People have been dying for millions of years or, if you believe in the Bible, thousands. Yet, after all those years –thousands or millions – we still have no better idea for disposing of the bodies than to stick them in the ground.
Nothing’s changed. It’s the twenty-first century, and we continue to appropriate huge chunks of real estate, dig holes in it, lower down expensive coffins with the Guest of Honor inside, fill up the holes, erect headstones, plant colorful flower beds and manicured landscaping – doing everything we can to keep the place from looking like what it actually is – an elephants’ graveyard for deceased human beings.
Once, there were good reasons for burying dead bodies in the ground. Many of the deceased had succumbed to diseases “the living” were far from eager to contract. The survivors decided the best way to protect themselves from too quickly joining the departed was by distancing themselves from the source of the contagion.
They accomplished this by placing the “problem” in a box, and burying it under six feet of tightly packed earth. That way, the body would be available for the grievers to visit, but from a distance – in this case, a downward distance – insuring that their graveside visits would not kill them.
The appropriate “burial depth” was determined by trial and error. Originally, the dead were buried three feet under the ground, but visitors still ended up catching the disease. Four feet? They still got it. Five; they didn’t die, but they were very sick. The “magic number”, they discovered, was six feet. Seven feet under? A waste of time.
The other reason for burying the remains was to prevent predatory animals from having them for snack. People didn’t like that idea – predatory animals munching on their loved ones. It interfered with the concept of “resting in peace.” This problem was no nightmarish fantasy. There was no question that predatory animals, having no respect for the departed, would eat a dead guy right up. To avoid that, the bodies were buried, on the theory that predatory animals might sense there was food down there but be discouraged by the considerable effort it would take to dig it up. The objective was to produce the following conversation:
PREDATORY ANIMAL NUMBER ONE: “Where’s the food?”
PREDITORY ANIMAL NUMBER TWO: “Six feet down, in a box.”
PREDATORY ANIMAL NUMBER ONE: “Let’s eat something else.”
The predatory animals would then wander away, looking for something they could outrun, or a dead thing on top of the ground, leaving the buried body untouched. If you never dug it up and opened the box, you could imagine the body looking exactly the way it looked when you buried it. Don’t let children read the next two words:
Today, however, almost all contagions can be contained, and predatory animals – at least
those dangerous to humans – live way out of town. Still, regardless of the fact that the main reasons for burial no longer exist, the procedure endures:
Hole in the ground. Box in the hole. Dirt on the box. ‘Bye.
And I wonder why that is?
Why do we continue to store our departed loved ones in the ground? You’d think with all the brilliant people around – always coming up with better and better can openers – you’d think one of them would turn their attention to the “stiff storage” problem. I mean, besides everything, we’re running out of room.
It’s not happening. No startling innovations. No Gatesian leaps forward. In the area of body disposal, virtually nothing has changed. A gravedigger could materialize from the Middle Ages and, needing no instruction whatsoever, could pick up a shovel, and go straight to work
Yay, verily. We’re still plantin’ ‘em.
The question of where we go – “we” meaning, our spirit, our soul, our essential “usness” – well, opinions vary on that subject; nobody knows for sure. Where our bodies go, everybody knows.
Or for some people, Urn City. The cremation alternative’s available to people who find the prospect of spending eternity nailed inside a coffin buried under six feet of earth unappealing. I myself fall into that category; I wouldn’t care for that at all. Being a lifelong claustrophobic, the idea of finding myself confined in a pitch dark, totally airless space where you barely have room to move a finger, just the thought of that makes me…
I’d like to move on if you don’t mind. I’m starting to hyperventilate.
Okay. Let’s stop and notice what I’m doing here, because, to me, this is the essence of the whole problem. When describing the sensation of being in the coffin, I’m describing it from the perspective of me still being alive. That’s unlikely to be the case. No, not "unlikely." With the marvelous medical technology available today to determine when you’re totally dead, they don’t bury people alive anymore, so I’m definitely not going to be alive.
Still, I’m identifying with my remains. My thought process goes, “This guy who’s dead, the one who’s not breathing, or moving, whose heart’s not…doing a damn thing… he’s still me!”
I know "me." "Me" doesn’t like The Box.
It’s this strange yet hardly uncommon thought process that strongly colors our perceptions about death. I give this process a name. I call it
As with anthropomorphism, which ascribes human characteristics to the non-human and the inanimate, deathropomorphism ascribes living attributes to the Passed Away. Deathropomorphism informs the way we look at death, and nowhere more powerfully than when we’re discussing the Final Arrangements.
Consider the prospect of cremation. Why are people against it?
“I don’t want to be burnt.”
“It’s not you.”
“I once put my hand on a hot stove, and it really hurt.”
“Hello? It’s not you. You’re dead.”
“My hand was all red and blistery. Imagine having those blisters all over my...”
“Forget it! Go in the ground. See if I care.”
We see the conditions of our deadness deathropomorphically. We imagine dead as being exactly like alive, except you don’t have to pay bills anymore. Though I lack conclusive proof on the matter, I have a strong feeling dead is different.
I’ve never witnessed a cremation, but I’ll bet if you went to one, you wouldn’t hear a disembodied voice going, “Ow!” “Ow!” “Ow!” Likewise, at the cemetery, I’ve never once heard muffled shouts of, “Lemme out! I can’t breathe!”
And yet, despite my awareness that “death is different”, I myself am hardly immune to deathropomorphic confusion. How else can I explain my foot-dragging reluctance on the issue of organ donation? I know how valuable my “harvested” organs would be; and yet, I can’t keep myself from thinking, “Hold onto those puppies. You might need them later.”
I have this fantasy, supporting my reluctance. I pass away, and – imagining there is one – I get to the place where dead people go. Everybody’s happy and playing volleyball. I, however, am unable join in, because, having affixed a little pink dot to my Driver’s License, I’ve arrived at this hallowed playground minus my eyes, my heart, my lungs and my liver.
I’m still me, except, in strategic areas of my body… I’m holes! And as I stand on the sidelines, incapable – because of my generous but mistaken decision – of participating in this eternal heavenly frolic, a single, wistful word passes across my lips:
This may sound eccentric, but when I die, I’d like my intact body to be shot into space. That really appeals to me. By having “dead Earl” shot into space, I’ll be making a powerful statement against “cemetery sprawl.” Also, as a claustrophobic, I like that there’s a lot of room in space. I could wiggle around.
The details of the process are unimportant. I could be shot out in my own capsule, go as part of a group, it doesn’t really matter, though, if it’s a group, I’d prefer a seat near the front of the capsule; I have a tendency to get airsick…
There I go again. Mr. Deathropomorphic Man. What the heck am a talking about? – “I could wiggle around…” “I’d prefer a seat near the front…” “I have a tendency to get airsick...”
And “dead” isn’t like that.