The GFG goes international (part 2)

Whilst my fellow directors were attending and leading workshops at the Good Death Festival in the Czech Republic I was off on an adventure of my own – a spur of the moment life’s too short trip to Vietnam but of course I couldn’t quite resist having a little look at how death is done there. 

It’s estimated that some 75% of the population follow what’s called a Vietnamese folk religion. It’s not an organised structure as such, more a set of local worship traditions and family rituals and influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism and no doubt by the many world invaders and colonisers Vietnam has endured in its history. 

Traditional funerals can last for anything from one to three days or more. Browsing through a local market in Hoi An we came across the start of a funeral procession so we stopped to observe and pay our respects. Asking a neighbour how long the procession would last we were told about nine hours so we bid our farewells and carried on shopping. 

Our visit to the Imperial City in Hue, palace of one of the thirteen emperors that once ruled the country, coincided with the annual ritual to commemorate the death of one of the of the emperors, culminating in the ceremonial burning of the emperors clothes and shoes to aid his journey to the next world.

For ordinary folk more cemetery space is needed, especially for those who don’t have easy access to the town and city cemetery, so small burial sites are beginning to be seen, and you may see headstones in gardens or randomly placed in rice and vegetable fields where people are tilling the land around them.

In Hanoi we visited the huge mausoleum where the preserved body of Ho Chi Minh can be viewed. As Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and President until his death in 1969, Ho Chi Minh lived as simply as he could, choosing not to reside in the Presidential Palace, but in a specially built stilt-house in the grounds. He left instructions for his body to be cremated and his ashes spread to North, Central, and South Vietnam, but government officials decided it was to be embalmed instead. 

So we may well leave our wishes clearly recorded, music chosen, dress code requested, resting place carefully considered, family members to be – or not be – invited, it doesn’t mean those we leave behind are going to take any notice. Our funerals may well be about us, but they’re for we leave behind.

Window shopping in Lubeck

Yeah yeah, it’s a rubbish photo, I know, I’m not blind. It’s the best I could do. It’s an undertaker’s window.

In Germany. Me and the missus have been holidaying there. This undertaker is in the ancient city of Lubeck. As you can see (through a glass, darkly) the display is a series of objects on plinths.  It’s eyecatching. There’s a sign asking people who don’t understand the symbolism of the objects displayed to pop in and find out. It gives a reason for people to go in before they absolutely have to. Brilliant, eh? Beats luring the bowls team in to buy a funeral plan (the condemned men and women had a nice cup of tea and a sandwich).

Well of course we had to pop in and ask about the display and have a bit of a gossip. I don’t speak more German than it takes me to order pils and buy tobacco, but my wife (the one with the brains) is fluent. It ought to have been a good opportunity for her to practise, but the undertaker who greeted us, Carsten Berend, insisted on speaking English.

We had a good chat, and might have had a better one if Carsten hadn’t been so busy. They cremate 80% of their clients. We talked about the reuse of graves, and he was surprised that something considered so normal in Germany is reckoned so unacceptable by British politicians. He told us that there are 30 undertakers in Lubeck serving a population just over 200,000. His is a high-end business. He expressed exasperation at the incursion of semi-trained, cheapskate opportunists, which of course is something we know nothing about in Britain. Their window displays are created for them by an arty marketing agency and change regularly. We never found out what the display above actually means. Very nice piece of work, though, even better than dusty tombstones and upside-down bluebottles.

You can see their website here. You’ll need Google Translate to help you work through it.

It may intrigue you to know what music Germans like to play at funerals. Here’s what they recommend:

Screenshot 2014-08-03 at 11

Yup, Germans are much more relaxed about beastly foreign influences than we xenophobic Brits. Some of the songs you’ve never heard of are worth a listen. Not the Mancini Dornervogel (Thornbirds) perhaps. Xavier Naidoo is interesting; here’s his Abschied Nehmen (Farewell). Gronenmeyer’s really good. Try Der Weg (The Way) and Halt Mich (Hold Me), with its searing sax.

Historical note. So many people wanted to live in medieval Lubeck that they built houses for artisans in the gardens of the merchants’ houses. Thy are reached through narrow alleys. The only planning condition was that that the alley had to be wide enough to convey a coffin.

Making the best

From Being Dead Is No Excuse:

Southern women always want to look their best — even if they happen to be dead. Our local undertaker, Bubba Boone, understands this. We brag that Bubba can make you look better than a plastic surgeon can, though, unfortunately, you do have to be dead to avail yourself of his ministrations. He did an outstanding job on Sue Dell Potter, a retired waitress. Sue Dell expressed a strange desire to go into the ground looking exactly as she had in her long-past waitress days. We went to call on Sue Dell at the funeral home and — lo and behold — she sported a big, teased bouffant and, unless you’d known her back when she was waiting tables and flirting up a storm, you’d never have believed it was Sue Dell. But we feel certain that Sue Dell was smiling down from heaven (with her now fire-engine-red lips) and thanking Bubba for his excellent work. 

In the [Mississippi] Delta, we are blessed to have before us a fine example of helping the dead put their best foot forward without actually lying. We have been doing this for a long time. In 1905, Joshua Ridgeway was shot and killed in a bar-room brawl in front of the old Hotel Greenville. For his tombstone, the family selected “Blessed are the peacemakers”. It was an inspired choice. While it doesn’t actually deny that Mr Ridgeway died in a vicious gunfight, it does imply that he just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and might even have been engaged, unsuccessfully, into trying to talk the others into laying down their arms. Of course, they would have known better to have fallen for that. 

Stonehenge and sky burial

 Posted by Ken West

The archaeology at Stonehenge is all about digging up funerary artefacts so is it possible to consider how those funerals occurred? Stonehenge is unique, the only certain stone circle in Britain aligned to the solstices. Forget the Druids, as they did not exist in the Neolithic period and never had any involvement with Stonehenge.

The people, a loose federation of tribes called the Durotriges when the Romans arrived, were initially hunter gatherers. The first date we have is 8,000BC when three posts, totem poles, perhaps, were erected at Stonehenge. We have no burials from that period so we might assume, as with most early mobile societies, that bodies were exposed to birds and/or animals. The people could retain the large bones and then carry them back to a homeland location, perhaps the sacred River Avon. Burial had little to commend it, the graves being scattered over a wide area and requiring the digging of a shallow grave with antler picks, which would then be dug up by foraging wolves and bears. We then jump 4,000 years to when these people built communal stone chambered tombs. Early assumptions were that bodies were placed in the chamber and allowed to decompose. This was never feasible as decomposition would be slow, neither are full skeletons found, nor are there sufficient chambers. The chambers were probably used for the storage of the bones of the elite. Around 3,700BC, they built causewayed enclosures, which are banked and ditched circles broken by paths, or causeways, leading inside. Sometime between 4,000 – 3,000BC, the use of the chambered tombs ceased, or at least was infrequent, and cremation/burial began, which neatly brings us to Stonehenge.

Archaeologist Mike Parker Pearson’s book “Stonehenge,” summarises the Stonehenge Riverside Project 2003 – 2009, in which he theorised that Stonehenge was part of a much wider ritual area, with Durrington Walls, a nearby henge, suggested as the Stonehenge builder’s camp, and the River Avon linking this henge downriver to the avenue from Stonehenge. The project proved that this was the case, but these ritual components were put in place over 500 years, so let’s consider the sequence of construction.

Both Durrington Walls and the sarsen Stonehenge we see today, date to 2,500BC, and are about two miles apart. The project proved Durrington Walls to be the largest Neolithic encampment in Europe and that it was the builder’s camp, over a 40 year period. No human remains were found but their cattle bones suggested that some of the builders travelled from Devon, West Wales and Scotland. It appears that between 2,000 – 4,000 people met each autumn, and, say, hauled two sarsens from near Avebury, to Stonehenge, dressed them on site, and erected them together with a couple of bluestones. In just 40 years they erected the 82 sarsens with the pre-existing 80 bluestones in four concentric rings, with no human burials involved. The project suggested that 56 of these bluestones had previously formed a larger, outer circle built 500 years earlier, around 3,000BC, these stones hauled from Preseli, in Pembrokeshire. The circle was entered at the Heel Stone, a natural sarsen erected to mark the sunrise. Each of the bluestones sat on human cremated remains, which the project referred to as the Chieftains Cemetery, with 63 bodies, mostly identified through small ear bones. Some were women and children, and if these were double or triple funerals, as it were, it may be that precisely 56 inhumations took place under the 56 bluestones. The remains were placed beneath each stone, and crushed into the chalk that formed the socket. The burials took place over 200 years, from 3,000 BC to 2,800 BC. 

The only grave goods found were one mace head, which implied a warrior, and an incense burner, which implied a religious leader or shaman. But the presence of women and children’s bones denied the circle as a warrior or religious burial area, as women did not participate in either, as far as we know. Mike Parker Pearson’s conclusion was that they were an elite, perhaps an aristocracy.

The project also confirmed the existence of a second bluestone circle at the end of the avenue from Stonehenge, where it meets the River Avon. This was constructed at the same time as the Stonehenge bluestone circle, using 25 stones, none with cremated remains. The ritual importance of this second circle is its riverside location. Upon disembarking from a boat, one was immediately into the bluestone circle, which was banked and ditched in glaring white chalk. The mile long avenue headed north, then west on the 450 metre straight stretch to Stonehenge, entering at the Heel Stone. The avenue is 22 metres wide, and had a glistening white chalk bank and external ditch on either side, but little can now be seen. The straight section of the avenue follows three parallel natural chalk ridges, which always marked the sunrise from Stonehenge. Some consider that this is the reason why Stonehenge is where it is; that the Gods put in place this natural feature marking the sunrise. The bluestones in the riverside circle were removed around 2,400BC, the same date as the present sarsen circle and Durrington Walls were constructed. The henge was retained so the ritual possibilities remained in place. Was the funeral ritual to carry the ashes for the 63 bodies by boat to the riverside circle, then create a cortege up the avenue to the Stonehenge bluestone circle, and then inter the remains under a bluestone?

Why did they choose cremation? Was it because the solstice orientation was a form of Sun God worship, which supports the use of fire? Or was it a means of purifying the dead? If so, it is unlikely that burying the ashes, and effectively de-purifying them has any merit. Was the cremation a sacrifice, perhaps related to fertility rites, with the ashes scattered on fields, yet no bone fragments are found in soil? Perhaps the most obvious reason, not suggested by the project, is that cremation reduces a body to a small, peripatetic, pile of bones, which are readily placed under a stone.

The chalk downs were never heavily wooded so creating a pyre would be onerous. None have been found at Stonehenge or anywhere nearby. Currently, a modern cremator would produce about two kilos of bone ash. Although Neolithic people might be smaller than ourselves, they would possess higher bone density due to heavy labour, walking, even running, and the opposite of modern people experiencing an epidemic of osteoporosis. Yet the archaeologists find only one kilo of cremated bone so were the smaller bones left in the pyre ash? Even now, many cultures are quite content to collect only the larger bones after cremation and ignore the smaller.

The project concluded that Durrington Walls was the place of the living, and Stonehenge the place of the dead, but is 63 burials sufficient to reach this conclusion? Clearly, these burials took place at Stonehenge but I would suggest that watching one would be like watching a burial at Westminster Abbey or Princess Diana’s funeral: yes, it’s happening but how representative is it? Isn’t Stonehenge identical to the earlier chambered tombs, all about Stone Age grandiosity; a place for the elite. If we reckon that archaeology has located less than one percent of deaths in the area and no cemeteries have been found, we might ask where the anticipated 12,000 other bodies are? The project used the term cremation/burial to suggest that the cremation and burial were integrated; that the word cremation on its own is not sufficient. Was cremation/burial, like chamber burial, only permitted to chieftains or others of rank because of the massive labour it requires to create the pyres? That sounds remarkably similar to Tibet and Mongolia, where cremation is reserved for high lamas and dignitaries because the ground is rocky or frozen, or there is little wood. 

So what happened to the common people? The conclusion is simple, the one in which nature does all the hard work instead of the exhausted humans; sky burial. The excess of Stonehenge blinds us to reality. Life was hard, many children died, people lived short lives, proven by the arthritis found in the bones of the spine, even of some of the elite interred at Stonehenge. Seasonal work meant that the period March to September was a struggle to find food, care for the young animals born each spring, store food, cut wood for fuel, and have enough excess to survive the winter. The work parties building Stonehenge clearly did so in the quiet autumn period, when the people were at their healthiest and strongest. In the summer, there was no possibility of building funeral pyres, week in, week out? 

What evidence is there for sky burial? On the banks of the River Avon near Durrington Walls, project excavations found three sets of postholes, each of four posts forming a square, the whole surrounded by a palisade. The biggest posts were 50 centimetres across, and estimated at over 5 metres high. The conclusion is that they were towers, looking out over the river, and presumed to be holding platforms. This is not such a surprise because there have been suggestions that the earlier causewayed enclosures could have been designed to expose bodies to birds or animals. Perhaps they progressed to towers as they created more efficient flint axes to cut timber, or did not want animals feeding on the body.

If you think sky towers a flight of fancy, consider that in Tibet, where it may have persisted from the Stone Age, they revere the vulture as a form of angel. This fact reminds me that few, if any, bird bones are found in UK excavations. Is that because the Neolithic people and birds had a spiritual relationship? Imagine, eagles, buzzards, kites, ravens and carrion crows could have fed on the bodies, and probably European vultures, at least in summer. Even in 2013 over one hundred vulture sitings were made over the south of Britain. It is evident that the larger eagles and vultures swallow small fleshed bones so feet, hands and ribs would disappear as well as all the soft tissue. That fits with the overall finding that full skeletons are rare and disarticulated skull fragments and large bones are found scattered about sites. Once the bones were cleaned off, they could be deposited in the sacred Avon. Sky burial is also faster than modern cremation based on an incident in 2013 when a female walker in the Pyrenees fell to her death. Two friends, walking with her, called the police and they took 50 minutes to locate her body. Initially the rescuers could not see the body from their helicopter until they realised that it was covered by gorging Griffon vultures. By the time they got to her the birds had stripped her body of all flesh and only a few bones remained; and she had been clothed.

The birds strip the flesh, free the spirit, remove the potential for infection and reduce the weight to a handful of bones; a peripatetic body, just like cremation. Perhaps it was these bones, of the elect, that were cremated, and not full bodies, which would reduce the need for huge pyres. Perhaps a bone or two from every body, whether sky burial or cremated, was carried to Stonehenge, at some point, for a ceremony, and then deposited in the sacred Avon. 

It might be concluded that Stonehenge is neither a cemetery nor the abode of the dead; that the burials were more a form of dedication for each bluestone placement. Stonehenge is more a theatre of dreams, a ritual space; a stage, cathedral and town hall, in which they could ritualise everything in society. Even the solstice celebrations, just two each year, sounds reasonable in that one imagines that they could create the necessary resources whilst also providing for their own needs. The enigma continues.

See the full article as a download on my website

Fusion funerals: Cockneys, immigrants and Hackney hipsters

Posted by Richard Rawlinson

The story of T. Cribb & Sons is one of business resilience in the cultural quicksand of London’s East End. A family-run firm of undertakers since 1881, its heritage is Cockney: close-knit, white, working class communities celebratory of both their roots and the material trappings of wealth: pie and mash and the dogs coupled with a taste for pin-sharp schmutter. Their funerals have been summarised as Victorian music hall meets Catholic High Mass: undertakers with toppers and canes, horse-drawn carriages and extravagant floral wreaths.

With its vicinity to London’s docks, the East End has for centuries attracted immigrants, from the French Huguenots to Polish Jews, the Irish to the Chinese. More recently came the Bangladeshis, Africans and eastern Europeans.

Meanwhile, true Cockneys have upped sticks to Essex. Many a London cabbie will tell you how they cashed in the terraced house in Bow for an all-mod-cons Barratt home in Brentwood while opining ‘the East End ain’t what it was’. And you only have to watch TOWIE to see former Cockneys splurging their cash on smart clobber and wheels, along with Sex on the Beach cocktails and cosmetic dentistry.

T. Cribb & Sons, which started with a single parlour in Canning Town, has also branched out into Essex, buying up undertakers in Loughton, Debden, Benfleet and Pitsea. However, of its 1,800 funerals a year, half are now for non-whites, especially Africans and Asians in east London.

It’s introduced a repatriation service for west African immigrants who prefer to be buried back home in Nigeria or Uganda. It’s also attracted the British Ghanaian community, increasingly content to be buried in England and who, like Cockneys, have a taste for flamboyant funerals, sometimes beyond their means.

Attention to the needs of a broad demographic can also be seen in details such as a Hindu/Sikh washroom at Cribb’s Beckton branch, and the way it’s mindful to bring Chinese mourners home from a funeral by a different route, in order to ward off evil spirits. It even provides limos with the lucky eight in the number plate. Again for the Chinese, it offers a wall of small vaults for votive offerings such as sticks of incense. At £750 for a five-year lease on a vault, this service is being adopted by white Brits, too, showing how cultural influences go both ways.

T. Cribb & Sons is now courting the Muslim market, currently served by a few Bangladeshi undertakers attached to mosques. The showy traits of the Cockney funeral are theologically out of step with Islam in which dead people are swiftly washed, prayed over and buried. But as with most cultural melting pots, people draw on outside influences, whether integration is approved of or not.

For more on this subject, see The Economist here.  It’s a good read, rich in colour gleened from firsthand research. What it doesn’t address is the colonisation of former Cockney turf by middle class West Enders who have headed east for more affordable housing in areas from Stratford to now-trendy Hackney and Shoreditch. As these right-on Guardianistas grow older, might we see less emphasis on Cribb’s website on black-plumed Friesans, bling limos and lavish floral tributes, and more on wicker coffins, woodland burial grounds, ethnic-chic joss sticks and vegetarian catering services at the wake?

As The Economist writer says, ‘Undertakers thrive on the loss of their clients—not on the loss of their client base’. Meeting evolving demand is key. But you can see why some undertakers favour the big spenders. Flowers spelling GRANDAD: A PROPER DIAMOND GEEZER destroy the ozone layer? Gimme a break. Next you’ll be saying wreaths depicting the St George flag might upset the neighbours.

While you’re at it, why not lob another ancestor cult into the pot?

As you don your sad-rags, zombie gear, horror clobber, skeleton onesie or whatever it is that floats your boat at this season which sees the ungainly coupling of All Hallows Day, Samhain and the Mexican Dia de los Muertos enhanced/corrupted by commercialism and rendered incoherent by cheap thrills and facepainting, the team here at the GFG-Batesville Shard, though no enemies of larks, has given in to a disinclination to muck in and get carried away, though our spirit of absenteeism has not dissuaded us from wiring up the doorknocker in order to electrocute trick or treaters.  

Since ours is a society that loves to plagiarise the practices of other cultures in order the fill the void where our own should be, it is surprising to see us turn up the chance to incorporate funerary rituals of the Natufians. 

The Natufians, 13,000 to 9,800 BC, a middle-eastern hunter-gatherer people who were the first to generate agricultural surpluses and form settled communities, eg Jericho, cherished and preserved their dead within the foundations of their homes. After death, their bodies would be buried by their families who would later dig up chosen notables and remove their skulls, returning the rest of the corpse to the earth. The fallen flesh was replaced with modelled clay in order to reproduce the original appearance of the dead person. Cowrie shells were used to imitate eyes. The effect was remarkably lifelike.

 Team GFG takes no responsibility for what you now do with this information. 

Should women be allowed to go to funerals?

I don’t suppose there can be many ‘indigenous’ funerals held these days which prohibit the presence of women. There may be one or two redoubts in Presbyterian Scotland. Bucking the trend in the wider community, though, many Muslims prohibit their presence. 

Why ban women from funerals? To spare their feelings, mostly. Or put it another way, because they can’t be relied on to hold themselves in check. Women, as is well known, are easily subverted by the slightest emotion. They are prone to making a scene and creating disorder. 

This, at least, is the consideration which informs a thumbs-up for female funeral attendance at Muslim funerals in America, where Shaykh Luqman Ahmad has delivered this ruling

based upon the fact that Muslims in America, as a rule do not engage in the practices of wailing, tearing clothing, beating the cheeks, and hollering out bad statements at funerals, and the evidence from the sunna of the Prophet (SAWS) and the view of the scholars we have mentioned, it is not haram for Muslim women to accompany the funeral procession to the grave sites as long as they are able to control themselves … If there is a probability that attendance at the burial will stir emotions to a degree where unlawful behavior will likely occur … then it is prohibitively disliked.

Women: know your limits

Historical perceptions of a disreputable trade

The following is extracted by a PhD thesis by Sarah E Bond. It describes the social status of funeral workers in earlier times, particularly in ancient Rome where, we discover, FSOs were often employed, also, as executioners. 

According to an inscription from Puteoli dated to the first century BCE: 

“The operae (workers) who shall be provided for this undertaking are not to live on this side of the tower where the grove of Libitina stands today. They are to take their bath after the first hour of the night. They are to enter the town only for the purpose of collecting or disposing of corpses, or inflicting punishments, and on condition that whenever any of them enters or is in the town, then he is to wear a distinctive hat on his head.”

The disrepute that surrounded funeral workers in Roman society is evident within numerous other premodern societies and no doubt stemmed from the precarious position of these professionals within societies as a mediator between the living and the dead.

In Achaemenian Persia, a Zoroastrian text called the Videvdat (law against the demons) lists the sixteen lands created by the god Ahura Mazda.  The text’s instructions on how to cleanse a corpse-bearer indicate the pollution that those in contact with the dead were perceived to have contracted:

 What is to be done with a corpse bearer? He is to be taken to a dry, desolate place without vegetation and put in a walled enclosure. Since he has had prolonged exposure to pollutants, people must bring him clothing and food but stay at least 30 paces away. They then pray “May he renounce every evil thought, evil word, and evil deed!” then he will be clean.

As in Puteoli and ancient Persia, the separation of those dealing with the dead from the public is seen in numerous other cultures, as is the use of special clothing or insignia to warn others.  Yet funeral workers were not the only professional class outcast by the societies they served; they were often part of a larger, yet still marginal, community.

 In medieval Japan, there was ostracism of ‘impure’ tradesmen—tanners, floor-mat weavers, undertakers, tomb buy cialis brand online caretakers, and executioners—who populated a caste. In early modern Germany, undertakers and gravediggers were among the professions of unehrlichen Leuten (dishonorable people) who were often denied membership in journeymen guilds and who could be denied the power to serve as guardian or heir, take an oath, prosecute another in court, or even prove their innocence. The rejection of gravediggers by the journeyman guilds illustrates the struggle waged by early modern guilds to establish a clear demarcation between moral and immoral trades, much in the manner that Rome did during the Republic. The development of this “guild morality” among German cities’ journeymen associations—themselves civic symbols that marched in processions, held religious services, and established contracts with the local councils—placed gravediggers outside the civic sphere.

The marginalization of groups of funeral workers from reputable society is then common throughout history.

[In Rome] lower level workers such as lecticarii (bier carriers) and pollinctores (morticians) appear to have incurred the most disrepute from their polluting contact with the dead and to have incurred infamia. Moreover, the disrepute surrounding funeral workers can be further envisaged by examining the use of servile workers in particular as the preferred laborers that came into direct contact with the deceased and prepared them for burial. Slaves could perform various jobs within the funeral association and were used as musicians, bier-carriers, executioners, and morticians. It is likely that in Rome and other urban centers in Italy and the empire, slaves did predominate as lower-level funeral workers and executioners within many societates. Slave labor was essential to both the urban economy and the mortuary trade of many Roman cities.

The financial success of a collegium of Libitina (roughly, funeral home) depended on the number of burials that it undertook, and literary sources, such as Seneca, indicate a suspicion that funeral workers may have hoped for death. Thus there was an added stigma attached to funeral workers as profit seekers. Whereas familial burials were an act of piety, these professionals—as Valerius observed—were perceived to value quaestus rather than pietas. The contempt for profit-based services within Roman society certainly added to the disrepute of funeral professionals.

In the borderlands

 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.

Those whom Agni has tasted

3rd post in a series by Jenny Uzzell examining the question: What is a funeral for?

For those in Ancient India, it appears that funerals were vitally important, not only to the dead, but also to the smooth running of society. 

Most of our knowledge about this period comes from the Rg Veda, arguably one of the oldest sacred texts in existence. It is only in the final book of this (book 10) that clear reference is made to funerals and afterlife beliefs. At some point during the period over which the hymns in Book 10 were composed (or at least compiled) the practice of disposing of the dead changed from burial to cremation, probably as the result of a change in theology. 

Hymn 18 is the liturgy for a burial funeral of a young man. Premature death was often seen as a sign of the gods’ displeasure and was highly inauspicious. In the worst cases it could be seen as infectious and this is clear in this hymn, which seeks to make a boundary between the living and the dead which death cannot cross:

“Go hence, O death, pursue thy special pathway apart from that which the gods are wont to travel…touch not our offspring, injure not our heroes…here I erect this rampart for the living. Let none of these, none other reach this limit. May they survive a hundred lengthened autumns and may they bury Death beneath this mountain.”

This is clearly accompanied by the appropriate actions and serves to limit the god of death (Yama) in what he may do. Another purpose of this funeral is to purify the widow and return her, ritually, literally and, probably, emotionally to the land of the living:

‘Rise, come unto the world of life, O woman. He is lifeless by whose side thou liest. Wifehood with this thy husband was thy portion, who took thy hand and wooed thee as a lover. From his dead hand I take the bow he carried that it might be our power and might and glory. There art thou, there and here with noble heroes may we overcome all hosts that fight against us.”

The purpose of this funeral is not only to ensure the well being of the fallen hero (the hymn goes on to talk about the earth opening into a palace for him) but also to re-integrate the widow into society and to protect the mourners from the unlucky death. 

Hymn 16 is a cremation liturgy and shows the later theology of the afterworld. The god Agni (sacrificial fire) is the channel by which things from our world may reach the beyond. These could be food offerings or the dead themselves. Agni is addressed:

‘O Agni, to the Fathers send him who, offered in thee goes with our oblations.’

The dead were understood to have a physical body which purified and carried to the ancestors by fire was reunited with the spirit and dwelt with Yama. The Fathers were often invoked for help and so the importance of giving someone the ‘right send off’ was immense. Once in Pitriloka (the land of the fathers) the dead had to be sustained by food offerings from their kinfolk. 

All of this may be very interesting (well it is to me, anyway), but what relevance does it have to us? In the context of Hinduism, quite a lot.  Afterlife beliefs have changed and most Hindus now hope for re-incarnation or, better yet, for moksha or liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth. The fire is seen as a purification (very young children and holy men are likely to be buried) which allows the soul to leave the body and maybe even, if the correct rites are performed, to attain moksha. It is for this reason that many Hindus choose to travel to Varanasi on the banks of the Ganges to die, or seek to have their remains scattered into it or, failing that, into any other river. This is believed to facilitate Moksha, and so, for the next of kin the correct prayers performed at the right time, in the right place and with the correct rituals could make the difference between another rebirth and moksha. This then is the over-riding purpose of the funeral to which all others are subsumed. 

Hinduism is not the only place where this still applies. As was mentioned recently on this blog, Roman Catholics believe that for many a period of purification in Purgatory is required before entering heaven. This can be reduced by offering prayers of intercession for the dead and by offering mass for the repose of their soul. With this at stake, it is easy to see why the celebration of the life of the dead person often takes back seat. This is not excluded from Catholic practice (it is often done at the vigil for the dead before the funeral mass, or at a memorial service afterwards) but one of the purposes (there are, of course, others) is to make things better for the person who has died and this is the overriding concern. 

For most of us, regardless of whether or not we believe in life after death, what we do at the funeral makes no difference to the dead, so it is for the living that the funeral exists.  Where dispute arises (as has been the case recently with the Bishop of Meath restating the fact that there should be no eulogy at a funeral mass) it is often because people have not understood that the two sides have fundamentally different opinions about the purpose of a funeral and who it is for.