The sacred and the propane

Charles 13 Comments

It was a deepseated thing, this duty we felt we owed our dead. A sacred duty – literally. It goes back to the beginning of time. Throughout human history the dead body has always been treated in accordance with sacred diktat, its valedictory hullabaloos performed by shaman or sorcerer, soothsayer or priest. For the full extent of human memory the bodies of the dead have been disposed of in places held sacred – demarcated patches of ground, rivers.

We’re getting much too evolved for all that rannygazoo and mystery-making juju now. Too sensible, too pragmatic. Oh yes, we can see a dead body for what it is. A dead body. A waste disposal matter after it’s had its corneas and other useful stuff taken out. The growth of cremation may well have hastened this thinking. Brutal. Rapid. Get your head around that and you’ll get your head around anything.

Well, that’s one way of looking at it. It’s the way of unemployed librarian and blogger Amy Campbell in the US.

It set me thinking. We don’t yet dispose of our dead by direct cremation as they increasingly do in the States. But what of our secular rituals, the ones performed by those possessed of no shamanic attributes – everyday unsanctified civvies like our own dear Gloriamundi? Are these ceremonies mere sentimental vestiges ripe for replacement by less formal, body-free celebrations of memory in restaurants, at tea parties, on picnics, over a couple of beers?

I wonder where we’re going. Take away the sacred and… Does that make all the difference?


  1. Charles

    I’ll be back to you on this one next week Charles, after I’ve de-shamanised some funerals – or will they be entirely free of a faint whiff of the Beyond, the Other? Or is what you’re left with after you take away the sacred, nothing but the profane? We’ll see…more (you can be sure) anon!

  2. Charles

    I think so many of our rituals were originally based in fear – fear that the body wasn’t quite dead, fear that the spirit might be unhappy or vengeful. Wakes, covering the mirrors, etc … Not many of these traditional rituals seem to be based on love, although they’ve evolved to embody our love in an ill-fitting way.

    I wonder if there are any sacred rituals that don’t involve fear in some form or another. Is it possible to have something sacred based purely on love? If not, I think a round of beers is the best send off.

    Thanks for your blog, by the way, always so thought provoking!

  3. Charles

    The North wind doth blow
    And we shall have snow
    And what will Robin do then, poor thing?
    He’ll hide in the barn
    To keep himself warm,
    And tuck his head under his wing.

    Whereas the Dismal Trade has to struggle on through it all, poor things.

    I’ll post on yours above Charles, in a day or two, rather than bunging up your blog with lengthy comments. Did like Shirley’s comment.

  4. Charles

    The sad reality is that if the sacred and transcendent DO serve a purpose in funerals, we will not discover this until we have eliminated these aspects entirely.

    This profanation process is all too easy from the typical contemporary rational point of view … ala Amy Campbell.

    And even if some may still understand why the sacred is so important, indeed paramount, it is impossible to convince the rationalist majority why their point of view is inadequate or inappropriate when it comes to death.

    Thus as a society we are doomed to go through this demystification process until it is complete and total.

    Only then will we feel the vacuum, miss what it is “that angels used to give us”.

    Only then does the real work begin – finding the genuinely sacred again.

    Luckily we are close, the process is almost complete and the Amy Campbells of the world are beating dead horses. It is almost time to bring on the shamans.

    If there are any genuine ones out there!

  5. Charles

    Sadly, it seems to me, Perpetua polarises, and judges other people’s views of these matters as inadequate or inappropriate. I feel that the reality of other’s lives – our lives – are a lot more bendy and shady than these harsh judgements allow for.

    It isn’t, I find, often rationalists vs the sacred it’s more often “not sure but don’t think there’s an after life so I want a secular ceremony” as opposed to “I reckon there’s a God, we’ll see, and I want the vicar”

    And – sometimes even people PG labels as “rationalists” are interested in the idea of the sacred and what it can offer any of us. So long as we don’t allow the sleep of reason to bring forth monsters (Goya)

    It was (is!) a religious (sacred?) view of life and death that would stone a woman to death who is accused of adultery, and circumcise a girl so she doesn’t enjoy sex. Though it is a view that clearly sees not much sacred in that woman’s/girl’s life.

    But of course “the genuinely sacred” gets us out of that hole, I guess. Ah. Depends who’s defining the “genuine.”

    Thing is, so many belief systems – including some sorts of atheism – seem to need to define themselves by creating infidels who are lesser beings. Well, in general, f**k that.

    “By their fruits shall ye judge them.”

    There are, after all, plenty of people who think the available religious views of death are not adequate for them, however much they might work for others.
    No doubt PG would agree that we should shun – oppose – any view of the sacred that leads us into barbarism, as it so often used to, and sometimes still does.

    And now I really must stop banging on and attend to my efforts to create some of the funereal vacuum needed for the genuinely sacred to rush back into our lives, in PG’s interesting but perhaps rather millenial vision.

  6. Charles

    The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology led me a merry dance with ‘sacred’; it took me to ‘holy’, then to ‘whole’, which said “see holy”. There’s a suggestion of completeness, but that could be interpreted however you like where dead bodies are concerned, especially minus their organs.

    The one thing all entries agree on is that ‘sacred’ is inextricably entwined with religion. ‘Religion’, without looking it up, must mean a rejoining (as in ‘ligament’ etc); which sounds innocuous enough until you see it in action with all its finery, robes, exclusivity and so on (‘profanity’, incidentally PG, simply means ‘action outside of a temple’, a place we so-called ‘rationalists’ prefer to remain), wherein lies the problem: how can you have an inclusive, sacred and secular ritual without contradicting yourself, without aping the religious, without inviting criticism?

    The answer – my answer – is to stop wanting one. The notion of completeness suggests an ending, a new beginning and a rejoining in a changed situation – hardly a foreign concept for even an atheist a funeral. Perhaps the word ‘sacred’, like the word ‘god’, could be reclaimed from religion to embody a wider definition, but why go to so much trouble? Can’t we have our own vocabulary, untainted by shades of religious piety that we’ve struggled so hard to shake off in order to find true meaning in life?

    What do we really want from a funeral, and why have a body there? Well, there’s a sense of emotional separateness without the body. Think of someone you knew who’s dead – what do you see? His or her face, probably, her movements, gestures, smile; in short, her body. She will live with us in that formless form forever, yet we have to make that separation from the actual body, if only for health reasons. The person doesn’t disappear from our lives when she dies, only from her body; so a modern funeral must welcome her into her new place in us, wherever that may be. Without ritually parting from the body itself, that’s all the harder to do. You wouldn’t wave your dear friends goodbye on the train without bothering to go with them to the station – that’s what I would call sacred, and that’s where sacredness and love hold hands.

    Yes, we secularly inclined have our own good reasons to honour what could otherwise be called the sacred aspects of parting from a dead body, with ceremony, and which indeed need not involve fear, and let none deny us that right or duty to evoke the beyond in our own vision of it, unshackled by outdated conventional faith. “Take away the sacred and…”, in my book, that liberates us from the strangling concepts of religious or spiritual belief, and then the sky’s the limit.

    In fact the sky isn’t even the limit.

  7. Charles

    Thanks, everyone! There’s a lot here to pick the bones out of. Alan Ball, creator of Six Feet Under, said that when you’ve got a dead body in the room people can talk about anything. Seems a good thing, especially if there’s much that needs to be said. Keats talks about ‘the holiness of the heart’s affections’, which would seem to find echoes in what both Shirley and Jonathan say.

  8. Charles

    I’m really not an expert, but it seems like the body can still have an important part to play for those who are mourning, as it can help the grieving process to formally ‘say goodbye’. It might not always be for sacred reasons these days, but enabling friends and relatives a last formal send off could possibly help people come to terms with the reality of the loss.

  9. Charles

    oh, wow, I wrote that comment this morning and pressed send without refreshing the page! I look forward to reading everyone else’s comments…

  10. Charles

    A line from ‘Wulf’ comes to mind:
    “you are labeling pieces of your world with words
    then confusing your word-hoard with the totality of life”
    from the way of wyrd

  11. Charles

    I think there is much we can take from religion without aping it.
    Faith, hope, love, mercy, humility, forgiveness, redemption, transcendence, all of these are not just the preserve of the religious.
    My mother was as strict an atheist as Christopher Hitchens but was filled with faith; for the humanistic project, for the future, for her family, all of which was pretty sketchy and uncertain at the time of her death.

    We should not be afraid to reclaim these concepts, particularly the idea of Agape and unshackle them from old nobodaddy as Blake called him and the notion of a judgement based afterlife.

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