The sacred and the propane

Charles Cowling

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?

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Rupert Callender
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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… Read more »

Sonya
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Sonya

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

Graveyard bunny
Guest
Graveyard bunny

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

Graveyard bunny
Guest
Graveyard bunny

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.

gloriamundi
Guest

Jonathan, when are you going to write a book, your guide to the perplexed? It would, I’d bet, be excellent.

Charles Cowling
Guest

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.

Jonathan
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Jonathan

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… Read more »

gloriamundi
Guest

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… Read more »

Perpetua's Garden
Guest

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… Read more »

gloriamundi
Guest

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.

Shirley Tatum
Guest

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… Read more »

gloriamundi
Guest

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!