Photograph by Bill Henson
Posted by Jenny Uzzell
There is a very useful word frequently used by anthropologists and students of religion and mythology to describe something that is neither one thing nor the other; something that is ‘in between’. The word is ‘liminal’.
Classic examples of things that are ‘liminal’ are marshes or other places at the water’s edge, crossroads, twilight and, interestingly, people who are in any way trans-gender. Liminal things are very powerful and very dangerous. They create ‘thin’ places where the ‘Otherworld’ can bleed into this. This is, unless your shaman has deliberately created the situation and is very much ‘In Control’, generally considered to be a Bad Thing.
Dead bodies are most definitely ‘liminal’. A dead body hanging around in the community belongs neither to the world of the living nor to the world of the dead. It is, both practically and ‘magically’ a very dangerous thing. It both is and is not your husband, mother, son, friend… Dead bodies, by their mere presence blur the boundaries between life and death and this is definitely a Bad Thing… things can become confused. Things can cross over. On a purely practical level there is disintegration and a very real risk of disease as time goes on.
It is little wonder then that our ancestors sought to neutralise the risk of a dead body by rendering it, practically and ritually, into something that is stable and does not present a threat to the living. Before burial the body was treated with great care. In some cultures the body could not be left unattended between death and burial. Sometimes all mirrors in the house were covered. The shoes of the dead person removed. Doors opened. Always the purpose is to ensure that the dead remain dead, the living remain living and nothing leaves its appointed place. We saw a good example of this in the Vedic funeral mentioned last time in which Death is ritually restricted to the burial mound and a boundary drawn which it cannot cross.
Whilst this may be very interesting to an archaeologist or an anthropologist, you could be forgiven for asking what it has to do with modern funerals. The answer, as it happens, is ‘quite a lot’. One of the major purposes of a funeral, ancient or modern, is to move the person who has died from ‘here’ to ‘there’. The body itself is removed from the community through burial, cremation, mummification or some other means. The ‘person’ is removed from the realm of the living to the realm of the dead. What this means will depend on the beliefs of the community which is carrying out the ritual. Where there is a clear belief in life after death in some form then the purpose is clear and I talked about this at length in the previous two articles here and here. Where there is a hope rather than a belief, then this will be expressed and affirmed by the community. Even where there is no hope at all of an afterlife, and the understanding is that the dead person has truly ceased to exist, there will still be a transition from the living person who was a part of the fabric of society and of the community to one who lives in the memory and imagination of those left behind and who will be different to each person who remembers.
This is one reason why for many people, myself included, it is so vital to have the body present at the funeral. The community gathers together to acknowledge and bear witness to the appalling fact of death in general and this death in particular. They stand with the body, accompanying it as far as the living are able on its journey from ‘this’ to ‘that; from; ‘here’ to ‘there’ and then they acknowledge not only that someone has gone from their midst, but also that they are still alive and can start the long and painful task of re-constructing the community without the missing member.
Many people feel that the real journey of grief and healing cannot begin until after the funeral because it not until then that the person is really ‘gone’.
It is in the case of secular, materialist funerals in particular that there is, perhaps, a need for new rituals and new ‘liturgy’ that effects and bears witness to this transition from one state of being to another. We do not do badly with the words, but the ritual, the ‘acting out’ of this transformation is still not fully recognised and acknowledged in many non-religious funerals and I suspect that over the next hundred years or so this will change. Humans are ritual animals, and where no ritual or tradition exists that fully expresses what we need to say or need to feel we will continue to use the old ones, even if they are irrelevant, for a very long time. Eventually, however, we will create new ones that reflect our own reality.
Of course, the process of moving through and out of the liminal state does not entirely end with the funeral. Memories are still fresh and immediate; sometimes it is difficult to accept, even to remember that the person has gone. For this reason many religions and cultures have a second ritual about a year after the death that effectively moves the dead person into an ‘ancestral realm’. Regardless of whether this is seen as an actual thing which happens to the ‘soul’ or not, this is, I think, a healthy thing which could, usefully, be incorporated into modern funeral tradition.
One modern development is likely to have a far reaching impact on this whole idea of the realms of life and death which as yet we cannot even begin to grasp. Online ‘personas’ on Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites, to say nothing of virtual worlds such as Second Life, may continue beyond physical death so that the ‘person’ remains in the virtual community in some form or other. This is an eventuality for which our ancestors could not prepare us, and it remains to be seen what its impact on the way we approach death will be in the coming centuries.