Just had the pleasure to read this article in brilliant humanist publication Aeon Magazine and thought I’d share it with you all, as it deals with a topic seldom discussed in modern day social circles. Like its subtitle – The dead are no longer welcome at their own funerals. So how can the living send them on their way? – the article both challenges and raises concerns over our inability to cope with the physical bodies of the dead. I found it particularly illuminating because – living in the UK – I wasn’t aware of what Lynch calls the North American norm of ‘consign[ing the bodies of the dead] to an off-site, out-of-sight, industrial venue where everything is handled privately and efficiently’. In England it is quite usual to hold the funeral at the crematorium itself, so the idea of the body being sent away to a distant facility is rather strange to me.
Dealing with the practicalities of death can never be a pleasant experience for the recently bereaved, but Lynch claims it is an essential part of the psychological process of grieving. The removal of the body to a funeral director’s – where it is ‘made up’ in an attempt to mask the physical reality of its deceased state – can be damaging. The act of laying out the body of your loved one yourself – though profoundly upsetting – is the first step, argues Lynch, in learning to cope with mortality. The loss of these practical obligations to the deceased can stymie the living’s ability to comprehend their new situation. Lynch quotes Meghan O’Rourke’s description of the removal of her mother’s body from the house:
At the time the speedy removal felt natural, perhaps because I had no idea what to expect. Now, however, there is a blankness at the center of it that troubles me. We’re too squeamish for the ritualistic act of cleansing and purifying, the washing of the body, that used to take place in other times, and still does, in other places, but I wonder if it might have helped me to take care one last time of the body I’d cared about my entire life.
I don’t want to lapse into an essay-style deconstruction of this article, but in a media so saturated with death and dying, this article’s quiet and insightful consideration of the minutiae of mortality really stood out. Sometimes our discussions of death broaden into untouchable musings about the nature of human life, the universe, Platonic idealisation. They rise to the heights of vast, unanswerable questions or descend into Socratic debate.
Both these avenues tend to avoid the subject Thomas Lynch is considering: that of bodily remains. Philosophising death is just another way of tiptoeing around it. Because the inevitability of human ending is actually incomprehensible to those whose nature is mortal. Whatever comforts we cling to – be they religious, cultural, or intellectual – are only that: comforts, not answers.
If any of this has made you curious to read Lynch’s article, please do. It is rewardingly refreshing, accessible and well-written. I believe it’s actually an extract from a longer work due to be published later on in 2013 – something I’ll certainly be looking into. Aeon showcases some good, thought-provoking pieces. Another favourite if you’re into a bit of theological discussion is SF author and academic Adam Roberts’ article called The atheist paradox.