Farewell, Transformation and Flow: On Funerary Customs
Each culture has its own dialog with death, although there are some constants in all funeral rites.
All farewells have some ritual about them. The most definitive, of course, is that of death, and in the funerary ritual there is a double farewell: that of the loved ones, who dress up, apply make-up and cream and embalm the body of the deceased and, for the majority of religions, of the soul itself, as it leaves the body.
Separation is the image we most associate with death and human sensibility has preferred to understand it as a farewell that promises a rendezvous in the great beyond, or reincarnation or resurrection, for example. But in the face of the mythological belief in that promise there remains uncertainty: the complexity of different funeral rites around the world is evidence of that.
The transformation of matter is the basis for many funeral rites: the desire to remain and, above all, the anxiety of the disintegration of the body, evidenced by the mummification practiced by the Egyptians and the intricate burials of their pharaohs, interred with their belongings and even with their pets, servants and closest advisers (all of whom were buried alive) with the aim of continuing life and maintaining their social status. In other eras and latitudes, the mourning paraphernalia also complies with some of those functions, although on the part of the living. A beautiful example is the mourning rings in England, jewels that included hair of the deceased, embroidered into intricate plaits and framed with gold and silver.
The destruction or transformation of the body is necessary, firstly, to liberate the soul. But the time in which this definitive separation is achieved depends on each community. The famadihana, celebrated by the inhabitants of Madagascar, is an example of the prolongation of that intermediate state in which the corpse is not yet completely uninhabited but still retains something of the deceased’s spirit. Within that belief that the soul will not be freed until decomposition is complete (the body and the soul are united like “rice and water,” like the present and the past) the Betsileo people exhume corpses of their relatives after several years, cleaning the bones and wrapping them in silk; then the corpse is placed on the shoulders of the relatives, who dance to the rhythm of live music. Some talk about their lives and ask for advice from their ancestors, before returning them to the grave and continuing the festivities.
Zombies and the trapping of the soul
The fear that the soul would remain trapped in the body in decomposition underlies these rituals. And it probably explains the simultaneous attraction and repulsion that we feel today for zombies. However, the living dead inciting horror, post-apocalyptic drama or comedy are not the invention of cinema or even literature. In reality their origin is in a primordial fear, of a possessed body, animated by another force from the underworld and which is fighting to ‘survive.’ In the colloquial use of this term there is the fear of being possessed by a superior power (often a corporation or a bureaucratic system) and of losing self-will. The goriest images recall a deep fear of death: the rotting of the flesh.
The term and the concept itself of the zombie have their origins in the Haitian voodoo religion, especially in its peripheral practices, and play a fundamental role in that culture’s folklore. The prominent fear among believers is not of being attacked by a zombie, as in the contemporary representation, but of becoming one and being used for negative purposes through the magic of a Boko –a cultural fear that is perhaps an echo of slavery.
Facilitating the flow
Perhaps one response to the famous poem by Mexican poet Jaime Sabines (“such a wild custom this of burying the dead!”) are the ways of propitiating decomposition relating to the natural cycles of the ecosystem. In Tibet it is common to feed birds of prey with corpses so that in this way they continue as a nutritious element in the food chain and also migrate from the earth into the skies; the rendezvous with water, on the other hand, is fundamental in the cremation rituals on the banks of the Ganges. And in various communities the consumption of parts of the corpse (such as the ashes prepared in soup after exhumation and/or cremation) is another form, albeit much more direct, of reintegrating the deceased into the life cycle and society.
Innovative rituals VS a millenary feeling
With the growth of urban societies, however, we face serious problems such as the lack of cemetery space. Many people have begun to reconsider the practicality of buying or renting a plot, and at prices that are increasingly high, for a space in which they will not live; there is also a concern to conserve the ecosystem by modifying the ways of disposing of corpses. But the sense of loss regarding not having a place on earth after death persists. For that reason, in big cities, the idea has emerged to create social networks that serve as virtual cemeteries when there is no longer the physical space to make offerings to the dead.
Different solutions have been thought up to satisfy the need for a funeral ritual, which is innate to humans, amid the lack of urban space and people’s economic means. Cremation has increased drastically as a means of burial in our era. From green burials, the reuse of energy generated during cremation for heating a swimming pool in Worcestershire, for example, to the multi-floored cemeteries (in Manila, Módena and Santos, for example), all the options offered by the modern funeral ritual appear to have their roots, like the soul trapped in a zombie’s body, in what is left in our psyche from the sacred and primitive and the archetypal sensation of having to bid farewell.
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