10 Weird Ways To Honor The Dead: You’ll Be Glad You’re Not Alive When This Stuff Happens

| November 28, 2015


10 Weird Ways To Honor The Dead: You'll Be Glad You're Not Alive When This Stuff Happens (How Bizarre! With No End In Sight! Book 5)

We may look back at historical ways of honoring the dead, thinking that they’re barbaric and murderous. Even present-day ones seem bizarre or creepy. In the future historians will study our rituals and compare them with their own. What will they think?

The biologist Richard Dawkins once said, “I am going to die, and that makes me one of the lucky ones.” He meant that to die you first have to live, something most potential humans will never do. The average woman is born with around a million oocytes in her ovaries but less than one in 400,000 of them will ever be born as a child. The chance to live, and die, is a rare and precious one. Death is natural and, whatever cryonics enthusiasts believe, unavoidable – even if we discover the secret of human immortality the sun will one day burn this planet into a sterile cinder and the universe itself will run out of available energy and experience heat death. We are all going to die.

Most of us, however, aren’t going to die when the sun becomes a red giant or the universe degenerates into a uniform void of cool, sparse gas. We’re going to leave relatives, friends and other loved ones behind, and they’re going to want to grieve and remember us in whatever way their culture accepts. They’re also going to have to dispose of our bodies, and most funeral rites incorporate that as part of the process. We can’t be perfectly preserved forever. Egyptian mummies, skeletal Buddhist monks and even Gunther von Hagens’s plastinates are deteriorating – infinitesimally slowly, far too slowly to see much change in a single lifetime, but deteriorating nevertheless. Not even plastic is eternal and one day the matter in our bodies will be distributed back into the world of nature. In a Tibetan sky burial that might take three or four hours; for a plastinated corpse it could be 10,000 years or more. But it will happen. Funeral rituals are our way of coming to terms with it and making it manageable, whether that’s by delaying it as long as possible or encouraging nature’s scavengers to get it over with quickly and cleanly.

The rituals described in this book may seem strange, irrational or even revolting, but to the people who carry them out they all seem right and normal. That doesn’t mean they can’t be criticized, of course – they can. Endocannibalism can very easily spread infectious diseases, Hindu cremation has made the Ganges one of the most polluted rivers on Earth and an American burial with all the expensive trimmings is a mind-boggling waste of money and materials. They can adapt and change, though. Endocannibalism is probably best consigned to the history books along with Suttee, but others can be brought up to date without losing their essentials. Some Indian ghats have installed electric cremators that will incinerate a body for a fraction of the cost of a traditional pyre – just $2, compared to $50 or more for the 1,300 pounds of wood needed to reduce a body to ash. In the west an increasingly popular option is natural burial, where the body is buried without embalming in a simple, biodegradable coffin or even just a linen shroud.


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