The Birth of Death
By David Barrie
A couple weeks ago we heard a great speech by Stefanie Schenk about the history and mechanics of mummification in ancient Egypt. Now, being a lazy guy, I was blown away at how much effort went into the mummification process. Shoving a rod up someone's nose and whisking their brains would not have occurred to me as a respectful thing to do to someone who recently died. But then I got to thinking: we jump through a lot of hoops to send off our friends and family when they die - but what was going through the mind of the first person who decided to bury a family member or friend?
Today I'm going to argue that the first burials, cremations or other funerary services were not done out of spiritual or religious motivations, nor likely respect for the dead. I'll argue that the motivations for the first burials and cremations were for health, hygiene and safety. Furthermore I'll propose that the choice of burying, cremating or whatever other ritual was based on geography and technology rather than culture, and I'll try to make sense of what this means for us today.
Imagine yourselves in prehistoric times. You're a caveperson, trudging around foraging for twigs and berries and spearing the occasional mammoth with a pointy stick. One day you're out with your cave-friend trying to kill a mammoth but your pointy-throwing stick only manages to graze its stomach. Now this would likely result in an angry mammoth chasing you and your cave-friend. But imagine your cave-friend isn't quite as fast as you - he trips, falls, and ends up breaking his leg. In prehistoric times you don't have access to a lot of medicines so his leg becomes infected, pusses up and he dies. Or maybe you killed the mammoth but, unbeknownst to you, that mammoth had a lot of parasites and diseases. You have some mammoth, your friend has some more and the parasites get the best of him, he turns green and dies. In both of these cases you see your friend transform from a living breathing person into something completely beyond your understanding. You may have seen something like this before and noticed your friends and family around you started getting sick as a result. This leads you to the conclusion that there is something very wrong with leaving your friend's dead body in the middle of your camp where you're cooking and sleeping. You realize that you have to either create distance between you and your dead friend, or put something between you two.
Now if you're nomadic, the easiest option is to walk away. But then, depending on when the person died, this may not be ideal - you may be tired from walking all day and may not be able to travel far enough to avoid the scavengers and predators that are looking for an easy meal. So perhaps you drag your friend to the nearest cave, put a mound out front and cover it with his or her possessions as a warning signal for anyone who wants a dry place to sleep. This is interesting though because by moving your dead friend to the next cave you have intentionally disposed of a body for the first time in human history.
Now let's assume you've advanced a bit; have discovered it's easier to grow food than find it, and have developed basic tools. Your lifestyle has changed - you're not walking large distances each day to find food and you've settled into some form of shelter. Having a friend or family member die just became a bigger inconvenience because now you're not moving away from the body anytime soon. Dragging it away is an option but that may take more effort than you're willing to provide - this is where burial was born and this is how geography comes in. If you're living in a place where you can dig into the ground to plant crops, you'll likely be able to dig a little deeper into the ground to bury your loved one.
In other places where you couldn't dig easily, different rituals were created. The Inuit in the north, who couldn't dig into permafrost, would wrap their dead in cloth and leave them far out in the tundra. The people living in the mountains of Tibet invented the "sky-burial" which involved carrying their dead into the mountains to have it eaten by vultures.
Now, when I die, there won't be huge concerns about health and hygiene - we've basically figured that part out. I have a lot of options for what can happen to my body when I die. I can be buried or cremated, become part of a science exhibit, or, if I really wanted, I could get shot into space. I could probably even find someone on the Internet willing to mummify me. The truth is, I don't know exactly what I want to do with myself when I die. But what I do know is that whatever I do, it'd better be limited to a footnote in my life. All cultures went through some type of ritual when they died but what defines cultures, and what defines us today, is not what we do with ourselves when we die - it's what we do with ourselves while we're alive.
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