Gift or garbage?

Charles 1 Comment

What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!
how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how
express and admirable! in action how like an angel!
in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me,
what is this quintessence of dust?

You have an intense relationship with your body. Clad and looking its best it is the embodiment of all that you are, an essential element of your public personality and your personal identity. By it others know you. It is you made manifest. You can drive around in a different car and you wouldn’t kid anyone that that’s not you inside. Drive around in a different body, even your best friend wouldn’t know you. For all that you deplore the less comely or successful bits, it is precious to you.

The same goes for the bodies of those you love. They are more than vehicles. And they are precious.

These feelings alter as bodies age and become deplorable.

But it’s death that makes all the difference.

How precious is a body then, when it’s dead? What honour is due to it? What celebration? “It’s only a shell,” people say, for all that they don’t really believe that, for all that a shell is hard and a body is not, it’s nothing like a shell.

Old habits die hard. Most of us reckon it a duty to cherish dead bodies, though we know well enough that dissolution awaits. We blather about shells and empty vessels even as we sentimentally hand over the carrier bag of clothes to the undertaker. We still want our dead to look their best.

A person’s personality is very evidently absent from their corpse. So their corpse is clearly not them any more. Which causes us to wonder, some of us, about the soul, the spirit, where that’s gone, if anywhere, and what is the relationship between body and spirit, are they one or are they separate? Do we get to be resurrected in our earthly body? Does our spirit live on in some undefined way? Or is that all wishful tosh?

Does a corpse merit a funeral? Does a funeral need a corpse? If you want to commemorate the life and celebrate the spirit and all the stuff that lives on, what the heck’s that dead body doing there? When Arthur Miller was asked if he was going to the funeral of his ex-wife, Marilyn Monroe, he answered, “Why should I go? She won’t be there.” When John Lennon died, Yoko Ono made sure there’d be no focus on his bullet-ridden dead body by having it cremated unceremoniously, unwitnessed. She held a memorial ceremony instead, to take place everywhere and anywhere. “Pray for his soul from wherever you are,” she said. And we did.

It takes some intellectual rigour to see the corpse in this way, see it for what it is if that’s how you see things, and then get rid of it of as you would a dead car. What’ll the neighbours say?

And it is for this reason, and out of cultural habit, that we have never, in the UK, gone in for having the bodies of our dead towed away and scrapped. They do in the US. It’s quite big over there (and it gives the undertakers sleepless nights). Direct cremation*, they call it. Cheap as chips. Bake and shake. Ruthless, in its way.

I never thought it would jump the Atlantic, but it has. We now have our first direct cremation service over here and it’s busy. Simplicity Cremations, it’s called. Done and dusty for just over a grand. Its creator, Nick Gandon, is a fan of this blog, so he’s clearly a good thing.

I think this marks a significant cultural shift.

There are three sides to direct cremation, just as there are to everything.

It fosters denial in those who will not face and engage with the terrifying reality.

It’s the quickest, cheapest way to get a body scrapped.

It’s a great way to prepare a body for disposal. It makes it portable, durable, divisible. For people who think this way, expense may not be an issue. They can spend their money after disposal, not before, on a memorial event of their own devising.

It’s not for me. But I bet Nick has some interesting clients.

* The body is taken directly from the place of death and cremated in a simple container. There is no funeral service.


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