would rather not have to do so?

    Warmest regards,

    Doc

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