Funerary Customs

I decided it was time to drag the intellectual level of my blog up, kicking and screaming if need be, with an anthropology piece about understanding other cultures’ customs. I may have lent that book out. I always feel like I’m blowing smoke if I don’t have quotes to back up my bizarre ideas.

But here goes. The book is called “Magic, Witchcraft and Religion” and I believe the editor’s name was Lehman. So in this piece, an anthropologist is studying a traditional tribal group. One of the interesting things about this tribe is their belief in an afterlife. They believe that the soul is attached to the body, and when a person dies the soul remains stuck to the flesh, leaving slowly as the flesh leaves the bones. In order to faciliate their loved ones’ progress to heaven, the tribespeople build a high platform and lay the body out exposed to the elements, occasionally visiting to leave gifts and turn the bones, or to collect some of the fluids for use in ritual meals. This is known as “endocannibalism” – that’s when you eat friends and family as opposed to outsiders. When the transformation is complete, their loved one is in their equivalent of heaven. The dry bones are interred and there is a celebration.

The tribespeople found it amusing that the anthropologist was so interested in their funerary customs, so at a gathering one night they asked him to tell about American customs. The anthropologist explained about heaven, and they agreed that it is similar for them. He talked about memorial services and mourning, also similar. Then he carefully explained embalming: removing the blood and replacing it with colored and scented preservative, dressing and making the dead up so that they look as if they aren’t dead at all, but merely sleeping. And the tribespeople all fell silent.

When the anthropologist told the tribespeople about burial in a sealed wooden box inside a waterproof concrete grave-liner it was all over. Some wouldn’t talk to him or even look at him. A few started crying.

Why? Because in their minds Americans prevented their loved ones from getting to heaven, and furthermore, the American continent is carpeted from sea to shining sea with potential zombies.

In the end, the only way the anthropologist could get back in the tribe’s good graces was to pretend that he was just making a sick joke and that none of what he said was true.

I think that cremation vs. burial is a similar thing. I’m not hep to the jive, but I suspect that cremation must seem an awful lot like Hellfire and Damnation to certain religious groups.

So what it boils down to is this: pick what you want, write it down and give everyone copies so that there is no mistaking it. That goes for living wills, wills, medical powers of attorney, organ donation. If you feel very strongly about, say, not having your brain-dead remains being petted and fawned over like a beloved companion animal for a decade like that poor Terri Schiavo’s were, make sure your wishes about “extreme measures” are all in writing. Make sure everyone has copies, including the family doctor. And remind them once in a while.

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