The Dead Amongst Us

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I’ve long been fascinated with how societies treat their dead. From the mummies in Egypt to the mummies in Peru, the funerals held in the home to those held in funeral homes, how we treat our dead says interesting things about our relationship with death. Recently I’ve read three articles about how we treat dead bodies that were fascinating windows into three different views on death.

The first is this article from National Geographic on the close relationship between the living and the dead in Toraja, Indonesia. When a family member dies, they are kept in the house for an extended period of time, sometimes years, and treated as a sick person. The family will bring them food, talk to them, touch them, and wash them. When they eventually hold a funeral, it’s a huge and elaborate affair, complete with animal sacrifice of a number of buffalo to help the spirit on its way into the afterlife. The body is then interred in a crypt or a nearby cave, next to other family and community members. But even then the physical relationship between the living and the dead isn’t over; periodically the bodies are disinterred, washed, dressed, and greeted with joy by family and friends.

The second article is from the Guardian about how medieval villagers smashed skeletons to keep them from rising from the dead. Societies in many places and at many times have been known to mutilate the dead to prevent them from becoming the undead. From the New England vampire panic, where 19th century Americans burned the organs of suspected vampire corpses to end a tuberculosis epidemic, to the Tibetan practice of sky burial, where corpses are hacked up and offered to the vultures so the dead body cannot be inhabited again, humanity has often feared what happens after death. To these people, bodies represent a very real threat, and if the corpses were in any way still their loved ones, then those loved ones were now evil.

The third article is this one from Hyperallergenic, about photographer Robert Shults’s series of photographs of decomposing bodies at the body farm at Texas State University. A body farm is a facility where donated corpses are laid out in various environments and then monitored to see how specific circumstances affect decomposition. The data is then used by forensic scientists to assist in determining time of death in cases where a victim has been dead for a while before being found. While most people in our society would likely have a visceral aversion to actually viewing these bodies, for the most part there is no fear that they will reanimate, or that they pose any true danger. Indeed, Shults’s photographs are beautiful, despite their morbid subjects. He, along with those in search of this knowledge and those who donate their bodies, see death as an opportunity for learning, and decomposing bodies as tools for science and justice.

I will admit that all three of these views of death and corpses evoke a certain sense of discomfort. But that in itself is indicative of the society I am part of. Death in the majority of modern day America is hidden away, the contact with corpses severely minimized. So we have a strong reaction against anything that has to do with death, and we cannot abide even the thought of dead bodies. And I think it’s important to challenge that innate cultural belief. We have much to learn from how human beings, now and throughout history, faced mortality and related to our dear departed.

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