Remains to be seen

Charles 6 Comments

So, a bad week, then, for dead heads of state. Hugo Chavez can’t after all be embalmed ‘like Lenin’. By the time the experts got there it was too late for the disembowelling and the deep marinade which would have made him, in death, the centre of a cult and an object of pilgrimage – as writer Edward Lucas has it:

‘at the centrepiece of a phoney religion where dead dictators brood over their subjects even in death. So long as they are unburied, their ideas still live.’

Meanwhile, here in the UK, the tug-of-war over the bones of Richard III has been lent intensity by the declared intention of the top chaps at Leicester to rebury him under a simple slab at the east end of the cathedral. Not good enough for a king, complain critics. “A king should not be buried under the floor,” said John Ashdown-Hill, leader of genealogical research for the Richard III Society. “He should have a tomb rather than being put back under the ground where he’s just been dug up.”

All of which focuses the mind on the significance we attach to dead bodies, the things we do to them and the reasons why we do them.

Different societies, different faiths do things differently. Some hurry their dead underground, the sooner that they might wake up in Paradise. Others, for a variety of reasons, proceed more slowly. Thanks to bureaucratic obstacles it can take up to three weeks to arrange a cremation in this country which, for the corpse, means a lot of time spent in fridges and cold rooms growing waxier and waxier.

Many undertakers reckon this to be no bad thing. ‘It’s okay, take your time,’ they say to bereaved people. So they can get their heads around it, they mean, and plan the sort of sendoff they need. And there’s a lot to be said for this. Most people don’t start thinking about this stuff til they absolutely have to.

Spending time with the dead body is reckoned also to be therapeutic. And this is why some undertakers are fans of embalming. It produces an emotionally valuable memory picture – a dead person at ease with their fate. It is the technological, artificial Good Death.

For reasons ranging from its invasiveness to the way it is reckoned to distance bereaved people from reality, embalming has its enemies among ‘ordinary’ people and also among the inhabitants of Funeralworld itself. The absolute sincerity of those at both poles of the argument is undoubtable.

Here is undertaker Caitlin Doughty:

“An embalmed body, … it is not an actual dead body in a way. It’s a strange wax effigy that the dead body has become. You’re not really seeing a dead person—you’re seeing an idea of a dead person, a metaphor for a dead person.”

But Doughty is no fan of direct cremation, either, which she sees as the legacy of the (very English) derision heaped by Jessica Mitford on the Great American Funeral:

“My main problem [with Jessica Mitford] is that she really brought on the direct cremation revolution. It is a valuable service. It is a less expensive service. It’s another way of saying, ‘Take the body away. … Don’t let it rot at all. Turn it to ash. … I don’t want to think about any of the processes that the body would actually go through in a natural way.'”

Doughty believes that the contemplation of an unembalmed dead body is important:

“The ecstasy of decay is … kind of like the idea of the sublime, in the sense that if you are really engaging with your mortality … it opens you up to a broader emotional spectrum than you normally have.”

We find these sentiments echoed by many thinking undertakers in this country. To observe the changes that take place in a dead person over a period of days enables the bereaved to comprehend what has happened and accept that it’s time, in the end, to let the dead person go.

The contemplation of the corpse also, to use the words of Jonathan Taylor, enables bereaved people to reconcile themselves to the new reality: that he or she is now an it; that whatever spirit or life force the corpse once embodied has gone. Elvis has left the building.

But even the let’s-get-real school of undertaking baulks at presenting the corpse as it really, actually is: gape-jawed, staring-eyed, aghast. These undertakers are prettifiers, too. Television mirrors this denial of reality. On a death porn programme like Silent Witness we are invited to gloat over hideous injuries… but all those mutilated corpses have perfectly closed mouths and eyes. Real, gape-jawed death is, it seems, an unbearable reality, a squirm too far.

How most living people feel dead people should be cared for, or not, and to what purpose, is mostly subjective, based in local cultural and/or faith norms. They tend not to ask why; they just go with what they feel to be, or are told is, right. And that may be perfectly okay. There’s no rational route through this.

What people understand about death is unlikely to stand still as they experience the deaths of friends and become aware of their own one-way journey as evidenced by irrevocable signs of ageing – except in the case of extreme deniers.

And for all of us it just got more complicated.

In the US, Sam Parnia, who has worked with Peter Fenwick to research continuing consciousness, or life after death, has been pioneering a technique for reviving the dead by cooling them in order to reverse the cellular processes that take place after death.

In this way, he was able to revive a woman who had been technically dead for up to 16 hours.

Parnia says:

In view of the rapidly evolving progress in the field of resuscitation science and the ever-expanding gray-zone period after death, I believe it is important to include what we would refer to as human consciousness, psyche or soul in future definitions and considerations regarding death. It would also perhaps be wise to concentrate some of our future research efforts on understanding the state of human consciousness after death has started, since the evidence currently suggests that it is not lost immediately after death but continues to exist for at least some time afterward.

In other words, if our mind continues to exist after death, how long does it exist for? And why?

This may give our contemplation of the dead a whole new lease of life.


  1. Charles

    Lots of meat here (fresh or rotting), thanks Charles. Only got time to comment on one of several points in my lunch hour: I’m totally mortified RIII isn’t getting a tomb in Leicester Cathedral rather than being buried under a slab on the floor. Important people are surely traditionally buried in tombs while the rest of us go six feet under.

    As you say, we do indeed attach significance to dead bodies but it’s also about who they were when alive. When we talk about RIII we talk about the living and breathing man who lived a long time ago. We’re well aware he’s now just skeleton with curved spine and big chin, but we don’t just think of him as a dead man, a corpse, a pile of bones. We think of him as the historical figure, imagining what he did that was good and what he did that was bad.

  2. Charles

    What a terrific, thought provoking article.
    I will always ‘tidy up’ a person who has died – cleaning fingernails, eyes, nose, washing/brushing the hair, possibly shaving; but no more than they might do for themselves before receiving visitors. Closing the mouth is always of concern, as it is no longer routinely tightly bound, with the teeth in, as in the old days – thus remaining naturally closed. A towel under the chin sometimes works if done very soon after death. Otherwise, it’s the silent suture – an undertaker’s secret, and best left at that for most people, I feel.
    Other than these simple services – if left undone – there would be very few obvious signs of decay to bring home the fact that the person that was is no more, for several days.
    It seems clear to those that knew them that the person they knew has somehow ‘gone’; a matter of faith as to where.
    Consciousness after death? Not my department. So I’ll just keep talking to them just in case.

  3. Charles

    ‘After death has started’?
    What is death?
    Does it stop and start?
    Or start and stop?
    Or start and stay?

    What is life?
    What is ‘life’ after ‘death’?
    What is consciousness?
    Continuing or otherwise….

    Too much gawping at the dead body – prettified or naturally rotting – can’t be good, put it in a nice designer box and burn it or bury it. The best concept of life after death is to leave an imprint – real, imagined, spiritual, graphic, to somehow disturb the matter of the universe with a memory of being…
    Maybe more like looking at an MRI scan in preference to a plastinated von Hagen body (which is surely the ultimate ’embalming’?)

    You can see where ‘it’ was but not where it is….

  4. Charles

    We resist prettifying any of our bodies too much. We brush hair and clean faces, but that is about it. We avoid make up; don’t want anyone looking like Les Dawson. We don’t use the undertaker’s suture, but use a plastic collar that fits under the chin and sits on the breast plate. Yes it is visible, and we explain to families just before they go in that they will see this. We recently had a service in our chapel for a very old lady with an open coffin. She was completely unadorned, mouth slightly open, eyes sunken, just as her family expected her to be. She looked beautiful, awesome and very, very dead.

  5. Charles

    In our short existence, we have had a number of occasions of families coming to spend time with the body. Like Ru we clean faces and we take away anything that shouldn’t be there – particularly the medical stuff. There is something very powerful about removing the clinical stuff – body bags, all the unnecessary bits of plastic. It restores humanity in the most incredible way.

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