It’s 2015 and what better way to bring in a brand new year with the most morbid (pun completely intended) topic imaginable? Usually I’d go with something a bit more fun and uplifting to kick us off, but every now and then someone suggests a great topic that I don’t have space for at the time, and it just keeps getting pushed back and back until I forget about it. But our relationship with death and dead people is a massive deal in western nations and really deserves a review, so I’m going to squeeze it in here before we get into the good stuff – or at least what I consider the good stuff.
Tune in next week as I systematically destroy your childhood in ways Michael Bay can only dream of.
As I’ve written before, death is a pretty big deal in Western nations. That may sound like an odd qualification to make – surely the end of our consciousness and final plunge into the truly unknown is a big deal everywhere? Well it depends on who you’re talking about here.
For the person who’s doing the dying I doubt there’s a lot of difference between cultures, or social groups, or wealth or anything for that matter. Death is the Great Equalizer after all – it doesn’t matter who you are, what you’ve done or how powerful you are, death comes for all, and we all have literally no idea what happens afterwards (if anything). It’s the mother of all existential crises, pretty much defining us throughout our entire lives. For a dying person then, it’s kind of a big deal.
But what does differ between cultures is how everyone else reacts to someone else kicking the bucket. For sure, no one is ever really stoked about it – it’s interesting that even religions that believe you go to paradise after you die still mourn the departed – but there is no denying that different cultures have different ways of dealing with death and that these methods can be downright odd.
While removing a body’s internal organs, putting them in jars and then burying it all under an enormous mountain of stone (which you specifically constructed in the desert for this purpose) is an impressive achievement, it kinda seems excessive in the big picture.
Similarly, mourning a dead guy by setting his wife on fire until she dies too, seems to be making things worse all around.
And while cutting off your own fingers is indeed a great way to show your devotion to the recently deceased (or just about anything, I mean holy crap dude), severely reducing the ability of their relatives to survive seems like the last thing any sane person would ever want.
But possibly the strangest relationship between any culture and its dead? Has to be westerners. Perhaps it’s the fact that premature death is so rare for us compared to most developing communities, but generally speaking western people really have no idea how to deal with death.
Those burial rituals above may seem pretty weird, but compared to how we treat our own dead they pale into insignificance. What could be weirder than mutilating yourself to mourn someone? Pretending they’re not dead in the first place.
Now obviously I’m not talking about some horrific Weekend At Burnie’s pantomime here, but consider the following standard process every dead body goes through in Australia, and tell me if this seems sane to you:
- All the blood is drained from the body and replaced with embalming fluid. All 5 Litres of it.
- All deflated spaces (such as stomach, intestines, lungs, and anything else that’s sagging) also get filled with embalming fluid and filler (generally cotton wool)
- Spots that still sag are given localised injections to get them back into shape, and any ugly looking bits on the outside are given a good old buff up with a combination of chemicals and common cosmetics
- The deceased is then showcased at a funeral (usually costing between $4,000-15,000) in a specially made coffin (an additional $3000 and which is subsequently buried or burned), after which you have to pay rent on the plot of ground they were buried in, in addition to the tombstone. Alternatively for a cheaper cost, you can set the body on fire and pick up a little package of the remaining bone dust later on.
At least Grandma will look pretty badass in the afterlife.
Just a little reminder at this point that this person is dead. By definition they cannot appreciate the time, money and effort being put in here, because they’re dead. As in no longer with us. Dearly departed. In a better place. That’s the whole reason you’re doing this in the first place.
So what this all boils down to is you spending somewhere in the realm of $15,000 to make an inanimate object that used to be a person look like they’re still alive, deck them out in the latest graveyard bling, and then bury (or burn) the entire pile in the ground. And pay rent on it.
Not only is that a bizarre use of money, it also speaks to a very unhealthy mindset– what exactly is it that we think we’ll achieve with all this? Will it make the dead person happy? Kinda irrelevant even if it was possible (which I’ll remind you again, is not, and that’s the entire point). Are we somehow hoping to revive them? Or are we just trying to put off having to accept that they’re actually gone for a bit longer?
The obvious answer here is that the funeral is of course, not for the dead person, but for the people left behind; a chance to remember them as they lived and comfort each other. And while that still doesn’t fully justify stuffing a corpse with cotton wool, it does explain why we do it.
Where that explanation all gets a hell of a lot more messy of course, is when we want to do something else with the body other than just mourn them. Consider this recent case of a pregnant, brain-dead Irish woman being kept alive with life-support machines by court order so that her baby could be delivered. Needless to say, quite a horrific situation and it caused quite a stink in Ireland, where abortion is still illegal.
Now the abortion debate is a complex topic that deserves its own article, but what’s interesting about this specific case was that huge numbers of people (including the woman’s family) have campaigned to have her life support switched off, even if it kills the baby in the process. To put it bluntly, this is totally bizarre.
The entire basis of the pro-abortion movement has always been that it is the woman’s right to choose what happens to her body, and that neither the state nor the church should be allowed to force her to keep a baby she does not want. And even if you don’t accept this argument, it’s pretty self-evident that forcing women to have unwanted children is not going to be great for their mental health.
But this case is different. Why? Because there is no woman involved. The person that used to be a woman is now clinically dead. Deceased. Zero chance of recovery and therefore no longer present. What is left is an inanimate object being kept alive with machinery, which happens to have a baby inside it – a baby that stands a chance of survival if that object is kept alive for a bit longer. Pro-abortion campaigners do indeed have a lot to be angry about in Ireland, where the current laws inflict a lot of suffering on women seeking abortions, but that’s the fun thing about being dead – you cannot suffer any more. Your rights cannot be impinged, because you don’t have rights any more. And you cannot really be forced to do anything anymore, because ‘being forced’ implies resistance, and the only resistance a corpse is going to offer is rigor mortis.
Makes for handy outdoor furniture, though.
Now obviously the family of the recently departed woman are suffering and that suffering is real – in any other circumstances, taking her off life support would be the obvious ethical and practical choice. But the mere possibility that the woman’s baby might survive adds a very hefty cost to that proposal – which is more important, the baby’s potential survival, or the family’s grief? It seems like an impossible question until you put that grief back into perspective; she’s dead. Whether you unhook her now or 10 years from now, she’s dead and will remain just as dead the entire time. I have no doubt that her passing was deeply traumatic to her family, but that trauma occurred at the time of her death; keeping her corpse alive does not change that.
Sure, a funeral is important to the grieving process and putting it off may indeed make things rougher for the family, but since said funeral won’t change the major fact (ie. that she’s already dead) then what we’re actually talking about now is a matter of convenience: not the family’s suffering versus an unborn child, but rather the unborn child versus the family’s desire to have the funeral a few weeks earlier.
This might seem all very cold-hearted of me and that’s because it is. I understand fully the grief that comes from losing a loved one, but once they are dead, that’s exactly what they are – dead. What is left behind is just meat and it does not deserve our respect any more than a rock does. Obviously people are a lot more complicated than this, and for most of us it is extremely difficult to separate the corpse of a loved one from the loved one themselves, but this doesn’t change the fact that failing to do so is not only incorrect, but can lead to some truly bizarre behaviour – and in some cases, extremely unethical outcomes.
There are few thing harder that losing someone you love to the cold reality of death, but to remember and honour that person you must remember them, not the body they left behind. And no matter how hard it might be to accept this, one message is extremely clear: the needs of the dead must never trump the needs of the living.
Noli Timere Messor