Absence from whom we love is worse than death

Charles 1 Comment

Ask a hardline atheist if they want to be buried or cremated. Their response ought to be a predictable “I don’t care, my dead body won’t be me any more, I’ll have gone from being a me to an it.” But I’ve never met an atheist who didn’t express a preference, an insistence, even, and talk about their dead body as a me, as in “I don’t want to lie in a hole rotting away full of maggots,” etc.

It’s illogical but it’s the sort of thing you tend to notice only once it’s pointed out. Illogic pervades everything to do with death and funerals, we accept this easily, unthinkingly, particularly in the matter of letting go of the body. Religious people are no less illogical.

Once you’ve let go of the body, what’s left? Plenty. Feelings. Memories. Admiration. Gratitude. Example. Values. You don’t have to let go of any of them. You can still see the dead person in your mind’s eye; you can still hear them in your mind’s ear. You could argue that most of the most important things are left, together either with the joyful reassurance of the dead person’s present non-existence or their blissful afterlife on the Other Side.

It’s not the dead person’s body we miss but everything their body embodied. It’s the black hole of absence we grieve for, the loss of continuing presence of all those things we don’t have to let go of, that we haven’t lost. Nothing can compensate for that.

So we cling to their bodies in ways which are, to paraphrase Tom Lynch, sacred and silly. Claire Seeber, writing in the Guardian, keeps her grandmother’s ashes in the glove compartment of her car; Keith Richard famously snorted his dad’s; Patsy Kensit slept beside her mother’s for years. One man, Stanley, brought his wife’s ashes home. “There was no plan,” he says, “so I put her in the wardrobe … Now I find it comforting to know she is there safe and, most important to me, warm. It might sound irrational — as a scientist I know there’s no logic in it, and I’m not religious or superstitious — but … I’m just reassured to know that she’s not out there in the cold … she’s still with me when I’m sleeping.” Read the whole article here.

Ashes in the wardrobe, a little shrine on the mantelpiece — sacred and silly; silly but sacred.

Where do you draw the line?

The recent picture at the top shows Lenin having a restorative bath. Sacred? Silly?

Your call.

Notify of
1 Comment
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
12 years ago

hi kieranbeard